The Australian Soul

I thought I would share with you some interesting observations made by Gary Bouma in “Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-First Century.” Although he made them back in 2006 I think they are still highly accurate and relevant. He writes:

A society’s religious institution sets the levels of religious belief and practice required for a member of that society to be accepted. While these are basic, both over-conformity and under-conformity will be sanctioned. A society’s religious institutions refers to the patterned ways that society organises access to the sacred and both produces and applies meanings that refer to the transcendent. Religious meanings are assured by reference to some power, force or being beyond the ordinary, beyond the temporal. This institution or set of norms and expectations includes the patterned ways in which a society raises and answers questions of transcendentally grounded meaning; the ways it patterns action relating to spiritual and religious life; and the sociocultural – as opposed to organisational – norms regarding religious belief and practice. A society’s religious institution is an arrangement of norms and expectations that provide a foundation in the transcendent for the hopes, dreams and aspirations of members of the society in such a way as to make sense of the past, motivate the present and cushion the blows of disconfirming evidence.

A society’s religious institution includes norms and expectations about religious and spiritual practice and belief, such as intensity, expressivity, frequency, periodicity and cyclicity. These dimensions are useful for describing and comparing differences among societies. For example, the Australian norms and expectations associated with the dimensions of patterned relations with the transcendent, religious and spiritual include:

intensity: a strong tendency towards the subdued, laid back

expressivity: a strong tendency towards the shy, withdrawn and not exuberant

frequency: a strong tendency towards infrequent or occasional attendance

periodicity: annual/biannual participation is more acceptable than weekly

cyclicity: a tendency for participation to occur early and late in the lifecycle

consistency: a low level of consistency between belief and practice is accepted

singularity: persons are expected to identify with one religion

proximity: the transcendent is expected to be distant, localised and diffuse

efficacy: the transcendent is subject to influence, trustworthy and effective

access: the transcendent to be accessed directly and through professionals

social location: religious groups are expected to be on the margin, not central.

Thus, the Australian religious institution has expectations that shape the nature and operation of Australian religious and spiritual groups and individual religiosity. Groups are expected to offer and adopt forms of belief and practice that are not intensely demanding. Weekly attendance is not necessary for social acceptance and might be seen as over-conforming.

People in their late teens and twenties are not expected to give religion and spirituality much time, at least until they have children and then they might be legitimately too busy. Religiosity and spirituality should not require exuberant expression, particularly in public. Those who must be noisy about their religion and spirituality are encouraged do so within enclosed areas and to think many times before making a public display of prayer, eating norms or religious insignia and distinctive clothing. Finally, people may believe what they like, but the society does not expect either the group or individual members to be explicit about putting beliefs into practice.

These norms of the Australian religious institution are quite different from the expectations of the average Christian church where higher levels of intensity, a high degree of consistency, higher frequency and at least weekly periodicity are the ideals towards which all are encouraged to strive. In seeking to achieve conformity to these norms, Christian churches are making demands that exceed the norms of the Australian religious institution and can be expected to experience difficulties in doing so. The levels of expectation outlined above are also different from the cultural expectations associated with Buddhism, but much closer to those of Islam and Judaism.

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