There seems to be a lot of chatter on the web this week about John Dickson’s new survey on Jesus in Australia.
Christian Today has spoken of the “surprising” results “that 42 per cent of Australians believe Jesus had divine powers and 54 per cent believe he rose from the dead.”
I, however, do not find it so surprising. Why? Because this has all been surveyed before. Years ago. More comprehensively. In 1998 there was an Australian Community Survey of 8,500 Australians from diverse regions across Australia. This earlier and larger survey found that:
- Two-thirds of Australians claim that a spiritual life is important to them
- Most Australians believe in God or a spirit, higher power or life-force (74%)
- 35% believe in a personal God
- 42% believe Jesus was divine
- 43% believe that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual historical event
- 53% believe in heaven
- 33% believe in the devil
- 32% believe in hell
- 33% pray or meditate at least weekly.
The results concerning the divinity of Jesus were identical, 42 percent. More indicated a belief in the resurrection in the Dickson survey, but some of the other results make me wonder whether the question was well defined. If we compare to the belief in heaven however, again we are talking similar figures, 53 percent.
Dickson is reported to have said, “We are staggered. We thought the survey would show the profound scepticism of Australians … Instead it shows there is a base-level assumption among the Australian public that accepts the Jesus story even if it has no relevance to their lives.”
Um, sorry to pour some cold water on this, but the results are not as inspiring if we look deeper, particularly if we take note of other results from the earlier survey. Only 35% believe in a personal God, only 32% believe in orthodox teachings such as hell. That means a significant proportion of these Australians affirming the divinity of Jesus may not be doing so from within a monotheistic understanding of divinity. Or an orthodox understanding of the gospel story.
To put it more bluntly, if you do the math there seems to be a fairly broad split between those affirming a personal God (35%), those affirming an impersonal life force (39%) and those not affirming anything (26%), suggesting that, whatever residual affection Aussies may have about Christ, we are well and truly post-Christian.
The mistake Dickson makes, I think, is confusing secularisation with atheism. This is a common mistake, but unfortunately people keep making it. Secular Australians aren’t abandoning Jesus outright, what they’re doing is chopping and customising him to suit their post-Christian consumer tastes. I am not so sure that is such good news.