Contractual obligations or free speech?

  (28 June 19)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Israel Folau controversy touches a real nerve in contemporary Australia. I can see two possible takes on it.

First, that we should allow free speech in (almost all) cases. Obviously we shouldn’t be free to holler ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre when there is no fire, but there are good arguments for dealing with objectionable views through debate rather than through restricting their expression. (Thus Pru Goward: we should allow Folau to freely express himself, and laugh at how ridiculous his views are.)

Second, that we should allow organisations the right to stipulate values that should/shouldn’t be championed by those they employ. Rugby Australia is claiming breach of contract in the Folau case: he signed up knowing what the rules were, and he then blatantly breached RA’s code of conduct on more than one occasion.

A good case could be made for either of these positions. Unfortunately, Folau and his Australian Christian Lobby backers want a bob each way. They claim a right to freely express a view on religious matters even when it clashes with an organisation’s code of conduct… unless it’s a religious organisation, for example a religious school, in which case employees must toe the line and say or do nothing which goes against the school’s ethos.

On the substantive Folau issue, in particular that of the bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexuality, it’s pretty clear there’s very little scholarship behind him. For a start, there is no word in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for ‘homosexuality’. The complexities of the issue are dealt with in many places – here, for example, and here and here.  

The other dimension to all this is the potential for harm to vulnerable young LGBTIQA+ people when celebrities – e.g. prominent sports people – mouth off from a position of naivety and ignorance. The greatest protection we can offer young LGBTI people is love and acceptance for who they are. Thank goodness many families already do this, and even some churches (e.g. some Anglican and some Pentecostal communities) are now doing it.

View All Comments / Add Comment

All at sea on how to live

  (25 December 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

How should we live nowadays? Where can we look for moral guidance? From our (once) most trusted institutions (e.g. churches and Cricket Australia, if not our councils, parliaments and banks) to individuals struggling with social media addiction and abuse, our society seems to be all at sea on this issue.

Is advancing secularisation a cause, or a ray of hope? Arguably, popular culture looms increasingly large in contemporary moral guidance, from Happy Potter (the Harry Potter Alliance) to superhero films. Can the churches or civil society claw back their moral authority? What other options are there?

Fear not! This is the issue we’ll be grappling with at the 2019 Sea of Faith in Australia one-day conference. Maybe we'll find being 'all at sea' is not such a bad thing...

Date: Saturday, 15 June

Venue: Qld Art Gallery lecture theatre, Southbank, Brisbane

Watch our website for details.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion and sustainability

  (20 September 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

The NZ SoF Conference for 2018 is titled ‘Religion for a sustainable future’. It’s on from November 2 – 4.

More details

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religious freedom

  (20 September 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

The culture and gender wars are in full swing in Australia at present. One of the upcoming skirmishes concerns ‘freedom of religion’.


It’s good to know that balanced discussion and civilised, even compassionate, debate is possible to find, depending on where you look. To challenge firmly-held beliefs, however, it may be necessary to read more polemical works as well, and if we’re not willing to genuinely challenge our cherished beliefs, of what real value are those beliefs? So we need to weigh up both pro(gressive)s and con(servative)s on the issue.


A few salutary articles are listed below.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Words matter

  (20 September 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

One of the problems with trying to engender understanding of and respect for people of all sexualities and genders concerns terminology. On the one hand, labels give us a ‘handle’, allowing us to examine, clarify and manipulate concepts and ideas; on the other, they risk pigeonholing and stereotyping people. Joanna McIntyre, writing in the SMH, gives a good sense of this dilemma in her examination of the term ‘cisgender’: 

What does it mean to be cisgender?


View All Comments / Add Comment

Secular drift

  (25 August 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is the transition to secularism in the West inexorable? There’s so much media coverage of the pockets of superstition and religious ideology that it sometimes seems we’re not making headway against religious privilege and naïve religious belief.

The Pope’s visit to Ireland, however, shows how drastically things have changed in a short time. Check out this selection of articles:

Closer to home, there’s good news on the evolution vs creationism front. Biology students are much less likely than their forerunners of 30 years ago to espouse creationism, and much more likely to say that God is not involved in evolution.

Vigilance is still necessary, however, to call out the abuse of religious privilege and self-interest. The activities of the Exclusive Brethren have been under the spotlight (again), and we still allow tax concessions for some of those who show the least respect and compassion for marginalised LGBTI people.

In the interests of fairness, however, the recent news about succession at the Wayside Chapel shows the value that religion, done well, can add to our society. It’s reasonable to ask who might have got this amazing endeavour underway in a completely secular society.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Theology talks - update

  (13 July 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

Joe Bessler, Professor of Theology, Tulsa, is presenting a series of talks in Australia.

PERTH (Uniting Church, Duke St, Albany)

Friday 13/7 7.30 pm Theology in the Age of Trump

Saturday 14/7 9 am Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth

Saturday 14/7 1 pm Facing up to the Hard Questions: Christian Faith for a New Age.

Cost: $15 per session or $30 for the three. Tea or coffee provided. Bring or buy lunch locally. To indicate attendance, ring E. Burns, 08 98422636.

MELBOURNE  (6 sessions at Ewing Memorial Centre, Cnr Burke Rd and Coppin St, East Malvern)

Friday 20/7 7pm

Saturday 21/7  10 am to 4pm

Saturday includes lunch and refreshments, incl. gluten free and vegetarian. Register at

SYDNEY  (Pitt St Uniting Church)

Friday/Saturday 27-28th July.


Dr Paul Inglis says of Joe’s Queensland talks:

Joe’s presentations to ecumenical as well as non-church audiences ranged through the influences of Platonic thought on the developing church, the three very different and major influences on this church in the last two hundred years and the intersection of religious and the political forces amid the current climate of debate over freedoms and authority. An outstanding feature of all the sessions was the way in which he generated many questions and never wavered in answering the challenging ones. Professor Bessler is an experienced teacher who gains respect by the way he responds to enquiry. For ‘explorers’ these were very popular sessions. Our progressive groups now have much to talk about amongst ourselves as we explore the many threads of Joe’s teaching.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Theology talks

  (10 June 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

Joe Bessler, Professor of Theology, Tulsa, is presenting a series of talks in Australia:

July 7 (Merthyr Rd Uniting Church, New Farm, Brisbane) - The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth and A Change for the Better - Theology in the Modern and Contemporary Periods. More information:

July 10 (Floreat Uniting Church, Perth) - The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth

July 11 (Floreat Uniting Church, Perth) - Speaking Christian in a Non-Christian World

July 1 – (Wembley Downs Uniting Church, Perth) - How Theology can lead us into the Future. More information:

Joe Bessler is also in Melbourne 20th - 21st July and at Pitt St Uniting Church, Sydney 27-28th July.

View All Comments / Add Comment

The issue of gender

  (07 June 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

For a long time we seem to have made do with male/masculine and female/feminine as our only two choices for gender identity, but change is now in our communities and on our airwaves. What does it all mean?

Come and find out!

Gender Diversity: What, Who, How is a one-day event tackling the terms, the concepts, the research and, crucially, the experiences of those who are gender non-conforming in a largely gender-binary world.

Speakers include Jade Mirabito, who identifies as “agender, trans, queer, femme and fabulous” and works with mental health and suicide prevention services on the Gold Coast, and Olivia Donaghy, who leads the Children\’s Health Queensland gender service at Lady Cilento Children\’s Hospital.

A panel will present their own experiences as gender non-conforming people in a primarily gender-binary society; panel members include Anglican priest and trans woman the Rev. Jo Inkpin and trans man, musician and broadcaster Eddie Ayres.

Details of the event, including how to register, are on our website.

View All Comments / Add Comment

The times, they are a-changin’

  (20 May 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

Occasionally there’s some good news. Is progress on reducing discrimination sustainable, though? Probably not without sustained effort by those with a will to see everyone flourish.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Ecology, Theology, Revolution

  (14 May 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Common Ground 2018 Conference, on the theme ‘Creation: Ecology, Theology, Revolution’ will be held in Wellington, New Zealand, over the weekend of 7-9 September. Details are at the Progressive Christianity Aotearoa website.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Doubt is ethical

  (28 April 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

Author Sarah Sentilles, as quoted in The Saturday Paper,  has, arguably, captured the essence of SoFiA:

If God is bigger than anything human beings can say about God, then all the things we say are going to fall short. So if you’re not questioning them, you’re actually engaged in idolatry of some kind. Doubt, to me, is very ethical.

Sentilles, like many of us journeying on the Sea of Faith, is post-religion, a true church alumnus, but her faith “continues in art and the natural world, and the intersections between them”.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Action on energy

  (19 April 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

A truly positive contribution to society from some of Australia’s religious leaders…


View All Comments / Add Comment

We’ll all be rooned

  (07 January 18)
  by Greg Spearritt

It seems Australians are inclined to take a pessimistic view of How Things Are. We generally overestimate negatives and underestimate positives, according to the latest IPSOS survey (The Perils of Perception 2017). An example: survey participants estimated the percentage of teen girls (15-19 years) who give birth at 18 percent; the actual figure is just 1.2 percent. Over 70 percent of respondents thought the homicide rate has remained steady or increased since the year 2000; just 17 percent correctly identified that it has fallen.

At least we’re not alone in this: misapprehending these facts is an international phenomenon. That’s cold comfort, of course, as these misunderstandings unfortunately inform Australian public opinion and thus have political and policy ramifications. And, regrettably, they’re manipulated for base political motives, as was in evidence by gaudy corflutes in my local electorate during the recent state election declaring that crime was “out of control”.  

Is it too much to ask for our politicians to be both informed and honest?

That same question must now be put to the Australian Christian Lobby: are they prepared to quit telling us their antiquated and harmful take on values (e.g. on marriage and gender) is shared by the “silent majority”?

View All Comments / Add Comment

The worth of religion

  (02 December 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Religious decline continues in Australia, as our most recent census shows.

While some of that decline is to be welcomed, there is also the question of what there is of value that we are losing. Both sides of this debate are neatly represented in the story of Sister Angela Mary Doyle and her compassionate (and devious) fight for AIDS sufferers in the 1980s, at a time when the State Government was led by lay-preacher Joh Bjelke-Peterson who saw AIDS as a punishment from God.

View All Comments / Add Comment

(Don’t) wanna marry you

  (28 November 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Marriage and religion are both on the nose in Australia, apparently. The SMH tells us the figure may be as low as 4.5 marriages per 1000 Australians, down from 8.0 in the 1970s. To boot, in 2016 just 23.6 per cent of marriages were conducted by a minister of religion, down from over 50 per cent in 1996. The new same-sex marriage laws may provide a temporary boost to at least the first of these figures…

View All Comments / Add Comment

SSM - yes to love

  (14 November 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Australians have spoken, giving a resounding ‘yes’ to marriage equality. Despite the extensive resources of the Catholic and Sydney Anglican churches, as well as the rest of the so-called Coalition for Marriage (which claimed to speak for the silent majority) being put into the ‘no’ campaign, many Christians have supported the ‘yes’ vote and will be rejoicing today with the LGBTI community. Liberal MP Dean Smith is among them.

There seems to be broad support for exemptions to allow churches, if they so choose, to refuse to conduct gay marriages. The legislative ‘protections’ which the Patterson proposal demands go much further, including to “allow people to discuss their traditional view of marriage without fear of legal penalties”.

There are difficult areas here, to be sure, regarding free speech versus common decency. We don’t, however, allow open public expression concerning ‘traditional’ views on race: that kind of damaging, bigoted discourse is justifiably outlawed. The damage done historically by churches to LGBTI people is real and, at least in some quarters, acknowledged (e.g. by Pope Francis and others). The question is, will that harm continue as we turn to the issue of legislating for gay marriage.

One sensible proposal for distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable ‘protections’ suggests restricting exemptions to acts and institutions that are actually religious. Baking a wedding cake, for example, is not an inherently religious act.

View All Comments / Add Comment

The quest goes on

  (04 November 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

What is the Sea of Faith? Where is the movement going? For a UK perspective with extensive reference to the original Sea of Faith BBC series, check out The Sea of Faith – The Quest Goes On.

View All Comments / Add Comment

School of Life

  (19 October 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

The School of Life is “a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. We apply philosophy, psychology and culture to everyday life.” It’s active with events in Sydney and Melbourne. An example of upcoming events:


View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion: for good or ill?

  (12 October 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Some interesting stats from a new global Ipsos poll show Australians aren’t especially enamoured with religion compared to people of many other nationalities. According to the SMH, it found two in three Aussies believe religion does more harm than good.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Global Atheist Convention

  (05 October 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

The third Global Atheist Convention, titled Reason to Hope, will be held over the weekend of 9-11 February, 2018. It’s organised by the Atheist Foundation of Australia and will feature around 20 speakers, including Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins, Clementine Ford, Ben Goldacre, Tracey Spicer and Jason Ball. Tickets begin at $360 ($300 concession).

View All Comments / Add Comment

Same sex marriage - media roundup

  (16 September 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

For your reading pleasure, here’s a collection of items (to date) on the current SSM debate from the News Ltd, Fairfax and Guardian press.


I’m a Baptist minister and I’ll be voting ’yes’ for same-sex marriage (Sydney Morning Herald)  
Aug 21 – (Opinion: Simon Carey Holt ) I am a Christian, a person deeply formed by the Church and its gospel.

Religious freedom at risk (The Australian)
Aug 22 – (Opinion: Paul Kelly) There are strong warnings that the right to same-sex marriage will be won at the erosion of other rights.

Same-sex marriage: What does the Bible really have to say? (ABC News)  
Aug 24 – (Opinion: Robyn J Whitaker) As Australia faces a postal survey on same-sex marriage, we are seeing a steady stream of articles arguing the Yes or No case.

St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne wants to be first church to marry Aussie same sex couples (Adelaide Now)
Aug 24 - A CHURCH in Melbourne has shown its support for marriage equality, and said that it wants to be the first church to marry a same-sex couple.

Catholics defy church leadership to become biggest backers of same-sex marriage: poll (Sydney Morning Herald)  
Aug 27 - A majority of Catholics, Christians and other religious groups support same-sex marriage and are inclined to vote for it in the forthcoming postal survey, according to new polling commissioned by advocates.

Elite Catholic schools defy church leadership on same-sex marriage (The Age, Melbourne)
Aug 30 - Two of Australia’s most prestigious Catholic schools have cautiously endorsed same-sex marriage in messages to parents, staff and students, directly rebuking recent statements from church leaders.

Same-sex marriage debate was always going to get ugly (Sydney Morning Herald)  
Sept 2 – (Opinion: Nick O’Malley) Perhaps it was George Brandis who put it best. People do indeed have the right to be bigots.

Legalise same-sex marriage for the ’common good’, says Catholic priest Frank Brennan (Sydney Morning Herald)  
Sept 2 - Same-sex marriage should be legalised for the "common good", one of Australia’s leading Catholic thinkers has urged, arguing civil marriage cannot be seen as an instrument of the church.

Welcome to the ’No’ case (The Saturday Paper)
Sept 2 – (Opinion: Sean Kelly) It was a fairly stunning admission to make at the beginning of a long campaign.

’Not everything is about same-sex marriage’: Father’s Day ad deemed too ’political’ for TV (
Sept 3 - A NOT-FOR-PROFIT group behind a heartwarming Father’s Day ad pulled from TV for being too “political” in the lead-up to the same-sex marriage postal vote has taken its website and social media pages down for “security reasons”.

Dads4Kids ad is ’dodgy campaign tactic’ in marriage debate, says LGBTI activist (The Guardian, Australia)
Sept 3 – A fathers group that claimed its political ad was blocked from television is engaged in a “dodgy campaign tactic” to claim victimhood in the same-sex marriage debate, according to a senior LGBTI advocate.

The Christian reasons I’ll vote yes (The Australian)
Sept 6 – (Opinion: Greg Sheridan) Christians should compromise on same sex-marriage but fiercely defend religious freedoms to the very death.

These religious leaders are putting dogma aside to support same-sex marriage (ABC News)  
Sept 7 - It is well known that the majority of the world’s religions stand in opposition not only to same-sex marriage but homosexuality.

Conflict, religion and dignity (The Australian)
Sept 8 - Two leading NSW legal voices explore some of the key judicial arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

Supporters, opponents of same sex marriage clash outside Brisbane church (The Courier-Mail, Brisbane)
Sept 8 - SUPPORTERS and opponents of same sex marriage have clashed outside a Brisbane church following the High Court decision allowing a postal vote to go ahead.

Christian school urges ’no’ to same-sex marriage in letter to parents as ’yes’ supporters rally (ABC News)  
Sept 9 - An Adelaide Christian school has sent a letter home to parents urging them to vote ’no’ in the upcoming postal survey on same-sex marriage.

My dad’s incredible reaction when I came out as gay (
Sept 9 - PEOPLE often ask me how I reconcile my faith with my sexual orientation.

Melbourne reverend speaks out as the Uniting Church debates its position (ABC News) 
Sept 12 - When she was freshly ordained, the Reverend Robyn Whitaker believed homosexuality was a sin.

Marriage trashed by straight people not gays, says Christian Lobby boss Lyle Shelton (Sydney Morning Herald)  
Sept 13 - Straight people have trashed the institution of marriage, and gays and lesbians have been subjected to "hateful and hurtful" things by Christians, a Canberra audience heard on Wednesday.

Police called as hundreds of protesters surround Sydney University ’vote no’ rally (Sydney Morning Herald)  
Sept 14 - Police have been called to the University of Sydney after a rally encouraging students to vote "no" in the same-sex marriage postal survey drew hundreds of counter-protesters.

Same-sex safeguards just ’gesture politics’ (The Australian)
Sept 14 - Two NSW Catholic bishops have broken ranks with the No side in the same-sex marriage debate.

Conservative Christians’ anti-marriage equality lines ’betray gospel of grace’, says reverend (The Guardian, Australia)
Sept 14 - The Parramatta Catholic Diocese and the St James Anglican church have both rejected the anti-marriage equality lines of conservative religious leaders in Sydney.

Also: Church split over anti-marriage equality views of the Australian Christian Lobby (
Sept 16 - TWO major Sydney churches have hit back at the Australian Christian Lobby’s conservative marriage equality views.

Church cancels wedding because bride and groom supported gay marriage on Facebook (Sydney Morning Herald)  
Sept 15 - A Victorian church refused to marry a young couple and cancelled their wedding plans because the bride-to-be expressed support for same-sex marriage on Facebook.

Turnbull defends church that refused to marry couple backing same-sex marriage (The Guardian, Australia)
Sept 15 - Malcolm Turnbull has defended a Victorian church that cancelled the wedding of a local couple after they posted their support for same-sex marriage on Facebook.

Also: PM’s focus on freedom for religion (The Australian)
Sept 16 - The PM has declared he believes in religious freedom ’even more strongly’ than in same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage: many synagogues reject rabbinical council’s ’no’ (The Guardian, Australia)
Sept 17 - Australia’s peak Jewish body and many synagogues have rejected a statement by the Rabbinical Council of Victoria urging people to vote no in the same-sex marriage postal survey.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Living with enemies

  (13 September 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Eremos in Sydney invites interested people to a talk by priest, theologian and author James Alison titled ‘Beyond Us and Them: contemplation and living with enemies in a globalised world’ at Pitt St Uniting Church (264 Pitt St, Sydney), 2pm on Sunday, 8 October. Entry $25.

More details


View All Comments / Add Comment

Spirituality & social justice

  (28 July 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Eremos in Sydney invites interested people to a forum titled ‘Spirituality and Social Justice: Citizens and Change’ to be held on Sunday the 6th of August 2017. It will “explore faith and activism through the lenses of four different spiritual and faith traditions and invites participants to consider their experience of faith/spirituality and social justice.”

More details

View All Comments / Add Comment

Decline of Christianity – cause for concern?

  (14 July 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

The ongoing decline of Christianity in Australia is confirmed by the latest census data. Those reporting ’no religion’ are now at 30%, up 8% in the last 5 years.

It’s no cause for celebration, says News Ltd columnist Jennifer Oriel. Perhaps it isn’t – and perhaps it is. In putting her case, however, Oriel makes some stunning claims. Let’s examine a few.

(1)   Christianity is the generative principle of the free world. Without it, liberal democracy will become hollow and the light of liberty will be put out.

While within most churches democracy (along with ’the light of liberty’ in the form of freedom of belief) is anathema, their concern for it in the wider society seems largely to do with how they can influence it. Even Oriel’s own media organ has acknowledged this, as has the learned Marion Maddox.

(2)   In the education sector, the media and even the military, there is advocacy against Christianity. The anti-Christian position is invariably couched in the language of diversity, inclusion and minority rights.

Perhaps it’s not so hard to understand a jaundiced view of Christianity among LGBTI folk, given the kind of persecution Christians have inflicted on them for so long. Some Christians, of course, are now acknowledging this and even apologising, notably the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope, but from some Christian groups the persecution continues... and continues

(3)   …big business has entered the fray by denouncing conservative governments that uphold democratic processes such as the proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage. We used to have a name for a corporate politics that subverts democracy by throwing cash at politicians: fascism.

What, no irony here (given that our writer is in the employ of one Rupert Murdoch)?

(4)   In his book What’s So Great About Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza explains what I regard as the basis of Western civilisation: “The preciousness and equal worth of every human life is a Christian idea.”

It’s a little difficult to reconcile this view with Oriel’s support of offshore detention for asylum-seekers, given well-documented reports that conditions on Manus and Nauru have been harmful and that this detention, for the children, amounts to child abuse.

(5)   The secular state is justified by Jesus’s instruction: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s: and to God, the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Christianity thus provides the ultimate defence against totalitarianism: the limited state.

In most cases, Australian churches are exempt from income tax, get concessions for fringe benefit tax and GST and don’t pay rates. So much for ’render unto Caesar’.

(6)   [O]ur understandable anger about ordained pedophiles and those who shield them should not blind us to the extraordinary promise of Judaeo-Christianity. It has given us inherent human worth, dignity, equality, freedom, secular statehood and liberal democracy.

And Oriel’s one-eyed enthusiasm should not blind us from seeing other aspects of the Judaeo-Christian legacy which have blighted our society and in many cases continue to do so: authoritarianism, unwarranted privilege and advantage (in schooling, for example), oppression of minorities, sectarian conflict, abuse of children and laws against gay marriage, abortion and voluntary euthanasia.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Even in the Churches

  (02 June 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

The recent kerfuffle (covfefe?) over comments from self-appointed pastor Margaret Court highlights the achingly slow but hopefully inexorable progress religious groups are making on LGBTI issues. To be sure, we’re not hearing anything especially enlightened from Sydney Anglican Diocese, but there are prominent Anglican, Uniting and even Catholic voices throughout Australia defending the rights of LGBTI folk and promoting marriage equality. There are progressive Muslim voices, too.

I was at a Trans Fair recently in Brisbane, where transgender clergy from mainstream denominations mingled with many and varied trans folk from all walks of life (including Qld Police – how far we’ve come since the Joh days!). At lunch with some parents of trans teenagers I got talking to one lady who was the daughter of a Baptist pastor and was herself still very religious. She and her transgender daughter had, after extensive searching, found a Pentecostal congregation in Brisbane willing to accept them without an agenda of ‘praying away the gay’ or conversion to some God-given ‘normality’. Another parent, a Muslim, was just as strong in support of her son’s gender transition and future life as a gay man.

Can we hope that things are finally changing – even in the Churches?


View All Comments / Add Comment

The sacred in an age of terror

  (14 April 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

On July 9, 2017 David Tacey will address the second forum in the series ’What in the world is going on?’ which is hosted by the Eremos Institute. Tacey will speak on ’The Return of the Sacred in an Age of Terror’. (“Is it mere coincidence, or is there some synchronicity between the return of the sacred and religious terrorism?”)

More details at the Eremos site.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Down to earth

  (14 April 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

We hear so much about the big world events and the big names in politics, business and entertainment. So often it seems these high-profile ‘players’ could benefit from a dose of ‘ordinary’ decency and common sense.

The Creating Space website run by Australian psychologist Ruth Nelson aims to promote pro-social values, including critical thinking. The site includes a podcast and is dedicated to the stories and values of ordinary people (women in particular).

From the Creating Space mission statement:

“The Creating Space Project is passionate about working with people to help them better understand and develop social values. Some of the values we focus on include:

    Empathy: Seeing a situation through the eyes of another; it is the basis for altruism;

    Altruism: Helping another;

    Compassion: A feeling that motivates a person to help another;

    Autonomy: An essential quality of independence that helps young people resist peer pressure;

    Scepticism: An ability to wonder about and investigate the truth of what you are told.”

View All Comments / Add Comment

Musing on materialism

  (02 April 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Adam Frank, professor of astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York, suggests in a recent article that materialism – the view that consciousness can be completely accounted for through the actions of neurons – is untenable because of the way matter behaves at a quantum level, with its “probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure”.

We really don’t know what matter is. It’s always a surprise hearing that what we think of as solid matter is mostly empty space: a hydrogen atom, for instance, is (as I recently heard the analogy) like a football stadium with its nucleus the size of a pea and its single electron flitting around the perimeter of the stands. But closer examination of these quantum particles just increases the bewilderment. Frank tells of being “stunned” when a professor described an electron to him as “that to which we attribute the properties of the electron”.

Observing and characterising these particles is fiendishly difficult. Apart from the fact that they behave weirdly and appear to offend basic logical principles, our observing always gets in the way. Frank concludes that subjectivity has a key role to play in what we once thought of as sheer physical reality, such that materialists are deprived of the solid, objective “matter” their position depends upon.

Two issues with this come to mind.

First, as one of the online comments on the article suggests, materialists see consciousness as a consequence of neurons. These are biological cells, not quantum particles, and like all objects outside the quantum realm they do not exhibit quantum behaviour. Quantum weirdness is thus as relevant to consciousness as it is to horses or trees.

