Beyond Belief – how we find meaning, with or without religion


Hugh Mackay
Hugh Mackay recently spoke at Victoria University of Wellington as part of a tour to promote his new book Beyond Belief.


Globally, religion is on the rise. Almost three-quarters of the world’s population identify with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, and the graph is pointing upwards: by the middle of this century, 80 percent of the world’s population will identify with one of the four major religions.

The situation in Australia and New Zealand (and most of the Western democracies we compare ourselves with) is very different. In the last census, about 60 percent of Australians and 50 percent of New Zealanders ticked “Christian”, and it was a long way to the second religion on the list. In Australia, that’s Buddhism (2.5 percent), followed by Islam (2.2 percent). Australia’s fastest-growing religion is Hinduism, currently below 2 percent but likely to overtake both Islam and Buddhism, as it already has in New Zealand.

Recent national surveys show that about 70 percent of Australians and New Zealanders claim to believe in God or “some higher power”, so you’d have to say these are both essentially theistic societies, and strongly Christian, at least in terms of heritage. But when it comes to churchgoing, the picture is very different: only eight percent of Australians now attend church weekly, about 15 percent attend once a month or more often, and 25 percent at Christmas and Easter.And the situation is similar in New Zealand (as it is in Canada and the UK). Most people simply never enter a church – not even for a wedding (70 percent of Australian weddings are now conducted on non-church premises).

Anyone looking at those figures and drawing the conclusion that religion is on the way out – in either Australia or New Zealand – would be ignoring the lessons of history. Religious observance may wax and wane but, in every culture, every civilisation, in human history, religion has played an important – and often a central – role. (Even in contemporary Australia, enrolments at church schools have been skyrocketing.)

That’s because of what religion offers people – and not just better health, though there is plenty of research that demonstrates the health benefits of religious faith and practice. Actually, the reported health benefits point to one of the three great attractions of religion – the power of belonging.

Then there’s the well-documented power of faith itself (faith in ‘something greater than ourselves’ – whether mystical or otherwise – being widely acknowledged as the key prerequisite for a meaningful life) and the metaphorical power of those grand narratives that form part of all religious traditions.

Given the many benefits that flow from religious faith and practice, why has religion been in such sharp decline in countries like Australia and New Zealand?

Three reasons. First, the culture has been bombarding us with propaganda that says we are all entitled to be rich and happy, so the messages of religion about the need for self-sacrifice, kindness and compassion have been rather swamped by the messages of materialism and individualism.

Second, religious institutions have not always behaved well – not only on an institutional scale, but at the local level, as well. Many people have left because they felt insulted, bored, ignored, excluded or judged (or, for many women, because they felt they were being treated as second-class citizens).

Third, religion’s emphasis on dogmatic beliefs has created a barrier between a more educated and sceptical society and the imaginative possibilities of faith. Many people have been turned off religion by the prescriptive, institutionalised nature of so many beliefs promoted as being essential to faith.

But the search for meaning goes on – for example, in the   rise of the international SBNR movement – “spiritual but not religious” – especially among young people who, while rejecting institutional dogma, still wish to nurture their spiritual life. For them, the very essence of spirituality is the realisation that we are all part of a greater whole and should therefore treat each other only with kindness and respect.

Religious and non-religious journeys may be different, but their goals are the same. People of good will, whether on a religious or SBNR pathway, all dream of a better world, and have remarkably similar views about how to achieve it. Perhaps we should be moving beyond belief by focusing more on the common ground that unites us, rather than the dogma that divides us.


Hugh Mackay is an Australian social researcher and the author of 17 books. His latest book, Beyond Belief, is published by Macmillan.

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