THERE ARE APPROXIMATELY one hundred and twenty million people in Japan, of which just over one hundred million declared in the national census that they are followers of the Shinto religion while just under one hundred million stated that they are Buddhists.
‘And that shows’, our Japanese tour guide said, ‘that we Japanese are a very religious people’. I was not entirely sure, but I think he was subjecting us to the Japanese version of the Australian leg-pull.
These curious statistics show that the Japanese avail themselves of their religious traditions, even to the point of double-dipping. What they tell us about the ‘religiousness’ of the people is less clear. We would need to clarify what is meant by ‘religiousness’ for a start.
Research done here in Australia is also producing surprising responses in surveys that aim to calculate the allegiance of Australians to traditional religion and the churches.
The National Church Life Survey website (www.ncls.org.au) records that in the 1996 census seventy percent of Australians claimed a link with one or other of the Christian churches, four percent claimed allegiance to another religion, and only seventeen percent declared that they had no religion. The website further records that the Australian Community Survey revealed that most Australians (seventy-four percent) believe in God or a spirit, higher power or life force—a grouping of transcendent objects that would cover many gods and god substitutes. More significantly, perhaps, around forty percent of the population accept traditional religious beliefs such as life after death, and the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. Two-thirds of Australians claimed that their spiritual life is important to them, and thirty-three percent pray or meditate at least weekly. Twenty percent of Australians say they attend church at least one a month, and a further twenty percent say they are infrequent attenders.
There are many other interesting things to learn from the website—for instance, did you know that about the same number of people attend church in any given week as attend Australian Rules football matches in an entire season? Now that really puts all these numbers into perspective!
I suspect that there is much room for discussion among the experts about what we might or might not conclude from these findings. At the very least we can say that a surprisingly high proportion of Australians are still, in spite of everything, in some way attached to the churches.
Which raises two questions. What is it that keeps people linked to the churches? And, how should the church communities respond to this vast multitude of Australians that claims them as their own?
We can start to answer both these questions by pondering on what people want from the church communities. The surveys asked questions that were designed to find that out. They asked respondents to declare what they believed the churches were good for, and the answers showed that the churches are valued for contributions such as the following: encouraging good morals; providing public worship; supporting the poor; working for social justice; providing non-government services in welfare and education.
We can add to that list the fact that the churches give an opportunity to wrestle with the implications of events such as September 11 and the Bali massacre, with the fragility of world peace and threats of new wars. The sudden, though often short-lived, swelling of congregations immediately following a major disaster shows that the church community becomes very important for many Australians in times of crisis. And then there are the big moments of life when the majority of Australians turn to the churches: especially birth, marriage, illness and death. These are the occasions when most people want things to be done ‘in church’.
Other commentators have delved deeper to reflect on more enduring threats to our very humanity that encourage people to seek sanctuary in religion. Bishop Kazuhiro Mori, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan, listed as ills facing Japan: diminution of humanity through the emphasis placed on economic growth; a value system that centres on ability measured by passing exams; a weakening of family ties; the flood of data supplied by the information revolution that makes it difficult for people to form their own judgments. (See The Tablet review of Religion and Social Crisis in Japan, Eds Kisala and Mullins, 29th June 2002, p.19.) Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, Secretary General of the Italian Bishops Conference, likewise identified ‘the loss of personal identity’ as a major threat to humanity in the twenty-first century (Il Regno 17/2002, 570-572). In short, people need and look for support to preserve their own selfhood in the face of—ultimately global—dehumanising pressures.
So, how should the churches respond to this surprising interest of the Australian public in what they have to offer?
First, the church communities can dismiss those pundits who periodically predict the demise of Christianity, together with the negative impacts on morale that they produce. Already armed with divine promises that ‘the gates of the underworld can never overpower it’ (Mth. 16.18), experience in the field tells us that the end is certainly not going to come soon. Just listen to the heartache when it becomes necessary to close down a parish, be it ever so small!
Having dismissed the prophets of doom we can proceed on the assumption that the church community is here to stay because it has something to offer and because the majority of Australins appreciates that, even if only a minority of them are regular attenders.
But there is no room for complacency—on the contrary, the fact that people are still looking to the church communities constitutes the challenge. The church communities have received the Good News for all people as a sacred trust, with the solemn obligation of communicating it to all for whom it is intended, including those who have not yet heard it and those who are no longer hearing it.
The church communities must be in tune with the deepest and noblest and most pressing concerns of their contemporaries. The Fathers of Vatican II said it all those years ago:
The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men [and women] of our time, especially of those who are poor and afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. (The Church in the Modern World, opening words.)
And, being thus attuned, the church community must enable the word of God to be heard as relevant in every human situation. The language they use, the rituals they celebrate must not be incomprehensible. Challenging, yes, because charged with affirmations of the presence and the workings of the divine, but not alien from the questions and struggles of people in the neighbourhood.
In brief, the best and only proper response to the surprising interest in the churches that the surveys reveal is for each church congregation to get on with the task of being church in the local area.
For this issue of Compass we invited articles that would relate to the theme ‘Australians and religion’, leaving it to the authors to take whatever line they wished. The articles that resulted mainly concentrated on the contemplative dimension: spirituality and prayer and the challenge to live a more human life in a world driven by global forces that work against all that. The instinct of the contributors also seems to have been that we will best serve the neighbourhood by being more authentically who we are.
- Barry Brundell MSC, Editor