Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Julia Gillard's Atheism

On Sunday 18 I was quoted by John Elder, a Melbourne Age journalist, concerning Julia Gillard's faith, or lack of it.  Elder gave the impression that my view on Gillard's atheism was rather more negative than it was. As he said to me "much got cut from everyone's remarks".

What I had written to Elder was:
"I think most people of faith recognise that we need leaders who are capable and honest. Just because someone is a Christian, or an adherent of any other faith, doesn't make them a a good leader or even a good person.

There are also prominent examples in the Bible of admired leaders, like Nebuchadnezzar, who were pagans, and both St Paul and St Peter tell Christians to respect authorities (even though they were pagans and were even persecuting Christians).

I don't think the question is really about whether someone believes in something or nothing.  It's about what the person actually believes in,  as much as the fact that they believe in ANYTHING.  ...

It does depend a lot on what you think of the religion itself. Some would be nervous about a Muslim prime minister, because many see Islam as a political system, and they would fear that the leader's faith will end up directing policy to reshape society towards the Islamic sharia.

Differences between religions aside, there is a monumental struggle of values going on in society between a purely materialistic view of the human person on the one hand — for which the philosopher Peter Singer has become the favourite pinup boy — and views which take the dignity of the human person as a God-given, and an absolutely non-negotiable value to be protected at all costs. Singer's ethics, which have become embedded in the policies of the Greens, could take humanity into some very dark places indeed. We are seeing this unfolding already.

If you believe we are all just lumps of dirt, the result of a series of evolutionary accidents, of course this affects how you value the dying, the unborn, the disabled, the environment, human sexuality and marriage.

Pure materialism will inevitably undermine human rights and erode justice, reducing the worth of people to what they produce or consume. We saw this very clearly in the bitter fruits of Marxist atheism, which treated human lives as the raw material for political progress. In the name of such 'progress', millions of lives were cruelly degraded and destroyed.

The big question in my mind about Julia Gillard is not the fact that she is an atheist, but what kind of atheism does she stand for? Will she stand up for and defend values which ultimately are based on Biblical ethical foundations, such as marriage, the right to life and the equality of all people before the law? Or will she march to the drumbeat of pure materialism?

The home values which have formed our Prime Minister – and which she has emphasised in her speeches – include hard work, the value of an education, optimism, and respect for others (that is, not thinking of yourself as superior to others, no matter what their attributes). These are good values, but what are they based upon? They sound a lot like the product of the Welsh protestant revival of a century ago, which reformed Welsh society, shutting pubs all over the country, and improving the lot of many. Such values as a protestant work ethic and the dignity of the human person, inherited from our forebears, are the fruits of the faith of preceding generations.

But the question is what legacy will Julia pass on to future generations, because even good values, if disconnected from their moorings in faith, do not easily or automatically replicate themselves. They can even be dangerous. An evil person can do a lot of damage through hard work and a good education.

These days the aggressive drumbeat of atheistic materialism sounds enticing and compelling for many. What I do not know is whether Julia Gillard is going to march in step with this increasingly confident beat, or will she more or less hold to the values of the Welsh Christian soil from which she grew but has now become disconnected.

So yes, I am uneasy about Julia. But what her legacy will be, only time will tell."

I have had a few interesting responses from atheists to The Age article. One person wrote respectfully asking whether my comments, as quoted, were taken in or out of context. An email conversation ensued, and we could agree on many things.

Someone else wrote what could best be described as hate mail. Some atheists assume that if you have faith, you must be a) an idiot b) a bigot, or c) both. This sentiment is  deeply held by more than a few in Australia. I am troubled by the intensity of this hatred which a minority of atheists seems to hold towards people with different views from their own.

I do remain curious about Julia Gillard's world view. What are her foundational values and beliefs – apart from derivative motherhood values like hard work, respect for others and optimism?  Upon what fundamental assumptions or presuppositions does she base her take on the meaning of life?

Take respect for others, for example. Julia Gillard regards this as a Good Thing. People can adopt this as a foundational principle of their own personal life-journey, but as a value, it is normally something secondary, which is based upon other beliefs. For example many Christians base this belief upon the idea that all people are made in the image of God, and so they share a universal dignity and worth, no matter what their race, ethnicity, language, religion, wealth or capabilities may be. I can see how a materialistic world view could produce different conclusions. For example, if you wanted to argue that it is our capacity for cognition which is the basis of human dignity (by this view a whale would have more worth than a snail because the whale is more intelligent) then you might conclude that an unborn foetus or a intellectually disabled person has less inherent worth as a human being than Mr or Ms Jo(e) Average. Abortion and euthanasia of the disabled might appear more reasonable to someone who evaluates human dignity in terms of the capacity for cognition.

What does our Prime Minister think about the meaning of life? This is a question I'd be keen to have answers for from any politician, but I'm particularly curious to know more about Julia's world view.

However, I'm not holding my breath to have deeper questions answered this side of the election.