July 10, 2022

James Valentine: A case study in the “no religion” census ticker

In the wake of the Australian census, in which huge swathes of Aussies declared for the first time that they have “no religion”, comes a whole bunch of articles that explore how that doesn’t mean people are not good just because they are post religious. And it makes for an interesting insight into the mind of the average Aussie who ticked “no religion”.

And the rush of recent articles is giving us a pretty good picture of the average “no religion” census ticker. And to be honest, it’s not all that surprising. People are not hard angry atheists. More likely they are chilled – and self-righteous – materialists.

The initial response to the data that showed 39 per cent of us ticked “no religion” was somewhat sneery, but things have evened out a bit over the ensuing weeks, as people rush to show that despite this fact they are pretty good nonetheless. There’s certainly no sense that people have correlated “no religion” with “atheist”, and certainly the sense of anger that the likes of Richard Dawkins espouses towards religion is absent.

As it turns out, people are “spiritual” and “have faith”, especially faith in things like “people”, and “humanity” whatever that means. For me I am far more evidence-based than faith-based when it comes to people, which is why I lock my house and car, and take great pains to come up with security passwords for my accounts that will at least keep my money in the bank, and my identity as mine, for a little longer.

But the articles continue. One of my favourite Australian Broadcasting Corporation presenters when i was younger was the eminently talented and personable , James Valentine, he of the saxophone playing in great Aussie bands such as The Models, and Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons. By the looks of his bio pic, he’s aged well, kept his hair, along with his grace and charm if his latest opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald is any indication.

And James is a good case study in what it means to look like a moral, upright “religionless” Australian. A poster boy if you will, long after he would have considered his days as a poster boy to have passed. As one of my Facebook friends observed, James Valentine is a great study in what the new post-religious “social imaginary” Australia might look like. His article is the moral code of most non-religious Aussies. Valentine puts it like this:

I’m neither against religion nor for religion. What I don’t have, that the religious do, is faith. I don’t mind if you have faith. I’m not anti-faith. And maybe some with faith ticked the non-religious box. They believe in a spiritual realm, an afterlife, reincarnation, or a great Creator. They worship, pray, meditate, commune with the ineffable but eschew religion in the sense of an institution. Therefore, non-religious. That’s not me, but hey, you do you, as the Instagrammers say.

I think that sums it up pretty well. He’s a good sociologist. It’s a “you do you” era, and whatever works – whatever is pragmatic – do that. Just don’t try to convince others to do what you want. Let them “do them”, as we might put it.

So as it turns out, the rush to be not religious in Australia – or more to the point – the final admission that many of us never have been and only now will tick the “no religion” box, has not resulted in a zombie apocalypse of post-Christian debauchery. Well, not on the surface at least.

For as Mark Sayers said in Disappearing Church, the West hasn’t descended into total chaos in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, and indeed looks quite beautiful. Which all seems a bit of a disappointment if your expectation was a total social collapse. Now that you’ve stored up beans and spam and shotguns in your prepper silo, what are you going to do in the strangely peaceful meantime?

But as I’ve said repeatedly, and has been observed by non-Christian writers such as Tom Holland, the Christian fumes are still in the tank of the West’s SUV, and it will tick along for a few clicks yet, sucking its moral energy from what is a rapidly dwindling stockpile. Simply put, many non-Christian people in Australia are non-Christian in quite a Christian way. They hold to a values framework that we would recognise down the Christian centuries.

Well, perhaps. Listen to how James Valentine puts it, because in the end, as he even admits, to say that he has no religion is not the same as saying that he has no faith:

I don’t want to hurt anyone. Dignity is good. I don’t believe in guilt and shame. I don’t believe that some are evil and some are good. I think we are all capable of both. Love yourself. Love your neighbour. Find compassion for yourself, your family, your friends and then perhaps the whole world. I’ll take the insights of the seers and the priests.

A couple of observations. First up, if I were a well-heeled, well-known inner-Sydney-dweller who saw little violence in my life, then that’s probably what I would espouse too. A gentle reminder that “no religion” is always a great option for those who don’t see much injustice in their world. To not believe in “guilt and shame” simply means you are not ashamed of anything you do, and that no one is truly guilty of anything they have done. I mean I’ve done stuff this week already that I’m pretty ashamed of. If the only response to that is to redefine the line of shame, well where to from here?

And James’ perspective is a pretty cossetted view of the world. It sounds pretty, and it is pretty; pretty vacuous. It’s the luxury of someone whose whole world has been built upon an order that the Judeo-Christian world gifted to us, and is living in the fruit of its labour. Flaws there are, of course, but compare it to what is going on elsewhere.

And in fact, James has to hold some of these things in tension when he goes on to claim:

I hate injustice, bullying, greed and tyranny. I’m inspired that we bend towards solving and fixing and healing.

