AS we close out another year, our cultural celebrations begin once more. Though Christmas has traditionally been a significantly religious festival around the birth of Jesus, many are now happy to shift the “religion” aspect to the side. It would be argued that if good food, family and friends are all there, no deeper understanding is needed.
However, there is a great irony that must be recognised. In Australia we see concerted pressure on religion to be left out of our politics, our media and our schools. Many see it as the relic of a by-gone era, something that would best be left to die in the elements. The irony is that religion in our current climate is more relevant now than it has been in the last 50 years.
As much as we might like to simply bury our heads in the Christmas puddings, the rise of violent events with undeniable (but not solely) religious motivation targeting the Western world is increasing. It is a sad truth that we often fail to adequately recognise when these events happen in distant cultures, but at the same time it is an understandable shock when it happens in places of shared heritage such as Europe and the US.
It is important for us as a society to be honest about the significant role religion plays. For example, when ABC journalists claim “these recent attacks have nothing to do with Islam”, it leads us down a path of deliberate ignorance. The motivation of trying to protect the vast majority of Muslims who live in Australia from abuse and distrust is an admirable one, but pretending there aren’t serious discussions to be had around the topic is unhelpful.
In fact, I see this increasing lack of understanding about religion, by which I mean beliefs, world views and customs of the major faiths, to be a dangerous path.
Our world views, comprehended or not, touch all areas of life from work and leisure, to relationships and education. By trying to deny this fundamental part of humanity you create greater cultural dissidence. In other words, the more you push religion away from public discussion, the greater alienation people of faith will feel, alienation that often leads to fear and anger.
So, although it may be uncomfortable, we need to start learning seriously about religion and the claims various narratives are making. In this way there will be better dialogue, less stereotypes, deeper understanding of the issues, and greater cultural connections. If what is happening is a clash of ideologies, then surely the answer is not to ignore, but rather debate with vigour, honesty and, most importantly, grace. This will help make sure ideas based on misinformation or misunderstandings that lead to violence can be exposed.
For example, it is ridiculous that in my 13 years of Canberra schooling a Bible or Koran were never opened. This despite the fact that these books have been the #1 bestseller in the world every year since the printing press was invented.
Even our universities are falling behind, with ANU scrapping the Religious Studies department 10 years ago (I was in the middle of my major at the time).
As we look forward to the New Year with some anticipation of where the world is heading, I would encourage you to not just stop at the Christmas ham.
Visit your local mosque or church, read the Bible and Koran, and then seek to engage in this conversation of religion that is going on all around us. Not in a way that seeks to ridicule, adding fuel to the fire, but rather seeking genuine understanding about their story of humanity in this world. Who knows, you may even discover more about your own story too. Merry Christmas.
Nick Jensen is the director of the Lachlan Macquarie Institute, which helps develop leaders in public policy (lmi.org.au)