Like many, my best memories of Christmas come from my childhood. Endless hot summers, the river, the food and the family. And faith.
I come from a large Aboriginal family. There is no Christmas like a black Christmas. There was never much money and the gifts were few and small, but they were precious. One year I received a book on Greek Myths which opened up a world of wonders and ideas to me that have stayed with me a lifetime.
We played cricket with a home-made bat cut from an old fence post. Our ham came from a can and chicken replaced the turkey.
But we have been blessed. Christmas was a time of prayer and hope. My uncles were pastors in the Aboriginal church. They looked to black religious leaders in the United States like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
The Aboriginal civil rights movement originated in the Church. Men and women of deep faith who called on Australia to recognize our God-given equality.
These people had been forged in the furnace of the worst of Australian racism. Yet they refused to give in. Victimization was not for them.
I am appalled today by what I see as growing pessimism among a new generation of Aboriginal people. In some, there is a abandonment of hope. I have even heard some say that hope is for whites.
Oh good? Tell that to people of my grandparent’s generation.
The tension between secularism and faith
It is incongruous that a generation who enjoyed rights and privileges unknown to their grandparents has lost hope. Of course, much of this pessimism is just drama – performative pessimism. It is the politics of posture. Youthful anguish.
But it also reflects something more insidious, a cynicism that has pervaded society and shattered the bonds of tradition, family, community and faith, especially the Christian faith.
It has taken root in Western society which has undergone a profound change which seems irreversible. To use the words of the late sociologist Phillip Rieff, we have traded a sacred order for a social order.
In his book Is Europe Christian? French academic Olivier Roy traces this tension between secularism and faith. It defined the emergence of modern Europe: from reform to the Thirty Years’ War, from the Treaties of Westphalia and from the birth of the nation-state to the Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community. , and later the social revolutions of the 1960s and Vatican II, which sought to adapt the Church to a secularized world of the twentieth century.
The Enlightenment of the 17th century was instrumental in starting to elevate reason above faith. Founding thinkers like René Descartes, Immanuel Kant and David Hume sought to redefine morality and ethics, questions of truth and what it was like to be human who challenged the church.
The seeds sown during the Enlightenment (which, it should be noted, were not uniformly anti-religious; there were different and competing Enlightenment) gave birth to thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared that God is dead and that we killed him.
Later, critical theorists – notably the Frankfurt School – were born between the two world wars. Marxist and Freudian philosophers like Walter Benjamin, who saw history as a never-ending catastrophe, or Theodor Adorno, whose pessimism rejected ideas of human progress, leaving little room for beauty or poetry.
It wasn’t that the Frankfurt school was entirely anti-religious. Max Horkheimer argued that the loss of religion erodes meaning; he said he couldn’t accept any philosophy that didn’t include theology.
Yet, by an overwhelming majority, these counter-light philosophers set the tone for a more discouraged time. They were brilliant minds who raised important questions about the nature of truth and justice, but their ideas lay a dismal basis for society.
What sort of society do we have now?
This is all part of the secular trajectory of the rise of secularism and the erosion of faith. And the most recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse have also contributed to a loss of faith in the church.
Olivier Roy says that secularization “has given way to large-scale de-Christianization”. There is now “a serious crisis around European identity and the place of religion in the public space,” he said.
It is felt in Protestantism but Roy says it is much more pronounced among Catholics. The fault lines have been issues like divorce, abortion, or same-sex marriage. Traditionally deeply Catholic countries like Ireland have undergone radical change.
As Roy says: “Little by little, the very definitions of sexual difference, family, reproduction and parenthood have been redesigned.
Personal freedom, writes Roy, “prevails over all transcendent norms.” Society is now ordered on “new values … based on individualism, freedom and the enhancement of desire”.
Of course, this reflects social change and the struggle for equality, and the end of discrimination. But the question that Olivier Roy asks is to know what society do we have today?
As he shows, this is not an area where faith is central. Many people can still identify as Christians while rejecting the basic teachings of the church; few practice or attend church regularly, and the number of people entering the priesthood has stagnated.
Australia is the same. According to the census, Christianity remains the dominant religion, with around 12 million people identifying themselves as Christians. Still high, but falling.
Roy Morgan’s research shows that in 2003, 68% of people described themselves as Christians; by 2020, that figure had fallen to 44%. At the same time, those who claim to have no religion fell from 26% to 45%.
The end of Christianity?
As Christianity recedes in Europe and other parts of the West, it increases in the global south: Africa, South America, the Pacific. Christianity is flourishing in atheistic China controlled by the Communist Party.
But elsewhere, Christians are under attack. In her recent book, The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianism in the Middle East, veteran journalist Janine di Giovanni chronicles the end of Christianity. Violent Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Islamic State have persecuted Christian communities. She says they have been “brought to the brink of extinction”.
In Egypt, says Di Giovanni, Coptic Christians face legal and societal discrimination. In Gaza, which in the fourth century was entirely Christian, she says, “there are less than a thousand Christians left.”
Di Giovanni has covered the worst conflict zones in the world. Like me, she has seen too much war and suffering. She also turned to faith and prayer to get by. She says her book “is about how people pray to survive their own most turbulent times.”
What a contrast: Europe is dechristianizing while Christians fight to stay in the Middle East.
The books by Olivier Roy and Janine di Giovanni are important contributions as we reflect on the state of our world during the holy celebration of the birth of Jesus.
In a pluralistic, secular and democratic society, the role of religion – especially in our public life – is always contested. However, it is not the formal separation of Church and State that challenges us as much as what Olivier Roy calls “the disappearance of religion as the center of social and cultural life”. This is what he calls “dechristianization in Europe”.
What do we have left with? A society obsessed with the culture of cartoonish cancellation, debilitating recognition contests and poisoned identity wars. All like a cancer-eating democracy itself.
There is little transcendence, just the inherent pessimism and hopelessness.
Roy says, “Today’s crisis is not just a crisis of values, but a simple reference to values.
My Christmases are sadder now that my grandparents, uncles and aunts are gone. Our world is infinitely poorer for the loss and derision of faith and the substitute for cynicism.
Stan Grant presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.