Ross Gittins –Mar 27, 2016
I can’t think why, but Easter always reminds me of Christianity. Not, of course, that Christianity has anything to do with the grubby, materialist world of economics. Or does it?
Australia is the most unbelieving it has ever been, with the most recent census saying that only 61 per cent people identify themselves as even nominally Christian.
Twenty-two per cent say they have no religion and another 9 per cent didn’t bother answering the question. People of non-Christian religions account for 7 per cent of the population.
Separate figures say only about 8 per cent of Australians attend religious services regularly. This is about the same as in Britain and France, but a lot less than in Canada or the United States.
With so few people having had much contact with organised religion, it’s not surprising that so many people imagine Christianity to have little bearing on the modern world and economy.
Religion still has a place
However, that is far from the truth, as Australian author Roy Williams argues in his latest book, Post-God Nation? I’m quoting him liberally.
Williams says he’s sick of being told that religion’s influence on our country has been either minimal or malign.
“It is a fact of history that Australia would not exist in anything like the form it does but for Judaeo-Christianity,” he says.
“Deep-seated legacies of our religious heritage still endure, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”
Sydney Anglican Peter Jensen says “we are . . . secular, in a Christian sort of way”.
This might be a new thought for many younger people, but it’s not a rare observation. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said “the Christian religion . . . is a fundamental part of our national heritage. For centuries it has been our very life blood.”
Historian Geoffrey Blainey has said that the Christian churches did “more than any other institution, public or private, to civilise Australians”.
Law built on the Bible
All market economies rest on a foundation of laws, which enforce private property rights, the honouring of contracts and much else. Williams writes that all Western legal systems are grounded in two core assumptions, both from the Bible: that humans have free will and that morality is God-given.
But the English legal system has many other religiously based features, such as the separation of church and state, the jury system, Magna Carta (negotiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Bill of Rights (asserting Parliament’s supremacy over the king, since both were “bound by the laws of God and nature”).
The system of common law, based on rulings by judges rather than parliaments, was established by the devout Henry II, who ensured that most of the early judges were clerics, because of their knowledge of canon law.
Economic expansion comes mainly from productivity improvement, productivity improvement comes mainly from invention and innovation, and invention mainly involves applying scientific discoveries.
Guess who were the West’s first promoters of science and the inventors of universities?
The scientific method – discovery by empirical reasoning – is, Williams writes, unquestionably a byproduct of Christianity. To know the truth of God’s creation, it’s not enough to rely on human logic. It’s also necessary to observe closely what God has created.
Most people today don’t realise how many of the leading politicians, judges and business people who shaped the social and economic system we have inherited had religious beliefs or backgrounds.
Most of the founders of the trade union movement and the Labor Party, for example. John Fairfax, who bought The Sydney Morning Herald in 1841, was a deacon of the Pitt Street Congregational Church, who attended up to four services on a Sunday.
Four of the Herald‘s first five editors were ministers of religion. In his research, Williams found it remarkable how often famous Australians turned out to have been the son of a clergyman (me, too).
But Christianity has permeated our attitudes and values, not just the institutions of our society.
You can be an atheist or a humanist, but if you have any ethical beliefs or moral values they might be influenced by Buddhist ideas, but they’re far more likely to reflect Judaeo-Christian thinking.
And though economists keep forgetting it, it’s the ethical behaviour of ordinary business people and consumers that keeps our economy ticking over satisfactorily and makes the CommInsures still the exception rather than the rule.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.