Theology and atheism in practice

In John Anderson’s valedictory speech to Parliament this week on the relationship between what people believe and what they will end up doing in the world. It sort of ties up with what I have noted earlier, though from a slightly different perspective. It is also an interesting contribution to the recent debates on atheism.

It is worth quoting at length (links are clearly mine):

… Happiness is not a function of our material wellbeing but, rather, of beliefs which shape values and attitudes and determine whether or not we have hope and whether or not we are in effective relationships with others. Those are the things that I think will determine the strength of the nation in the future.

I say to the House that, ultimately, the beliefs of the people will shape our society for better or for worse in the long run. That is of greater material interest to us all, including in government, because we are a function of a society that puts us here and supports us or chooses to withdraw its support. One of the reasons that I believe the government is absolutely right to insist on the better teaching of history is that it will help us to understand the consequences, for good and for bad, of different belief systems or of no belief systems. Whilst I would obviously recognise the need to separate church and state, I do think we need to put our young people in a position where they are better able to make judgements about what they believe and why and what will work for them and our society.

This year, 2007, is in fact the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade—not slave ownership itself; that took another 30 years to achieve—by the then global superpower, Great Britain. It is sobering to realise that just 200 years ago freedom was only a far-off dream for an estimated, according to the reliable historians—or the ones I would regard as reliable—90 per cent of humanity. Most of humanity was either in slavery or little better off in serfdom—and, of course, in our country, they were in irons.

The story of William Wilberforce and his supporters, as told in Amazing Grace, is a story of transformed lives transforming society. It is an astonishingly powerful story, the outcomes of which were of undeniably great benefit not only to those slaves who gained their freedom but to all of society as well. Our freedoms grew historically as we expanded our understanding of who belonged to the family of human beings. Our freedoms, I note in passing, will contract as we exclude people from the human family.

The ending of the slave trade came about through the first of the great human rights campaigns—perhaps the biggest of them all—and, arguably, the first major modern political campaign. It led directly to a further political campaign: to end the corruption of the electoral system in Great Britain, to enable in 1833 a truly representative parliament to act on the people’s wishes and to actually free the slaves—having ended the trade—whose owners were granted massive compensation. What for? For the loss of their goods and chattels. But we do not think of black people as goods and chattels anymore; we recognise them fully as members of the human family.

It is a very powerful story, yet only 500,000 people have been to see Amazing Grace. I wish every Australian could see it. It gives great and valuable insights into our society—into the condition that we confront as people. And as we confront our endless problems—terrorism, global warming, energy security and the epidemic of depression, as I have mentioned, that sweeps the modern age—we can, I think, learn a lot more from history than we have been doing to date. I am convinced that history shows us that a loss of the beliefs or, worse, a denial of the beliefs that a culture is built on will ultimately lead to the decline and even destruction of that culture.

Dawkins and Hitchins et al would have us believe that the problem is that we have not been secular enough. They would say that we ought to be more secular. As I see it, we gave secularism a great run in the 20th century. We tried atheistic communism and got 60 million dead in Russia and we got the killing fields of Pol Pot—and goodness only knows how many dead in China. We tried atheistic right-wing fascism in Germany and beyond and got the gas chambers and another 60 million dead. Today we are not so arrogant; we are beginning to question again. But I would urge that we learn the lessons of history when we seek out and respond to the truth. When we do not sit on the fence, we in fact will find that truth is available to us. I deeply and sincerely believe that. I think if Wilberforce were here today he would say, ‘Your society is not so different to the one that I have been active in, and the great truth remains,’—challenging us that the central figure in history said to us: ‘There is such a thing as the truth, and I am it and the way to God is through me.’ I put that challenge there. We are free to respond either way, but I say that as a society we should no longer go on ignoring it. We can no longer go on skirting around it, either as individuals or collectively.

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