Second, it’s not just electrons that can be tautologically described. Don Cupitt points out that we cannot escape language. What is a horse? What is a tree? Why, that to which we attribute the properties of horses, or trees, of course. We can’t (Kant) know anything as it is in itself, whether it’s a quark or the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We can only approximate by using the most apt form of words that we can to capture what we perceive about the object. As we perceive more, our language can become more precise, but it’s only ever a model – bound by the assumptions and biases inherent in that language – for whatever it is that actually exists.

To the best of our knowledge, if you take neurons away from any life-form, you take away consciousness. That doesn’t prove causation, of course, but it sounds at least plausible to me that consciousness is an outworking or by-product of said neurons. Whatever they are.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Excellent question

  (25 February 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Annabel Crabb has, in her inimitable way, nailed the issue of intergenerational equity:

How – if you were a young person today – would you see your seniors as anything but a grabby crowd of legislative brawlers who got their degrees for free and their homes for a song, and are conspiring together to have you foot the bill for their retirement as they drink the last of the Grange in the polluted ruins of the planet that is now exclusively yours to fix?

Are there any ethical elders out there?

View All Comments / Add Comment

Faith & politics

  (06 February 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Hon. Kristina Keneally will speak on faith and politics at Pitt St Uniting Church, Sydney on Sunday, 12 March as part of an Eremos series titled (appropriately for the times!) ’What in the World is Going on?’. Details at the Eremos website.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Trump's religion

  (03 February 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

John Carr points us to an article on President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor, Paula White. It explains a great deal (no pun intended) about Trump’s behaviour.

View All Comments / Add Comment

New articles online

  (30 January 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

For your reading (or re-reading) pleasure, a new set of articles has been recently added to the SoFiA website:      

The Soul and/or the Spirit? by Paul Tonson

Societies and Their Stability by Glen McBride

On Being an Atheist by Greg Spearritt

What Is The “Church"? (And What Is SoFiA For?) by John Gunson

The Ethic of Jesus by Rodney Eivers       

Intercessory Prayer by John Carr

Random Thoughts in a Katoomba Café by Barbara McKenzie




View All Comments / Add Comment

Refuting the theology behind extremism

  (29 September 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

Conference: Refuting the Theological Foundations of Extremism

13 – 14 October 2016

9.00 am to 5.30 pm

Deakin Melbourne Corporate Centre

This conference aims to explore the causes of radicalisation from theological as well as sociological perspectives with an objective to offer authentic theological responses and sociological understandings of literalist/selective religious interpretations and radical narratives.

More info:

View All Comments / Add Comment

Know thy neighbour

  (29 September 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

In the wake of the recent poll indicating that almost half of Australians would support a ban on Muslim immigration, Yassir Morsi demonstrates the “pervasive racism” behind much of our language and thought on this topic:

The “Muslim” has come to be a hollowed, emptied, term that functions as a trigger for white anxiety. Little surprise then, when you add Muslim next to another anxiety-laden word “immigrant” the result equates to half the country reaching out for the treadmill’s emergency red stop button.

Here is at least part of the problem: many Australians – judging by a straw poll at the recent SoFiA AGM in Brisbane – have never knowingly met, let alone developed any kind of real acquaintance with, a person who is Muslim. Researchers at Deakin University who are involved in an ongoing Muslims and Islamic Religiosity in the West research project say they have good evidence that “the more Australians know about Islam, the less prejudice they have against practicing Muslims”. I’d be prepared to bet that goes for knowing Muslims too.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Common Dreams Conference

  (21 June 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

The 4th Common Dreams Conference will be held this year in Brisbane from 16 to 19 September. Its theme is ‘Progressive spirituality: new directions’. A range of national and international speakers will address topics such as:

  • Future expressions of faith and spirituality
  • Eco-theology
  • Inter-faith dialogue
  • Indigenous spirituality
  • Muslim spirituality
  • Jewish spirituality

Registration and other details at the Common Dreams website, or phone (03) 9571 4575, or email


View All Comments / Add Comment

Understanding Islam in Australia

  (09 June 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

While there are some local groups promoting understanding between faiths and between Islam and secular Australia, it would not surprise me to hear that the majority of Australians don’t personally know one Muslim Australian.

If this is true, it helps explain why there is so much ‘us and them’ in perceptions on both sides. Muslims make up just over 2% of the Australian population, though our estimates tend to be wildly wrong on this figure.

Opportunities for understanding Islam in Australia do come along from time to time. Two such events are coming, and might be worth checking out:


View All Comments / Add Comment

Extremism in my religion

  (31 May 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

Initiatives of Change Australia is holding an interfaith panel in Melbourne, moderated by veteran journalist Barney Zwartz, to discuss ‘extremism in my religion and what we can do to counter it’.

Date: Sat 11 June, 4.30 – 6.30pm

Venue: Initiatives of Change Centre, 226 Kooyong Rd, Toorak

RSVP: June 3 to Kirsty Argento (, ph. 9822 1218

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion a power tool?

  (05 April 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

Has religion (at least in part) been a tool for social elites to enhance their power? It’s a common perception, but now there’s some evidence from a rigorous scientific study.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Counter-terrorism and the FBI

  (26 March 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

John Carr suggests viewing an article on for a more balanced view of counter-terrorism measures in the USA.

View All Comments / Add Comment


  (23 March 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

Elizabeth Farrelly of the Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t pull her punches. In a reflection on the Easter season she writes:

the church, with its chosen people-ism, its patriarchal rigidity, its systemic refusal to care properly for children, women or nature, has trapped Jesus inside a rigid cage of judgment, hypocrisy and cliche.

Climate change, she suggests may be our deadliest sin.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Environment and meaning

  (28 February 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

Eremos is offering a ‘Meditatio Seminar’ featuring “An impressive lineup [of] speakers… [to] explore how the environmental crisis can serve as an opportunity to awaken us to a more sustainable and meaningful life.”

It’s over the weekend of 22-24 April in Rose Bay, NSW. Could be worth a squizz.

View All Comments / Add Comment

One God?

  (08 February 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

It’s not ok to suggest that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, at least at an evangelical university in the U.S. of A. The political science professor who’s now leaving the university, evidently on the strength of having made such a suggestion, apparently had some support from within the uni.

As well-intentioned as such a viewpoint might be, however, I think it’s wrong. Here’s why.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Spend the evening with...

  (15 January 16)
  by Greg Spearritt

Some interesting events coming up for January:


View All Comments / Add Comment

Times a-changing?

  (14 November 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

I’ve recently had some encouraging correspondence with a Queensland Scripture Union employee involved in the training of school chaplains around issues of sex and gender diversity. This person acknowledged evidence that “while spirituality and religion were protective factors for most kids, they were risk factors for LGBTIQ kids. Rather than promote wellbeing, they tended to lead to further harm”.

As part of the general secular society, I have come rather lately to an accepting attitude to GBLT+ people and concerns. It’s no surprise that churches, and conservative ones in particular, still have difficulty making that transition. I have been (and remain) critical of the refusal of many Christian and other religious groups to measure up to decent contemporary secular standards, but I should also give credit where it’s due. For those in the conservative Christian camp making the effort to effect change I have nothing but praise.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion and altruism

  (05 November 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

A new international study suggests children raised in religious families are less altruistic than those from non-religious families. It also finds a religious upbringing associated with more judgmental and punitive responses to anti-social behaviour.

Worth a squiz


View All Comments / Add Comment

Is God just in your brain?

  (25 October 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Belief in God may be affected by magnets – apparently.

View All Comments / Add Comment

The scripture problem

  (04 October 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Ebrahim Moosa outlines the root problem with contemporary ‘mainstream’ Islamic orthodoxy:

Mainstream theologians who cater to the majority of lay Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, are unable to address such critical moral and theological challenges as evolution, gender and sexuality, or the role and meaning of sharia in a modern nation. That's because theological education is steeped in ancient texts with little attention to reinterpretation. (My emphasis).

Here, too, is a problem for any religion, Christianity included, which views its scripture as having fallen from the sky. It’s a significant part of the problem with the national school chaplaincy program: the only religious people many of our youth are exposed to are trained by the likes of Scripture Union.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Melbourne meetings

  (03 October 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Melbournites have a wealth of opportunities to reflect on religion, philosophy and meaning. David Miller sends information on meetings for the month of October…


AGNOSTICS GROUP  ~ For those wishing to discuss the pros and cons of Agnosticism ~

Sunday 4th October 2015, 2.30pm to 5pm.

Dr Vidura Jayaratne will introduce and lead a discussion on:

"Science: Was Religion its Progenitor? The implications for Religion and Atheism".

Free.  All are welcome.  Coffee, tea and biscuits are provided.

Venue: Unitarian Hall, 110 Grey Street, East Melbourne. Melways Map 2G D2

Convenor: David Miller - - Tel: 9467 2063


PHILOSOPHY FORUM  -  12.30 to 2pm  Sunday 4th October at the Unitarian Hall.

"Reductionism and Emergence".

Graeme Lindenmayer (eBook author, "Agnostic Perspectives") will introduce and lead the discussion.

Free. We are all invited.  Info: Philosophy Forum Convenor -



Tuesday 6th October 2015, 8pm. Free public lecture at the Unitarian Hall.

"Just War Theory and the Principle of Proportionality: Two case studies: Israel and Vietnam".

Speaker: Catherine McDonald (Melbourne Philosopher). 

Existentialist Meetup at 7pm -



Tuesday 13th October 2015, 8pm. - Free public lecture at the Unitarian Hall.

"Feminism and Atheism: A Scientific Perspective".

Speaker: Royston Wilding (Melbourne Atheist)

Atheist Meetups -




~ Promoting the open exploration of religion, spirituality and meaning ~

Public Lecture: Thursday 15th October 2015, 7.30pm. ALL viewpoints welcome.

"Platonic Zen: An experimental way to find God".

Speaker: Dr Nicholas Coleman (School of Spiritual Studies).

Carlton Library's Meeting Room, 667 Rathdowne Street (corner Newry Street) North Carlton.



Skeptics Cafe: Monday 19th October 2015.  Drinks, meals, 6pm - Presentation, 8pm.

"More Scientists Behaving Badly".

Speaker: Dr David Vaux (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute)

La Notte Restaurant, 140 Lygon Street, Carlton



Wednesday 21st October 2015.  Drinks, meals, chat: 6:30 pm - Presentation: 7:30 pm.

"The Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson

 - in conversation with Ian Robinson (CVAF)".

The Albion Hotel, 41 Mollison Street, Kyneton



Monthly Public Lecture: Thursday 22nd October 2015, 8pm.

"The Artificial Intelligence Debate".

Speaker: Carl Mahoney (HSV)

Balwyn Library, 336 Whitehorse Road.


SECULARISM IN THE MODERN WORLD - Conference - Saturday 31st October 2015.

9am to 4pm. at the Unitarian Hall, 110 Grey Street, East Melbourne.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Strategies for dealing with naïve contrarians

  (03 October 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

John Carr writes:

It is a common situation in casual conversation to be confronted by people with ‘a little knowledge’ but very strong opinions. Their arguments are often founded on the evidence provided by ‘someone on the radio’, ‘a TV documentary’ or ‘a thing I read on the internet’. This evidence has confirmed their strong belief that ‘wind turbines cause heart disease and migraines’, ‘fluoride leads to thyroid problems’ , ‘immunization causes autism’ and the like. The same people have strong evidence that ‘Nine-Eleven was a CIA/Jewish plot’, ‘payments for Halal certification are funding ISIS’ and ‘the Masonic Lodge is masterminding domination by a world government’, possibly led by Prince Phillip AK.

I’ve recently spent some time with a couple of such people and wondered what SoFers would recommend as strategies for dealing with them. One rarely has enough time for a re-education program focusing on science and history, even if one had sufficient knowledge of their current subject of concern. If I do have a bit of time, I sometimes try telling them about ‘probability’ and peer-reviewed research, but this usually results in instantly glazed eyes.

What I did say to one contrarian was something like, ‘Look, if you want to convince people, you at least have to know who said it; who was the writer or speaker or what was the web-site where you found the information? I don’t know if this did any good, but I felt better for having given some fairly simple good advice. We all follow it ourselves, don’t we?

What strategies have other people found useful in countering the dogmatic but naïve contrarian?

View All Comments / Add Comment

The fall of fundamentalism

  (25 September 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

It’s early days, but the political passing of Tony Abbott as Australian Prime Minister is a hopeful sign.

Mr Abbott is credited by many as being a great opposition leader. In contrast, I see his foremost achievement in that role as the sullying of politics. The negativity, sloganeering and bullying approach he adopted had an adverse impact not just on the Rudd and Gillard governments, but on the population’s regard for politics and politicians. He set a tone (pardon the pun) which occasioned disdain and even disgust for politics among Australians. He wasn’t alone, of course, but he was ring-master.

In government as well, Abbott could not shake the negativity and bullying; arguably, this led ultimately to his downfall.

Abbott’s reign as PM has much in common with religious fundamentalism. It was authoritarian: the ‘adults’ were in charge and weren’t about to share information (on asylum seekers, for instance) with the ‘children’. It was black and white: there was one right way and, by God, it was Abbott’s. Women had a definite place, and it definitely wasn’t in Cabinet. God-given Christian standards needed to be aggressively reasserted in education. Christians from the Middle East should be given preference in our refugee intake. (Only because there’s no safe place for them over there… Funny, though, that line didn’t extend to gays and lesbians from that region.) A failure to live up to his own high standards of truth – remember the ‘Ju-liar’ of Abbott’s attack-dog Alan Jones? – was denied outright in a performance of breathtaking hypocrisy.

We’ve seen this certainty, this secrecy, this misogyny, this for-me-or-against-me rhetoric and this hypocrisy manifest many times in religious fundamentalist movements.

But now, to the future. The change to a Turnbull-led Coalition government appears to mark a shift away from binary, black-and-white politics. It won’t be easy: the fundamentalist Right still constitutes a significant slab of the party. In theological terms, though, and perhaps even in political ones, it appears to be a move from fundamentalism to liberalism and greater openness. Let’s hope appearance reflects reality.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Secular prayers

  (16 September 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

An interesting new book has appeared: Prayers of a Secular World (Jordie Albiston & Kevin Brophy, eds). Worth a look.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Can atheism be a spiritual path?

  (04 August 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Former president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Ian Robinson, argues it can.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Lecture - Dr David Galston

  (04 August 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Progressive Christian Network of Victoria & Common Dreams on the Road present a lecture & symposium by Dr David Galston:  “The Future Of Religion, Jesus, & Christianity”.

David Galston is an outstanding Canadian leader. He is the Academic Director of the Westar Institute, the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University, and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock. He is also an Advisor for the SnowStar Institute of Religion (Canada) and the Quest Learning Centre (Hamilton, Ontario). He has played a key role, both in Canada and the United States, in the development of progressive forms of religion and theology, including being a founding member and chair of the Westar Institute’s new Seminar on God and the Human Future. David has published two books (Archives and the Event of God, McGill-Queens Press, and Embracing the Human Jesus, Polebridge Press) as well as written several articles for the Westar Institute magazine The Fourth R and academic journal Forum.

Venue: Toorak Uniting Church, 603 Toorak Rd, Toorak

Lecture: Friday 28 August 7.00 pm, “Has Religion a Future?”

Symposium (incl light lunch): Saturday 29 August:

10.00am “Has Jesus a Future?”
11.30 am “Has God a Future?”
1.30 pm “Is There a Post-Christian Christianity?”

Bookings essential.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Is war the answer?

  (26 June 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Rodney Eivers writes:

As I get older I seem to be getting more and more averse to the use of armed conflict as the way to deal with international problems. Indeed I seem to have developed a strong sensitivity to the depersonalisation to each other as human beings which war brings.

I watch very little television but last Sunday I caught a few minutes of a story about the interaction between prisoners of war and their Japanese captors. I was surprised at how repelled I was by it and after about five minutes of viewing found it too painful to watch. I retreated to my study and my music.

The program was “Sisters of War” and my comments here are not to make an evaluation of the competence of the writers or the truth behind the story. It may have had a happy ending for all I know, but given the context this seems unlikely. Providing some balance, there was a scene which showed one of the nurses having some rapport with a homesick young Japanese soldier. Yet I found the attitudes generally depicted and the behaviour of human beings towards one another, having been brought together in these harrowing circumstances, hard to bear. I had to tell myself, “They are only actors”.

As is often the case I relate personal experiences such as this to what is being reported in the newspapers and the world around us. Here are a few worth pondering.

From the ABC Religion and Ethics website:

“Young lovers lying on the grass whispering sweet nothings is a familiar occurrence in parks across the world. But this mundane scene takes on added significance when you consider that the park in question was in Jerusalem, and the couples getting intimate were Israelis and Palestinians, both apparently secular and religious.

In this troubled and divided city, this picture momentarily warmed my heart, especially following the summer of hate and fear which erupted last year when Arabs and Jews were afraid to cross one another’s paths.

The situation got me temporarily imagining how mass intermarriage would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a generation.                                                      
Khalel Dial        

Another well-known example of the fraternisation of combatants was that occurring early in World War One between German, French and Scottish soldiers. It was brought again to people’s notice with the recent film, “Joyeux Noel”.

But contrast this with a couple of extracts from the Courier-Mail highlighting some of the events of Great War in this centenary period:

June 1916. The first battle of the Somme began. It lasted five months and the death toll of over one million gained the Allies just 125 square miles.

Thrilling Encounter: [a sub-title of this article is “The Spirit of Australian Heroism”].The Australians recently sent the following message to No. 2 New Zealand Battery which did excellent work upon Colonel Plugge’s Plateau. “Go to it mates. No need for us to use our rifles while you fire like that. The men are so keen that they do not desire to leave the trenches.”

So it is comfortable killing people from a distance, but not so good when you have to ram a bayonet through a man’s guts a metre in front of you and watch a fellow human being roll his eyes and gasp out his last breath in agony.

As we know from the trauma that affects so many returning soldiers, the killers don’t get off from such encounters so lightly either.

And of course since the Great War we have been able to refine killing by remote control by leaps and bounds with such incidents as the bombing fire storm of Dresden, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to destroy the cover and agriculture of the villagers.

Now we have near the ultimate in remote control where someone can sit in an office in California and send over an armed drone or two to wipe out whomever he or she has chosen to select across the other side of the world. I read recently of one case here where the “selected” person in Afghanistan turned out to be a 60 year old woman who happened to be working in her vegetable garden at the time and was blown to bits.

When I was a schoolboy in the deep South-West of Western Australia, very remote from the battlefield, during World War II we used to refer to the “enemy” as “Gerrys” or “Yellow-Bellied Japs”. I had, of course, never actually met a German or Japanese person. It is ironic to find in all this depersonalisation that a quarter of my ancestry is German. It is regrettable that in some corners of Australian society there remains some lack of perception of the great range of goodness and badness which can be found in any racial, religious or cultural group, whether here or overseas.

So, although he did not always live up to his words, let us be guided by the words attributed to Winston Churchill: “It is better to jaw-jaw than war-war”.

View All Comments / Add Comment


  (26 June 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Current SoFiA President Rodney Eivers writes:

Two notable long-time members of SoFiA have passed away recently.

Nigel Leaves

I am saddened to have to pass on to you the news of the death of Nigel Leaves. He died of an unexpected severe heart attack in England at the age of 56.

Nigel was very important to the Sea of Faith. He wrote two books on the writings of Don Cupitt. Our older members will recall that he was the host for the first national Sea of Faith Conference which was held in Perth, and which turned out to be a very memorable affair.

He did not take an active part in SoFiA affairs after he moved to Brisbane but was a speaker at several of our conferences. Other books which he wrote, with a progressive Christian thrust, were Religion Under Attack and The God Problem. He is indeed a loss locally to the open exploration of religion, faith and meaning.

Ian Mavor

Like Nigel, Ian Mavor had been a member of SoFiA over a number of years. He was to have been our initial speaker at the May 2105 Conference but he died very shortly before it was to be held. This is what we wrote about his contribution in our promotion of the Conference:

Rev  Dr  Ian  Mavor  OAM  is  Executive Director of Hopewell Hospice and Paradise Kids on the Gold Coast. He served for many years as leader of the Queensland Religious Education Curriculum Project, where he had to confront the conflict between fundamentalist and liberal philosophies. In later years, he held senior positions in primary, secondary and tertiary education. In his many roles in religious education, Ian has worked to resolve tensions between interested parties. In the process, he has developed a deep understanding of different traditions and practices, and of the different kinds of ‘truth’ that underlie belief systems. Ian believes that students can be made aware of beliefs and values as human phenomena that can be studied both objectively and subjectively.

A detailed obituary on Ian Mavor’s life was published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail on Wednesday June 24th 2015.

View All Comments / Add Comment

SoFiA on Facebook

  (23 June 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

SoFiA exists to provide stimulation and fellowship for its members in the common quest for meaning and fulfilment.

Much discussion on our central topics of religion, faith and meaning takes place within local groups and in our regular newsletter, The Bulletin. For those interested in online discussion there is SoFiA’s email discussion list, sofiatalk, which has been running for some years. (Contact the moderator if you’d like to join the discussion). There is also the opportunity to contribute your views to the SoFiA weblog.

A new addition to our stable of opportunities to discuss ideas is the SoFiA facebook page.

If you’re not a member of our network, consider joining. The more ideas and perspectives, the merrier!


View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion & the Arts Conference

  (19 June 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Date: 23-26 July 2015

Place: Australian Catholic University, 25A Barker Road, Strathfield NSW 2135

A conference titled ‘Grounding the Sacred through Literature and the Arts’ is being organised by the Australian Catholic University. The conference brings writers, artists, musicians, academics, researchers, religious and members of the public together to discuss where creativity sits in relation to religion and the search for meaning. Guest presenters include Imam Afroz Ali, Carmel Bird, Kathleen Deignan (Iona Spirituality Institute), Kevin Hart (University of Virginia), Maeve Louise Heaney, David Jasper (Glasgow University), Vivien Johnson (on an exhibition of paintings by Papunya Tula Artists and the Warlayirti Artists of Balgo), Rachael Kohn,  Genevieve Lacey, David Malouf, Michael McGirr and Thaddeus Metz (University of Johannesburg). More than 60 papers will be delivered by researchers and practitioners; the conference is preceded by a post-graduate seminar.

Bookings are essential, preferably by 8 July 2015. The conference is supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

More details



View All Comments / Add Comment

A creed for today

  (10 June 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

John Carr reflects on creeds:

In recent years some liberal and progressive congregations have drafted new Christian creeds, ones more in keeping with their own 21st Century beliefs than the Nicene Creed from the 4th Century. In the Chermside group of SoFiA, we once devoted a session to exploring some of these. As far as I can recall, the ones discussed all came from UC or Catholic parishes.

Perhaps members of SoFiA would like to share examples of such ‘modern’ creeds here. They may not have even been written as ‘creeds’, but may be extracts from literary texts. In the Seventies, one of my Senior English classes decided that John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was their creed. If you don’t know of any existing contenders, you may be prepared to try your hand at writing your own. If you do, I suggest that you keep it to creed length. We don’t want a sermon or another Thirty-nine Articles.

To get the discussion started, I offer what I believe is a really moving secular creed, the last paragraph of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: The story of cosmic evolution, science and civilisation.

For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organised assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not to ourselves but to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we come.

View All Comments / Add Comment

New progressive website

  (06 March 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

Ray Barraclough, Secretary of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) Inc, tells us that APCV now has an official website. Find out more about the organisation at

View All Comments / Add Comment

Questioning Christianity

  (27 February 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

For anyone interested in the issue of reforming Christianity, a new discussion group has formed called Questioning Christianity. Their first meeting is on Tuesday, 17 March 2015, 7.30-9.30pm at The Brookfield Centre, 139 Brookfield Rd, Kenmore Hills. The topic for this first meeting is ‘The sin of planned obsolescence and consumerism’.

An online discussion is also available, via the Yahoo group Questioning Christianity ( This group is private and only available to members. To become a member, email  

For more information please contact  


View All Comments / Add Comment

Spirituality events

  (04 February 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

For those with an interest in spirituality, Eremos has events and reflections that may catch your eye.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Social justice event, Brisbane

  (28 January 15)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Rev Dr Margaret Mayman of Pitt St Uniting Church will be speaking on ‘Social Justice, the Church and the Progressive Agenda’ in Brisbane, Caloundra and Buderim in March 12 – 14, 2015.

For details, see the flyer (PDF, 316 KB) which includes a registration form.





View All Comments / Add Comment

The future of the Church

  (16 December 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

John Gunson has reflected over many years on the nature of the Church. In the light of the very latest contemporary historical and biblical scholarship he has redrafted and augmented his earlier writing; the result is now available as an e-book titled God, Ethics and the Secular Society: Does the Church Have a Future? 

It’s available on several platforms: for Kindle, for Android, for iPad and for Kobo. Worth a look for anyone who’s serious about Church in an increasingly secular age.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Most valuable book

  (24 November 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

The British public were polled recently to find out what they considered to be the most valuable book ever written. It was a close race for first and second.

I wonder how Australians might have voted.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Aussies on Islam

  (01 November 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

Recent surveys are a cause for concern when it comes to inter-faith and societal harmony in Oz. Apparently almost one in four of us have a negative attitude to Muslims. (The Mapping Social Cohesion 2014 Report and full results of a snap poll taken in October are available online.)

23% of respondents described their attitude to Muslims as ‘very negative’ or ‘somewhat negative’. This compared to just 3% regarding attitude to Christians and 6% to Buddhists.

Some of the poor attitude to Muslims, surely, derives from ignorance: the SMH told us recently of a poll in which Australians surveyed thought, on average, that 18% of our population is Islamic. (What’s the true figure? Can you guess?) And no doubt opinion is shaped by media sensationalism, notably in the News Ltd tabloids on this issue.

