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Faith no more as World Youth Day fans flames of disbelief

Thanks to Michael Murray for the link.

Faith no more as World Youth Day fans flames of disbelief

I don't know how World Youth Day is going down in your household but in mine it's fanning the flames of militant atheism.

As the family member with the oldest pedigree as a non-believer, I find myself in the odd position of fervently preaching religious tolerance to cool the antagonism World Youth Day is engendering around my dinner table.

The event has succeeded in thrusting religion onto the front pages and into the nightly news bulletins in a way unusual in Australia. From the clocks ticking off the days, to the bus-shelter advertising, to the debate over the $129 million taxpayer contribution, reminders of World Youth Day are omnipresent. But far from piquing sympathetic interest in religion, the constant exposure to the imminent mass gathering of young Catholics from around the world is proving counter-productive with the youth in my family - and my experience is not unique.

Religions are best kept as a private matter of faith, with the state favouring none. When religion is in the heart or in the church, it can be happily ignored by non-believers or defended, if necessary, on the grounds of live and let live. When religion turns into a massive, publicly funded event that is in your face on a daily basis, the advocates of religious tolerance face a tougher task.

For a start, young non-believers become exposed to the more arcane aspects of faith and ask in supercilious tones whether people really believe a woman was cured of lung cancer because she prayed to a nun.

It has been hard enough these past years to hold the line on religious tolerance in my household. Militant Islamists, the wacky Christian right, and Jewish extremists, each believing their religion is the one true path and prepared to wage war to prove it, have not been helpful.

The fundamentalists have been poor advertisements for the spiritual life. And not for the reason you might expect. To young non-believers, inclined to see the world in black and white, the zealots with their literal interpretation of the holy books embody the authentically religious in all their absurdity. Moderate Muslims, Christians or Jews are dismissed with contempt as hypocrites who cherry-pick the palatable bits from the holy books - how futile it is for rich folk to wriggle their way into heaven, for example - but ignore the homophobia, sexism, and animal sacrifice.

It has been possible to mount a credible defence against the argument that religious people are either fundamentalists or phonies. The children's grandfather, grandmother, uncle - a minister and theologian - and family friends could be called upon as examples of moderate-minded people with sincere religious belief.

Then along came Richard Dawkins. It was not I who brought The God Delusion into the house. But for all its supposed flaws - its hectoring tone, dubious grasp of theology, uncertain science - it weaseled its way into the boys' hearts and became their dog-eared bible. Its clear call to put rationality above stupidity appeals to young people of a certain uncompromising caste of mind, and so my task got tougher. Dawkins began to harden their atheism into disdain towards all those who sought comfort in "mumbo jumbo".

From the 2006 census I know there are as many non-believers in Australia as there are Anglicans (3.7 million) and many more non-believers than Pentecostals (220,000). The proportion of Christians has fallen steeply over 10 years (by 7 per cent) and the number of non-believers has grown (by 2 per cent). But despite the trends, believers (13.8 million) far outnumber us "no religions". It is important not to cause offence when so many people believe, not necessarily in a personal god, but in "something out there", as a recent survey of Australian teenagers put it. There is much to admire in the words of Jesus, in the thrust of Buddhism, in Judaism's rich culture and rituals, in the commitment to social justice of some faiths. So I take my job seriously of trying to instil religious tolerance in my sons.

But frankly, under the pressure of World Youth Day, I am worn out defending people's right to believe stuff I rejected as a 14-year-old. I could never accept that religion was the only source of morality, or that the only reason to do good was because God - or "something out there" - was watching. God did not seem interested in stopping wars or hunger; only people could do that. Mainstream churches, it seemed to me, saved their firepower not to challenge poverty and inequality but to oppress homosexuals and women.

Religion will come under the kind of scrutiny over the next month I wish it could be spared. When the dead body of Pier Giorgio Frassati, a sacred Catholic who died 83 years ago, arrives from Italy to lie in St Mary's Cathedral, I will be hard-pressed to explain the ghoulishness. The pope's well-known position on condoms has already been raised in disbelief.

For all the youth galvanised in their faith, or converted by World Youth Day, there must be others like my sons, hardened in their atheism and tipped towards contempt. And for all the parents, heartened by the sight of so many young Christians, there must be others like me, wearily gearing up to fight the fight for religious tolerance.



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