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Merry Christmas? How institutionalised religion is over

“Our Judeo-Christian heritage”: it’s a phrase that will be familiar to anyone who has heard a conservative Western politician speak. As religion plays a decreasing role in developed societies, it’s become an almost desperate refrain; a call to even the least spiritually-inclined amongst us to acknowledge our debt to monotheism.

There’s a good reason for its local proponents to be concerned. Although 61% of Australians identified as Christian in the most recent census, a considerable proportion appear to be merely nominal. Occasional church attendees constitute a little over a quarter of that number; by the time we get to regular attendance, the percentage is down to single figures. Practising Christians are very much a minority in 21st century Australia, and a declining one at that.

Still, remnants of the old order persist. The Lord’s Prayer precedes every parliamentary Question Time; government-funded chaplains continue to operate in public schools; Christmas and Good Friday remain our two most widely-observed public holidays. While these may all seem hopeless anachronisms, the last is arguably the strangest. In a multicultural, arguably post-Christian society, doesn’t it strike us as odd that the two hardest days on which to buy groceries are the ones that commemorate the life of a specific religious figure?

For proponents of Judeo-Christian values, it’s an entirely reasonable state of affairs: after all, tradition plays an important role in society; and religious ritual, they would argue, is an integral part of our cultural history. Some go as far as to credit Christianity with the development of concepts such as democracy, freedom of speech and the principle of equality. To them, if maintaining a couple of religiously-themed national days helps us recognise that debt, then all for the better.

Some of these arguments are, at best, gravely misleading. While Christians played significant roles in reform movements such as the abolition of slavery and the African-American (and, locally, Indigenous Australian) civil rights campaigns of the ‘60s, it’s easy to forget that at least as much progress was achieved in direct opposition to religious institutions. No organisations have done more to suppress the development of Western scientific and political thought over the last few centuries than the Catholic Church and its protestant successors, and it is no coincidence that the social gains of the Renaissance onwards have been accompanied by the steady decline of these institutions. In the emergence of social democracy from repressive theocratic monarchy, Christianity has played far less of a role than secular humanism. That’s a tradition founded more in Plato and Socrates than in the Ten Commandments.

It is that humanist tradition that encouraged the American founding fathers to enshrine the separation of church and state in law, a principle echoed in Australia’s constitution: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance”. In the United States, that provision is taken rather more seriously than it is here — it may surprise many to learn that Good Friday is only observed today by a minority of states; and, even then, in a much more limited fashion.

Of course, this is at least somewhat a reflection of America’s particular brand of libertarianism; it’s impossible, here, to disentangle this topic entirely from the issue of workers’ rights. Still, the point of contention here is not whether we should have public holidays at all — whatever the merits of that argument might be — but whether we should be observing these particular days. On a simple reading, our constitution would seem to advise against it.

There’s some irony in the fact that the modern forms of Easter and Christmas are fairly incongruent with anything particularly Judeo-Christian: almost all of the paraphernalia associated with these days is clearly pagan in origin; in the case of Christmas, the whole celebration is said to have evolved from earlier Roman festivals. This is something we need to keep in mind when we think about traditions: nothing is fixed. Just as Australia Day has shifted from a national display of patriotic ambivalence to a day of flag-waving jingoism, Christmas has been reinterpreted as a secular day for family gatherings and the exchange of consumer goods. Only the most devout Christians still affix any serious religious meaning to the celebration. ‘Xmas’ and ‘Happy holidays’ are much-derided instances of supposed political correctness, but these terms bear far closer relation to the reality of contemporary Australia than any campaign to “put Christ back in Christmas”. Good Friday’s ongoing relevance as a public holiday, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to see. Perhaps it is destined to be a casualty of Australia’s religious ambivalence.

If so, this would be no great loss. We should acknowledge the influences that shaped our society, but we should not consider ourselves bound by them. Western civilisation was also built on feudalism, imperialism and slavery, but nobody is arguing that these practices ought to be commemorated. Whilst the right to practise religion unhindered remains a fundamental component of a free society, it should not be a government’s role to ordain it; and religiously-themed public holidays are incongruous with 21st century Australian society. Change will be glacial, but one suspects that, in an increasingly multicultural, irreligious society, non-secularised public holidays are already living on borrowed time.

David Heslin

The author David Heslin

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