Of course there’s no room in surveys like this for subtleties. Which Muslims? Which Christians?

It would have been interesting, also, to have figures on our attitude to atheists. I doubt they’d have done as well as the Christians or the Buddhists…


View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion in Education Conference

  (16 August 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Sea of Faith in Australia Conference for 2015 will be titled ‘Religion in Education: Children, Ethics, Faith and Meaning’. The venue is the Twin Towns Resort, Coolangatta on Queensland’s Gold Coast. The conference will be held over the weekend of 22–24 May, 2015.

Should we have religion in our schools? If so, in what form? Check out our discussion paper to stimulate your thoughts on the topic.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Child abuse on our watch

  (02 August 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

Australia’s Immigration Minister Scott Morrison gave his maiden speech in 2007. Fairfax’s Peter FitzSimons recounts some lines from it, including Morrison quoting Desmond Tutu and claiming “These are my principles”:

‘We expect Christians . . . to stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.’

Seven years later those sentiments stand in stark contrast to what the Minister and his Department are doing to asylum-seekers, and not least to their children. ‘State-sanctioned child abuse’ is what some Church leaders have called it.

Even the Oz, renowned as in a class of its own when it comes to biased political reporting, can’t ignore the evidence of child neglect and abuse revealed by the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into the treatment of children in Australia's immigration detention centres. (It can, of course, do what it does best: attempt to sully the reputation of the Commissioner in that case and accuse the most trusted media outlet in the country, yet again, of bias.)

Julia Baird explains, persuasively, why “the Church has a duty to speak up” on this distressing issue.

View All Comments / Add Comment

It's wrong to steal

  (13 July 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

''It is simply economically irresponsible and morally wrong to steal the inheritance from the next generation and leave them with a legacy of debt so we can maintain our lifestyle today.''

So says Government leader in the Australian Senate, the Hon. Eric Abetz. His moral outrage, exclusively restricted to economics, contrasts interestingly with a view put by the Anglican General Synod in early July: it noted “with deep regret that it is future generations and other forms of life who will bear the real cost of our heavy dependence on carbon-based energy”.

Whether there really is a serious budget situation is a moot point. What is unarguable is that the Abbott government sees no climate emergency on the horizon: despite lukewarm and vague assurances about ‘direct action’, there is simply no comparable outrage that we may be stealing from our own children (as well as many of the world’s poor, especially in low-lying areas) to maintain our high-carbon-emitting habits today.  

The Anglican General Synod is not alone. Many of those traditionally concerned about morality mention climate change as a real priority to be addressed. Singing from a similar hymn sheet for some time on the significance of global warming have been The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, The World Council of Churches, Australia’s Uniting Church and Australia’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, among others.

13 of the 14 warmest years on record have been in the 21st century, according to the World Meteorological Organization. From our own Bureau of Meteorology we learn that 2013 was Australia’s warmest year since records began; that year broke records for the hottest day, month and season.  (And yes, it’s largely anthropogenic, according to the CSIRO.)

Senator Abetz is correct: stealing from the next generation is morally wrong.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Soul making and sunlit absence

  (07 July 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

Earlier this year Sea of Faith in Australia in collaboration with the Australian Association of Group Psychotherapists presented a talk by Maurice Wheelan titled 'Soul Making and Sunlit Absence'. A video of that talk is now available and well worth a look.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Unsaintly conduct?

  (25 April 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

There's a spot of controversy about just what it takes to become a Catholic saint nowadays. Specifically, how many miracles are needed, and what qualifies as miraculous? And is fast-tracking procedurally kosher (so to speak)?

Whatever the arguments, two recent Popes - John Paul II and John XXIII - are about to be canon-fodder.

John Paul II, however, has a mixed record when it comes to miracles. His regulation two are both medical ‘cures', but there's been a recent complication.     

Imagine that a monument in JP II's name blocked a falling building and saved someone's life. Would that be a miracle attributed to this prospective saint? Nothing surer. Now imagine the opposite of that: a monument in JP II's name falls and kills someone. What would that be?

No need for imagination in this last case: it's actually happened. Just three days before the canonisation ceremony, a 30m-high wooden crucifix honoring JP II has collapsed in northern Italy, crushing a 21-year-old man to death.  

Is this evidence of mal intent on the part of our saint-in-waiting? Hmmm... no sign of that interpretation from the Vatican. A case of wanting to have it both ways?




View All Comments / Add Comment

Dharma school

  (25 January 14)
  by Greg Spearritt

An interesting approach to education is taken in the Victorian country town of Daylesford. I wonder how it compares in terms of the attitudes and character of graduating students to Islamic and Christian schools.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Maintaining the Miracle

  (28 December 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

We’ve all heard the tales of visitors to our shores expecting to see kangaroos in the streets of downtown Sydney. There are, of course, special places where such sights can be found. Emus, I discovered this year to my delight, roam the streets of Bollon in south-west Queensland. (Whether the locals find them delightful I did not discover.)


Our world contains many marvellous natural delights, but a recent trip to O’Reilly’s in Lamington National Park has made me reassess the value of human interventions in seeking out these pleasures.


My main mission on this trip was to get a good photo of a Regent Bowerbird, in my view among Australia’s finest avian treasures. I’d only ever spotted it once, in the distance, at Ravensbourne National Park. On my first morning at O’Reilly’s not only did I get the coveted photo, I actually had a splendid male Regent alight briefly on my hand. Delights abounded there: a male and female whipbird, for instance – a species often heard but seldom seen – were in full ‘whip-and-response’ right in front of us, not an arm’s length away.


Many of my fellow nature-admirers were tourists from Europe; I suspect they came away with a very skewed view of the Australian natural world. Whipbirds, which I have glimpsed dimly through the undergrowth perhaps five times in my 50-odd years in Queensland, were more or less available in full high-definition on tap. What must the rest of mundane old Queensland have seemed like after that?


The secret of O’Reilly’s is not just its fantastic and relatively unspoiled natural setting. National Parks signs warn visitors not to feed the wildlife, but that’s just what’s been happening daily around the guesthouse for more than half a century. Seed, fruit and nuts are offered each day, attracting to within arm’s reach (and not infrequently onto one’s head and shoulders) Crimson Rosellas, King Parrots, Satin and Regent Bowerbirds, Yellow Robins, various Honeyeaters, Spinebills, Eastern Whipbirds and many other amazing life-forms.


On the one hand it’s a good thing to have somewhere other than a zoo that people can go to reliably encounter some of our iconic wildlife. My chances would be slim of clearly seeing, let alone acceptably photographing, the Regent Bowerbird without spending months or years of my life in pursuit of that goal.


On the other hand… I do fear that this experience has at least mildly debased any future experiences I might have with bowerbirds or whipbirds. My appreciation will be that little bit diminished for just how precious any further chance encounters will be. A hunger (greed?) for David Attenborough-like experiences leads, I think, to the stunting of our capacity to marvel at the marvellous.


Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. It’s clearly true: when I see a brush turkey my first reaction is chase it away rather than marvel at its colours or quirky behaviour. (The turkeys and I have a grudging agreement at my place: they rake the mulch onto the paths and I rake it off again.)


Is this a broader problem? Our increasingly virtual world provides the opportunity to see, hear and even feel just about anything. I’m old-fashioned enough to find special stimulation in real-world encounters, but that may merely be evidence that our technology isn’t sufficiently advanced just yet. If the rare and precious is available on tap, do we inevitably weaken our ability to apprehend and appreciate the miraculous in our midst?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Hallowed ground

  (15 December 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

We often talk of sport as having religious significance in Australian culture. Here’s proof that the MCG, at least, is sacred turf to some: the Melbourne Cricket Club has warned people not to scatter the ashes of their loved ones at the stadium.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion sans gods

  (13 December 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Religion – at least in the UK – does not now require the worshipping of gods. Scientology, says Britain’s Supreme Court, is now officially a religion.


(The Australian Government is ahead of the game on this: it recognises Scientology as a legitimate religion, at least to the extent that the Church of Scientology gets the same exemptions from paying tax as other religious groups.)



View All Comments / Add Comment

Acknowledging traditional owners – mere PC?

  (09 December 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

At the beginning of a speech on political correctness in 2008, right-wing Liberal senator Cory Bernadi pointedly chose not to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land: “I was born here; I’m indigenous to Australia. This is my country too,” he said. Instead he acknowledged those families who helped establish Adelaide University, the venue for his talk. 


No doubt there are many noteworthy people who could be acknowledged when we hold an event. Is privileging the traditional indigenous owners merely a sop to the lefty PC brigade?


My take is that we acknowledge traditional owners because our forebears invaded and appropriated their land and for a considerable time denied them even such basic rights as personhood. And because their history and culture is four or five times more venerable than Judaeo-Christian culture and values, a selective version of which Bernadi constantly champions.


So recognising the original owners, their deep history and their ongoing activity in caring for country is a restorative measure as well as a mark of respect. But it also gives us a sense of perspective that can help forestall our own innate tendency to hubris. That we’ve made such a mess of our environment in just 200-odd years, for instance, is brought into stark relief when we recognise that Aboriginal nations flourished here for tens of thousands of years without wrecking the joint. We’re the beneficiaries (and all too often, squanderers) of that stewardship, from biodiversity to soil fertility. That’s a significantly more fundamental contribution to our prosperity than those who help fund particular institutions or even industries, worthy and all as those might be.    



View All Comments / Add Comment


  (06 November 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Education is the key – or so the ‘gurubusters’ in Mohali, in the Indian state of Punjab, believe. They perform tricks for schoolchildren in a bid to expose the way ‘godmen’ in India use sleight-of-hand and superstition to manipulate the gullible.


Perhaps we could learn from this in Australia. The voices for critical thinking in our nominally secular state schools are poorly organised. Individual teachers do a great job, but we also have nationally-funded school chaplains, many of whom (at least in Queensland where Scripture Union is the employing body) do not believe in evolution and view the Bible as literal truth. Members of local Church congregations, unqualified not only in teaching but even in understanding their own faith, provide Religious Instruction, spreading such ‘truths’ as that the events of the Bible are universally borne out by historical research.


A less gullible population would mean less misery, from the woes of susceptibility to cult-like religious predation to the humiliation and financial loss from online and other scams. Let genuine religion take its rightful place, as a resource for enhancing life, a resource which has nothing to fear from critical thinking.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Engaging with the Bible

  (22 October 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Blogger Alex McCullie spoke to the Melbourne SoF Group in September about "The Story of Exodus: Extraordinary History or Cultural Myth?". The background paper for his talk (’Engaging with the Bible’) is now online.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Christians and asylum-seekers

  (16 August 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

The bidding war is heating up as politicians from the major parties attempt to heave overboard what is left of Australia’s reputation for decency on the issue of asylum seekers.


Few patriots amongst those who are normally quickest to raise the Australian flag are willing to sing the second verse of our National Anthem these days: ‘For those who’ve come across the seas/We’ve boundless plains to share’ is a bridge too far, it seems.


The latest shot across the bows from the Coalition is described by The Age’s political correspondent Mark Kenny as “aimed at xenophobic voters whose shaky grasp of arithmetic has them quaking over the absorption of a group of people - many of whom are already located in the community.”


Kenny is one of several secular voices protesting the dirty business of demonising those seeking asylum in Australia. There is no shortage of protest from Christian leaders either. The CE of World Vision, Rev. Tim Costello urges Australians to be generous and “pro-people”:


It's intellectually and morally lazy to allow our fears about the economy and jobs and debt to be projected onto human bogymen in the form of asylum seekers…Our wealthy, free and culturally diverse society is something which should not be hoarded - tightly guarded, wrapped in plastic and gathering dust.


The Uniting Church has spoken out (and here), as have the Anglicans and Catholics.

The Australian Christian Lobby, on the other hand, is much more vexed by those demonic Greens and gay marriage than by policies that contradict biblical injunctions to care for one’s neighbour and for the needy (Exodus 23:9, Ezekiel 16:49, Hebrews 13: 1–2, Luke 10 25–37, Matthew 25:35 and many more). Where the ACL does deem to make mention of the issue, it supports off-shore processing, buying into the stereotype promoted by the major parties that asylum-seekers are economic refugees, and voicing concern for the safety of those travelling by boat: no mention of the despair and self-harm they are driven to in the off-shore processing centres, however.




View All Comments / Add Comment

ACL: true heir of Logos

  (13 August 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

In the 1989 Queensland State Election the Toowoomba-based Logos Foundation under Howard Carter and Ian Shelton funded a campaign based on what it saw as key moral issues – ‘family’ values, abortion, pornography and homosexuality.


The Fitzgerald Inquiry had not long shone a devastating light on corruption in the former National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, but political corruption apparently didn’t rate as a moral issue for Carter and Shelton et al. Indeed, Sir Joh was their blue-eyed boy:


“In our view Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen epitomizes the traditional values of Christian commitment, family life, strong leadership and personal sacrifice.”
(Howard Carter & Ian Shelton, ‘The faith of Sir Joh’, Logos Journal June: 12, 1987 – cited in the article ‘The Logos Foundation: The rise and fall of Christian Reconstructionism in Australia’ by John Harrison)


The Goss Labor government came to power in 1989, ending over 30 years of conservative rule in Queensland. In 1990 Howard Carter was found to have been having an affair with a parishioner and Logos collapsed. Shelton and others regrouped, however, and Shelton continues to this day as Senior Pastor of Toowoomba City Church.  


Ian Shelton’s son Lyle, as Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, has followed the Logos methodology of attempting to influence the political process in favour of those same moral issues. The ACL explicitly aims “to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate to each other as a community.”


The campaign for the ‘Christian principles’ of the Logos Foundation, it should be noted, were strongly opposed in 1989 by, among others, Uniting Church Moderator Don Whebell, Anglican Archbishop Sir John Grindrod, Lutheran Church president Pastor Paul Renner and Baptist Union head, Pastor Fred Stallard. Toowoomba Uniting Minister Rev. Ray Lindenmayer is quoted from that time as commenting on Carter’s “extreme social, political and religious views” and claiming that “his organisation exploits people's anxieties and insecurities to push their far right-wing agenda".   


A feature of the 1989 crusade by Logos was a set of questions on key moral issues targeted at candidates. The ACL in 2013 is proving itself a true heir of the Logos Foundation: its key issues are the familiar ones of ‘family’ values, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and prostitution and it is intending to widely publicise the opinions, especially on gay marriage, of local candidates. Despite its claim that it aims “to foster a more compassionate, just and moral society”, there is not a word on the ACL’s ‘Make  a Stand’ page about asylum-seekers.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Gay marriage: vote winner or loser?

  (13 August 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Gay marriage is one of many factors  with a small part to play in the September federal election. The distinction between the two big players is clear: Kevin Rudd has stated his intention to put forward a gay marriage bill if elected; Tony Abbott has reiterated his opposition to changing the current Marriage Act. (The Act was amended in 2004 to specify marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”.)


Claims have been made on both sides that their position is electorally advantageous:



New research by  Newspoll conducted for the Marriage Equality Movement suggests things have changed since 2011: Australians are now more likely to vote for a party or candidate who supports a same-sex marriage bill, though those ‘more likely’ (at 19%) only just pip those less likely to do so (15%).


Rudd was supposed to have mobilised the Christian vote in 2007. It would be interesting to know, if it could ever be disentangled from other issues,  whether the faithful who are ‘rolling their rosaries’ will in fact punish Labor on gay marriage at the ballot box. (That prospect has, predictably, been raised in forthright terms by the right-wing Australian Christian Lobby.)




View All Comments / Add Comment

Change is possible

  (20 June 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

The motto of US Christian group Exodus International has been ‘change is possible’. It’s a group long dedicated to changing the sexual orientation of gays through faith, prayer and therapy.  

Alan Chambers, head of EI, has recently proved the truth of the motto in a very welcome and ironic manner. Having once proclaimed that “the opposite to homosexuality is holiness”, he has now apologised to gays and lesbians for the hurtful and ignorant nature of the group’s mission. In a message to the gay community on his website Chambers says: "I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn't change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatised parents."

Chambers has admitted his own struggles with same-sex attraction. He will appear on an American TV special, ‘Gods and Gays’, together with a group of gay people his organisation has tried to ‘convert’.  

Since the 1970s Exodus International has spawned more than 220 ministries in the US and Canada; though these will have to avoid using the Exodus name, all or most are likely to continue operating, so the damage will continue.

However, the about-face of EI raises the question of how anyone with strong religious (or anti-religious) beliefs can change their views. We’re used to seeing very strong views that appear perversely resistant to change, even when the facts may be fairly clear. In the case of EI, as probably with most such cases, change has (reportedly) occurred incrementally. The fact that the American social context on attitudes to gays has shifted – so much so that the President can speak in favour of gay marriage – probably has a lot to do with it.

At least it’s good to know that change is possible!


View All Comments / Add Comment

Religious glasnost

  (16 June 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Age tells us that it will soon be law in Russia that anyone “ expressing clear disrespect for society” and “offending religious feelings of the faithful” can face up to a year in prison and a fine equivalent to almost $10,000 Australian. If you do it in a church it’s three years and around $16,000.


It’s no surprise given Russian history, and particularly with egotist and former KGB agent Putin in charge, that authoritarianism should be again ruling the roost in Moscow. Putin’s current collusion with the Russian Orthodox Church – an institution for so long ‘disrespected’ in the most thorough-going manner by the State – is of course ironic.  


Dissent is not in Putin’s interest and any challenge to the new-found power of the Church is not taken kindly by its hierarchy. The two forces are aligning in ways that spell trouble for societal – and, I expect, for ecclesiastical – reform in Russia. A current example is the Canute-like push to repress gay rights:  open discussion of homosexuality in public fora (or anywhere that children can access) will soon be a criminal offence.


The freedom to challenge authority has been one of the main factors in outing child sexual abuse in religious and other institutions in Australia. We should cherish the fact that Australian Churches and religious figures have by and large lost the authority they once had, and their influence on public policy is greatly diminished. Australian religious ‘glasnost’ – though still unpopular with some churches – is a civilising force: openness and transparency are antidotes to festering secrets and hidden social and political influence.  


Religious groups and figures who support this openness – and there are many – are helping us forge a fairer, more decent society.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Sham or shame?

  (29 May 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

The use by anti-vaccination advocates of a reportedly “sham” religious group raises questions beyond the debate over vaccination.

The Church of Conscious Living (CCL) was apparently set up at least in part to allow parents who are anti-vaccination to claim religious exemption from government regulations. However, belief in a “Higher Power” is proclaimed on the Church’s website, as are “sacred laws” for adherents to follow. The CCL therefore meets the two criteria required by Australian law for a religious group: belief in a Supernatural Being, Thing or Principle, and the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief.

Of course, being a religious group has a few well-known advantages in addition to an ability to claim conscientious objection, including exemption from income and capital gains tax provisions and access to fringe benefit tax rebates.

So is the CCL a “sham”, as News Ltd suggests? It seems hard to argue that case, given that it jumps through the same basic hoops as accepted religious groups like Scientology and The Free Daist Communion of Australia (both actually named as legitimate in Australian tax guides). Certainly it’s newer, but there’s no ‘test of time’ provision in Australian law.

Is it a ‘shame’ that just about anyone with enough gall can start a religious group and be recognised in Australia for tax (and other) purposes? Now that’s another question…


View All Comments / Add Comment


  (27 May 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

An updated list of public lectures, seminars or conferences that might interest SoFiA members is now online. Check it out!

View All Comments / Add Comment

Signs and wonders

  (23 May 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Australian Christian Lobby (“a voice for values”) boasts that it has recently

Played the major public role in defending marriage, including raising what must be one of the largest petitions by the church in Australia at 100,586 signatures.

Presumably this campaign involved what News Ltd is referring to in a recent article:

THE Australian Christian lobby has issued a bizarre statement arguing that same sex marriage could lead to a new "stolen generation", and would inevitably lead to children being taught the mechanics of homosexual sex in school sex education classes.

In a rambling statement, the Lobby's managing director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd's overnight change-of-mind ignored the consequence of "robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies".

The tide of history is clearly in the process of sweeping away these out-dated and unjust views, just as it swept away slavery, apartheid and an earth-centred cosmos, all of which have been staunchly defended by Christians (and based, as the ACL claims to be, on “a Biblical worldview”) at one time or another.     

You’d think Bible-based Christians might be impressed by ‘signs and wonders’ such as the gay rainbow referred to by conservative New Zealand MP Maurice Williamson in his impressive speech supporting the NZ legislation in favour of gay marriage.

Again, New Zealand leads the way: how long before Australian politicians genuinely represent their electorates on the matter?

View All Comments / Add Comment

Vale Vatican II

  (13 April 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Archbishop Pell is reportedly amongst those appointed by Pope Francis to a permanent advisory committee to run and reform the Catholic Church. That doesn’t auger well for those hoping Francis might soften the hard-line conservative social and theological approach of the Vatican. No resurrection for Vatican II thinking, it seems.  


View All Comments / Add Comment

Wise words on witches

  (28 March 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Gary Bouma, Anglican priest and emeritus professor of sociology at Monash Uni, was recently reported commenting on the growing secularism of Australian society:


He recalls speaking to university students about religious diversity in Australia recently and telling them that four times as many people in the 2006 census said they were witches than Quakers. ''The looks on their faces showed something was wrong. I thought for a while … and then it dawned. I asked, 'does anybody know what a Quaker is?''' he said.


''There must have been 150 of them and not one hand went up. They knew all about witches, they'd all grown up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the Quakers - perhaps an interesting sideline to older Christians - they're just not a part of their life experience.''


No doubt Bouma’s last sentence here was something of a throw-away line, but in one respect I’m willing to bet it’s wrong. Perhaps these uni students did believe they “knew all about witches”, however I expect their actual knowledge of Wicca and/or Neo-Paganism, let alone of the historical phenomenon of witchcraft and its persecutors in Christendom, would be virtually nil.   

One way to catch up with an historical perspective on the question of witches (many of whom, it turns out, were male) is to read some of Philip Almond’s recent work, such as his 2012 book, The Lancashire Witches (I.B.Taurus). There’s more than historical interest here, too: it’s a cautionary tale for our own age, where the exercise of power has proved so very troublesome for priests and politicians alike.


View All Comments / Add Comment

New articles online

  (08 March 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

For your reading (or re-reading) pleasure, a new clutch of articles and reviews has been recently added to the SoFiA website. These are all items by SoFiA members and are sourced from The Bulletin, SoFiA’s regular newsletter. (If you haven’t already, you may like to subscribe.)                     










View All Comments / Add Comment

Malcolm for PM

  (04 March 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

No, not that Malcolm… the original one. Malcolm Fraser has again put our current (and some former) political leaders to shame on the question of asylum-seekers, and on the place of religion in Australia. Is it too late for a political comeback?

View All Comments / Add Comment

The conundrum of Catholicism

  (02 March 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

There has been a lot of bad press lately for the Catholic Church. From badly-behaving archbishops and corrupt cardinals to criminal neglect and abuse to out and out paedophilia among clergy followed up by a callous insensitivity to victims of abuse, it’s a torrent of problems. In places the Church continues, nonetheless, to wield its power politically as though secular states should still be somehow beholden to its authority and accept its repressive nineteenth-century values.

On the other hand, many of the most enlightened, reasonable and tolerant religious voices I hear locally are Catholic ones (albeit mostly lay voices). Without the low-profile, consistent work of many Catholic social justice groups (there are examples all around Australia) this country would be a much less compassionate and civilised place.

A conundrum indeed, since any parish or bishop straying from official view or practice is quickly brought into line or shown the left foot of fellowship.

Will a new Pope make any difference?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Muddling metaphysics

  (20 February 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Mathematician and theologian Neil Omerod criticises what he calls the “metaphysical muddle” apparent in Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss’s recent book A Universe from Nothing. Perhaps he has a point:

Much of Krauss' energy is expended telling us that "nothing" - in his sense of empty space - "is not nothing" at all, but a seething undercurrent of virtual particles which can "pop" into real existence through their interaction with powerful fields. Scientifically this may well be correct, but it clearly does not address the question of whether something can come from nothing, but tells us how some things can come from something else (that is, from empty space, which is not really empty at all).

We can witness here a basic confusion operating in Krauss' conception of "nothing." Nothing is not defined as the absence of existence or being, but as the emptiness of space and time. But at the same time, space "exists." The ontological status of space is thus confused for Krauss. One the one hand existence (being "something") occurs within space; on the other hand, space exists. Because space is actually never empty, even "nothing is something" as he states as the title of a chapter of his book. Krauss is in a metaphysical muddle, but seems completely unaware of the fact.

Ormerod’s article is well worth a read. I see two problems with it, however.

First, as usual when we come to speak of God as Cosmic First Cause the question of how that ‘God’ relates to the various Christian conceptions of the Divine goes begging. If God is the Necessity at the base of everything, it’s by no means plain that It (He?) gives a damn about earth creatures in general, let alone the millions of humans living in misery from congenital diseases and natural disasters, let alone the hairs on your head.

Second, I’m not persuaded that Ormerod’s apologetic aim of reclaiming the reality and necessity of God is well-served by his conclusion. Under the heading “Welcome to a fuller reality”, he says: 

It goes without saying that you cannot prove the existence of God to a materialist without first converting the materialist away from materialism. In the present context, if we think of the real as an "already-out-there-now" real of extroverted consciousness, then God is not real. God becomes just a figment of the imagination, a fairy at the bottom of the garden, an invisible friend. However, if the real is constituted by intelligent grasp and reasonable affirmation, then reality suddenly becomes much richer, and the God-question takes on a different hue.

