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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
In an edition of the ABC television
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
* Next chapter
* Previous chapter
Table of contents
* Send a comment
* If you enjoy this book, please consider a donation