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Chapter Eleven

Rise of an Old Eastern Religion

Virtue has acquired a bad name. To young people it is the opposite of having fun, to older ones it is a symbol of lost virtue that politicians now exploit for partisan purposes, and to young and old alike it is a set of rules that well-meaning but intolerant bluenoses impose on other people. Yet the daily discourse of ordinary people is filled with oblique references to morality.

James Q. Wilson

The Moral Sense


Being Australian means helping others. It’s in our blood; in our hearts.

Salvation Army television commercial, 1998


Huge immigration levels have made Australia one of the most multicultural lands on earth. And in such an intensely urban society most of us live close to people from another culture. Pluralism and tolerance are not ideals. They are necessities, facts of life.


Yet too often we hear these words used by people who claim to be promoting a more open society, but who are, really, intent on the destruction of our system of morality. They tell us that because so many belief systems exist together it is impossible to say that any particular system is right and wrong. In other words, anything goes.


Many people even believe that there is no such thing as truth or morality any more; that whereas previously there were fairly definite ideas about what was right and what was wrong, now everything is relative - that is, behaviour at any particular time depends on the situation.


This view is given expression in the controversial 1995 drama Dead White Males, by one of Australia’s best-known playwrights, David Williamson. The speaker is university lecturer Dr Grant Swain, who has just shot William Shakespeare, and is talking to his students about culture:


Most of you have always assumed that there are certain eternal “truths” about “human nature” that perceptive writers reveal to us. This course will show you that there are no absolute “truths”, that there is no fixed “human nature” and that what we think of as “reality” is always and only a manufactured reality. There are in fact as many “realities” out there as there are ideologies which construct them.


Such ideas have sometimes come to be called “post-modernism” - suggesting that we have moved on from “modernism”, the notion that human reason could explain everything about our world. (Though what does post-modernism really denote? One writer has said about it: “This word has no meaning. Use it as often as possible.”)


Of course, it is nonsense to suggest that because we now live in a pluralistic society there is no such thing as morality. Ask any migrants to Australia - let alone anyone who was born here - and you will find huge areas of agreement about what kind of society they want, and the ethical code under which they want their children raised. They will surely agree with much of the statement from the Josephson Institute of Ethics that I cite in the Introduction to this book: “Effective character education is based on core ethical values which form the foundation of democratic society, in particular, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship”.


As James Q. Wilson argued in his excellent book The Moral Sense, go to “the most distant and exotic land and seek to employ an excellent carpenter, boatwright, gardener or tailor”, and, he suggested, we shall find general agreement as to the qualities of excellence that are desirable. People around the world, of widely varying cultures, maintain surprisingly similar views of morality. The British writer C.S. Lewis surveyed all the world’s great ethical systems and found them remarkably alike.



So how did we reach this situation, where apparently sensible people - often academics and other intellectual leaders - can maintain that there is no right or wrong? What do they think about societies where men have many wives, where female genital mutilation is obligatory, where widows lie on the funeral pyre next to their dead husbands - apparently voluntarily - and are cremated together? What about cruelty to children? Is there no right and wrong involved?


According to James Q. Wilson again, in The Moral Sense:


Why have people lost the confidence with which they once spoke publicly about morality?…I believe it is because we have learned, either firsthand from intellectuals or second-hand from the pronouncements of people influenced by intellectuals, that morality has no basis in science or logic….Most of us have moral sense, but…some of us have tried to talk ourselves out of it. It is as if a person born to appreciate a golden sunset or a lovely song had persuaded himself and others that a greasy smear or a clanging gong ought to be enjoyed as much as true beauty.


In Australia we have followed, more or less, a system of ethics that was based on Christian teachings. And most people - even the majority who never or seldom went to church - would have accepted, however vaguely, Christian notions of right and wrong.


But now, what has happened is that we have removed – or, rather, we have allowed our opinion leaders to remove - this religious support structure, which provided guidance in so many areas of our daily lives. It is like living in a house that has a couple of malcontent professors in the basement swinging axes at the supporting stumps. It has left people disoriented, their heads spinning.