But it is not just the God-question that we can now begin to address more coherently. There are a whole range of other realities whose reality we can now affirm: interest rates, mortgages, contracts, vows, national constitutions, penal codes and so on. Where do interest rates "exist"? Not in banks, or financial institutions. Are they real when we cannot touch them or see them? We all spend so much time worrying about them - are we worrying about nothing? In fact, I'm sure we all worry much more about interest rates than about the existence or non-existence of the Higgs boson! Similarly, a contract is not just the piece of paper, but the meaning the paper embodies; likewise a national constitution or a penal code.

I have no hesitation in agreeing that God is real in the same way that interest rates, contracts or, say, the Tropic of Capricorn are real. As Don Cupitt has pointed out since the early 1980s, these are all human creations. You don’t sail across the Tropic of Capricorn and look over the side of the boat to see if you can spot the line: like ‘God’, it’s an idea, an entirely human construct which is useful but tells us nothing about some reality beyond human meaning and human language.

If there is an Ultimate Reality out there/in here/wherever we have absolutely no way of knowing about it other than by using categories (using Ormerod’s “intelligent grasp and reasonable affirmation”) that lead us straight back to ourselves. Our world of meaning and inquiry is outsideless. As Cupitt says, if you wish to affirm a reality beyond language (in its broadest sense, as the interplay of meaning through signs), please convey it to us in something other than language. The moment you use language you’re back inside the bubble.

This is not to say there is no reality beyond the human thought-world, just that it is unknowable as it is in itself. In whatever sense we use the word ‘God’ we are talking about a human creation rather than, as Ormerod seems to want to do, an objectively-existing entity. I’m happy to stand corrected, but I very much doubt that Ormerod really wants to own theological non-realism.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Speakers - Religion & Sex

  (09 February 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

The list of topics and speakers for our 2013 SoFiA Conference, Religion & Sex, is now finalised:


See our events page for the registration form and more information.



‘The sexy ape’

Glen McBride


Professor Glen McBride is Emeritus Professor of Social Ethology in the Animal Behaviour Unit (Psychology Department) at the University of Queensland.  Glen is author of The Genesis Chronicles: The evolution of humankind (Allen & Unwin, 2000) and in 2012 he published on the evolution of consciousness. He has also published a popular book for The Readers Digest on Animal Families.



‘Hope: the chequered history of sex and the Church’

Steven Ogden


Dr Steven Ogden is Principal of St Francis Theological College Brisbane, as well as an adjunct lecturer at Charles Sturt University. He is formerly Dean of St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide. His latest book is a popular work called Love Upside Down: Life, Love and the Subversive Jesus (O-Books, 2011). He is presently writing an academic work on freedom, power and the Church.



‘Trust betrayed:  sexual abuse in religious settings’

Stephen Smallbone


Professor Stephen Smallbone is a psychologist and Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University, Director of Griffith Youth Forensic Service and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. He has authored and co-authored many articles and books concerned with understanding and preventing sexual violence and abuse against children. These include ‘Religious affiliations among adult sexual offenders’ (2006); Situational prevention of child sexual abuse (2006); Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: Evidence, policy and practice (2008); and Internet child pornography: Causes, investigation and prevention (2012).



‘Religion and sex in contemporary Australia’

Leslie Cannold


Dr Leslie Cannold is an award-wining author and columnist, as well as a qualified ethicist and researcher currently based at the Gender, Leadership and Social Sustainability Research Unit at Monash Uni. In 2011, Leslie won an EVA award for responsible media reporting and was honoured as Australian Humanist of the Year. Her latest book, now in its second printing, is an historical novel, The Book of Rachael (Text, 2012).



Register now!



View All Comments / Add Comment

The Judeo-Christian values smorgasbord

  (26 January 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

Liberal Senator Cory Bernadi – he of the ‘gay-marriage-may-lead-to-bestiality’ claim – is first on the South Australian Liberal Senate ticket for the 2013 federal election.

Bernadi criticises the government for having “steadfastly refused to stop the flow of illegal arrivals and protect our borders, while rewarding the new arrivals with gift packs of whitegoods and welfare.” He lauds smaller government, lower taxes, the family as “the most important unit of society” and, wait for it… Judeo-Christian values. He's also been an international delegate of the American Legislative Exchange Council and has allegedly received payments from the Heartland Institute for travel and accommodation.

The values Bernadi promotes would include the values, surely, of one Jesus of Nazareth: the same Jesus who is reputed to have said "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26) and who refused a disciple’s request to be given time to bury his father (Matt 8:21-22); the same Jesus who was himself, as an infant, a refugee (Matt 2:13-23) and consistently stood up for outcasts and those in need. Hospitality for the stranger is, of course, a prominent theme in the Old Testament.

I don’t see much in the Bible about the right to bear arms or allow large corporations to make huge profits peddling goods that kill half those who use them as they’re intended to be used. There is quite a bit about honesty (Psalm 51:6, for instance, or Ephesians 4:25 or 1 Peter 3:10-12), which rather calls into question Bernadi’s description of asylum-seekers as “illegal arrivals”.

Perhaps it’s okay to be selective about Judeo-Christian values. You could, for instance, focus on the anti-gay bits without accepting slavery and refusing shellfish. Standing up for honesty and against exacerbating human misery seem a little more core-value, however.


View All Comments / Add Comment

To celebrate or not to celebrate…

  (25 January 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

A degree of ambivalence is in order, surely, for Australians on January 26.

We have a lot to celebrate, not least the evolution of a stable, reasonably egalitarian society from unimaginably violent beginnings where inequality and prejudice were entrenched. Inasmuch as we and our families or acquaintances have contributed to that, we can and should be proud.

But January 26 is also Invasion Day (or Survival Day), and the stats on indigenous disadvantage are still shameful in 2013. That said, the fact that there’s now a place for Bonita Mabo in our Australia Day honours list is a gratifying indication that progress, however slow, is being made.  

Then there’s the problem of nationalism. Ben Groundwater puts it well:

I dislike the whole concept of nationhood, the way people support their country like it's a football team playing in a grand final. Like we have to choose sides. How much better would it be if we'd all stop taking pride in the little slices of the globe we happened to pop out in and starting just being citizens of the world?

Much of what we see around Oz on January 26 is nothing more than tribalism writ large. For some there’s a fervency about our national identity – at least as they define it – which borders on being religious. The fluttering of Aussie flags from our car doors (a sound appropriately reminiscent of flatulence) is one such sign, and is unwittingly ironic: it shows what good American citizens we are becoming.

For mine, a different date to celebrate would be a good start. Then ditch the car flags and leaven the outbursts of Aussie pride with some good old Aussie self-deprecating humour and even a little sober reflection on where we need to do better.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Madly spiritual

  (07 January 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

The SMH reports on a study by a group based around the Faculty of Brain Sciences at the University College London Medical School which investigated links between the mental health of people in England and their religious or spiritual beliefs. (35% of respondents in the study had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual.)

The conclusion? “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.”

Is there something about institutional religion and scepticism/disbelief that keeps people somehow ‘grounded’?


View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion under attack

  (29 December 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Religion Under Attack, a recent book by Nigel Leaves explores – intelligently for a change, with nuance – those attacking religion and what the Church’s response ought to be. Cordelia Hull was impressed.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Happy New Year

  (28 December 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

“Don’t worry,” sang Bobby McFerrin in 1988; “be happy”. Leszek KoÅ‚akowski tells why none of us, bar the ignorant, can in fact have a Happy New Year – including God. His argument is persuasive.

Nonetheless, let’s make the most of the potential inherent in our New Year celebrations. The idea that things can be better than they are now has been one of the hallmarks of western thinking. In line with that tradition, a determination to make the world less miserable – by whatever means – would be a grand resolution. Maybe small-h ‘happy’ is do-able in 2013.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Christmas angst

  (13 December 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

People are outraged, if the News Ltd press is to be believed.

We’re outraged, for instance, that the Christmas season is being hijacked by creationists. Victorian schoolchildren – in Christian education classes, no less – are learning such pernicious numbers as ‘God Made Cows’ and ‘He Made Everything You See’. This item does make a valid point that ‘Creation Rap’ and ‘The Butterfly Song’ have turned up in end-of-year State School concerts which are presumably not just for those who attend RI classes. (I’ve long thought ‘The Butterfly Song’ was crying out for the Monty Python treatment.) Presumably any parents involved who felt aggrieved have voiced their outrage to local school decision-makers.

We’re also outraged that the thought police think they can knock Christmas on the head. We’re being made to feel guilty about celebrating Christmas. One munchkin had no nativity scenes at her school this Christmas and, if the photo is anything to go by, she’s Not Happy. No, says Victorian Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Minister Nick Kotsiras: we should be proud to celebrate Christmas. The Minister was “swamped with support” for his brave stand. In other comment it’s been lamented that “a small, angry minority wants to rid our society of any religion or spirituality” and expunge any reference to a baby in a manger. We should “give some credence to the 66 per cent of the Australian population who choose to believe” (though exactly what they choose to believe is not made clear, nor is the source of the statistic.)

It’s not even Christmas yet – we have the rest of Advent to get through first. Our society is clearly going to pot over Christmas. Be prepared to be further outraged.




View All Comments / Add Comment

Behind the abuse

  (18 November 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Hopefully one of things to come out of a royal commission into child sexual abuse will be an examination of the why as well as the what.

The inquiry will no doubt help us determine whether the Catholic Church is any more culpable than other religious and secular organisations, but there have been strong indications for quite some time that that is likely.

What factors could be at play? A few possibilities:

  • One obvious element is the requirement for Catholic priests to be celibate. An end to mandatory celibacy amongst clergy has been called for in the current Victorian state inquiry as an interim protective measure against child abuse. The case has been argued recently using a comparison between Eastern Orthodox and western Catholic clergy.
  • Catholic priestly formation (involving strict segregation from the opposite sex) began for many current priests when they were still just children themselves. It’s not so common these days, thank goodness.
  • Don Cupitt in The Meaning of the West speaks of “the repressive boarding-school culture of the Church”. Absolute authority rules – at least where George Pell and the influence of the Vatican reign – and discipline is king. Anyone deviating the tiniest bit from prescribed belief or practice is demoted or shown the boot: Brisbane’s Peter Kennedy, Toowoomba’s Bill Morris and Melbourne’s Michael Morwood and Bob Maguire, for example. It’s the opposite of openness, and a culture in which secrets can easily fester. The Church is no democracy.
  • An unwarranted respect in our society for authority – be it of the Bible, the Church or of tradition – has clearly contributed to abuse. Many victims have suffered through a misplaced trust that someone or something represents God to us and must therefore be believed and followed without question.
  • A naïve attitude towards religious people, especially clergy, has also allowed many parents to put their children in harm’s way. The fact that someone is ordained or is particularly religious is (as we have seen) absolutely no guarantee that they won’t harm children.  

There may be many other possible explanations for abuse and a lack of proper safeguards against it. Many of the factors here may apply just as much to bodies other than the Catholic Church, but all are particularly evident with respect to religion in general. Let’s hope the royal commission can shed some light and become a catalyst for change.


View All Comments / Add Comment

‘An excuse to attack the Church’

  (18 November 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Alexander Downer is not against a royal commission into child sexual abuse. He warns, however, that it seems to be “an excuse for atheists to let loose against Christianity and sectarians to attack the church's beliefs and traditions”.

Unbelievably, Downer laments that public commentary has singled out the Catholic Church. He’s right, of course, that there is child abuse in other churches, religions and institutions. The evidence is strong, though, that the problem has been particularly rife within Catholicism.

The response of that Church, to boot – a Church which publicly preaches compassion and moral rectitude – has been hypocritical in the extreme. The effect of that response has been twofold: victims continue to suffer and those who damage children have been allowed to continue doing so.

Certainly it is to be hoped that the royal commission will leave no significant stones unturned, be they Hindu, Catholic or atheist. But a failure to focus on a particularly widespread and systemic source of abuse would be as morally bereft as the cover-ups perpetrated by a some of those in the Catholic hierarchy.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Flood of revelations

  (17 November 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

This week’s newspaper coverage of the impending Royal Commission into child sexual abuse has been amazing. The ‘Abuse’ section of Religion News Australia (SoFiA’s roundup of articles touching on religion from the Fairfax press, News Ltd and the ABC) normally features a few to a half dozen items. This week it’s over 120 - eight A4 pages’ worth!

Of course the issue has been building over time, but the floodgates are at last well and truly open. And if it’s a flood, it’s only because there have been (if you’ll pardon the pun) damning obstructions, most notably from some within the Catholic Church hierarchy.

George Pell complains of a smear campaign against the Church. Mike Carlton’s response is entirely appropriate:

To portray the church as a victim in this filthy business was an Orwellian reversal of the polarity of right and wrong, truth and fiction. With self-serving hypocrisy, Pell delivered yet another slap in the face to those hundreds if not thousands of children, and their families, who suffered abuse.  

You don’t need to hear too many of the awful stories of those abused to know this is not the time that a man of genuine compassion would be defending the institution. (Even before the Royal Commission begins, the stories abound. For exampleand alsoand here…)

It’s another instance, in my view, of the tendency of institutional Christianity to do as it has almost always done: overturn the values of the one it claims as founder in favour of self-preservation. Of course within the Catholic Church there are the Bob Maguires (many of whom, like Bob, have been shown the left foot of fellowship) who have the integrity to make that very point and to work against the tendency. 

Is it just the Catholic Church? Of course not, though the statistics suggest there’s a particular problem there. We’ve seen the same culture of cover-up in the ADF, the Murdoch press, the BBC, various police forces and innumerable governments: anywhere a lack of openness and inadequate checks and balances are evident.


View All Comments / Add Comment

2012 SoFiA Conference Resources

  (02 November 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Two items newly posted at Eureka Street by Peter Kirkwood are well worth a look. They feature video of Adrian Pyle and Noel Preston from the 2012 SoFiA Conference:



View All Comments / Add Comment

School-sponsored ignorance

  (20 October 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Ignorance is not bliss: it’s damaging, and at its worst, dangerous. The world of religion has shown us the truth of this in recent times.

The ignorance of the Catholic faithful, wilfully encouraged in an era of uncritical acceptance of authority, allowed terrible abuses to occur. As Alan Howe of the Herald Sun puts it, these are “days of shame” for Australia’s Catholic Church.

''Ignorant people are very dangerous things,'' say members of a Muslim family whose brother was killed in the Bali bombings. ''The thing is the degree of their knowledge - they don't question. You can move them to do dangerous things and kill beautiful people.''

You might think that ignorance was the very thing schools would be designed to overcome. Not, it seems, in the realm of religion. The Queensland Teachers’ Union, among others, makes the point that religion taught in State Schools should not just be about Christianity. (The QTU is also against chaplains in state schools.) Yet the only significant exposure to religion most students have is in two forms: through ‘religious instruction’ lessons usually delivered by fervent believers from local Churches who have next to no knowledge even about the complexities of their own faith let alone knowledge about other religions; and through contact, in Queensland at least, with Scripture Union-trained chaplains.

School chaplains in Queensland are expected by their employer to model Bible-based Christian values and not to be shy in explaining their own (conservative-evangelical Christian) faith when opportunity knocks. Most parents know nothing about Scripture Union (SU) and assume that a Christian perspective from the ‘chappy’ can only be a good thing – isn’t it all warm fuzzy stuff about honesty and being good and loving your neighbour?

So what values and beliefs do chaplains bring to their work in our state schools? Here’s a brief selection:

Sex outside marriage amounts to sin. (See Acts 15:20; 1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:13, 18; 10:8; Galatians 5:19; Colossians 3:5; Hebrews 13:4 and more). De-facto relationships and living together before marriage are therefore morally wrong. To put this in perspective, the Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that in 2010 11% of all Australians aged 18 years and over were living in a de facto relationship and that 79% of married Australians had lived together before marrying.                      

Divorce: Matthew 5:32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. On this measure, a significant number of parents in any school community must be considered adulterers.

Homosexuality is immoral, an “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9 etc.; see Genesis 19:4-8 for a real eye-opener on Biblical priorities). It’s also, according to Christians with links to SU (notably Jim Wallace, formerly head of the Australian Christian Lobby), a lifestyle choice. In the 2011 Census 33,714 couples declared themselves to be same-sex couples. Between 2 and 15% of Australians report as same-sex attracted. At a large state high school, that means between 30 and 300 students – potential targets for ‘pastoral care’ from our chaplains – are likely to be same-sex attracted.

Headship (1 Corinthians 11:3: … the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man... Ephesians 5:22:  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife…). Are these sexist attitudes ones we would want inculcated in our sons and daughters?

Exclusivity (Acts 4:12: Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.) Salvation is only in Christ, therefore any Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist students or other members of the school community – let alone atheists – are destined not to be saved, i.e. they’ll go to hell. Australia, remember, is a multi-cultural society.

Creation. The earth and its inhabitants were created in 6 days rather than over billions of years. The theory of evolution, an idea that’s foundational to much of our science – and we’re talking about our fundamental educational institutions here – is repudiated by many “Bible-believing” Christians.

Arguably it’s ignorance that brings about the acceptance of such views, since people with sophisticated understandings of biblical texts – an understanding, for instance, of historical-critical approaches to the Bible – rarely take a literal view of the Christian scriptures. Unfortunately, SU does not advocate such an approach. It believes the Old and New Testaments to be “God-breathed” and “fully trustworthy in all that they affirm”.

It would be good – in the interests of reducing ignorance – for the Education Departments of the various State Governments in Australia to make parents more aware of the nature of the organisations that employ taxpayer-funded chaplains in our state schools. Perhaps then there’d be support for properly-trained student welfare workers instead of faith-based chaplains from evangelical organisations with key beliefs and values that are truly out of kilter with our society.

View All Comments / Add Comment

New articles online

  (23 September 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

You might like to view some items recently added to the SoFiA website…  




View All Comments / Add Comment

Insulting Islam

  (17 September 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

If it’s a beheading-kind of offence to insult the Prophet, surely it’s a criminal offence to carry signs (or worse, allow young children to carry signs) that insult our tolerant Australian culture by advocating murder. Not to mention the offence of engaging in violent protest against people who had nothing to do with, and didn’t even approve of, the offending anti-Islam film.

I’m probably going along with Andrew Bolt on this one (though I can’t be sure, as I’d rather gnaw off a finger than pay good money to read just about anything he says). I’m certainly in tune with Waleed Aly’s view that a serious conversation must be had in Australia, and before too long.

It’s the few extremists we saw in Sydney who were doing the insulting - not just of Australian society, but of the many good-hearted Australian Muslims with enough intelligence to know when something deserves to be utterly ignored.


View All Comments / Add Comment

So much for Buddhist ‘cool’

  (23 August 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

A not-so-detached Buddhist was upset recently by the actions of three French tourists pretending to kiss and emulate the pose of a statue of the Buddha. They sent their photos to him to be printed and he promptly called the police. The tourists have now been sentenced to 6 months’ jail, though the sentence has been suspended.

Admittedly this is Theravdan Sri Lanka, not Zen Japan where it might well be in order to refer to the Buddha as a bull-headed jail-keeper (or worse), and the Patriarchs as horse-faced old maids. Nonetheless, it seems a little over the top. I could imagine the antics of the tourists as just a little bit of fun without any intention to offend anyone (though I should make it clear that I don’t know the actual circumstances).

At least the Sri Lankan response is not the kind of vicious, malicious action we see in the case of the Downs Syndrome child prosecuted for blasphemy in Pakistan.

Anyone in Australia fooling around with a statue of Jesus might be considered to be behaving in bad taste, but no more than that. Or maybe not… with the ACT’s new discrimination laws, if it was alleged there was religious vilification going on a prosecution could indeed follow.

It’s common courtesy to respect the feelings of others. There’s little common courtesy when it comes to political feelings, however, as Federal Parliament demonstrates on a daily basis. Should we be so precious about religious feelings?


View All Comments / Add Comment

Blokes believing blasphemy

  (20 August 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Blasphemy has been in the spotlight lately.

Russian protest group Pussy Riot face two years’ jail for a 30-second political performance against Putin in a church. According to an ABC report, the judge in that case noted that the female band members crossed into an area of the church forbidden to women and opined that "The girls' actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church's rules."

Now an 11-year-old Pakistani girl with Downs Syndrome has been arrested for blasphemy on the grounds that she was found carrying a bag with burnt pages on which texts from the Koran were inscribed.

It all sounds a bit like 15th century Europe: as Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World describes it, the persecution of witches under Pope Innocent VIII was a free-for-all with those in power wreaking terrible havoc in the lives of anyone (especially women) they had some kind of set against. All, of course, ostensibly in the name of preserving the sanctity of true religion.

It’s another reason why we in Australia should struggle to achieve freedom from, as well as of, religion in our civic and political life. Superstition and abuse of power go far too easily hand-in-hand with religious fervour.


View All Comments / Add Comment

A new progressive Christian voice

  (19 August 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

The influence of conservative Christianity in Australian politics (especially through the Australian Christian Lobby) has been considerable in recent years. Some in society and in the media assume the ACL represents Christians generally, but in truth they speak for a small slice of Australian Christians.

A lobby group aiming to represent progressive Christian voices has just been formed, titled A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia). President Peter Catt (in the press release, below) outlines their aim:

‘We want to be an additional Christian voice in public discourse. We want to represent the voice of the Christians who are trying to view life from the future… In every age we are challenged to see which aspects of our living, which we assume to be foundational to society, are in fact unjust and rob people of the liberty to flourish.

The new body is seeking members: Ray Barraclough, Secretary of APCV can be contacted at



Launch of A Progressive Christian Voice in Australia

A new cross-denomination Christian group has been formed to add to public discourse in Australia.

President of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia), The Very Rev’d Dr Peter Catt, of Brisbane, said  ‘We want to be an additional Christian voice in public discourse.

 ‘We want to represent the voice of the Christians who are trying to view life from the future.’

 ‘We want the Australian public to understand that conservative lobby groups might be one expression of the Christian faith, but they are by no means the only expression’, Dr Catt said.

 ‘The application of faith to life requires us to endeavour to look back from the future. To have an eye for how future generations will view our current actions.

 ‘It seems to me that the conservatism that is born of our tendency to be backward-glancing leaves the church playing catch up.  For example, we find ourselves having to apologise to the women whose children were taken for forced adoption.'

'We also owe apologies to the woman who grew too old while waiting for the day when women could be ordained. We owe apologies to the divorced people who wanted to remarry in the days when the church held that marrying the wrong person was a mistake one had to live with.'

'And we owe apologies for counselling women to stay in abusive relationships to protect the ‘integrity and sanctity of marriage’.

 ‘The challenge before us, in my view, is for us to become more future-focused. We need to challenge ourselves to look for the next obstacle to overcome. In every age we are challenged to see which aspects of our living, which we assume to be foundational to society, are in fact unjust and rob people of the liberty to flourish. ‘

APCV  hopes to be a positive contributor to the life of the churches and to the wider community.

The Very Rev’d Dr Peter Catt is President of the A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) Inc


Monday, 13 August, 2012

View All Comments / Add Comment

The new church of file sharing

  (26 July 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Kopimism is a newly-registered religious community in Sweden. Its principles?:

  • All knowledge to all
  • The search for knowledge is sacred
  • The circulation of knowledge is sacred
  • The act of copying is sacred.

Sounds rather like it’s in sympathy with SoFiA’s aim of ‘openly exploring’.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, philosophy student and co-founder Isak Gerson was asked whether he believed in God. His response: ''No, I just believe in our values. It's just a belief in holy values.''

There are Chapters of Kopimism around the world but not (as far as I know) in Oz. If it’s good enough for New Zealanders


View All Comments / Add Comment

New articles online

  (21 July 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

You might like to view some items recently added to the SoFiA website…   



View All Comments / Add Comment

Chaplaincy Decision

  (20 June 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

It’s official – the Chaplaincy program in schools begun by the Howard government and sustained by Labor is not in line with the Constitution. A brave and costly move by Toowoomba father Ron Williams to challenge the program has paid off. (Contributions to Ron’s costs may be made here.)

In the light of views aired in 2008 by the then head of Access Ministries, a major body sponsoring chaplains in schools, there has been concern about the real role of these chaplains. The 2008 speech was essentially a call to ‘make disciples’ of students, and the chaplains were acknowledged as a key part of that strategy.

In Queensland, Scripture Union is the major body employing school chaplains; its explicit aims (as taken from its website) are:

(1) to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families and

(2) to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer so that they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, grow in Christian maturity and become both committed church members and servants of a world in need.

There are equally explicit guidelines provided by the Queensland Education Department stating that there will be no evangelism or proselytism by school chaplains, a condition SU claims to accept. In practice, however (from my personal experience), these guidelines are not strictly followed and in some instances are blatantly ignored.

So where to from here?

Schools do need caring people on the ground who are free to be among and to support students in an informal way. These people should have basic counselling qualifications (as recommended by the Australian Psychological Society), but they should not have a religious (or other) agenda. Generous fringe benefit tax arrangements are one way that SU currently manages to have so many chaplains on the ground; if the government is serious about supporting students (as Minister Garrett claims to be), it may just have to bite the bullet and put in the money to do so.

One thing is clear: it is not acceptable to contract this important work out to organisations with a narrow religious (or come to that, secular) agenda. Children in state schools are our future citizens, not a crop ripe to harvest for the Lord.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Catholics and Catholics

  (27 May 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is there a better Catholic Church out there than the one we usually see in the newspapers? Will Day says it well.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Spiritual healing

  (24 May 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

I recently heard a talk on ‘spiritual healing’. I assumed that ‘healing’ meant completely relieving a person of their ailment, so that someone with tennis elbow who is healed would no longer either have the condition or experience pain from it. On that basis I was very sceptical.

After a while, however, I came to see that the speaker was referring to ‘spiritual’ as against ‘physical’ healing. The physical ailment may or may not be healed in this process, but the subject is healed spiritually.

