A- A A+

Religious thought in sacred secular Australia

Frank Brennan |  21 March 2016


In light of the publication of his new book Australian Religious Thought, the polymath Wayne Hudson has asked me to offer a few reflections on post-secular consciousness in my capacity as a religious person regularly involved in the public square of a pluralist democratic polity.

Wayne Hudson's Australian Religious ThoughtLike many of you, I have had cause to reflect these last few weeks on why Cardinal Pell evokes such a visceral reaction from so many Australians who profess to have no religious commitment whatever, especially some in the media.

Of course Pell is often portrayed as the embodiment of tradition and authority of institutional religion. But whatever his shortcomings in relation to dealing with child sexual abuse, this does not fully explain the deep passion of so many of the anti-religious and non-religious factions.

He is also perceived by many of his critics as lacking the empathy, the compassion, and the insight of one who is supposed to tap into the religious sensibility or the secular moral consciousness of the average Australian who never darkens the door of a church but who often enjoys the benefit of hindsight.

Now I offer no public judgment of Pell, and unlike many other commentators I will await the findings of the royal commission. I have however been outspoken about his right to a fair hearing and to natural justice — not because he is a religious leader, but because he is a citizen.

And of course, some have responded, 'Brennan would say that, because he is a Catholic priest.' No I say it because I am a human rights lawyer who cares about the universal application of the rule of law.

It is when a representative of institutional religion like Pell taps into the generic religious sensibility or moral consciousness that the real work of Australian religious thought is done. Australian religious thought is not just the thought of those Australians who are religious. It embraces the thought of those non-religious others who reflect on the lives of those who are religious.

Some years ago, when launching the second edition of Philip Adams' Adams v God, I made the point to Philip: 'For God's sake, don't come across; as a believer, you would be a crashing bore. I think you do great work from where you are on the other side of the fence.' Programs such as Philip's LNL make a great contribution to Australian religious thought.

I find in Hudson's notion of sacral secularity many resonances with expat Australian ethicist Margaret Somerville's notion of the secular sacred. Wayne says, 'Sacral secularity is sacral, in that nonmundane value is pursued as an end. It is secular, in that it applies to worldly affairs that do not fall under ecclesiastical control.'

All persons are seeking an articulation of the sacred in their lives, whether or not they espouse religious beliefs with ecclesiastical verification.

We Australians are now well used to laws and policies aimed at protecting sacred sites and recognising Aboriginal spiritual relationships with lands and waters. We regularly commence formal public events with an acknowledgment of country, ancestors, spirits, and elders past and present.

These are public expressions of Australian religious thought which are politically acceptable even to those who eschew all notions of spirituality in their own lives.


"Religious language spoken by these secular practitioners can help the community to focus on ethical imperatives crafted for a society in which no one dares to posture publicly as being religiously righteous."


Our Anzac Day commemorations have become more eloquent expressions of Australian religious thought the more distant we have come from Gallipoli. Delivering the occasional address in the Harvard Memorial Chapel last year for the Anzac centenary, I observed:

'Over the generations, we have reached out across those trenches that divided us. We have embraced a more sustaining myth, a more noble ideal: the brotherhood of man, the dignity of our shared humanity.

'We have appropriated the words attributed to Ataturk at the 1934 dawn service: "There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours ... After having lost their lives on this land they are now our sons as well."'

I have just returned from the 40th Port Fairy Folk Festival which is a gathering place for many deep practitioners of Australian religious thought, though not many of them attend the annual folk mass or equivalent celebrations hosted by the other Christian denominations.

One of the old favourites, Eric Bogle was there with his Scottish brogue singing his song 'Shelter' which is a national anthem of religious thought:


I'm drowning in the sunshine as it pours down from the skies
There's something stirring in my heart, bright colours fill my eyes
As from here to the far horizon, your beauty does unfold
And oh you look so lovely, dressed in green and gold

And I can almost touch the ocean shimmering in the distant haze
As I stand here on this mountain on this loveliest day of days
Round half the world I've drifted, left no wild oats unsown
But now my view has shifted and I think I've just come home

To the homeless and the hungry may you always open doors
May the restless and the weary find safe harbour on your shores
May you always be our Dreamtime place, our spirit's glad release
May you always be our shelter, may we always live in peace


Many of our finest novelists are exemplars of Australian religious thought. Think only of David Malouf, Tim Winton, and Helen Garner. They tap into notions of community and the sacramental — without the ecclesiastical trappings of tradition and authority.

I remember Garner's account of introducing fellow novelist Winton to 'a recently "saved" Christian'. The conversation ended when Winton said to him, 'Why don't you give the book a rest? Why don't you let your life be your witness?'