This was recognised by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote and taught in the late-nineteenth century, and who made no secret of his contempt for “weak” Christian morality. He reasoned that, by convincing people there was no God, the downfall of Western morality - hinged to Christian teachings - would naturally follow. The way would be open for those who understood this situation to grab power.


Nietzsche was certainly not alone in his attacks on Christian morality, though he, better than most, saw the consequences of the “death of God”: rule by the most powerful. Other attacks, knowing and accidental, have come from a bewildering variety of directions: the rise of modern science, which seemed to be able to explain our world without resort to the supernatural; the rise of Marxism; Sigmund Freud and the development of psychology; and, most recently, a boom in Eastern religions and New Age spiritualities among many young people in the West.


Taken together, all these phenomena have chipped away at belief in a Christian God and in the notions of right and wrong that follow.



One of Australia’s finest autobiographies is The Education of Young Donald, by journalist Donald Horne. His crystal-clear prose illuminates with intensity his own life and the lives of those around him. The cliché says that a picture tells a thousand words, but reading his book enables you to feel, hear and see Australia and Australians in a way few pictures can convey.


In a passage that deserves to be quoted at length, he described what happened to him when as a teenager he made the decision to stop believing in God:


After Christmas Mum and Dad rented a cottage in the Blue Mountains, and while we waited for the Leaving Certificate results to come out we tried to cast ourselves back into the roles we have played five years before when we had last had a holiday together. It was in the Blue Mountains that I was finally able to Think a Thought….I tried to imagine dying. ‘We just die like dogs,’ one of my uncles had said, and I believed him. But I couldn’t imagine it. Yet I would die and that would be the end of me. Then I Thought my Thought. If I didn’t believe in God and I didn’t believe in life after death why was I always worrying about everything? What did it matter what I was? If there was no Good and no Bad why didn’t I just be bad if I wanted to? I could be as selfish as I liked, plan everything just to please myself, be unscrupulous, just take what I wanted. What was the point of believing in anything? Everything was meaningless. Why should I act according to beliefs if I didn’t believe in them and they got in my way? Beliefs were a lot of bullshit. There was no reason whatsoever why I should act one way or the other. What did should mean? Nothing. I was going to die. There was no God to punish me. Nothing meant anything. I could do what I liked. But I would have to be careful. Other people expected you to have beliefs. You should act as if you had them. That would be smart. You could act as if you believed in honesty and so forth, and all the time you were lying. I considered these thoughts so important that I kept on repeating them to myself for the rest of the walk, so that I would remember them. Now I really felt optimistic about the future.


Yet, despite all the many problems we have in Australia, we have created a good, civilised society. Compared to so many other countries, now and throughout history, we have a safe, clean and decent land, one where people are treated well and allowed to realise their full potential. It is essentially a tolerant society. It is a society where my Asian wife can, by and large, feel quite comfortable, and where my half-Asian kids are treated equally by their teachers and friends


And much of this has come about through our concern with morality. Common sense alone tells us that, despite what any academic may insist, we do care about morality. We believe there is a right and a wrong. It is almost like a sixth sense. It is something inbuilt. As the Salvation Army television commercial quoted at the head of this chapter was saying in 1998, a will to help others is in our blood, in our hearts.


Maybe, as some insist, it is just self-interest that makes us behave well - the notion that we cannot have a decent society without everyone behaving well. There is that, I am sure. But can we not be sure that somehow embedded in us, like a computer code, is something that urges us to be concerned with morality?


In The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson argued that humans do have an inbuilt sense of morality, though he admitted that this was not an easy proposition to prove. “Much of what we know about the moral senses has to be inferred from how people behave,” he wrote. He suggested there may be a biological explanation for our inclination to do good. He noted that we have long recognised that there is often a biological explanation for bad activity, so it made sense that moral behaviour would also be so derived.



This theme is the subject of The Origins of Virtue, by science writer Matt Ridley, published in 1996. Ridley examined a wave of new scientific research being carried out in many countries, and suggested that, “Society works…because it is an ancient product of our evolved predispositions. It is literally in our nature.” He said humans have a natural tendency towards moral and cooperative behaviour. (Some scientists believe this is because of an “altruism gene” that is in us.)