Spirituality is one of my pet hate words (as I’ve posted previously), but I could see some sense in this. Your local GP has a bare 10 minutes to deal with someone’s problem, and I believe it to be well-documented that spending time with people, listening and sympathising can have a powerful effect on well-being. Throw in the placebo effect that inevitably arises when someone who self-describes as a ‘healer’ is focussing on you and why would you not feel much better after a session, even if your tennis elbow pain is still there?

Provided this is not being done for the personal (monetary) gain of the healer, it seems to me pretty much a good thing. Particularly when, as with the person I heard, advice is given that any serious ailment should be taken to a doctor.


View All Comments / Add Comment

The resurgence of religion?

  (01 May 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

I was recently reminded by a clergyman that we in the West shouldn’t be too complacent in the face of growing secularism. It may be that almost a third of Australians fail to identify with any religion or spiritual belief, but religion (I was assured) is actually on the rise around the world.  

In fact, the claim may not be true. Nonetheless, there are of course countries with a much higher proportion of religious believers than Australia, and some in which religious belief is growing. Let’s not be naïve, however: some of those in Australia most eager to point out the resilience/resurgence of religion, including my interlocutor, would actually be very reluctant to identify with many of these expressions of religious faith, even the ‘Christian’ ones.

From Zimbabwe, for example, we hear of pastors doing battle with demonic mermaids. Indeed, Africa in general shows the resilience of traditional beliefs even among Christians and Muslims, as the Pew Forum has reported.

In the Philippines, the country recently identified as the most religious in the world, religion practised by the rural and urban masses is described by the Asia Society as “folk Christianity, combining a surface veneer of Christian monotheism and dogma with indigenous animism”.

It would be fascinating to have a survey of church attenders in Australia to gauge their exact views on the key issues of Christian belief. I expect there are many in the pews who deviate considerably from the views expressed from the pulpit.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Vale Scott

  (12 April 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Scott McKenzie, formerly a regular contributor to this weblog, editor of the SoFiA Bulletin and President of SoFiA 2006 - 2008 became ill about a year ago and passed away in March this year.


We are very much indebted to Scott for his efforts and his enthusiasm on behalf of SoFiA. He was a man of integrity, a truth-seeker with little time for pretence or prejudice. Our sympathies go to his family.


We’ll miss you, Scott.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Why do atheists ridicule religion?

  (04 March 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Why, asks Steve Kryger in The Punch, does the 2012 Global Atheist Convention (GAC) have comedians constituting nearly a third of its speakers? Why must these atheists poke fun at religion? At the Christian conferences Steve goes to they apparently don’t spend time ridiculing atheism.

As one who attended the last (and inaugural) Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, I have to say there was a fair sprinkling of unfunny cheap shots at religion and put-downs of religious people, and one particularly obscene harangue which someone must have mistakenly thought could be classed as comedy. But there were also many well-considered, sober presentations; instances of speakers (notably Phillip Adams and Richard Dawkins) clearly giving appropriate respect to religion and religious people; and some clever and truly funny satire concerning religious themes and people.

I see three reasons why humour is so central to the atheist movement at this time.

First, humour is subversive. Although our society and political institutions are secular and even among Australians who self-identify as ‘religious’ barely a third are significantly involved in group religious practice (see here), religion retains its old public privileges. Churches don’t pay rates or taxes. They have legal access to public schools and cheerfully send people with no theological training or knowledge of other religious traditions to impose their naïve, uninformed views on unsuspecting school children, a system parents have to opt out of. Although we currently have an atheist as Prime Minister, daily sittings of Parliament begin with prayer.

So religion is still the default, long after most Australians have ceased to take it seriously. (If you doubt this last statement, see how many children of clergy you know regularly attend church or resist the urge to ‘shack up’ before marriage.) The atheist is still the underdog, still discriminated against in so many ways by the system. Humour as subversion is necessary in such a situation: it’s an effective way of jolting people out of the pro-religious assumptions that saturate our society.

Second, religion throws up a great deal that is truly laughable. A few recent examples:

Pastor Danny Nalliah (see here and here) is the poster-boy of what’s screwy about religion in Australia, but he’s certainly not alone. From the God-leads-to-success Hillsong Church to Catholic spies to the cringe-worthy and outrageously unoriginal slogan with its greengrocer’s apostrophe on the billboard outside your local church, there’s a lot to laugh at.

Not laughing when someone says or does something really wacky is doing no-one a favour. If the Emperor is standing there buck-naked, it doesn’t benefit him or anyone else to go around pretending he’s in his regal finery. That path leads to gullibility, fraud and abuse. Thinking critically is key to avoiding abuse of power and undue influence, and humour (as noted above) is an effective strategy in debunking such pretentiousness.

Third, humour is fun. To be sure, a part of the protest against religion is in deadly earnest, as it should be. There’s the abuse and distress occasioned by some religious thought and practice (the demeaning of women; priestly abuse of children; tearing of new-borns away from unwed mothers; imposition of guilt over normal human behaviours such as homosexuality and masturbation and so on and so on). And there’s the privileging of religious ideas and groups that makes little sense in an egalitarian society and a secular age (churches not having to pay their way on rates and taxes; entrenched privilege in private church schools which are in part publicly-funded; religious indoctrination, but not education, allowed in public schools; and much more). But many atheists think critically; perhaps they’re more prone than some religious folk to see the funny side of things. Like anyone, religious or not, they enjoy laughing.   

Two questions.   

Does the atheist movement in its piss-take on religion do justice to the breadth of religious thought and practice? Answer: no. Phillip Adams argued at the last GAC that atheists and religious folk need to get along when their agendas coincide (as often they do, especially on issues of social justice), but more than a few voices at the convention abjectly failed to recognise that some good things are achieved by religion or to acknowledge that there’s a range of sophisticated theological thought out there in believer-land. It’s far easier to laugh at Danny Nalliah or Archbishops Pell or Jensen than to deal with the subtle and mild-to-moderately progressive views of Fr Frank Brennan, erstwhile Toowoomba Catholic Bishop William Morris or the Rev'd Drs Stephen Ogden and Gregory Jenks of St Francis Theological College in Brisbane.

Are people deserving of respect even when they believe wacky things? There’s certainly some belittling and ridicule in the atheist impulse to laugh at religion.

My answer: it depends. If the wackiness results in harm, then probably not. I can’t find it in me, for example, to respect those currently in Afghanistan calling for (or causing) bloodshed because a book got inadvertently burned. On the other hand, a belief in the literal resurrection of Christ while in itself (in my view) silly, doesn’t necessarily cause the believer to go out and hurt people. Mind you, I wouldn’t respect those who hold this view because they hold it: indeed, there are aspects of their ability to reason that I could not respect.

I do hope, once the atheist movement in Australia has had time to mature and begins to see itself as on a more even footing with religion, that it will tone down the ridicule and begin to laugh at itself a little more. In the meantime, I say: bring on the jokes. I’m looking forward to a few good laughs at GAC mark II.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Hypocritical heirarchy

  (02 February 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Age religion journalist Barney Zwartz has delivered a blistering attack on the processes and people involved in the sacking of Toowoomba’s Bishop Morris. This is in the wake of two independent assessments of the Vatican's action which found that the decision flouted both natural justice and the Church’s own canon law.


(The irony of NSW judges starting their 2012 year with a ‘Red Mass’ at which Cardinal Pell was celebrant is clear: the mass is a chance for those “seeking or dispensing justice” to seek divine guidance.)


Zwartz rightly complains of the Catholic authorities that “[t]heir medieval attitudes to authority seem very distant from the biblical teachings of Christ.” Indeed, there’s a great deal about the Catholic Church (and other churches one might name) that fails to measure up to the teachings of the earthly Jesus…


  • What might the biblical Jesus have to say about the immense wealth of such institutions in the face of enormous human need?
  • What of their oppressive rules and strictures – man made for the Sabbath – which they themselves observe only when it suits?
  • What of their hypocrisy in sacking/retiring bishops with the integrity of William Morris and Bob Maguire while they shuffle pedophile priests from parish to parish?
  • What of their failure to observe decent contemporary societal standards in discriminating against women and gays while expecting society to provide the Church with the privilege of exemption from rates and taxes?


I hasten to make a distinction here between the institution and hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the many thoughtful Catholics who find these inconsistencies as appalling as I do.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion v Society in Oz

  (26 January 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

It seems to me there are only four points on which contemporary religion in Australia clashes in any significant way with the general Oz culture:


-       the access of women to the full range of roles within the religion;

-       the legitimacy of homosexuality and the rights of gay people to equal treatment;

-       attitudes to how religious groups deal with abusive miscreants within their ranks; and

-       the level of influence religion should have on the society and on public education in particular.


Interestingly, all four relate to the question of human rights.


There are of course other points of contention, but these seldom rise to public attention. They’d include the acceptability of cohabitation before marriage, public subsidy of religious groups (i.e. their tax-free and rates-free status) and treatment of asylum-seekers.


It should be noted that there are exceptions to most of these, with some individual religious groups pretty much matching society in general (for good or for ill) in their attitudes.


Have I missed any major points of contention?





View All Comments / Add Comment

Is God necessary for meaning?

  (25 December 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

For Christian apologist Alister McGrath (in a recent post on ABC's The Drum website) science is about explaining the world, but religion is where meaning comes into the picture. He seems to follow the traditional demarcation of science tackling the ‘how’ and religion the ‘why’.


In his argument, McGrath makes the extraordinary claim that God is “someone who makes sense of the puzzles and enigmas of life”.


Now perhaps a God could be posited who does do that – but it wouldn’t be the Christian God.  Would an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God (and the God of Christian tradition must be all of these) create a world in which it is populations that matter, not individuals? From baby turtles to human sperm, it’s a numbers game, pure and simple: the species survives at the expense of huge numbers of individuals. The vast majority of creatures, to boot, die of starvation or of being eaten alive. Until very recently this included humans, and starvation still accounts for millions of human lives, especially young lives.


There’s much more. I recall a Larsen cartoon in which God as a kid tries to make a chicken in his room. 99% of all life forms which have ever existed on Earth are now extinct – were they the failed experiments of the (perfect) Christian God?  


God does no better in accounting for the vicissitudes of human life. Virtue, as Job discovered and Ecclesiastes laments, is no guide at all as to who does well in this life and who suffers horrible misfortune. Hence the need to posit a future life of reward/punishment. Who can we blame, for instance, for children born with two heads, or no brain, or other serious congenital disorders (an estimated 3% of those born in the US alone, meaning on current figures around 120,000 a year)?


The God of the Christians simply does not make sense of any of this. A capricious God, or at least an indifferent one – now that might do the job. Even there, however, Laplace had it right: we have no need even of that hypothesis.


McGrath cites Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s view that science takes things apart to see how they work, and religion puts them back together again to see what they mean. But when Christianity is faced with the problem of theodicy, it baulks every time for fear of coming up with a theologically unacceptable conclusion. The mystery of God and His Will is invoked time and time again – hardly a satisfactory way of ‘making sense of the puzzles and enigmas of life’.


McGrath is right to suggest that science is about explaining and understanding, not about meaning as such. Meaning is something humans bring to any situation: it’s a cultural product. And it’s not just about ‘why’. Indeed, plenty of humans have concluded that there is no reason behind particular pieces of good or ill fortune or behind the adventure of life as a whole, yet they haven’t given up in despair as if life’s not worth living. Meaning that sustains life can be just as much about family and friends, about projects and passions, as about cosmic superannuation or a grand narrative dictating our place in the scheme of things.




View All Comments / Add Comment

Ethics, Christian and Secular

  (30 November 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

We have two very recent examples of religious bodies and individuals revealing how ethically inferior they are compared to the standards of contemporary secular society.   


First, there’s the Civil Partnerships Bill passed last night by the Queensland Parliament. To their credit, a few Church leaders – notably Anglicans and Catholics – supported the principle of equity behind the legislation, as did the Brisbane Anglican Church’s Social Responsibilities Committee. Most of the opposition to the Bill, however, was religiously inspired, as my local member Kerry Shine (a Catholic) ruefully noted:


I believe the argument in favour of equality of rights is superior to whatever arguments have been used or put up against it. Most of the latter, if not all, relate to a religious prohibition. For my part, I believe that where the rights of others are unaffected, then the state should not legislate as to who can or should not cohabit or enter into a relationship. That is not to say that religious denominations and their followers cannot declare what is right or wrong for their followers. That is a matter for individual choice. It should not in the 21st century, with the benefits of the lessons of 500 years of religious differences including 100 years war (sic), be the subject of civil or state concern.


Indeed, the Member for Nicklin, independent MP Peter Wellington spoke of intimidation by conservative religious groups attempting to influence his vote on the issue. The Brisbane Catholic  Diocese was against the proposal, and (of course) Australia’s most eminent Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, is on the record as supporting intervention to overturn civil unions legislation elsewhere in Australia. Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen is also, predictably, against the idea of equity on this issue. Thank goodness for the increasingly-outnumbered progressive Catholics and Anglicans out there.


A second example also involves our notorious Cardinal Pell. A report by Barney Zwartz in The Age tells the story:


A LEADING Catholic priest has criticised Cardinal George Pell for reserving a "grand apartment" for himself at the Australian church's new guest house in Rome, saying "the ethics of our secular state are higher than those of our church".


Father Eric Hodgens, of Melbourne, an elder statesman among the clergy, also savaged Australia's Catholic bishops for what he regards as an abject performance during their five-yearly visit to Rome last month, particularly in failing to stand up for Bill Morris, sacked earlier this year as bishop of Toowoomba.


"They eat their own when fingered by Rome," Father Hodgens wrote of the bishops in The Swag, the national journal of Catholic priests. "How can you trust them?


''They are reckless with our patrimony. They seem incapable of protecting their own rights, let alone ours, in a system which is corrupt by today's secular standards.”


This all lends support to the view expressed by Don Cupitt in his 2008 book, The Meaning of the West. Western secular humanitarianism is directly derived, says Cupitt, from Christian ethics. But what we see in society nowadays is definitely not the old Church-Christianity at work:


The Church clings to its old inefficiencies, discriminations and injustices, and repeatedly demands for itself opt-outs from legislation that would require it to get its treatment of its own employees, women, gays and other groups up to decent contemporary secular standards. (Meaning of the West, 34)


Organised Christian religion, always intended as a stop-gap measure, cannot let go of influence and power and deliver the final redemption from itself that it promised:


[I]n the traditional language of theology, Christ has returned and the Church is obsolete (though, as Dostoyevsky foresaw, the Grand Inquisitor is far from pleased; he loves the Church and spiritual power much more than he ever loved Christ). (Meaning of the West, 10)


No, says Cupitt, we have now what a dying Christian tradition has bequeathed: the secular West, vibrant, post-metaphysical, non-theistic and with a radical, ethical vision of the Kingdom of God.




View All Comments / Add Comment

What Aussies believe about religion

  (12 November 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Christian organisation Olive Tree Media has recently released the results of a study into Australian attitudes to religion and to Christianity in particular. It intends to use the data for apologetics purposes. The results are indeed interesting; they include the following titbits:

·         Overall, 1 in 2 Australians do not identify with a religion

·         Over 30% of respondents did not identify with any religion or spiritual belief

·         Almost 20% considered themselves ‘spiritual’ but had no main religion

·         34% of people who identify as ‘religious’ are significantly involved in group religious practice

·         The top ten reasons “blocking” people from belief in Christianity were:

1. Church abuse

2. Hypocrisy

3. Judging others

4. Religious views

5. Suffering

6. Issues around money

7. Outdated

8. Hell & condemnation

9. Homosexuality

10. Exclusivity

 A summary of the study can be found here.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Scientific heresy

  (03 November 11)

Matt Ridley gave a lecture in Edinburgh recently in which he examined science/pseudoscience dichotomy. There are many examples currently active in our communities, and many more of historic interest. He spends quite a deal of time examining climate change checking its credentials as science or pseudo science. And he makes the point that sceptics are regarded as heretics in the same way as they have in other cases in our past.

 This is quite an interesting piece – perhaps a controversial one. 

View All Comments / Add Comment

It’s the End again – what to do?

  (19 October 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

With the world about to end again tomorrow, what are your options? Here are a few to (quickly) consider.


·         Drop Harold Camping an email to thank him for the heads-up.

·         Follow Douglas Adams’s advice (i.e. don’t bother with the paper bag).

·         Do something really, really nice for someone (on the off-chance it’ll go down well if there really is a Judgment looming).

·         Dance like nobody’s watching, even if they’re watching.

·         Do that Terrible Thing you’ve fantasised about (finally sort out the neighbour’s cat etc).

·         Spend up big at the local liquor barn, hire a band and throw a party.

·         Read the Bible/Koran/Rg Veda/Diamond Sutra/Karma Sutra. Probably forget the Form Guide.

·         Send me all your money, since you won’t be needing it.


Of course, what you do will depend on how likely you think it is that you’re among the elite who’ll be raptured away from the carnage on the streets.


If it happens to be after October 21, 2011 and you’re reading this, there may be a few things in the above list you’ll wish you hadn’t done. Just thought I should warn you.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Giving spirituality the chop

  (01 October 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

John McDonald’s recent piece in the SMH on the Blake Prize is compelling. He says of the competition:


Instead of addressing ''religion'', which implies a structured set of beliefs; a collection of stories, rules and codes; a series of moral and spiritual disciplines that determine how people live their lives; it now celebrates the New Age self-indulgence of ''spirituality''.


McDonald goes on to make the point that ‘spirituality’ means anything from a walk in the bush to sitting cross-legged for hours on a mat to attending the footy (though he acknowledges footy can also be a religion).


A few of us came to the same conclusion at the recent SoFiA Conference in Brisbane on ‘Spirituality and the Arts’. A lively presentation about the Blake Prize at that event raised this very question: if this is ‘spiritual’ art, what on earth does ‘spirituality’ mean? Perhaps it does mean something, vaguely, but no-one seems able to explain quite what.


If instead we use words such as ‘aesthetics’, ‘emotion’ and ‘ethics’ (and for some, ‘supernaturalism’) we appear to cover the territory pretty well, and all these terms actually mean something.


Is it time to give ‘spirituality’ the chop?



View All Comments / Add Comment

School funding and equity

  (02 September 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Chris Bonner (a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development) has a forthright piece on school funding in the SMH. SoFiA member Nigel Sinnott writes:

I think the freethought movement has to be involved in the knotty question of school funding because the vast majority of private schools in Australia are either run by religious bodies or foundations, or else have a strong religious agenda. Non-sectarian private schools are rare, perhaps very rare, and the principles of secular education are already being badly eroded (by socially conservative politicians) in state schools.







View All Comments / Add Comment

Is there a God?

  (31 August 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Here’s one to watch for: a debate between Peter Singer (Princeton bio-ethicist and atheist) and John Lennox (Oxford Maths Professor and Christian) on the grandest of the topics… Is there a God?


Big Ideas, ABC 1, Tues (6 Sept) or Wed (7 Sept) at 11am.


View All Comments / Add Comment

An agnostic viewpoint

  (31 August 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

A comment from David Miller as a prelude to an upcoming Melbourne Sea of Faith discussion titled ‘Secular Atheism contra New Age Religion’:


Some New Age gurus tell me that the way to ascertain Truth is to meditate, stop thinking and ‘go within’. The originating alpha seers of the traditional religions used this, and other methods, to ascertain their Truths. And the rest of us, sheep-like, have followed the seers' visions. Secular religions have fared no better. Our Nationalist patriots tell us that our nation embodies Truth and Virtue and is therefore superior. The Communists tell us the same about our class. And the Fascists say the same about our race. Where have all these competing imaginary truth-claims got humanity? Into constant war and bloodshed!


Those amongst my Atheist colleagues who suffer from a bad dose of Scientism tell me that science answers everything. Science, they believe, is building the ‘rock of certainty’ on which they can securely stand. ‘We will soon know everything’, they intone.


My preferred stance is that of the Agnosticism. From the Agnostic viewpoint, Truth, Absolute Knowledge and Ultimate Reality are unattainable ideals. Nevertheless, the quest for these ideals is perpetrated by the 'agnostic' methodology of science. Out of our imagination, our fantasies, our intuitions, our hunches, our guesses and our speculation, together with observation and measurement, we hone hypotheses that can be put to the test. If these tests and experiments are successful, and can be replicated, they may in time achieve the status of becoming ‘scientific theories’. However, these theories are open to analysis, to challenge, to modification and to refutation, as well as to new discoveries.


Truth, as an ideal, may be unattainable. But the quest goes on.





View All Comments / Add Comment

The passing of an evangelical stalwart

  (06 August 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Evangelical Christianity has lost one its most influential exponents.

John Stott’s Basic Christianity, among other writings, typifies for me the hubris behind the conservative-evangelical position: Christianity is rigidly defined along the narrow lines of the sin-redemption model, thus excluding many of the varied and subtle flavours of the faith that have existed from the days of the early church. It’s a message still being peddled by conservative churches and Alpha courses across the world.

Some argue, however, that love or loathe Stott’s theology/christology, there were in fact (if you’ll pardon the pun) some significant redeeming features in his contribution to evangelical Christianity. It seems he did genuinely ‘walk the walk’.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Near Death Experiences

  (04 August 11)

It's one of life's biggest questions: What happens when you die?

An increasing number of near death experiences, or NDEs, are being reported thanks to advances in medical science and increased resuscitations of the dead.


And several survivors have come forward to share their glimpses of what they believe is a realm beyond this life.


Have a look at this report from Mail Online (US) that includes video-clips of NDE survivors

View All Comments / Add Comment

Faith by numbers: why religion still matters

  (28 July 11)

In the latest edition of IPSOS MORI's research journal, Understanding Society, Tony Blair talks about the central and growing importance of religion to global society.

The reasoning is compelling. In a world that may seem increasingly secular to many of us, it is easy to forget that religious belief is a central part of life for hundreds of millions of people. MORI's study in 24 countries showed that 69 per cent say they have a religion -- and of these, 40 per cent say it is very important to them.

Here's a summary of the IPSOS MORI numbers of the faithful.

View All Comments / Add Comment

The end of evil?

  (16 July 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is it time we consigned the idea of evil to the scrap-heap of confusing and unnecessary concepts? (A place some would see as the true home of the term ‘God’.)


No doubt most of those attending the biennial meeting of exorcists in Poland would demur. However, Simon Baron-Cohen has an interesting take on evil in his 2011 book Zero Degrees of Empathy: he says that empathy can usefully replace evil as a concept. The behaviour of someone who performs a cruel or repulsive act can be explained so much better in terms of lack of empathy than by simply calling them ‘evil’: there are hormonal, genetic and environmental factors at play which can be investigated and – who knows? – maybe even corrected.


Of course this doesn’t account for ‘natural evil’, the calamity and suffering wrought by Mother Nature. Even there, though, the term isn’t in common use. Natural disasters like the Christchurch or Japanese earthquakes are discussed in terms of ‘evil’ only by the far-right religious fringe.  


Has ‘evil’ has its day?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Extremism and atheists

  (03 July 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

If Christians have to shoulder the burden of the Crusades and witch-burnings and Muslims are held to account for awful doings in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, should atheists be expected to take some responsibility for the terrible deeds associated with Pol Pot and Chairman Mao?


Prominent atheist Dick Gross thinks so…



View All Comments / Add Comment

Christian v secular standards

  (29 June 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Modern secular standards in Australia seem to be so much more in line with the Jesus of the gospels than do many of those tagged as ‘Christian’.


For instance, can you imagine Jesus advocating that children be caned for misbehaviour? The little we see of his interaction with children shows anything but the Old Testament ‘spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child’ mentality. Yet here it is, still, in Queensland – and only in Christian schools.


Jesus accepted women and Samaritans as people of value. Which 21st-century employers are clamouring to exclude people based on their gender, sexual orientation or religious belief? Why, it’s the religious ones. Victoria, for example, has just passed laws allowing faith-based organisations the right to discriminate in their hiring of staff.


And while we’re on exclusivity, back to schools… many of the faith-based private schools in my town are well-known for their devotion to core Christian values such as privilege and status. World-class facilities are on offer, facilities not available to the also-rans at State Schools. Take all comers? Well, yes, provided you can pay and we’re happy that you’re the right sort of person. I hasten to add that these Christian principles don’t apply to all faith-based schooling locally: there are Catholic and other low-fee religious schools with values and practices far more genuinely compatible with those espoused by Jesus. And then, of course, there are the secular State Schools who take inclusivity seriously, regardless of economic circumstances and social background.


It’s probably true that Jesus was no democrat, however he does seem to have been able to tolerate significant variation on the received truths of his own faith, such as that the Sabbath laws were absolute. The imposition of hierarchically-ordained ‘orthodox’ views, of course, is a problem faced by many organisations, including secular ones. But which organisation has recently disgraced itself in spectacular fashion by forcing the resignation of a respected leader who simply pleaded for allowing ideas counter to current practice to be considered? (Not adopted, mind, just entertained.) Yes, it’s the good old Catholic Church. Any recourse to fair secular practices here, like due process? With Ratzinger as Pope and Pell pre-eminent in the Australian hierarchy it’s a rhetorical question.


And there’s much, much more. The Presbyterian Church precipitously sacks the board of a well-run local hospital (and installs yes-men with little experience) because they won’t toe the line on fundamentalist anti-abortion policies. It’s the rules, you see: forget compassion and individual circumstances. Enclaves of extreme minority religious belief are tax-payer funded through rate exemptions; they’re happy to accept a regular public hand-out from those they consider ‘unclean’ and destined for hell. Church leaders lobby against allowing students who opt out of religious instruction to be given lessons in ethics.  


Of course Jesus had no intention of founding the Church. At least (arguably*) Christendom eventually self-secularised to produce modern secular humanism, so some genuine semblance of Jesus’ principles remains with us.