It's the lived experience rather than the learned book reading which regularly forms the basis for Australian religious thought. Religious language spoken by these practitioners can help the community to focus on ethical imperatives crafted for a society in which no one dares to posture publicly as being religiously righteous.

Think just of Winton's lament about asylum seekers at the Palm Sunday rally in Perth last year:


Jesus said: 'What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world only to lose his soul?' And I wonder: What does it profit a people to do likewise, to shun the weak and punish the oppressed, to cage children, and make criminals out of refugees?

What about our soul as a people?

We're losing our way. We have hardened our hearts.

I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you. For the children's sake. For the sake of this nation's spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there's still time.


These words would not have resounded around the nation so throbbingly if they had been uttered by someone in clerical dress or by someone affecting a liturgical tone. Here is religious thought clothed in non-religious apparel and worn by one of non-religious appearance.

Hudson portrays many diverse Australian religious thinkers in this expansive book. One is Max Charlesworth whose intellectual humility was fostered by a commitment to inter-disciplinary study, conversation and writing.

Charlesworth developed personal friendships with people of all backgrounds moving 'beyond confessional confines and (becoming) an advocate of interreligious theology for whom there could be no established morality in a liberal society'.

Hudson makes the point that Charlesworth 'without abandoning his personal Catholicism, embraced the more stringent implications of pluralism within the framework of liberal political philosophy'.

Another thinker highlighted by Hudson is the ethnographic historian Greg Dening. Reading the account of Dening's 'epistemology based on theatricality and participation, as opposed to positivist conceptions of the sciences', I recalled Dening's wonderful essay 'Living with and in deep time' published in Stuart McIntyre's edited collection The Historian's Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History.

Dening recalled the celebration at the National Library in Canberra when two items of Australian heritage were placed on the Memory of the World Register.

Those items, joining documents from other countries such as the Magna Carta and the US Declaration of Independence, were not the Australian Constitution or even the batting records of Donald Bradman, but rather Captain James Cook's journal from the Endeavour voyage of 1768-1771 culminating in his hoisting the flag on Possession Island, and the papers relating to Eddie Mabo's case in the High Court.

Dening described the reverence with which he donned the cotton gloves to peruse these documents in the Manuscript Reading Room of the library. He took up Mabo's drawings of his land and his people. This file 'needs a slow, slow read'. Dening said this file is Mabo's 'expression of how deep time has left its mark on the present'. Here is Dening's evocative description of his reading of these papers:


He (Mabo) taps a truth the way we all tap truths from living, but in ways which need to be tolerated by those whose notion of law and evidence is blinkered by legal tradition and constitution and who need to find some entry into Eddie Mabo's otherness.

The other papers in the Mabo Papers — of judges, lawyers, anthropologists, historians, witnesses of first people telling their stories — belong to the Memory of the World because the whole world faces the issue of how it lives with the Deep Time of all its first peoples, overrun and dispossessed as they are.

It belongs to World Memory because the papers are we, the Australian people, struggling to do justice and to live with the Deep Time all around us. And we are in this instance the world.


The postsecular consciousness is our 'struggling to do justice and to live with the Deep Time all around us'. It is the stuff of Australian religious thought.

McIntyre challenged Hudson 'to make better sense of how the patterns in Australia compared with those in other settler societies'. As a first step, Hudson has 'brought together a substantial body of research and interpreted some of it in innovative ways'.

For this, we contributors to Australian religious thought are in his debt, whether or not we count ourselves as religious.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.




Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Talk about arrogant! Brennan (and presumably Hudson) conflates plain old kindness, decency and respect with "religious thought." As an atheist, I find that an insulting notion. It seems to me that some people are clutching at straws.

John Brady 26 March 2016

Just because those who engage in ‘religious thought’ often display ‘plain old kindness, decency and respect’, that is no reason for an atheist to be insulted, thinking they are wrongly conflated. Of course atheists can also display ‘plain old kindness, decency and respect’. Some of us who engage in religious thought would not be able to display these admirable characteristics as often if we were not to engage in religious thought. There’s nothing arrogant in that. I have long admired those atheists who consistently display ‘plain old kindness, decency and respect’.

Frank Brennan SJ 28 March 2016

I am not a scholar so maybe I should not even try to weigh in on this subject again. Although I am trying hard not to be obtuse, I just cannot understand Father Brennan's response to my previous comment. Did he not say in his article that "We Australians are now well used to laws and policies protecting sacred sites and recognising aboriginal spiritual relationships with land and waters. ...These are public expressions of Australian religious thought..." I am sorry Father, but sez who? For me and I suspect most Australians, they are nothing of the kind.

john brady 29 March 2016

And while I am at it, I take exception to your extraordinary statement that people who engage in religious thought are more likely to display kindness, decency and respect than those who do not. Wow, Father. Did you really mean to write that?