The book is critical of religion, and part of Ridley’s thesis seems to be that if goodness is an inherent part of our nature then we do not need God. Unfortunately, he is so unfairly and unnecessarily selective (and sometimes mistaken) in the material he presents on religion - in particular on Judaism and Christianity - that it ends up undermining his objectivity. Is there not a hint of nastiness in his gratuitous claim that “religion teaches its adherents that…their nearest rivals are benighted fools or even subhumans”?


He admits that our understanding of the human social instinct is “dim and misty”, and says he cannot be confident that many of the ideas in his book are right. Nevertheless, it is a provocative work, which raises many interesting issues concerning morality and points the way to much further exciting and controversial research.


In some ways, these developments are a completing of a circle, with parts of The Origins of Virtue reading, ironically, like a Christian tract. For it was St Paul in his letter to the Romans, one of the books of the Bible, who said that we all have written in our hearts the ability to distinguish right and wrong.


Many others have taken up this theme, such as St Thomas Aquinas, who said that we have been given the ability to perceive good. C.S. Lewis, mentioned already in this chapter, saw the moral nature of humans as evidence of the existence of God. He wrote, in Mere Christianity: “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining.”


Both Wilson and Ridley note that we can subvert our moral instinct by denying it, or by acting against it. According to Wilson: “We have a moral sense, most people instinctively rely on it even if intellectuals deny it. But it is not always and in every aspect of life strong enough to withstand a pervasive and sustained attack.”


The two writers might disagree with my terminology, but I would suggest that they are affirming my contention in this book, that we should recognise that we are fallen people, subject sometimes to doing wrong, no matter how much our instincts may point us towards doing good. When temptation appears strongly enough in our paths we are, at times, remarkably likely to succumb.



But if we want to do good, despite living in a society where increasingly we are told - against what we know and feel - that morality is relative and that there is no right and wrong, what do we do? Where do we turn? For those who can understand the predicament, the answer now seems to be that we grab it where we can - like a harried executive snatching a bite to eat as needed from what is available at the time.


In an edition of the ABC television programme “Compass” in 1998, commentator McKenzie Wark said that, with the church so weak, people nowadays will sometimes get their ethics from television features like the one in which he was appearing. Given that the programme in question - on the latest baby boomer burden, the angst of being a middle-class male - was as glib and superficial as just about any other television offering that presumes to provide ethical guidance, Wark’s statement was depressing in the extreme.


Walter Truett Anderson, author of Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, suggested that people naturally develop morality, especially when there is a degree of conflict in their lives that forces them to confront issues.


In other words, some experts are saying that we shall muddle through – and, of course, the rich and powerful and educated probably will, with not too many casualties among them.


But it is sometimes said that a society can be judged by the way it treats the under-privileged and vulnerable in its midst. By removing our traditional system of Christian-based ethics we are pushing many into a moral vacuum, from which they could emerge finding little more to clutch at for their ethical guidance than the fortune-tellers of the women’s magazines.


Unfortunately, even within the church, where it might be thought that a fairly clear set of moral guidelines exists, there can be a similar irresolution. Some ministers have given up trying to sort out answers for all the increasingly detailed ethical issues that confront our society. Instead, they are more like social workers, visiting people in hospital, preaching feel-good sermons on Sunday, and stressing a bit of social action or mission activity if that is appropriate for their congregation. (They have become “entirely too useful, and therefore are fundamentally useless,” in the words of one American writer.)


But many Christians desire more. They want guidance on how to model their lives on Jesus in a complex world. So they shop around. Once, Christians were tied to their particular denomination, and generally to the local church of that denomination. Now they cross denominational boundaries and travel half-way across town if they hear of a powerful preacher who can give them the surging feeling of walking with God.



I spoke at the beginning of this chapter about pluralism, and I believe it is Australia’s pluralism that could rescue us. For as Christianity declines in the West it is growing explosively in the so-called “Third World”, where many of our migrants come from. In parts of Asia, Africa and even South America a dramatic Christian revival is occurring. Eastern Europe and Russia, too, now have religious freedom and are witnessing a massive return to the church.