* This is Don Cupitt’s thesis in The Meaning of the West.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Events of interest

  (09 June 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Our list of general-interest events related to religion, faith and meaning has (finally!) been updated. The events are mostly public lectures and conferences, on topics ranging from the Shroud of Turin to corporate ethics. Check out the list at

Of course, don’t forget our own conference in Brisbane in September:

Head, Heart, Body and Soul: Religion, Spirituality and the Arts





View All Comments / Add Comment

Hard-wired for God?

  (24 May 11)

Here's a report in the Sydney Morning Herald that asks "Are we hard-wired for God?" or at least for believing.

It comes from a global study "Explaining Religion" based in Oxford. This piece reports on three aspects of the report: (i) evolution of belief in the supernatural, (ii) the religious instinct, and (iii) the cognitive appeal of faith.

And there's more to come from this study next week (in the SMH) and perhaps here.

(Note that this report was referred to in the previous blog)

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religious belief is human nature

  (14 May 11)

Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests.

"We tend to see purpose in the world," Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said Thursday. "We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can't see it. ... All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking."

This is a quote from a piece reporting on a global study of human nature. It is a short report and I look forward to more details of the study.

So if you're religious you will probably say: "Of course, God made humans like that."

And if you're an atheist you'll likely say: "Well we'd better get over it."

What's your response?

View All Comments / Add Comment

Women are dangerous

  (08 May 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Paul Sheehan, writing in the SMH, claims (credibly in my view) that “repressing women is sharia's raison d'etre”. Toowoomba’s Catholic Bishop Bill Morris is shown the door for suggesting that the notion of female clergy should be considered – not necessarily adopted, mind, just considered.

And now the Israeli Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung edits the only two women out of the famous White House Situation Room photo showing the President and advisors watching the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Too sexually provocative. Ah… come again? Hillary Clinton and counter-terrorism analyst Audrey Tomasen sexually provocative? We’re not talking bikinis here: Tomasen’s barely visible in the background and Clinton is wearing a long-sleeved coat.

What is it with hard-line religion on the subject of women?

It all makes Tamas Pataki’s take on religion the more credible: in his view there’s an unhealthy dose of narcissism involved. Keeping women in their place is a punishment and a safeguard, a way of dealing with deep-seated frustration and anxiety about mother who is needed and desirable yet ultimately unattainable.

Is there a better explanation for conservative religion’s need to repress women?

View All Comments / Add Comment

Toe the line... or hoof it

  (05 May 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Catholic Church is up to its old tricks. No quarter given: toe the official line or else. So Toowoomba’s Bishop Morris must give up his position, apparently for some very tame comments some years ago in which he urges parishioners to “reflect carefully” on options for increasing the pool of available priests, including allowing married and female clergy.  


We live in an era where many churches, including all the other ‘mainstream’ varieties, tolerate a good deal of progressive speculation from clergy regarding both doctrine and ecclesiology.


Perhaps this is the genius of the hard-line position held by the Vatican. In the marketplace, the Catholic brand is distinctive: it has come to be associated with authoritarian, black-and-white religion. It seems there is no shortage of takers.    


The saddest part of the Toowoomba saga is that Catholics, up to now, have been amongst the town’s most thoughtful and even progressive Christians. Their choices are stark: toe the line or hoof it. The possibility of change from within seems as far away as it ever was before Vatican II.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Why we don't change our minds in arguments

  (21 April 11)

How often have you gone into an ‘argument’ with someone holding other views saying to yourself “I’ve got the facts and I’ll convince him/her by the weight of my argument”?

 And how often did this not work out that way?

 Climate science is the example of this par excellence these days. People on both sides shake their heads that others can’t see the ‘truth’ as they see it. And they vilify the other side as money-wasters or planet destroyers.

 We’ve read about how strong pre-existing views are held by others and how hard it is to get them to change their minds. Turns out it is almost impossible.  And this even in the sciences where objective truth is supposed to be the norm.

 In this piece the literature on psychology, neuroscience and related disciplines is mined deeply to show us what’s going on. Some fascinating experiments are reported.

 What I’m now waiting for is a report on how we get to be as bloody-minded as we seem to end up. Is it genetic or cultural? How much of each? But that's another story. For the moment just how one-eyed we are in arguments or discussions. 

View All Comments / Add Comment

Conservatives & liberals

  (13 April 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Why are some people religious conservatives and others liberal?


In his small book Against Religion, Tamas Pataki argues – persuasively, in my view – that narcissism may well be at the root of much religious fundamentalism. But there are plenty of people who can usefully be thought of as ‘conservative’ without being extreme when it comes to religious outlook. And there are religious liberals, too. Attitudes to authority, to scripture and to other faiths are among the issues that separate the two camps.


What if the difference is actually biological?



View All Comments / Add Comment

A secular bible

  (04 April 11)

A.C.Grayling has finally finished a book he’s been working on for most of his life. What A.C. Grayling has written is a secular bible. The Good Book mirrors the Bible in both form and language, and is, as its author says, “ambitious and hubristic—a distillation of the best that has been thought and said by people who’ve really experienced life, and thought about it.” Drawing on classical secular texts from east and west, Grayling has done just what the Bible makers did with the sacred texts, reworking them into a great treasury of insight and consolation and inspiration and uplift and understanding in the great non-religious traditions of the world.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion in schools

  (27 March 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

By 1895 all Australian colonies had adopted a system of primary education that was 'free, compulsory and secular'. The clout of the Catholic Church ensured not only the continuance of church-based schooling in parallel with the state system, but also access by churches to the ‘secular’ schools for the purpose of religious instruction.


116 years later, religion in schools is still a live issue. Last week was no exception…


  • Yarralinda School in Mooroolbark, Victoria, which uses Applied Scholastics teaching materials based on the works of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, is accused of using slabs of government funding to pay debt related to the Church of Scientology headquarters in Ascot Vale.
  • Concern in Bass Hill, NSW, has arisen about a costly government land deal involving allegations of religious prejudice over thwarted plans for a private Islamic school.
  • Government funding for private schools – including some wealthy church schools – is yet again in the national spotlight.
  • And in Victoria a claim has been lodged with the Equal Opportunity Commission concerning religious instruction as a form of systemic discrimination in state schools… see here, here and here.

There’s now a Humanist Society website specifically on the issue of religion in schools.

A number of commentators have pointed out that given the small proportion of families at state schools who attend church weekly (around 8%), those parents with a desire to have their children instructed in religion should look to their local Sunday school rather than a secular state school.


I suppose it would be a different matter if the religion classes were truly about education...


View All Comments / Add Comment

God and natural disasters

  (25 March 11)

A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (US) taken just a week after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan reveals some astounding beliefs held by Americans (at least astounding to me).

Does God cause these events to occur to send messages to us? 38% say yes.

Does God allow these events to occur to send such messages? 60% of evangelicals think so.

One wonders about the conception of God held by such people, and how this is possible among people in the most developed country in the world.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Atheists vs. the US Military

  (21 March 11)

You would probably expect that the US Military is tough, rough-talking, almost take-no-prisoners both collectively and in personal styles. That’s what I thought; they always seem to be in wars around the world, almost looking for the next one. Certainly sometimes they come to the aid of the marginalised and oppressed and we cheer – Afghanistan under the Taliban for example. Other times it’s not so clear e.g. Vietnam, Iraq.

 But you don’t expect them to be an evangelical outfit, working towards making their members ‘born-again’.

 Check this story out. And it’s by no means unique.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Respect and science

  (04 March 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

I was discussing cross-cultural issues recently with a Murri. She was pointing out that Aboriginal people had lived sustainably in Australia before European settlement (let’s not mince words – invasion). I made the point that while that seemed to have been true for many thousands of years, there was some evidence for the idea that when people first came to this land a significant ecological adjustment took place. It’s understood, for example, that the megafauna died out around this time, and a link between the two events is not at all implausible.


My interlocutor’s response was to say that many Murri folk believe they’ve always been here.


Which brings me to the question of respect. It’s a touchy subject. Some of our assumptions regarding the first Australians (and people of other cultures too) are wrong, and sometimes offensively so. We should indeed strive to respect others, and being informed about their customs and beliefs, and about what they find acceptable, is part of that. As an Australian of European descent (a ‘Migaloo’, in Murri terms) it’s an especially tricky business, given the unarguable history of oppression visited by my mob on theirs.


What can I say, then, to claims that Murris have always been here? I want to insist that as much as I wish to respect cultural difference and the beliefs of others, it’s important to consider the evidence in a case like this. But is the scientific method with its reliance on evidence merely another (European) cultural belief, and (to boot) a tool with which the powerful continue to put the powerless in their place?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Sam Harris replies...

  (25 February 11)

Sam Harris has written a book The Moral landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which has received considerable negative attention. After all his is a big claim and the book is quite a bit turgid in places. But its an interesting idea: that "we can, in principle, think about moral truth in the context of science". 

He replies to his critics in this piece.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Lent and the Age of Excess

  (12 February 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Self-denial is not in vogue these days. In an age of excess, does religion still have a role to play in helping us achieve a measure of self-control?  


The season of Lent is fast approaching (March 9 – April 23, in fact). As with every other year, however, it will be completely ignored by most Australians, trivialised by any tiny bit of mainstream media attention it attracts, noticed but not considered by many church-attenders and devoutly observed by a few.


Is it time – even for the atheists among us – to reappraise Lenten discipline?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Belief in numbers

  (31 January 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Dick Gross, author of the ‘Godless Gross’ column in the SMH, raises an interesting question in a recent post. How is a census (such as the one approaching) to frame a question that gives us any useful information on the status of religion in Oz? What does it mean, for example, to claim (as many atheists do) that religion has declined? Do the numbers tell the story? As Gross points out, even if the number of adherents doesn’t change much the content and intensity of their beliefs might have changed radically. 


To be sure, both the Atheist Foundation of Australia and the Australian Christian Lobby will see huge significance in the numbers; expect them to come out spinning the moment new stats on religion are available.  


What would be interesting also would be a question that somehow captures the extent of what many of us (blithely) call ‘fringe’ beliefs.


Sorcery, demons, curses and angels… it’s all still happening, apparently, in 21st century Australia.



View All Comments / Add Comment

And Jesus wept ......

  (27 January 11)

Gart Everson sent this piece to me. It seemed so significant that I've posted it to our blog.  

Is this the modern day equivalent of Luther posting his 95 (?) theses to the door?

When will the Catholic Church come out of the 15th century?

Scott McK.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Am I my brother’s keeper?

  (22 January 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

Owen Ronalds poses this question in relation to some of the religion he sees coming from the U.S.A.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Trauma and comfort

  (17 January 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

“It's just comfort,” says one lady attending a church service in the wake of the terrible floods in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley. No doubt her feelings are shared by many.


Why comfort, though? How does that work?


Is it the sense that a compassionate God shares your sorrow? Or the solidarity of fellow worshippers? Perhaps the two can’t be disentangled. And what of God’s omnipotence? Plenty of the faithful would want to avow that God could have acted to prevent disaster if He so chose. Or did God find Himself between a rock and a hard place?  


Or is it that somehow, in the mysterious ways of the Lord, it all makes sense and serves a purpose? Though none but the loony fringe would baldly suggest at times of human trauma that ‘God did it’ the idea of a Plan is widely touted as comforting. How could anyone believe, however, that the End, however noble, truly justifies such horrifying means?



View All Comments / Add Comment

USA - a most religious nation?

  (09 January 11)

When we take a good look at the way people live in the United States it's hard to believe that 90% believe in God, over half go to church regularly and most pray quite often

Why hard to believe? Have a look at the score-card of emeritus professor Bernard Starr of City University of New York.

Talk about practising what you preach?


View All Comments / Add Comment

The Once and Future Bible

  (06 January 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

A new must-have for the bookshelves of anyone serious about the Bible is about to appear. Details below.




Gregory C. Jenks
The Once and Future Bible
An introduction to the Bible for religious progressives.

Foreword by J. Harold Ellens

Wipf & Stock Publishers, January 2011.

ISBN 13: 978-1-60899-961-3

xxii + 246 pages (includes Indexes)


Early endorsements for The Once & Future Bible

Greg Jenks knows his Bible as “ancient texts that come from another world and another time,” wholly human in origin, sometimes mad, sometimes magnificent. He buries the notion of a supernatural “word of God,” only to affirm the continuing relevance of these words of yesterday’s men for today’s “religious progressives who live the questions, not dodge them.” A wonderful demonstration of how we might still find ways of singing the Lord’s song in the strange and brave new land of secular modernity.

—David Boulton
author Who on Earth was Jesus? and The Trouble with God.

I have read your book and find it superb. It is a volume that the market of lay persons of all religious persuasions, and those who do not have a significant religious perspective, urgently needs. It fills an obvious current vacuum, is highly readable, entertaining, and immensely informative.

—J. Harold Ellens
author Honest Faith for Our Time, The Healing Power of Spirituality and Miracles.

Greg Jenks takes his readers on a new journey through the Holy Scriptures, reclaiming them with keen scholarship for our post-religious world. After reading the work of this emerging progressive religious thinker, the Bible will shine with a new luster.

—John Shelby Spong
author Eternal Hope: A New Vision and Jesus for the Non-Religious.

Ordering information

The book is due to be released in late January 2011, at a list price of $29.00 (US dollars).

Once published the book can be ordered direct from Wipf & Stock Publishers or via online retailers such as

Wipf and Stock offer publisher discounts for orders placed directly with them:

  • For orders of 1 to 4 copies, there will be 20% discount off the retail price.
  • For 5 or more copies, there will be a 40% discount.

Australian and New Zealand customers

Orders from Australia and New Zealand may also be placed direct with the author, trading as FAITHFUTURES (ABN 66 595 705 410). The publisher's discount will be matched for all orders placed directly with FAITHFUTURES. Local ordering will also provide significant savings on postage charges as well as offering shorter delivery times.

  • For orders of 1 to 4 copies, there will be 20% discount off the retail price.
  • For 5 or more copies, there will be a 40% discount.
  • For early bird orders (placed before 31 January 2011) there will be a 25% discount on orders for 1 to 4 copies, while orders for 5 or more copies will get free postage in addition to the 40% discount.

Order online via PayPal ::

Download order form for postal orders ::



View All Comments / Add Comment

Happy New Year!

  (30 December 10)

Happy New Year! As we greet family and friends with this seasonal blessing, what a joy it can be to know we are part of a global tradition both ancient and ongoing. The history of humankind reveals a basic need to celebrate the changing of the seasons. For many cultures, the “return” of the sun at the Winter Solstice has marked the beginning of the New Year. With the gradual increase of daylight comes the promise of new life—both plant life and the animal and human life that depend on it. For millennia, people all over the globe have ritually rejoiced in this reassuring cosmic phenomenon.

 Read about some of these or refresh your memory.

View All Comments / Add Comment

First intelligent design now intelligent falling (gravity)!

  (25 December 10)


If you thought intelligent design as the evangelical/fundamentalist alternative to evolution by natural selection was a bit contrived, have a look at intelligent falling as the alternative to the theory of gravity (Newton and Einstein). I wasn’t sure when I first read this if it was satire. What do you think?


View All Comments / Add Comment

Room at the Inn?

  (18 December 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Malcolm Farr’s analysis of the asylum-seeker issue in Australia, as given to Geraldine Doogue on Radio National, is superb. The problem, he says, is overwhelmingly political; the cultural, demographic or employment consequences of so-called “illegal” boat arrivals are negligible.


Hugh Mackay calls it a moral issue that’s been politicised.


It’s about Australians who begrudge generosity where they feel it’s unwarranted (despite us proudly singing “we’ve boundless plains to share”), and politicians taking advantage of that miserly mood.


Has One Nation small-mindedness become mainstream? Is there room at the inn this Christmas?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Why religion makes people happier

  (11 December 10)

Religious people are more satisfied with their lives than nonbelievers, but a new study finds it's not a relationship with God that makes the devout happy. Instead, the satisfaction boost may come from closer ties to earthly neighbors.

 ….. the satisfaction couldn't be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God's love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation.

 Perhaps belonging to a secular friend group that engages in meaningful activities and shares a social identity might also boost life satisfaction?


View All Comments / Add Comment

A new deity ariseth in the land

  (10 December 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is this the pathetic result of the decline in organised religion? The crowd, including our own PM, went bananas for Oprah in Melbourne yesterday. The pseudo-science-peddling small-screen queen bestows mystical experience upon the faithful: ''The universe is bringing her to me,'' one adoring fan is quoted as saying.


Perhaps GK Chesterton is right after all: when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing. They believe in anything.




View All Comments / Add Comment

WikiLeaks and faith in government

  (07 December 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

SoFiA is about openly exploring religion, faith and meaning. WikiLeaks has enhanced our ability to openly explore the faith we place (and are urged to place) in governments, chiefly that of the USA but also our own. The reaction of some politicians and commentators as the hornet’s nest is stirred is further evidence that trust in these governments is barely warranted.


Adding a comment to the open letter which appeared yesterday on The Drum (thank the gods for Aunty!) is one way to show support for openness and to affirm access to information (where’s that report on the NBN, Julia?) as a key plank in the ever-leaky raft we call democracy.    



View All Comments / Add Comment

How Should Religion Behave in Public?

  (03 December 10)

This piece from The Huffington Post (28 November 2010) considers mainly the question of “being good without God”. Where does our morality come from if we don’t believe in God? As well it makes reference to people whose religious beliefs impact social and/or political decisions, referring to the case of the US Congressman now appointed to chair a committee on energy use who believes that God will decide what happens to the world not whether we introduce more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere!

View All Comments / Add Comment

Atheists and the Sublime

  (16 November 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

David Miller writes:


When the conversation between the ABC 'Encounter' presenter Florence Spurling and Professor Donna Orwin on Leo Tolstoy reached the point at which they were discussing the relationship between atheism, nihilism and despair, I had to fight off the desire to switch them off.  I did not know whether to laugh, cry or vomit.  Yet I desperately wanted to respond.  So I continued listening in fascinated horror, waiting for a peg on which to hang my response.  Suddenly they presented it to me.  They began discussing Hadji Murad and the 'Sublime'.  Amazingly, they were doing it in a non-supernaturalist way.  And I agreed with them.  I had found my peg!


Let me start by asserting that everyone of us, believer as well as non-believer, yearns for the Sublime.  If that is too wild an assertion, then let me merely say that most of us are often overwhelmed by the Sublime.


The Sublime comprises our highest values (truth, beauty and goodness), our loftiest ideals (love, compassion, mercy, perfection, justice, freedom, creativity, etc), our peak experiences (wonder, awe, mystery, gratitude, uniqueness, oneness, interconnectedness, etc) and our areas of ultimate concern (self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc).


We place the Sublime above and beyond ourselves.  It is 'out there'.  We give it allegiance.  We serve it.  We are subservient to it.  It is our lord and master.  We are its slave.  If necessary we are prepared to die for it.  We will even kill for it.  In return it gives us meaning and purpose.  It gives us something with which to identify.  It takes us out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, to a greater purpose.


Unfortunately, most people throughout history have preferred to symbolise the Sublime in the form of a supernatural metaphorical personification.  I say 'unfortunately' because, for me as an Atheist, the symbolising of the Sublime as gods, tooth fairies and imaginary friends is an infantile besmirching and befouling of the Sublime.  It is the Sublime that makes us human.  I am angered and frightened by the constant assumption by believers in the supernatural that we non-believers do not have a Sublime dimension.



View All Comments / Add Comment

With God on Our Side

  (12 November 10)

 A new documentary from the United States throws some light on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, illustrating the role of a large percentage of the Christian Right’s involvement in supporting the Israeli side. They do this as they support Biblical injunctions about the people and land of Israel in what only can be described as blind arrogance.

 Frank Schaeffer gives a comprehensive review of the documentary and some important background information about this disgraceful act of “un-Christian” behaviour on the part of those involved.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Have you heard the good news?

  (08 November 10)

This is a YouTube piece that quite cleverly reminds us of the absurdity of the central tenets of traditional Christianity. 

View All Comments / Add Comment

I don't believe in agnostics

  (06 November 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Atheist Malcolm Knox gives 10 reasons why he has his children involved in religion. They’re well worth considering.


Along the way, Knox makes the claim that


If you're unsure whether there's a God or not, it means either you are not living with belief in God, which means you are an atheist, or that you fear that there might be a God and want to leave that option open, in which case what you really are is a believer. There's no neutral position.


I’m inclined to agree. Agnosticism, in my view, is the only respectable philosophical position. In practice, however, either you are a fool (like me) who says in his heart that there is no God or your heart tells you there may indeed be God. If you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, it’s a matter of what ‘rings true’ where the rubber hits the road. Deep down, away from the armchair musings, we believe or we don’t. (And it’s clearly not a matter of choice, as though you could decide at breakfast to be a believer or an atheist.)



View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion and the Liberal State

  (05 November 10)

The age of colonial imperialism is over: taking your laws somewhere else and imposing them on those already there and those who come thereafter is gone. More relevantly these days is the question of migrants asking that their home laws be applied in their new country of residence, for example sharia law among Turks in Germany, and other Muslims in Britain and France.

Stanley Fish has written an interesting piece in the New York Times "Religion and the Liberal State Once Again". We will see more and more of this debate I believe.

View All Comments / Add Comment

A science of morality?

  (21 October 10)

Frans de Waal, the famous primatologist writes about human behaviour and primate behaviour in the New York Times, exploring the idea that  humans ‘can be good without God’. The way the primate brain shades slowly over (evolutionary) time into the human brain supports the general idea that while we are special we aren’t all that unique. However de Waal stops short of suggesting that his science is able, or will ever be able, to provide a basis for morality i.e. establish moral laws from a scientific investigation of human beings.

 This is Sam Harris’ project in his latest book ‘The Moral Landscape”. You can get some idea of his viewpoint by reading some reviews on Amazon.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Evolving morality

  (18 October 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Emeritus Professor Lloyd Geering’s address to the 2010 National Conference of SoFiA is now on the SoFiA website: ‘The Changing Moral Imperative: From gods to God to Gaia’.



View All Comments / Add Comment

In defence of secularism

  (09 October 10)

The visit of Benedict XVI has not only highlighted the role of religion in British society, but also displayed how a secular society is far healthier in terms of debating controversial issues, argues Michele Monni.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Climate change and morality

  (08 October 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

John Birmingham has just reviewed two new additions to the climate debate, both of which take seriously Kevin Rudd’s grand statement that the issue is the “greatest moral challenge” of our time.





View All Comments / Add Comment

Business as usual?

  (08 October 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is organised religion really on the decline? The Age reports on a new study (more here) which seems to suggest it’s business as usual in Australia, with Gen Y (born 1982 – 2000) pretty much on a par with the Baby Boomers:


The research finds that 42.6 per cent had prayed in the preceding month - little different to the 43.6 per cent of Baby Boomers. It also finds 29.6 per cent attended a place of worship and 21.3 per cent read spiritual books, while 13.9 per cent had practised yoga and 12 per cent meditation - little different from the older generations.



View All Comments / Add Comment

In the know… or not

  (02 October 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.


So says the summary from the latest Pew Forum research project, the US Religious Knowledge Survey.


How would Australian atheists and religious folk fare, I wonder?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Dangerous ideas

  (02 October 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Dangerous ideas are so important there’s a festival dedicated to them, a two-day event at the Sydney Opera House this weekend. The point, say the organisers, is not to push particular ideas, but to broaden our minds and to make us think.


Openness… it’s what SoFiA stands for.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Euthanasia in the Netherlands

  (24 September 10)

Euthanasia in the Netherlands

 The recent SoFiA National conference on the Sunshine Coast featured Marshall Perron, former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, talking about voluntary euthanasia as a solution to the dilemma of ‘dying with dignity’. Ian Mavor wrote about palliative care as another solution to this dilemma in the July 2010 edition of SoFiA Bulletin.

 Brian Wilder has sent a link to a study in the Netherlands of a couple of decades of dealing with voluntary euthanasia including the more recent legislation that gave certainty.

As we Baby Boomers get older (not forgetting also an earlier generation!) this becomes a more significant issue – a dilemma for all of us.  

 More information is available from Exit International and Dying with Dignity.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Mystery and evidence

  (10 September 10)

Laurel Sommerfield drew this piece to my attention, a piece by Professor Tim Crane of Cambridge University, posted to the New York Times Online on September 5.

Professor Crane looks at the difference between evidence in science and that in religion, making the very valid point that we don't need to hold religion to the same epistemological standards as we do science.

That's OK - but what about the idiotic and infantile claims made in some religions?

Surely there's a role for common-sense here.

Do we need religions that make such extraordinary claims as:  given that humankind is so sinful God needs to send his son to Earth to die an agonizing death so that he (God) can forgive them for their sins?

And this happened at a particular time in history:  what about the humans who lived for a couple of hundred thousand years before this?

And so on.

Beats me.

I think Professor Crane has more thinking to do in this matter.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Hawking on God (Part 2)

  (06 September 10)

Stephen Hawking will launch his new book The Grand Design on Thursday (September 9). It’s already received quite a deal of publicity (as he hoped I’m sure) as it calls the existence of God into question. For many this seems a turn-about for Hawking as he seemed to support the idea of God in his 1988 best-seller A Brief History of Time.

 Here’s a piece from the Economist about the book and also Roger Penrose’s review in the Financial Times.


View All Comments / Add Comment

School chaplaincy – a challenge

  (04 September 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

School chaplains, in my own experience as a parent and a teacher, can make a positive difference to a school community. That experience is limited to one school, however, where the chaplain is willing to follow the guidelines about proselytism and happens to have some positive personal qualities that seem to allow him to fulfil his task well.


That doesn’t appear to be the case everywhere; indeed, the concern is such in some schools, by some parents, that a constitutional challenge [direct link here] to the school chaplaincy program is shortly to come before the High Court. The Australian Psychological Society, apparently, also has serious concerns about the lack of requirement for chaplains to have any kind of qualifications relating to counselling or mental health.