Should the bully not be ashamed? Should the greedy CEO who cuts the jobs of people without a week’s notice not feel some sense of shame? Should the tyrant, whether the drug enforcer in the next suburb, or the brutal dictator in South East Asia not feel guilt? It’s no surprise that the least religious people in the world are those that have benefited from the foundations of Christianity.

But notice what James cannot say, and it’s what sets the gospel apart from everything else in our day. It’s what set the gospel apart from everything else back in Jesus’ day. “Love yourself. Love your neighbour”. There’s nothing particularly radical about that at all, and certainly nothing in those statements that would change the world like the message of Jesus did. I hear people say that the gospel is simply “Love God and love others”, but Jesus himself affirmed that as the law, not as the gospel. The gospel is far more radical.

For what was the message of Jesus to his disciples? Love your enemies! We read the shocking words in Matthew 5 in the sermon on the mount:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

James Valentine, modern man though he be, is thoroughly aligned with the good religious, first century Jew of Jesus’ day. He’s a legalist. The legalists could abide the idea that we should love our neighbours, and would qualify the term “neighbour” to justify their own hostility towards those they despised. Jesus’ listeners were astonished at what Jesus said, because it took everything to a new level, a level that was beyond them, unless someone could show them how it could be done.

Which is exactly what Jesus did do. By forgiving some of his own enemies on the cross (the soldiers crucifying him), and then forgiving many more of his enemies through the cross (all of us who come to him in repentance and faith), he demonstrates that there’s something naive and missing in James Valentine’s view of how the world can be put together. And somewhere along the line, whether in James’ life or the life of those around him, they just won’t be able to do that.

In fact the problem with the rest of James Valentine’s piece is that it sounds eerily similar to a certain prayer by a certain Pharisee in a certain temple, in the presence of a certain tax collector. Valentine goes on to list his qualities, not to God, but to those who will listen nonetheless:

I like reason, science, information. Honesty and trust are good things to strive for. I learn, I listen, I talk, I observe, I pay attention, I try to understand. Be engaged with your family, your friends, your world.

And I believe that’s what he is like. Those are all good things to strive for. And if they’re enough for this life, then so be it. I would not expect anything less – or more – of a person who ticked “no religion”. The great irony of course is the sheer lack of curiosity in James Valentine, for he ends this way:

What we have right here right now is enough. It is. I don’t know how it is. I don’t need to know. I don’t need a meaning. Meaning doesn’t make my next breath any more amazing or desirable. I’m born, I don’t know why. I will die, I don’t know when. And I cannot explain what it is to be alive.

It’s wonderfully honest, and awfully sad at the same time. The need for meaning is innate within all of us and it’s innate within James. He won’t believe that of course until the unrecognised things that bring him meaning – his job, his influence, his reputation, his ability to write articles for national newspapers, his relationships, get stripped away.

I guess what started out as an article full of promise, in that it was going to explore the whole idea of the “no religion” tick in the census, collapsed into a vague mush of middle-class, all-too-comfortable lifestyle posing, that sits aloof from the difficult questions of life. The immanent life that James lives – one in which transcendence is reduced to the idea that the universe itself is a wonder that he can neither explain, but feels no need to have an explanation for – offers huge swathes of significance.

As I write this I am waiting for my wife to finish getting ready so that we can go to church. Some Sundays – and this is one of them – I want to stay home and drink coffee and read a good book in my chair by the window. But if that’s all I did, I would descend into James Valentine’s way of thinking. Because my life without God has a lot of meaning in it also – on the surface at least. In a couple of hours I am getting on a plane to fly to the eastern states to speak to hundreds of people, doing a job I love. I am leaving behind a family I love, in a suburb that’s easy to live in. I’m writing a new book, and just got back to running 100km per week after a frustrating injury. What’s not to like about it all? Almost all the meaning I have is right there.

Almost all the meaning. For the fact is, I need to something to jolt me out of the legalist “love yourself, love your neighbour” riff, which I have found is perfectly within my capacity, as long as I get to define the terms “love”, “yourself” and “neighbour.

I need the voice of Jesus – through His Word and the liturgy, among his gathered people, in the communion elements, and even around the lesser-quality filter coffee and screaming three year olds after the service, to remind me not of how good I can be without God, but of how Jesus loved his enemies enough – even the good, upright moral enemies whose lives are untainted by grief and despair – to die for them.

I need the plausibility structure of the people to God to disciple me away from my own meaning construction, and towards one that sees ,my own guilt and shame, but my freedom to own it and ‘fess it up to the one who gave himself for me. I think I’m as good a person as James Valentine is, and that’s the problem. All that James is left with, ironically, is a worship song to other human beings:

So when I say I don’t have faith, I guess that’s not true. All of the above are things I take on faith and trust. But it’s you I put my faith in, and it’s you I trust.

And I’m just glad I got the chance to launder out that sort of faith from myself this morning, and declare once again my trust in the one who loved an enemy such as I.

(For a better take on why Aussie’s ticked “no religion” see the comments in this article by my friend Michael Jensen. I think he’s on the money.)

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