John Brady 29 March 2016

Did you, Frank, really expect any other reaction than the one you got from John? The 'visceral reaction' to George Pell comes not only from those that you describe as 'the anti-religious and non-religious faction' but also from those, within your church, like Moira Rayner and Kristine Keneally, who are actually prepared to speak out. Being ‘not as other men are’, you ‘offer no public judgement of Pell’ but continue to be outspoken about his right to a fair hearing, as if there was any danger he might receive anything less from the Commission. By this time you have lost most of us, before you tackle the important but contested notion of a ‘post secular consciousness’ and the concept of the sacred in a secular society. Then you seem, to me at least, to want to take a gradually growing but by no means universal respect for indigenous culture, and conversely a growing tendency for the Anzac myth to be morphed into a dangerous national religion by people like Abbott and his sabre-rattlers, as a sign of ‘religious thought’ among the non-religious other, when most of the time it is anything but ‘religious’ and much more to do with John’s ‘plain old kindness, decency and respect’.

Ginger Meggs 30 March 2016

It was considered a truism in the upheavals of the 1960s that all actions and the thoughts that underlie them are political. Perhaps. as someone who reflects at some depth on religion as well, Fr Brennan merely observes that actions and thoughts similarly all have a religious dimension. While it seems to suit many -- atheists in particular -- to define "religious" in a much more narrow sense, that is the kind of thinking which, by its nature, drives religious division and perpetuates disharmony. As to the morality of religion or non-theistic people, while I have certainly come across people who think religion provides moral superiority, or, more accurately people who think people think religion provides moral superiority, it is hard to see that as Brennan's view when he talks about "ethical imperatives crafted for a society in which no one dares to posture publicly as being religiously righteous." After all, that understanding of righteousness originally derived from Christian teaching has long escaped the confines of churches and become the common currency of the west.

Peter_G 17 May 2016

Similar articles

'Equal laws and equal rights ... dealt out to the whole community'. How close 161 years on?

1 Comment
Frank Brennan | 04 December 2015

'Tonight, gathered here in the Southern Cross Club in the national capital, gathered as Eureka's children. We affirm that there is room for everyone under the Southern Cross. I hope you will return to Canberra carrying the Southern Cross flag when we proclaim the Australia Republic on 1 January 2020 which will be two elections after Australia last had a monarchist leader of a major political party. Tony Abbott is the last of his type. Whether the prime minister honoured to witness the proclamation is Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten or another matters not.' Annual Dinner for Eureka's Children, Southern Cross Club, Canberra, 3 December 2015.

Luther’s challenge to the Church then and now

Bill Wright | 06 March 2017

Speaking of reform in the church can mean many things. Often it's about practical matters: sorting out the Vatican Bank, changing how bishops are chosen or clergy trained; that sort of thing. Occasionally, however, reform is about seeking real religious change. Martin Luther, I want to suggest, is one of those reformers who was not concerned with tinkering with structures of the church but with reforming the Christian message so that it might reform the believer.

It's time to put past victims and present and future children first

Frank Brennan | 01 March 2017

Make no mistake, our church leaders are not yet out of the blaze of the headlights. They don't have all the answers, not even in relation to matters peculiarly within their jurisdiction. Despite being put on notice, our most senior bishops could not even agree on the limits of the seal of the confessional and on what a priest should do if abuse were reported in the confessional by a child. It's not just our past leaders who needed help. Our present leaders also do.

Ensuring justice for all after the Royal Commission

Frank Brennan | 17 February 2017

The commission's forensic scrutiny of past actions of church officials in no way constitutes an interference with the freedom of religion. Its spotlight is to be welcomed, provided only that it is shone on a truly representative sample of all institutions which have been found wanting and provided the same light filter is applied to all institutions. I do however have a problem with the commission making findings on issues like the want of compassion when those findings are made only against a Church.

Looking for light amid Royal Commission's Catholic wrap-up

Frank Brennan | 06 February 2017

Listening to the media and our church leaders in recent days, we know that there is plenty of darkness ahead for our Church in the weeks ahead with the Royal Commission's so-called 'Catholic wrap-up'. We're told that the statistics will be terrible and we expect that some of our church leaders will appear, looking stunned and helpless. This morning, I think we need to reflect on these stark realities in the light of the scriptures. And this can be done only by holding the victims clearly in focus.