Chrys Stevenson on her blog (Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear) puts a forthright view as to why the school chaplaincy program is a very bad thing. She makes some good points.


I have a question, however, which goes to the core of the status of religion in our society. At least in primary schools in Queensland (and I’ve worked in a good many), atheism just isn’t considered polite to mention. It’s as if it would frighten the children. The official line, if there is one, emanating from the school administration is mildly pro-religion. Religious instruction and school chaplaincy are encouraged; talk about God and occasional prayers on school assemblies and at camps are not uncommon. Never once have I heard atheism alluded to, let alone directly mentioned except in private conversations among staff or parents.


By virtue of this residual respect for religion in schools – which remains, despite the multitude of scandals involving clergy – a chaplain has immediate and largely unquestioned esteem in the school community. If chaplains were replaced by qualified counsellors I expect those counsellors would blend into the mix of professionals – teachers, support staff, guidance officers – and have a very hard job attaining the same status and visibility as the much less-qualified chaplains currently do. Perceived motivation is surely part of this mix: the ‘chappie’ is seen as having a deep personal commitment to the kids and parents (even if ultimately it’s about subtle evangelism) rather than being there chiefly for the promise of a regular pay-packet.


Given this, is there a way to adequately replace chaplains with someone non-religious and qualified who can be seen as worthwhile and effective to do the job of ‘being there’ to support students and parents? It wouldn’t be very financially rewarding; would there be enough takers to want to do it (in the absence of some religious motivation)? Would humanists step up to the plate?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Faith and false festivals

  (04 September 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Finally, some sanity on the “false festival” of Fathers’ Day. Philosopher Damon Young has a thought-provoking take on the issue in today’s SMH:  


The problem inherent in mass modern festivals is irrelevance. In many cases, they're unrelated to the cadence of ordinary life. As a nation, we're not close-knit villagers, united by faith, overcooked mutton and the scent of dung. We don't have common rhythms or rituals.


Festivals like Father's Day become superimposed, abstract ideals, commandeered by retailers. The vacuum left by lost religion or secular intimacy is filled by what now comes naturally at every major event: buying crap.


Does the declining popularity of our once-potent Father in Heaven help explain why we’ve become such dedicated and consummate consumers?




View All Comments / Add Comment

Why is there something?

  (02 September 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The old question has a new answer. Why is there something rather than nothing? According to Stephen Hawking’s new book, the answer is… gravity. He may as well as have said ‘42’.


Scientists – even eminent ones – don’t seem to be especially good at distinguishing ‘how’ questions from ‘why’ ones. Even if the spontaneous arising of the universe can be explained by gravity, it still doesn’t (and can’t) address whether some incorporeal Designer intended it or created the law of gravity. The why question is about purpose and meaning, not about mechanism. (The answer, of course, may be: ‘no reason, that’s just the way it is’.)





View All Comments / Add Comment

Those devilish Greens

  (28 August 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Archbishop Pell’s advice to avoid voting for the Greens ("sweet camouflaged poison", as he described them) doesn’t seem to have had much effect on the national election results. Or maybe it has… they won their first ever Lower House seat, scored a record 11+% of the vote nationally and will now hold the balance of power in the Senate.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Youth & religion in the US

  (13 August 10)

Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.

 72% say they are more spiritual than religious

 Churches have responded with internet sites that are fully interactive, with a dedicated Internet pastor, live chat in an online "lobby," Bible study, one-on-one prayer through IM and communion, according to this report.  

What does this mean for the church in the US in the long term? 

View All Comments / Add Comment

Sign of the times?

  (12 August 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

When it hits commercial TV, is it confirmation (so to speak) of religious decline? Are christenings a thing of the past?



View All Comments / Add Comment

The Crusades again - in Africa this time.

  (23 July 10)

Ralph Peters writing in the New York Post outlines a case for the next Crusades. Again Christians vs. Moslems, but this time in Africa.

We hear a bit about the rise of Christianity in Africa, particularly of the Anglicans in Nigeria and their threat to leave the Anglican Communion. 

But this piece gives some overall views of religion in Africa, and of a coming clash between the two: Christianity and Islam. There is an inevitability about it.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Faith and facts

  (21 July 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

It seems that contradicting firmly-held beliefs with facts may be less than effective. In fact, it can be counter-productive, resulting in those beliefs being held even more strongly. That’s the conclusion of researchers at the University of Michigan.


This finding has implications for the political process as Julia and Tony struggle to shape public opinion in the lead to Australia’s polls on August 21. It also rings true, surely, for religious belief...





View All Comments / Add Comment

Our explanation of reality challenged

  (21 July 10)

We tend to think that we can explain our reality by using scientific models, theories and laws - that is until we begin to talk about 'subjective experience' and 'consciousness'. What brain scientists call 'the hard problem of consciousness', that is how we can explain our thoughts and our subjective experience as a result of physical processes in the brain, has failed to submit to satisfactory explanation.

And at the atomic level and below that level, quantum mechanics is also finding it difficult to use known physical processes to explain the behaviour of matter.

And then there's the question of where the laws came from, and how matter 'knows' to follow these laws.

Todd Duncan writing for The Global Spiral, a publication of the Metanexus Institute tries to untangle this problem. Worth a look. 

View All Comments / Add Comment

Terrible sins: paedophilia & priesting women

  (17 July 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

It takes your breath away. The ordination of women, apparently, is on some kind of a par with child abuse by clergy.


Is it any wonder the Catholic Church is both on the nose and increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century? It’s truly unfortunate, because there are very many forward-thinking Catholics who become more and more marginalised and demoralised as Rome (with Sydney in tow) continues its long-term lurch to the right.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Gays and marriage

  (17 July 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Wow – here’s one out of left-field from a commentator known for his reactionary views… It was wrong of me to oppose gay marriage.


He makes some good points, including about our current (soon to be erstwhile?) atheistic Prime Minister’s views.



View All Comments / Add Comment

The Church of England - a benign relic?

  (10 July 10)

England's state religion is an accident sustained by apathy: lacking any logical existence at the heart of the nation, it survives because it is already there. No one would campaign to create an official Church of England, if we had not inherited one; other parts of the country do without it. Non-believers, when they think of the English church at all, tend to see a benign relic, the keeper of country churchyards, a modest, often helpful and mostly inoffensive part of the national fabric. Its rituals involve a declining number of citizens and its tortured internal politics are a mystery, but it is still an important – and often profound – part of many English lives. The fact that the monarch is also its supreme governor, that some of its bishops sit in parliament, and that its senior clerics are appointed by the prime minister is both indefensible and profoundly unexciting. This tolerant indulgence, though, is being strained.

View All Comments / Add Comment

What now for religion in politics?

  (26 June 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Faith in politics may not be dead under non-practising Baptist Julia Gillard but it is certain to take on an altogether different meaning. So says Joel Gibson, writing in the SMH. Let’s hope the change is for the better.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Science and bunkum

  (26 June 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The New Scientist website features a review of Massimo Pigliucci’s book Nonsense on Stilts: How to tell science from bunk. (Thanks to Nigel Sinnot for the heads up on this.)


The review (and, one assumes, the book itself) is well worth a look. Some interesting questions are tackled, such as why quantum mysticism is in the ‘bunk’ category and string theory is considered ‘science’ (or ‘almost science’).


Reviewer Amanda Gefter says at one point:


The idea that science can't tell us anything about the objective world just because it is a human activity fraught with human flaws and biases is easily refuted the minute that planes fly or atomic bombs explode. Scientists, meanwhile, do us a disservice when they promote scientism - the idea that science can answer every meaningful question we might ask about the world.


I’d have to agree with this in principle, though the idea of science as a cultural activity is more complex and nuanced than Gefter allows here. Philosophers (Don Cupitt, for one) have no illusions about the usefulness of science, but they raise genuine epistemological issues that should force us to question the all-too-common assumption that we can grasp ‘reality itself’ in some magically unmediated way through science. The fact that we just can’t get a handle on the logic behind aspects of quantum physics is, I’d suggest, an illustration of this: our language-derived tools are indeed useful, but they don’t allow a seamless one-to-one mapping of what’s actually going on. In some sense, we are always ‘making it up’ or creating the reality we claim to ‘find’.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion 'fading fast' in the US?

  (26 June 10)

Newsline (25 June) reports:

Only 15 percent of emerging adults (between 18 and 29) in the USA have a strong personal faith and practise it regularly, a new poll shows. About 30 percent are engaged inconsistently or only loosely affiliated with a religious tradition. One in four is indifferent toward religion, while 15 percent are open to spiritual or religious matters but haven't made a personal commitment. The remaining 15 percent have little or no connection to religion, or hold negative attitudes toward it.

(Newsline is a newsletter of the National Secular Society [UK])

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion still matters

  (24 June 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Religion still matters, says Gerard Henderson. The evidence? Unlike the “sneering secularists” who “frequent taxpayer subsidised literary festivals”, our erstwhile PM and the Opposition Leader thought religion important enough to speak to a recent gathering of Christian leaders, an event which was also apparently webcast to “thousands of Christians at hundreds of churches”. (What Gerard meant to say was “taxpayer subsidised churches”, but he’s a busy man.)


Religion does still matter. In some cases it’s a force for progressive thought and worthwhile social action. In others – arguably the majority, and typified by the organiser of the event just mentioned, the Australian Christian Lobby – it’s a force for conservatism which would rather see asylum seekers turned away or locked up on Nauru than given a fair go.


I expect compassion for asylum-seekers and refugees didn’t feature too prominently in either K. Rudd’s or A. Abbott’s visions of the values that should define Australia after the election.


One wonders what J. Gillard would have to say on the matter… and whether she’d bother attending such a function. Time will tell.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Would you believe it?

  (19 June 10)

Some religious laws are so strange, so stupid and lead to such ridiculous outcomes that you would think that they'd change the laws.

Try this one from Saudi Arabia.

And it's the 21st century remember.

(I know we in SoFiA want to be tolerant of religious beliefs and customs, but really ... you judge for yourself if I'm being intolerant).

Here's the story.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Why the Catholic Church must be destroyed

  (18 June 10)

Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. In this article he argues for the destruction of the Catholic Church, saying:


“The Roman Church keeps getting away with its endless transgressions because most of their allies and even many critics take each failing in isolation, limiting their understanding of the pervasive scope of the corruption. The international press has been perpetually slack in putting the string of problems into its broader and damning context. As a result too few comprehend that the Catholic problem is so chronic and deep set that it is incurable.”


There are four pages to this lengthy but enlightening account.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Religious tolerance endangered by ethics trials?

  (05 June 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Moore College theology lecturer Michael Jensen (son of Archbishop Peter – in case the Moore College reference doesn’t place him well enough) has been continuing the campaign by conservative Christians against ethics classes in NSW State Schools.


The trial of ethics classes, he says, is diminishing the role for Special Religious Education and therefore endangering religious tolerance:


[I]f the option for SRE is diluted, or even removed, religious people will continue to withdraw their children from government schools and seek to educate their children in religious schools where they will only interact with children of their own faith.


Jensen goes on to claim that


Government schools are a unique opportunity for our society to inculcate our values of diversity, tolerance and friendship across cultural and religious divides. SRE facilitates these objectives wonderfully well.


Could this be true? Would ethics classes spell the end of SRE? And does SRE thus enhance religious tolerance?


Jensen could be right on the first question, if enough parents opt to send their children to the ethics classes instead of RE. (And if they do, then that’s what they want for their children, even if it’s not what the churches want. Who should have the greater say?) SRE might wither away for lack of patronage… though it sounds unlikely. There’s no proposal to remove it. And, unlike the case of the ethics trials, there are no wealthy, highly-organized groups campaigning to get rid of it.


So would the fervent faithful then take their children to faith-based schools, depriving them of interaction with children of other faiths and none? These will be the church/mosque/synagogue-attending families whose kids already get extended sessions of instruction, worship and socialising with their faith community in the evenings or at weekends. Would half an hour of (often poorly-organised) SRE really make that much difference? If so, surely these families will already have jumped ship.


On the second question: the actual SRE classes, if anything, are working against tolerance of religious diversity. The largely conservative-evangelical material commonly used (much of it emanating from Sydney Anglicanism) is not exactly big on affirming other religious points of view. The Bible, meaning a conservative Christian interpretation of it, is right, and that’s that. It’s hard to see how RE lessons – as opposed to secular ethics classes – can be promoting religious tolerance.


Jensen’s curious argument is another indication of how desperate the churches are in an increasingly secular era to retain their historical privileges.



View All Comments / Add Comment

It makes you wonder ....

  (28 May 10)

Nicholas Kristoff writing in the New York Times of 28 May tells the story of Sister Margaret of St Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona.

Sister Margaret was described by many as 'saintly' and 'close to God'.

But she took a decision that led to her automatic excommunication by a local bishop of the Roman Cathlolic Church. Much to the outrage of most who knew her and her decision.

Read Sister Margaret's story here. I makes me wonder - what about you?


View All Comments / Add Comment

New articles online

  (24 May 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

You might like to view some items recently added to the SoFiA website…





View All Comments / Add Comment

Why atheism will replace religion.

  (22 May 10)

Quite a provocative title.

Nigel Barber Ph.D. writing in a recent edition of Psychology Today argues that people in developed countries tend to believe that they have more control over their lives and are therefore less in need of religion.


Barber also argues that sport fulfils a role something akin to religion in many developed countries with sporting events becoming quite ritualistic. It’s interesting that Western Europe provides an environment in which both factors are very strong, and that it’s in such countries that atheism is at its highest eg Sweden 64% nonbelievers.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Synthetic life - threat or blessing?

  (22 May 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The creation by scientists of synthetic life is certainly a milestone, and probably more than just a scientific one.


Enter the Italian bishops. While they’re apparently worried about man ‘playing God’, it’s good to see they’re not just following a knee-jerk oppositional line.


The argument that we don’t know where this will lead is a valid one: I, for one, regret that we were ever able to discover the secret power of atoms.


However, any complaint that humanity may use its new-found powers of creating life for dastardly ends doesn’t stack up if it’s assumed we’re usurping the powers of an almighty, beneficent Creator. God, after all, has given us Ebola virus, Loa loa and Pol Pot. Not to mention John Howard and Kevin Rudd.




View All Comments / Add Comment

The Catholic Church - today and tomorrow

  (09 May 10)

For centuries, the Catholic Church was unquestionably strongest in Europe. In 1900, the continent accounted for perhaps two-thirds of the Church's nearly 270 million members. Latin America had another 70 million believers, while Africa barely appeared on the map, with about two million followers. As Anglo-French sage Hilaire Belloc proclaimed in 1920, “The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.”

Since then, and especially since the 1960s, Catholicism has been moving south. Partly, this is due to evangelism sponsored by the Church and its religious orders; new conversions, for instance, have surged in Africa. But shifting demographics have also played its part: While populations have increased modestly in Europe, they have boomed across the global south—and Catholic numbers have grown apace. Today, the world has 900 million more Catholics than it did in 1900, but only 100 hundred million of those new additions are Europeans.


So reports Philip Jenkins in a recent report for The New Republic. This is an insightful analysis of the condition of the global Catholic Church of today – and of tomorrow.

View All Comments / Add Comment

An ethical choice

  (08 May 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The ethics classes being trialed in ten NSW state schools are apparently proving popular; so much so that the Sydney Anglicans are squealing again.


The classes are being offered for those who don’t attend Scripture lessons, but it’s claimed there’s been a drain on Scripture classes of almost 50%.


Many of those protesting the ethics classes trial would be amongst the first to join the Howard-era chant of personal choice in any other sphere: indeed, in education itself, where they argue for government funding of wealthy private schools that have no obligation to take all comers.


When it comes to learning about the Church-version of Jesus, however, parents apparently should have no right to choose.


Clearly, parents want that right.


This doesn’t necessarily mean that interest would be sustained at high levels if ethics classes became an ongoing weekly event: as Neil Ormerod points out, over time there would repetition and recycling of material and the novelty element would fade.


Nonetheless, it’s the principle of the thing: by all means have Scripture classes as an option, but in secular 21st-century Australia how can it be the only real option?




View All Comments / Add Comment

A cult in Brisbane

  (01 May 10)

Just in case you think there aren’t any really vile religious cults in Australia here’s a case study of one. It was written by Chrys Stevenson an active members of Brisbane Atheists.


It’s really sad to think that human beings could be so stupid as to behave as do the leaders of this Brisbane cult.


Isn’t there something we in SoFiA can do to let our voices be heard against this inhuman behaviour?

View All Comments / Add Comment

“A Path to Sustainable Energy.”

  (29 April 10)

Many of us are struggling to work out our positions in relation to global warming as well as to how we replace energy generated at present by coal-fired power stations. A couple of US professors wrote a paper for Scientific American in November last year called “A Path to Sustainable Energy” in which they claimed that the science and engineering suggested that it was possible “to re-power America with 100 percent carbon-free electricity within 10 years.”  It was duly published and read by millions. How many woke up to the fact that it was a spoof is not clear, but Howard Hayden, Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Connecticut did. It’s worth reading his report here.

 I’ve never known a problem in science or technology on which the “truth” was so difficult to ascertain.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Not with a bang...

  (29 April 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is this the end of religion-as-we-know-it? What about in Oz? Is it why Peter Jensen is so afraid that NSW parents will jump ship and send their children to secular ethics classes if they’re given a choice?




View All Comments / Add Comment

Ethics: religious or secular?

  (29 April 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Neil Ormerod has argued in Eureka Street for the superiority of religious as opposed to secular ethics. To derive an ‘ought’ from ‘what is’ (that is, to use reason as the basis for ethics), he says there must be purpose:


The question is, do human beings have a purpose? Is there a point to being human, some goal towards which we 'ought' to move? Richard Dawkins repeatedly proclaims that there is no purpose beyond what we ourselves might create. Evolution is blind and purposeless and even morality can be reduced to this blind watchmaker implanting something within us.


But if the only purpose is the purpose I create for myself then ethics is irreducibly individualistic. You have yours and I have mine. Our ethics then boils down to a set of arbitrary (and hence non-rational) personal preferences.


It seems to me Ormerod is reading way too much Christian individualism into the issue. Christianity is very much a ‘me’ religion, where the essential ingredient is the individual’s relationship with God and assent to His gratuitous offer of pardon/forgiveness. Each person must make their own decision for the Lord.


A secular ethics, by contrast, does not have to be about “personal preferences” at all. Humans are social beings. Living as we do in community, our determination of what ought to be can be determined on such well-known and rational principles as the common-wealth, or what is good for the community/society. That is a genuine purpose: the well-being and betterment of the human group.


I suggest it may be better for our society - a la the NSW ethics classes trials in schools - to have children learn to genuinely listen to other views and rationally evaluate and discuss them than to teach an absolute ethic based on an ancient scripture (the ethics embodied in which are in any case morally suspect by any enlightened contemporary standards). This will teach, if nothing else, respect for diversity, an ethically attractive attitude which is missing from much of the religious instruction/indoctrination that masquerades in NSW schools as religious ‘education’.


(Thanks to Nigel Sinnott for alerting us to the article mentioned here.)




View All Comments / Add Comment

Hans Kung’s open letter to the bishops

  (24 April 10)

The Catholic Church has reverted to type so slowly since the Second Vatican Council over 40 years ago that it’s not easy to see it happening. But this reversion has speeded up under the new Pope, and he has come under huge scrutiny for his action/inactions as a bishop and cardinal.


Hans Kung has written this open letter to the bishops. It draws out the reversions since the Second Council and Ratzinger’s own hastening of this process as well as his behaviour in the face of reports of child abuse by his priests.


Well worth a look – could be the epitaph for the Catholic Church.


View All Comments / Add Comment

It’s those women again

  (19 April 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

When they’re naughty, they make the earth move. So says Iranian cleric

Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.


The exact link between leading innocent young men astray and earthquakes isn’t spelled out in the article. One is left to assume it’s Allah, blessed be His name, punishing everyone for the misdemeanours of a few.



View All Comments / Add Comment

The ethics of ethics trials

  (12 April 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The unseemly and breathtaking hypocrisy of Sydney Anglicanism is currently on display over the trial of ethics classes in NSW schools.


Archbishop Peter Jensen – who reportedly refused to meet in the initial consultation phase with those from the St James Ethics Centre who will conduct the trial – complains that if the course continues after the trial, it will “jeopardise religious education in public schools.'' ''Without such a religious component, public schools will cease to be inclusive of all children,'' he says.


There are three problems with Dr Jensen’s one-eyed and immoderate views.


First, it’s not ‘religious education’ and never has been. Education would expose children to a range of faiths and deal with facts, not doctrines. It’s actually religious instruction, ‘RI’, aka religious indoctrination, delivered largely by fervent faithful who wouldn’t know the first thing about the true history of the ‘scripture’ they’re ‘teaching’.


Second, if religion is so foundational and valuable to our society, why is the Arch concerned that a secular alternative to religion classes would spell the end of RI? Aren’t there enough parents who would want it to continue? I don’t hear those arguing for ethics classes baying for the complete demise of choice – which is what Dr Jensen is doing.


Which brings us to the third point: public schools are not inclusive now. What currently happens to children whose parents don’t want their children learning church doctrine from uninformed volunteers? There’s no genuine alternative.


So, Dr Jensen: do you want choice, or don’t you? Is it fair – or ‘Christian’ – to force everyone to fit the religious model or ‘sit out’ for those lessons?  Is it, indeed, ethical?




View All Comments / Add Comment

O sinner man

  (11 April 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Looks like the sinners have indeed been running to the Lord, or at least to places of worship, in recent times – and not necessarily to repent. According to the Daily Telegraph, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has released data showing that almost eight times as many people were charged with offences in churches, synagogues and the like as in strip clubs, brothels and gaming establishments in 2008.




View All Comments / Add Comment

It's only right

  (11 April 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The counter-attack of the conservative religious and faux-religious right is apparently underway. Its mission? To save us from uncertainty, immorality and utter dissolution. Imagine it: George Pell, Geoffrey Blainey, John Howard, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Hugh Morgan, Donald McGauchie and more under the emceeship of Mr Right himself, Andrew Bolt.


The message from this august event was reportedly that we mustn’t let godless secularism hold sway: that way lies the pit of meaninglessness. What, then, would prevent “lies, cheating, harm and swindling”?


It’s not clear whether Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace got an invite, but he’s obviously on song. Secular ethics classes in schools? It’s an oxymoron for Jim. How can you have love for neighbour, self-sacrifice and help for the poor without the Bible?


Clearly, we need to rewind to a more certain, Christian, pre-post-modern Australia. Reverence for the authority of bishops and bible is the answer. There may of course be the reinstatement of the White Australia policy and chinamen again swinging in the breeze, there may be rampant sexual abuse of children by clergy, harassment of gays, the uprooting and relegation of aborigines to reserves and women would have to relearn their way to the kitchen. But at least there wouldn’t be any “lies, cheating, harm and swindling” going on. Would there?



View All Comments / Add Comment

This makes my blood boil

  (01 April 10)

All of us will have come across reports in recent times (and for years also in the past), of Catholic priests who molested (I’m too disgusted to use stronger and more appropriate terms) boys and girls, young and old, for years and years.


But we might not have read of the depth of this problem, of the significance of the sacraments that were abused in the process, and of the current Pope’s complicity in this sorry matter.


Three news reports have come to light that address these matters:


Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate clearly shows the complicity of the Pope in his piece The Pope is Not above the Law.


Michael Murphy asks in The Independent How could Catholics do Such a Thing? in an insightful and heart-rending analysis of “he who is in a state of grace” as the perpetrator of such evil.


And finally India Knight, long-time Catholic (of sorts), writes in TimesOnline from a personal perspective Holy Father I can no longer stay in this Church of Disgust.


Probably not the end of the Catholic Church (it’s proved remarkably resilient) but another nail in the coffin – as a mass movement at least.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Peas in a pod: authority and abuse

  (31 March 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Pope Benedict says he won’t be intimidated “by the chatter of dominant opinions”, in clear reference to the matter of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. 


More realistic assessments of the situation, however, abound. According to NY Times writer Maureen Dowd, for example, the Catholic Church gave up its credibility for Lent. Retired Aussie Bishop Geoffrey Robinson foresees a significantly diminished Church at least in the West largely as a result of the abuse crisis.


Surely, what it boils down to – the abuse itself, that is, together with the morally bankrupt response to it – is the issue of authority. Bishops and popes are not in fact gracious, excellent or reverent any more than your local ‘Honorable Member’ is honorable. Nor, in the case of (most) Catholic clergy, are they fathers. They’re fallible human beings with egos and libidos who have no right to be put on a pedestal or given special pseudo-family relationship rights – other than by dint of their character.


Maybe ditching the ludicrous titles would be a starting place for churches to regain some credibility.



View All Comments / Add Comment

My tribe, your tribe

  (26 March 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

If religion is not, at base, tribalism writ large, it is at least one of the handiest tools in the box for reinforcing group identity. The vigorous assertion of identity through religious violence seems to be characteristic of our age, and now even the Buddhists are at it.


If Australia is not so beset by these religious ructions, perhaps that underlines the connection between religion and tribalism. The bitter sectarianism of an earlier, more religious Australia - with Catholics and Protestants energetically harassing and excluding each other everywhere from the schoolyard to big business - should not be forgotten. Our growing secularism has largely put paid to that reprehensible phase of our national life.


Maybe our innate need to form groups and protect them from outsiders has found new expressions. It’s doubtful, however, that there are many mechanisms more powerful for indulging that propensity than religion.


I have sincere respect for the enlightened thought and ritual that goes on in some liberal and progressive religious communities. This is what some people mean when they use the term ‘religion’ (or ‘true religion’), but it seems to me that it’s very much a minority expression. It’s laudable, but is it enough to save ‘religion’ from the dark side?  




