The 2010 Global Atheists Convention held in Melbourne in March has sparked a nationwide conversation about religion, reason, science and morality. With more people openly speaking about their lack of faith and even actively promoting atheism, particularly on the internet, the topic has sparked many fiery debates about the meaning of human existence. ELLEN JONES spoke to a local atheist, a politician and a church leader about whether it is possible to lead a good life without God and whether the impact of religious beliefs on public decision-making is dwindling.
Rather than finding the transition to atheism a struggle, Oliver Lavender believes there is liberation in letting go of faith.
“I’d say that liberation from faith equals happiness. To not have a mythical being constantly watching you, monitoring you, checking up on you ... I’d say it’s a liberating thing to be free of that. It’s irrefutable that people can live without faith in a wholehearted manner,” he said.
Mr Lavender’s upbringing was typical of many young Australians in that religion was only in the background of his home life and something he learnt about at school.
Apart from struggling with the ability to actually believe, Mr Lavender said it was in high school when he started to consider the negative impact of religion on human existence.
“People don’t live their lives to the fullest or try to stop suffering in this life, because they believe there’s a better one ahead. They don’t respect this life. That’s a strange world view,” he said.
As someone who actively rails against the influence of religion over political decision-making, Mr Lavender believes it is important to ask questions about what political leaders believe.
“Why is it not open for discussion? It swings votes. It changes decisions. It changes policy. It changes society,” he said.
In response to the argument from some religious leaders that atheism provides no deeper meaning to human life, Mr Lavender said he found comfort in being part of a physical, science-based universe.
“I can look out the door in the morning and see mist coming across the road and I know the world is a beautiful, amazing thing. I don’t need religion to tell me that,” he said.
While he believes there is “enormous moral value” in the way many religions advocate treating other people, Orange councillor Jeremy Buckingham said he was concerned too many political decisions were made on the basis of fundamental beliefs.
“There is certainly a lot to to guide us in terms of morals and ethics and I hope those foundations are always remembered. That’s not just Christianity - that’s from eastern philosophy and also Islam. The concern I have is one where you have a conflict between science and those religious beliefs,” he said.
Mr Buckingham said the denial of climate change was frequently based on the view that only God and not human beings could have such an impact on the planet.
“A classic example is in the debate about climate change. In that debate there are those creationists who believe that the world was created 6000 years ago and that whatever happens is God’s will. I believe we should base our decisions on rational science. You can see from the people who are opposed to action on climate change - [Senators] Cory Bernardi, Steve Fielding, Nick Minchin - they are from the religious right and they do not believe that humanity is capable of affecting the globe,” he said.
Cr Buckingham said decisions on other issues including stem cell research should be based on the scientific implications.
He also welcomed the trialling of ethics education as an alternative to religious instruction in schools.
“I believe we need to teach our children ethics and civics. These things should be promoted as an alternative to religious studies. I think we need to have a universal approach that captures everyone, regardless if they’re Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or whatever,” he said.
The church leader,
Reverend Canon Frank Hetherington
The Reverend Canon Frank Hetherington from Holy Trinity Church does not dispute that it is possible to live a good life and treat people well without faith, however, he does question how meaningful that life will be.
“In some ways they’re right. You can live that life. But what faith adds is a deeper dimension beyond ourselves and looking at bigger things. It’s easier to see some of these non-tangibles, I think, through the eyes of faith in something bigger, rather than simply saying it’s just there,” he said.
While atheists have criticised the evangelical power of religion, Father Hetherington thinks there are plenty of non-believers also trying to push their particular world view.
“As the archbishop of Sydney says, there are people out there who are getting quite evangelical about atheism,” he said.
Father Hetherington believes atheists too often pitch science against religion in a way which is unnecessary and too simple a view, and said being religious did not stop people from accepting the realities of climate change.
“I think humans can do this to the world. That’s why we’re putting solar panels on the roof of the parish centre. There are some choices humanity has made which have been bad for the planet. For me, that’s what the creation story is about. I don’t assume that Adam and Eve are historical people. What the story indicates to me is that people have the right to make choices and sometimes those choices fail,” he said.