Features Australia

Head-counting the Christians

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

Is it just me, or is there something distinctly uncertain about atheist advertising campaigns? I mean they lack nothing in earnestness, and their awkwardness is second only to the evangelical attempts at wit and relevance on their changeable signboards. But there is always something missing, like a foundation to their claim – but I suppose that is the whole point of atheism.

The current Mark ‘No religion’ campaign by the Atheist Foundation of Australia and the Rationalist Society of Australia reminds me of the much-ridiculed ads on the London busses a few years ago. ‘There is probably no god,’ the ads declared, ‘Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ The emphasis is mine, but even the Guardian got in on the mockery, calling it ‘probably the best atheist ad ever.’ Richard Dawkins said, in true Dawkins style, that he would have preferred ‘there is almost certainly no god.’

The local atheists’ efforts to affect Tuesday night’s census are about as convincing. In what is actually a very protestant, even evangelical, sounding position, the unbelievers want you to rethink your religious identification. Low church evangelicals are quite fond of what I believe is an invented dichotomy between Christianity and religion. Oprah types are more likely to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious. So, ironically, the ‘no religion’ category has quite an interesting pre-history in American self-styled religion. But of course, that is not what the Aussie atheists and rationalists are getting at. Instead, bizarrely, they have decided to hector people with faux-theological arguments as to why a person isn’t a Christian (just in case you thought the atheists’ target might be adherents of other religions, or of religions generally) and how dishonest it would be to claim to be one if you aren’t.

And it’s an interesting question, isn’t it: what is a Christian? The answer is certainly not settled, even within Christendom, with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed and Baptist doctrinal traditions all having different answers, or at least different nuances around a central theme. The Mark ‘No religion’ folks are right to identify, as they do, the Nicene Creed as a significant, unifying doctrinal statement, but they are quite mistaken if they think it explains, in any ecclesiastic tradition, whether a person is a Christian or not.


Perhaps uniquely for an atheist website, censusnoreligion.org.au offers a series of questions to help the confused census participant determine ‘am I a Christian?’ ‘Does attending church make me a Christian?’ asks the first of the diagnostic FAQs? The answer, of course, is ‘not necessarily’. Well that’s fair enough, but again it doesn’t even begin to cover all the possible variations that the aforementioned theological traditions hold to regarding what actually happens in the worship service (however described) and what it means to participate. Yes, as the website says, ‘there are many people who attend church and other religious activities for the social aspects of such gatherings,’ but surely their interests are best represented to the government, not by marking ‘no religion’ but by ticking the denominational box that best corresponds to their weekly Mass/church/bingo/basket weaving involvement.

Not content to pronounce on the virtues of just turning up, the atheists also want us to know about the sacramental: ‘I was baptised, does that make me a Christian?’ ‘No,’ comes the unequivocal answer, as if this isn’t a divisive issue among Christians. It goes on to summarise the 4,000 word essays I wrote at theological college, and the 1,000 page volumes on my bookshelves in a couple of neat sentences: ‘…only those who accept the basic tenets of the faith should consider themselves Christians. These are outlined in the Nicene Creed.’ Nothing speaks to the decline in organised atheism more than that atheists are now telling Christians whether or not they are Christian, and what ancient document they must profess for them to be considered legit!

One of the aims of this and similar campaigns is to have Christian parents classify their children as ‘No religion’. Well, er, good luck with that! Certainly there are different views on whether children of believers should be baptised, and what that does or indicates, but in the last 2,000 years no orthodox tradition has lumped its children with the pagans. In my Presbyterian denomination (think Reformed in the categories above), baptism of a child is regarded as the visible entry into the visible church and the covenant of God’s saving grace. It is as they are baptised into Christ that they can most properly be called Christians. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer goes even further, with the pastor declaring after the aquatic sacrament ‘seeing now this child is regenerate’. No religion? Hardly!

But even if one was to ignore a seminal text like the BCP, to mark ‘No religion’ for a baptised child who attends church every Sunday, and who is taught to pray, read the Bible, recite the catechism, and know, love and fear God, is an exercise in semantic gymnastics.

Most atheists I know aren’t religious enough to join the Atheist Foundation or the Rationalist Society. They don’t seem all that interested in presumptuously sorting the sheep from the goats. While I don’t envisage too many doubting church-goers rushing to declare their irreligiousness on census night, one unintended consequence is the backlash in favour of indicating you’re a Christian by confirmed atheists opposed to Islam. ‘I’d prefer Australia to be known as a Christian country,’ wrote one on Facebook, ‘even though I myself am an atheist. Better to be atheist in Aus than in Saudi Arabia.’ Indeed! And as an email doing the rounds says, ‘Every Muslim will tick their box.’

It must be said that the Mark ‘No religion’ campaign is being conducted with courtesy and respect. But it’s also as ill conceived and evangelically fervent as the periodic Christian ones. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shouldn’t even be asking about our religious beliefs – it’s the part of the census where I like to write a little note to the Chief Statistician entreating him to mind his own business. But if there’s something Aussies like less than being asked about their religious affiliation it’s being told what their religious affiliation actually is. To tell baptised, church-goers who have ticked Catholic (or Baptist or whatever) for the last five censuses that they are in fact of no religion is sacrilegious, un-Australian, and frankly, un-atheist as well.

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