View All Comments / Add Comment

What the devil is going on?

  (21 March 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

We expect to hear the ‘D’ word from the likes of Pat Robertson whenever something goes wrong in the world. (Haiti, we’re told, had sworn a "pact to the devil" and thus brought the recent earthquake upon itself.)


Not that we in Oz can mock. We have our own Pastor Danny and his 2009 mass exorcism of Canberra. (Did it work?... hard to tell… Oh, of course, Peter Costello’s gone…)


Serious talk of the Devil is nothing new in Catholicism either: the Vatican, as you’d expect, sets the pace. But we now have the home-grown spectacle of the Sydney Catholic Diocese appointing a new exorcist, who warns that Harry Potter and vampire stories may be trojan horses for the world of demons.


What’s really been demonising our children, though, is not some metaphysical boogie man. It turns out to have been men in frocks. But it’s not really their fault, don’t you see? Satan did it.


Could it be, in fact, that the real monster is religion? Or is it society itself?


I’m damned if I know.




View All Comments / Add Comment

Global atheism in the news

  (20 March 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

What the newspapers say about the recent Global Atheist Convention…


By their fruit shall ye know them  (The Age, Melbourne)

Mar 9 – (Barney Zwartz) The jury is coming in on the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne last December: it has produced some good fruit, and may produce more.


Dawkins derides sainthood as Pythonesque  (Sydney Morning Herald)

Mar 15 – (Jacqueline Maley) THE creation of saints is "pure Monty Python" and the Family First senator Steve Fielding is more stupid than an earthworm, says the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.


Mysterious rituals of the atheists  (The Age, Melbourne)

Mar 15 – (Stephen Bullivant And Lois Lee) Those declaring themselves godless provide a fascinating study for sociologists.


Celebrating life beyond belief  (The Australian)

Mar 15 – (Miriam Cosic) THEY came from everywhere, the true unbelievers: from Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast, New Zealand and beyond.


Atheists’ ridicule won’t win friends and influence people  (The Age, Melbourne)

Mar 16 – (Barney Zwartz) If the meek really do inherit the earth, it won’t be the atheists who turned out in force in Melbourne at the weekend for what organisers believe to be the world’s biggest atheist conference.


Dawkins preaches to the deluded against the divine  (The Australian)

Mar 16 – (Melanie Phillips) LIKE revivalists from an alternative universe, 2500 hardcore believers in the absence of religion packed into the Global Atheists Convention in Melbourne last weekend to give a hero's welcome to the high priest of belief in unbelief, Richard Dawkins.


Atheism is a broad church  (Sydney Morning Herald)

Mar 17 – (Catherine Deveny) WHAT were we going to talk about all weekend? Nothing? Could we scientifically prove the existence of Richard Dawkins?


The atheist delusion  (ABC News)

Mar 19 – (Phillip Adams) When I was a child I was the only person who didn't believe in God that I knew.


Atheism: the good, the bad and the ugly  (The Age, Melbourne)

Mar 21 – (Michael Coulter) There's more to the meaning of life than proving God does (or doesn't) exist.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Cult survivor relives history of servitude

  (20 March 10)

'Helen Pomery and David Lowe remember a former life of servitude. "I had to submit and be obedient to my husband," Ms Pomery, a 60-year-old Brisbane mother, claims. "I had to submit and be obedient to the church elders and I had to cut off my daughter." This, she was assured, was key to her eternal salvation. "We lived at Samford on acreage. We were ordinary. We just happened to go to an extraordinary church..."

The church - the Brisbane Christian Fellowship (BCF) - nestled in the Samford Valley in Brisbane's north, has a loyal following. Church elders preach sacrifice, submission and obedience, she claimed. To the church faithful, they are God's messengers. But beyond the public face of the church, strategically hidden from the congregation, is human devastation.' (Brisbane Times, 19 March 2010)

This is unbelievable in this day and age. Read more of the story.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Global Atheism, Melbourne-style

  (16 March 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Cordelia Hull gives us a view on the recent Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne. I was there also, and though I’d diverge from Cordelia’s assessment on a few points, in general I reckon she’s got it about right.


The 2,500-strong crowd was ready for some anti-religion mass-think and even some hero-worship (with Mr Dawkins on the bill), but to the credit of the organisers and several speakers (notably Phillip Adams and Richard Dawkins himself) the event wasn’t allowed to become an unthinking anti-religion rally.


Some speakers were terrific, some were ordinary and the odd one awful – but such variation is an unavoidable risk in these kinds of events. There were more than 25 speakers in all, so lots of perspectives were presented.


My only real criticism (apart from frustration at the Convention Centre staff who didn’t seem to know that those on stage needed some simple audio foldback to hear questions from the audience) is that there was no direction or overall theme to the Convention. This is perhaps understandable for the first event of its type in Oz; hopefully the next one (which I’ll be trying to attend) will be a tad more focused.


Overall, congratulations to the Atheist Foundation of Australia and Atheist Alliance International for a stimulating weekend.



View All Comments / Add Comment

The GAC – harbinger of balance?

  (10 March 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

I’m one of a number of SoFers who are tripping off to the Melbourne Convention Centre this weekend for the Global Atheist Convention.


I expect the fears of those like Barney Zwartz will be realised: there is bound to be some triumphalist, fundamentalist atheism on display. Apparently blind adherence to the doctrine that religion is baaad and atheism good, with no shades of grey – a la (for the most part) Richard Dawkins and Tamas Pataki, who are both on the bill – is no better than its polar opposite in the many conservative churches and mosques around Australia.


I doubt, though, that the event as a whole will be able to be easily dismissed. There are some incisive thinkers there (A.C. Grayling, for one) and they have a genuine point to make.


Being ‘religious’ (whatever that means!) is the default mode in our society. Belief in God is socially acceptable; atheism is somehow dangerous, and will frighten the children. We’ll all fall apart morally if atheism gets a proper look in, so best not to mention it let alone have Global Conventions about it.


Yet the evidence is clear: religion, for all that it is lauded in every way (including through generous tax exemptions) has been implicit in pretty bad stuff even in Oz in very recent times, whether that’s intolerance and injustice toward GBLT folk or sexual abuse of children. The small-minded racism that can be encountered even within your bland, apparently inoffensive local Anglican congregation (as I know from 40 years’ experience) exists just as surely as true compassion and a passion for justice.


The Global Atheist Convention, as I see it, is a small, long-overdue measure towards achieving some balance. Religion needs to earn its place. It should not be allowed to maintain its present position of privilege by divine right.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Did Jesus really exist?

  (27 February 10)

I was a bit surprised to hear during one of Peter Kennedy’s interviews this week he said in reference to Jesus “if he ever really existed”. I’ve heard Peter say that some years ago but was nevertheless surprised that he continues to do so. So when I came upon a piece that outlines the argument against the existence of Jesus I thought it might be appropriate to bring it again to our attention. This is an article of some age and which has been superseded by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s The Laughing Jesus of 2005 (which I learned about from Peter Kennedy), but remains a fundamental resource about this matter.


Of course in many ways it doesn't matter a hoot whether Jesus actually existed.

View All Comments / Add Comment

On PK (the threat to Rome)

  (24 February 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

A couple of worthy media items on Peter Kennedy, leader of the St Mary’s-in-Exile community:


  • Phillip Adams recent LNL interview.
  • Andrew Hamilton of the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne (and consulting editor for Eureka Street) offers a thoughtful review of Peter Kennedy: The Man Who Threatened Rome


Wotnews also has a Peter Kennedy page.



View All Comments / Add Comment

'If God Exists, He Wouldn't Want This'

  (19 February 10)

The community of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel is half a million strong and growing. They live in a parallel universe cut off from the modern world in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion. Only a few dare to abandon this life -- and the price for doing so is high.


This piece from Spiegel Online International tells the stories of two who defected.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Ethics and euthanasia

  (18 February 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Age tells us that “prominent ethicist” Nicholas Tonti-Filippini of the Pope John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family is calling for voluntary euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke to be prosecuted over deaths caused by the use of Nembutal. Ethicist Leslie Cannold disagrees: for her, Nitschke, like the back-yard abortionist, is meeting a need that will be met in one way or another, regardless of what the law says.


Somehow (for colour perhaps?) Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby also snuck into the Age article. He’s not a noted ethicist, though undoubtedly the former brigadier’s military career presented him with the odd ethical dilemma. Without the least hint of irony, he’s reported as saying: “Nitschke and his ilk are fundamentalists of the worst type”.


Ethics informed by religion seem usually to be anti-voluntary euthanasia. It’s worth noting, however, that a sample of SoFiA members in a recent poll, 88% of whom were raised in a Christian church, was 66% in favour of VE.


I wonder how those attending next month’s Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne would vote on the issue.




View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion and evolution - a God gene?

  (12 February 10)

The New York Times published "The Evolution of the God Gene" by Nicholas Wade in which we are told that, "religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning it exists because it was favored by natural selection." We are further informed that religion is "universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland." There is a certain plausibility to Wade's arguments that religion is hard-wired into our brain via natural selection, making it almost 'natural'.

Jeff Schweitzer, a neurobiologist, takes issue with Wade's interpretation in a Huffington Post piece.  This is entitled "The Fallacy of the God Gene". 

Not a world-shaking argument, but one worth our consideration 

View All Comments / Add Comment

New articles & reviews

  (07 February 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

A new set of articles and reviews has been added to the SoFiA collection:


Muslims Aren’t All the Same

Malcolm Brown reflects on the meaning of islam and debunks some of our preconceptions.


On Prayer

John Wessel describes what contemporary prayer might mean.


Sacred Australia

Chantal Babin reviews a 2009 collection of essays.


Lost in Space

Peter Hooton argues the case for belief in God.


Why is There Not Just Nothing?

Laurel Sommerfeld tackles one of the big questions.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Human rights and justice, Christian-style

  (04 February 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The Pope (along with Anglican bishops in the UK) apparently has a problem with new legislation reform concerning human rights and equality in Britain. Churches and schools under these reforms would no longer be able to use arguments based on religious freedom to justify their refusal to employ gay people.


The  Sydney Morning Herald tells us:


The Pope urged Catholics in Britain to fight back against the legislation with ''missionary zeal'' in a speech delivered on Monday during a visit to Rome of the 35 Catholic bishops of England and Wales.


The article goes on to quote from Pope Benedict’s oration:


“Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet, as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.”


It’s true, of course. This legislation would impose such limitations, in the same way that the ability of white supremacists to “act in accordance with their beliefs” by not employing people of colour is limited. An “unjust” limitation, though? Surely not.


It’s yet another example of Don Cupitt’s point from his 2008 book, The Meaning of the West (SCM, p.34):


The Church clings to its old inefficiencies, discriminations and injustices, and repeatedly demands for itself opt-outs from legislation that would require it to get its treatment of its own employees, women, gays and other groups up to decent contemporary secular standards. (34)



View All Comments / Add Comment

I believe... in evolution

  (30 January 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

We have a Prime Minister and Opposition Leader who both believe in evolution despite being Christians.


The only real (sad) question is why this fact is in the least bit newsworthy.




View All Comments / Add Comment


  (24 January 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

An updated list of non-SoF public lectures, seminars or conferences that might interest SoFiA members is now online.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Confirmation bias – a BIG problem

  (12 January 10)

How do we respond when confronted with information that agrees with what we already believe – think about that – how do you? If you’re like me you take it in quickly and smile inwardly. "I’ve been confirmed in my thinking".


What about when the information is against what you already believe – recall this happening – how did you respond? If you’re like me you reject it or forget it or say it’s wrong, and feel a bit dark about it. "That’s not what I wanted to read".


The climate change debate is one area in which this phenomenon is almost epidemic. Most of us have a point of view but two types of argument – for and against – appear regularly before us.


Kevin Dunbar has been studying how scientists REALLY behave in the laboratory and his research has revealed some interesting things about a part of our brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that has evolved to suppress, yes suppress, incoming information that we don’t want to hear. Wired magazine has an excellent article, quite readable, about Dunbar’s research.


Confirmation bias is a BIG problem for us.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Atheist attitudes to religion

  (10 January 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

Albert Camus, via David Burchell, gives some thoughtful advice about the approach atheists might usefully take to religious folk: 


Speaking to a group of Dominican friars in 1948, Camus suggested three cardinal principles for unbelieving philosophers such as himself. First, it wasn't his business to reproach Christians for failing to keep higher moral standards than his own. Second, "I should never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact I cannot accept it."


And third, "I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think: the only possible dialogue is between people who remain what they are and speak their minds."


It all sounds good to me, except for that last point: if we think we’re not trying to convert others to our own point of view, at least on issues that mean something significant to us, we’re kidding ourselves.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Is atheism a religion?

  (08 January 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

David Burchell, writing in The Australian, has an interesting observation about the nature of atheism:


At a talk in Canberra a couple of years back, the Italian bishop Bruno Forte suggested unbelief ought properly to be seen as another kind of religious journey: "It is a passion for truth that pays a personal price for the bitter courage of not believing."


To be sure, equating atheism with religion is far too simplistic a move, as the popular atheist retort illustrates: ‘Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.’ (Anyone know the original source for this saying?)


As the front page of the Atheist Foundation of Australia website shows, however, some atheists will go to great lengths to avoid using the word ‘belief’ of their own beliefs (their position is an “acceptance”, not a “belief”).


Surely, though, the kind of crusading atheism we are now seeing develop (on display, for example, at the upcoming Rise of Atheism conference) has a good deal in common with the evangelical fervour of some religions.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Mission possible

  (08 January 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

On the face of it, at least, the story of Evergreen in China sounds like a very positive example of contemporary Christian missionary activity, the more so for the acknowledgement by Evergreen head Finn Torjesen that


Westerners... often embrace a black-and-white, systematic position on what the Bible says, "like book-keeping". But Chinese people tend to take a more multidimensional approach to their faith.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Who on Earth was Jesus? - audio

  (01 January 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

David Boulton’s talk for the 2009 Queensland SoFiA Conference, ‘Who on earth was Jesus?: The Scholarship and Research’, is now available as an audio download.




View All Comments / Add Comment

Another Catholic disgrace

  (01 January 10)

In another expose of the disgraceful behaviour of the Catholic Church in protecting pedophiles and sadists in their schools in Ireland, Paula Kirby has contributed a sad piece in the Washington Times (28 December) that considers the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report, both released in Ireland in 2009.


There are also some interesting posts from readers especially an early one from a lay person who chaired a committee reviewing the Church’s investigations of sexual abuse in San Francisco. Jim Jenkins resigned from this position after considering the less than satisfactory investigations that were conducted.


This sexual abuse and sadistic behaviour is a disgrace, but covering up is perhaps even worse.



View All Comments / Add Comment

SoFiA Religion Poll results

  (01 January 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

The survey of attitudes on various religious and other matters from the 2009 Toowoomba SoFiA Conference is now available in full online.

View All Comments / Add Comment

Climate Heresy 2

  (27 December 09)

On 27 November Greg Spearritt posted an item entitled “Climate Heresy” to which I made some comments and he replied. What might well appear in the annals of science as the greatest hoax or blunder or mistake since the Piltdown Man of 1905 seemed destined to pass us by almost un-noticed.


For a couple of months now I’ve been chasing down websites around the world for more and more reliable information about AGW (anthropogenic global warming) i.e. the proposition that it is the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that give rise to global warming and its alleged consequences.


It has to be the internet as the source since most media (for a variety of reasons) seem to avoid publishing anything that remotely challenges the received wisdom of the climate change proponents.


And I’ve found some good ones:

This one is the easiest to read and most comprehensive and fair-minded that I came across.

Click on “Temperate Facts” to find a primer of information about climate change and AGW etc. The daily newsletter provides a daily glimpse of anti-climate change activities and publications globally.

So does this site.


There are many others, most accessible via the three mentioned above.


I don’t know for sure that AGW is nonsense. However:

  1. the physics, quite simple physics in fact, as explained in the first site above, makes it clear that carbon dioxide is quite unable to absorb enough heat to cause the temperature rises that are claimed
  2. solar cycles are more likely to explain the heating of the atmosphere
  3. the unscientific behaviour of the ‘climate scientists’ who worked with the UN IPCC is quite astounding, and the ideology-driven behaviour of many UN bureaucrats and national politicians is deplorable.

 However it’s up to you to decide for yourself.

View All Comments / Add Comment

What are they saying about Christmas?

  (23 December 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

From the smorgasbord of Christmas views (News Ltd and Fairfax offerings)…



The obligatory conservative apologetics (the Bible really is true, you know):

Despite the sceptics, there is real truth in the story of Christmas


And more:

Christmas message holds true


The obligatory withering atheist satire:

You wouldn't read about it  


On looking beyond the incredible ‘facts’ of the Christmas story:

The Christmas call to fulfilment  


An Aussie Muslim reflects:

Christmas, curry and many faiths  


An atheist philosopher on celebrating at Christmas:

An enriching, illuminating, bonding, godless Christmas  


Amateur project naively accepts birth narratives as history:

Stop the presses: the day Jesus appeared in the Birth Notices  


Consumption and the Reason for the Season:

Did Jesus make us fat and greedy?  


The ways we secular Aussies all ‘believe’ at Christmas:

A time for all to believe


The relevance of Christmas (chiefly editorials):

So this is Christmas


Cause for thanks


Christmas story still resonates in a troubled world


The Christmas message of hope is as powerful as ever


A time to slow down and enjoy each other


Goodwill is so common in adversity  


From the clergy:

That simple birth in a stable was God's great gift to the world


Leaders urge faith, hope and charity in times of struggle


Human life must be our top priority


Now is the time to forgive, say church leaders




View All Comments / Add Comment

God Talk

  (21 December 09)

One of my hot buttons is the use of the word ‘God’. I’m a non-theist, perhaps even an atheist. I have great difficulty understanding what religious people think they are doing when they pray to, or worship, God. Yet deep within me there is a sense that without some feeling for the sacred we live less than full lives.


I have found Don Cupitt’s writing helpful if a bit theoretical. So my search continues.


Now comes this morning from The Centre for Progressive Christianity in the US, a newsletter featuring two very interesting pieces about ‘God Talk'.


Fred Plumer, president of TCPC, has written a very interesting piece ‘God Talk’,

and Michael Morwood, another interesting piece ‘Progressive Christians and God Talk’.

These are well worth reading and thinking about. I’ll be doing that and, perhaps, coming to some conclusions about the sacred for me.



View All Comments / Add Comment

The LOLcat Bible

  (21 December 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

If you’re into cats, you’re probably familiar by now with the Icanhascheezburger site. And, therefore, with kittyspeak.


But now we have… the LOLcat Bible translation project.


(Mor on thiz viytl projek at Lingua Franca.)




View All Comments / Add Comment

Miraculous Mary

  (21 December 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

All power to the celebration of Mary MacKillop as a fighter for social justice who was willing to stand up to those wielding power in the Catholic Church. (An attitude Archbishop Pell says we should emulate, though he didn’t seem to appreciate that approach from the St Mary’s South Brisbane mob.)


However, to credit Mary Mac with the posthumous miracle of curing cancer raises the question of why she won’t do it for every cancer sufferer. How many faithful Catholics (and others – presumably a saint-in-waiting isn’t picky) have prayed to her for a cure? And what’s her strike rate? Since it took this long to get her to the canonisation starting gate, one assumes it’s not been overly high.


Interestingly, even the Arch himself acknowledges prayer-induced cancer cures are “a long shot”. Does that mean Mother Mary is in fact picky as to who she’ll reprieve? Doesn’t sound very saintly, does it?


I’m with Dick “Godless” Gross on this one.




View All Comments / Add Comment

What Aussies believe

  (19 December 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

A new Neilsen Poll (Faith in Australia 2009) adds to polls over many decades showing a gradual decline of belief in traditional Christian doctrine. That’s not to say there’s a gradual decline in belief in general, though. God, miracles, angels, ESP, astrology: you name it, we Aussies seem to believe in it.


There are some items of particular interest, including significant differences between men and women (e.g. men were twice as likely as women to say they did not believe in God).


The variety of ways the data is reported is also interesting. For mine, the David Marr piece says it well. Your options include:



Also see, from Faith sometimes divides us, but that's OK (“Australia's secular status is not threatened by the resilience of religious traditions.”)  


Perhaps, since we’re apparently so confused about what we believe, Tony Abbott is on the right track: compulsory school classes on Christian belief and the Bible might be the go!



View All Comments / Add Comment

Is religion healthy for society?

  (13 December 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

From Sue Blackmore (writing in the UK Guardian) we learn that recent sociological research seems to suggest that, at least in the ‘developed’ world, the healthiest nations are also the least religious. The question of cause and effect, however, is a complicated one.  


(Thanks to Jim Norman for alerting us to this item.)



View All Comments / Add Comment

Catering for youth

  (12 December 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

It’s often lamented that the under 40s demographic in Australia seems to have little interest in religious participation. Increasing secularisation plus factors such as family breakdown mean that membership of religious groups, and especially of the mainstream Christian churches, is inexorably aging.


Gens X, Y and Z have often had only a cursory contact with religion. To boot, this has largely been through the naïve Sunday-school lens of conservative-evangelical religious instruction at school or cuddly-Jesus Christmas Carol theology in the park. No wonder they’re just not that interested.


It’s not only Australian Christianity that’s affected: Buddhist monks in Japan are apparently resorting to manga images and rap music to be heard amidst the ‘buzz’ of life.


So what’s happening? ‘Cult’ groups like Hillsong may be filling the gap to a small extent, but what other organised social options do our young people have to be engaged in wrestling with the great issues and building character?


Involvement in that great Aussie obsession, sport, may be one answer, but failing a resurgence of religion in mainstream Australian life where else are young folk to go?  Melbourne will host the Global Atheist Convention in 2010, but where in Oz are the secular/humanist successors to the churches?


Must we face the fact that communal activity will die with organised religion?



View All Comments / Add Comment

Climate heresy

  (27 November 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

There are plenty of people now arguing that that global warming is not happening, or that it’s not caused by humans: Clive James, Andrew Bolt, Ian Plimer, the whole of the National Party and most of the Libs among them. Is this a heresy? And does it matter?


It is, and it does.




View All Comments / Add Comment

Religion and violence

  (24 November 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is religious violence inherently to do with the nature of religion?


Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and confreres would have us believe so. Barney Zwartz, columnist with the Melbourne Age, disagrees:


My argument amounts to this: religion is practised by people. It is therefore as ambiguous, messy, prone to both moral heights and depths, as people themselves are. It has been used for good and for harm.  My own view is that the scales are weighted firmly on the side of good by making people morally aware of the “other”, but I know many disagree. I think Richard Neibuhr put it particularly well: “Religion makes good people better and bad people worse.”


(Zwartz gives the topic a longer treatment here.)


I have some sympathy with Zwartz’s view. However, on balance I’d want to disagree.


Historically, religion has been primarily tribal, and that remains largely true today. It’s about identity, about distinguishing one ethnic or belief group from others, and usually about privileging that group.


It’s an obvious point, surely. If you are Shiite you are emphatically not Sunni; Mahayana Buddhism has traditionally called Theravada the “lesser vehicle” and itself the “greater”; Protestant and Catholic were hard at the exclusion game as little as a few decades ago in Australia.


Even today the Christian denominations represent varying degrees of exclusivity, from Exclusive Brethren through Catholic to the tolerant old non-Sydney Anglicans. (But even the Anglicans are proud of their identity; their tolerance sets them apart.)


The earthly Jesus attempted to turn the urge to tribalism and exclusivity on its head, supping with sinners and smiling on Samaritans. But the Church wasted little time in righting the ship again.


In this light, it’s not surprising to see so much violence in the name of religion: religion has always been a powerful tool for asserting identity. It may not meet with approval from enlightened religious folk in these enlightened times, but us-them religion remains a prominent feature of twenty-first century life. Ask the Taliban. Or the folk from St Mary’s-in-Exile.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Evolution of religion

  (24 November 09)

There were two pieces in the New York Times in mid-November that addressed the question of the origin and evolution of religion, and how pervasive religion is among ancient (and not so ancient) cultures. Both emanated from consideration of Nicholas Wade’s new book “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures”. The first was the author’s own summary of the book and the second was by a colleague John Tierney who wrote a review.

 These pieces suggest that religion evolves i.e. that a religion changes to better meet the needs and expectations of the people it serves. Some of us find this hard to believe when we look at Christianity today but change has already occurred and more is on the way according to our progressives. But that’s another story.


View All Comments / Add Comment

Magical realism

  (21 November 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

Whether it’s vampires, sorcery or talking animals, you’ve probably had your shot (and perhaps your fill?) of magical realism through popular culture in recent times.


Some might be inclined to dismiss it as fantasy, but Melbourne playwright Ricci-Jane Adams urges us to look again at what magical realism has to offer. She calls it “the portal between the mundane and the extraordinary.”


In art and literature – and, I’d argue, religion – magical realism is a way of allowing us to see afresh the mundane: to find new value, new meaning and new possibilities in the everyday.


CS Lewis used it. Phillip Pullman uses it in spades.


Magical realism in religion can boost our esteem for everyday life and for other people; it can give us a glimpse of an alternative reality that could enhance life on our planet. Provided, that is, that we can distinguish the fantasy from the real.


If you go to church you’ve probably been imbibing magical-realist stories of a dying-rising, divine-human god. Or in the local mosque (and in many Sydney Anglican churches) you may celebrate a perfect text that dropped from the sky.


When these imaginative tales are transformed into Truth, the power of magical realism is commandeered by the urge to control and dictate. That’s the beauty of art and literature: it’s immeasurably enriching, but we know it’s fiction.



View All Comments / Add Comment

Festival of peaceful slaughter

  (18 November 09)
  by Greg Spearritt