Christianity started as an Eastern religion. It is shifting that way again. (An only slightly jocular message to young Australians leaning towards Eastern religions: you need look no further than Christianity.)


The migrants who come to Australia are from many of the places where the Christian revival is strong, and many of them are devoutly religious. Non-Western Christians have not, by and large, thrown in their lot with Western post-modernism. They have retained strong moral convictions, often with an underlay of their own countries’ particular ethical codes.


One country I know well is my wife’s home, Korea. At the turn of the century, there was scarcely a church there. Western Christian missionaries virtually wrote it off, viewing the people as too tied to Buddhism and to their traditional shamanistic practices. Today, about one-third of the country is Christian, with 7,000 churches in Seoul alone, and they are a church-going, Bible-studying, Jesus-loving group who put many Western Christians to shame.


I have been to Korea many times, to visit my parents-in-law, but our trip in 1995 was my first as a Christian. In Seoul, I attended services of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, around the corner from the country’s parliament. This church, established by the dynamic David Yonggi Cho in 1958, is now the largest in the world, with, incredibly, 700,000 members.


The church building itself holds 25,000 people in the main auditorium, with a further 15,000 watching on giant closed-circuit television screens in overflow chapels (“overflow” being the operative word; each of these chapels was jammed when I was there).


The church organises seven fervent, packed services each Sunday, two on Saturdays and several more during the week, as well as all-night prayer meetings every Friday. Members are also placed in small cell groups, which meet weekly for prayer and Bible study, with each member of a group asked to pray daily for each other group member.


The church also runs a retreat, known as Prayer Mountain, near the North Korean border, and I spent a night there. At any time, thousands of people are gathered for community prayer and worship that lasts for days, or even weeks. Many are fasting. At night, most sleep - if they are not in prayer - on mats spread out on the floor of the large central worship sanctuary.


Hundreds of tiny grottoes have been dug into the mountain, and individuals occupy these, praying for hours at a time, sitting or kneeling on the hard floor, a flickering candle the only illumination after dark. I walked around the compound late at night. It was snowing and bitterly cold, but many people were in the grottoes, crying out or singing, in piercing voices, in prayer and worship.


Some even forsook the relative comfort of the spartan grottoes and knelt outside, among trees and bushes on the mountain. When I walked around once more, early the next morning, many of the same worshippers were still at prayer.


In Australia, we would normally associate such fervent worship practices with, say, “primitive” folk religions. But in many parts of the “developing” Christian world such devotion is routine. Australia’s Korean population is relatively small. Yet, along with many others in our fast-growing Asian community, they hold strong views on what they see as ethical indulgence in this country, and a breakdown in community structures for the raising of children. Due to courtesy or shyness, their views are seldom heard outside fairly restricted circles.


Yet it is exactly these kinds of voices that we need to hear speaking out loudly on the pressing ethical issues confronting Australia today: voices that emerge from a tradition of a deep understanding of the human condition and a firm belief in right and wrong.


It is not only Christian voices we need to hear. Much Christian ethical teaching is derived from Judaism, especially the wisdom literature of Jewish scripture which has been incorporated into the Christian Old Testament. Jewish religious teachers have always regarded it as vital to pass down their great moral teachings to the new generations. We also have a growing number of Muslim citizens, and the Islam religion, too, is rich in ethical teachings, along with its great traditions of culture, learning and art.


One of the cheering aspects of the Piss Christ episode (discussed in Chapter 10) was the common stance displayed by Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders. For example, in a letter to the Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, and the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Dr Timothy Potts, the Islamic Council of Victoria wrote:


This exhibition not only offends, mocks and ridicules Jesus Christ…a prophet of our religion, but it is also a disgrace to humanity….The photograph Piss Christ is considered very offensive to all who believe in the Muslim or Christian faiths. It offends against religions and creates divisions among the Victorian community.


It seems that in the West nowadays, for understandable historical reasons, many Jewish leaders prefer a low profile. Islamic leaders too mainly speak out publicly on issues directly related to their own people. I believe it would be a great service to Australia if leaders of all faiths could unite more often to provide moral guidance - based on the rich heritage of their respective teachings - on all the ethical issues troubling our society today.


God knows, we need it.




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