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In Enlightenment we trust: How faith and secularism built Australia

Friday, 02 February 2018

In Enlightenment we trust: How faith and secularism built Australia

Speech on the 230th anniversary of the first Australian church service, Sydney, 3 February 2018, by Nick Cater.

Australia’s attitude to religion was clear even before the First Fleet set sail. Captain Arthur Phillip invited just one chaplain to minister to 11 boats of sinners. The Reverend Richard Johnson would serve his own sentence of unremitting labour, casting his faith on thorny, stony ground.

The first convicts stepped ashore on a Saturday and immediately set to work. “Business set on every brow,” records Watkin Tench, “a party cutting down the woods; a second, setting up a blacksmith's forge; a third, dragging along a load of stones or provisions.”

On Sunday, Johnson tried to persuade them to honour the Fourth Commandment by gathering for prayer.

The colonists, however, had work to do. A nation founded on such unyielding soil, 170,000km from home could not depend merely on providence. Eight laborious, prayer-less days elapsed before they gathered under the shade of gumtrees, here on this very spot.

It would be another fortnight before Johnson would officiate at Australia’s first Holy Communion and five years before the first church would be built, shortly before the opening of the first pub.

The attitude of Johnson’s reluctant congregation speaks volumes about the difference between Australia and every colony that had gone before. It illustrates the practical effect of the Enlightenment, the revolution in thinking that had taken place a generation or so before.

America’s Pilgrim Fathers were pre-enlightenment men, driven by religion and with precious little science. Upon sighting the coast of Massachusetts after 65 miserable days at sea they gathered on the deck to recite Psalm 100, a text rich in eternal truths about the human condition, but poor on practical advice about North American farming.

They attempted to make up for their ignorance by "pouring out prayers to the Lord with great fervency, mixed with abundance of tears". It had little effect. By the time they celebrated their first Thanksgiving, a third of their number had died.

By the 1780s, however, scientific and economic solutions were at hand. Australia’s first settlers would not just till the soil but improve it. They looked to reason rather than revelation as their guide.

The significance of Australia’s first church service is that it happened at all, publicly, right here in the open air, not in some hidden corner, but in what fast became the very heart of the city. The question of religious freedom had been settled; worship would neither be mandated nor forbidden by the state.

And so began a strange assimilation of faith and reason, a joint-venture between church and state to create a free and prosperous nation. Science would be driven by the human aspirations and judgment in which the Jewish-Christian transition excelled.

At the same time, the practical focus of science and its desire to improve this world, not the next, helped shape the application of religious faith.

There is no room for passengers in a pioneering nation. The work-ethic was not just for protestants, it applied to everyone. Australia could not tolerate “bludgers” and “whingers” - two of the many colourful Australian contributions to the modern English language. Nor was there much time for piety: it was an Australian who invented the word “wowser”, to describe an unacceptable self-righteous person. In Australia, faith without works is dead.

It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the Calvinists and Lutherans,  imbued with a Puritan work ethic, flourished disproportionately in Australia. Similarly,  Judaism, with its emphasis on daily conduct, has contributed substantially to the common cause.

In Catholicism, the Jesuit tradition looms large. English Protestants may claim the honour for the first church service but it was Austrian Jesuits who built the first winery.

There would be no witch-hunts in Australia, where theories of magical powers, visions of spectres and the art of necromancy never gained credence. A century earlier in pre-enlightened North America, it had been a different matter; six men and 14 women were executed and buried in unconsecrated gravesfound in Salem, Massachusetts and surrounding towns.

They were found guilty under the “General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts”:If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) they shall be put to death.

The emancipation of the human intellect from edicts and superstition unleashed three centuries of more-or-less unbroken scientific and economic progress. It changed the way humans related to each other and the organisation of civic affairs; it gave rise to the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity, the institution of constitutional government and the separation of church and state.

Australia was its first, and greatest, experiment.

And yet, 230 years later, it is tempting to wonder if the great Australian marriage may be in trouble, the marriage between faith and reason that underpins our civilised society. The marriage is in trouble, not least over the definition of marriage itself.

Secularism has lately taken on an aggressive edge, strongest of all among those who consider themselves the most educated. The exercise of our religious freedom is undoubtedly getting harder. The legal system that sprang so naturally from the Christian faith, is now being used to try to shut faith down.

The Reverend Johnson, one suspects, would be surprised. After just 10 months in the country he wrote home that he “had no great opinion of, nor expectation” of the colony or its settlers. Neither, however, would he have been prepared to accept the church’s fate, or accept the moral judgment of secularists.

The pact between science and faith, implicit in the terms upon which modern Australia was founded, was built on the separation of moral and worldly authority.

Science, as the history of Australia has shown, has illuminated the world as it is with exceptional clarity. It is useless, however, when it comes to framing the world as it should become, or setting out the principles by which we live our individual lives.

What makes us good people is a moral question, one on which the members of strong societies agree. It is the end we seek to reach by whatever means are both moral and effective.

Active faith - the kind that flourished best in Australia, in the tradition of the defiant Johnson - demands that we exercise the courage to stand behind our convictions - and to stand behind them in public as we are standing here today.

It does not matter that everyone here would agree on every matter of faith, or that some may not adhere to any faith at all. We are not standing here to enforce religious conformity. Quite the opposite. We are here to assert the principle of individualism and liberty.

We are here because we agree with Einstein, not just in the power of science, but in his defence of liberty.

Strong nations stem from the “free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind.”

We are here to resist the secular dogmatists who wish to make their dismal godless creed the official religion of this country enforced by the state.

I am not here to give a sermon, but on an occasion like this, I should at least have a text. So I will close with words from Einstein, and a sentiment with which Johnson would heartily agree.

"It is only to the individual that a soul is given.”

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