June 2012

The Nation Reviewed

A New Opium

By Don Watson
George Pell, Anzac service, 24 April 2009. © AAP/Jenny Evans
George Pell, Anzac service, 24 April 2009. © AAP/Jenny Evans
The Anzac cult

Of all believers who might have debated Richard Dawkins on the ABC earlier this year, Cardinal George Pell was surely among the more unlikely. There is no doubting the depth of the Archbishop’s faith or sincerity, of course; there can be no doubt about Rupert Murdoch’s faith in freedom of the press, either. That the Cardinal’s public demeanour does not immediately bring to mind the author of the Beatitudes has nothing to do with the case: the poet Les Murray, to pluck another man of faith out of the air, is certainly no less pugnacious and opinionated, but he would have been a much more rousing and formidable opponent for Dawkins, even if our scientist had not been jet-lagged. The likes of the American novelist Marilynne Robinson would have been good, too, albeit from a Protestant angle. Like Murray, Robinson is a believer who makes non-believers discreetly check their internal compasses; neither of them, what’s more, would have needed Pell’s urgers in the audience imitating a Roman mob. Of course, it doesn’t help that Cardinal Pell represents a church which currently has many charges against it, but since most churches have past charges against them, this hardly disqualified him.

What did make his presence unfortunate, not to say, by the end, excruciating, was his inability to mount a persuasive argument for the possibility of God without overlaying it with doctrinal baloney about the nature of such a God and His continuing powers, along with heaven, hell and a “place of purification”, presumably in between. This was what Marx likened to opium? It was not the Cardinal’s persona or his church, but the barrenness of his argument and the patches of downright silliness: I don’t know what believers made of his case, but those of us burdened with an absence of faith felt a bit short-changed.

Yet in the face of smug vapidity and braying, the stonkered Englishman’s best arguments scarcely raised a welt, and at times he flailed around like a man trying to drive out the smell of incense with a hammer. It was a spectacle to remind us that scientists are most useful when quietly getting on with their business of discovering how the world works, curing disease and brightening the lives of multitudes, including the multitudes of intelligent people who believe there is Something beyond or within or without which does not respond to scientific inquiry.

Whatever their intentions, militant atheists of the Dawkins kind nearly always look a bit brattish and unruly, as if they are fit to burst with facts and might at any moment lift up their jumpers and leap into each other’s arms like soccer players after a goal. And whatever they know of science, they do not seem to understand religion. “Why are we here?” is a silly question, Dawkins said, and was dismayed when the mob booed and Pell smirked. Well, it might be a silly question, but it comes with existence: the only people who have not at some time asked ‘Why are we here?’ are those who are not here. Dawkins might have been less irritated by Pell’s foetid old chestnut about communism (and Nazism, he said) being murderous because it was atheistic, if he considered the possibility that, religion being religion, when he aims his boot at it the religious feel the threat as an existential one.  

The question turns out to be less one of why Pell was put up against Dawkins than why Dawkins was pitted against Pell. Better a fellow believer from a different branch – Protestant, liberation theologian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Kierkegaardian, Spinozist – who has an understanding of the premises: not to restart the Thirty Years War, but rather because intellectual atheists can no more prove the non-existence of that in which believers refuse not to believe than your average professional wrestler can, and both have less hope than certain jolts of experience.

Take for instance the self-educated and much-loved memoirist Albert Facey, in 1914 a near-perfect embodiment of the legendary bushman cum digger. Bert Facey found his faith fading sometime between his first bayonet charge at Gallipoli and his eleventh. Two of his brothers were killed in that campaign, and he suffered injuries from which he never recovered. His son was killed in the next war. By then Facey had decided “there is no God, it is only a myth”. There was neither science nor theology to his conversion, unless “the awful look on a man’s face after he has been bayoneted” qualifies as one or the other; his experience served better than evolution to change what he called his “outlook”. “It is a terrible thing, a bayonet charge,” he wrote.

For Facey, as no doubt for many others, God died as Anzac was born. He was nothing less than a patriot and a proud soldier, but his feelings about the war were complex and contradictory. He had killed “hundreds of men”, and seen thousands die. He’d fought with countrymen he admired and some he didn’t care for. He’d clout any larrikin who slung off at him for enlisting, and despised men who had stayed behind, he reckoned, to take advantage of the soldiers’ wives and girlfriends; yet if he had known what the war was going to be like, he said, he would have stayed at home. Nowhere in his wonderful memoir, A Fortunate Life, does he say why he enlisted: if it was to keep Australia free or to preserve democracy, he did not think it important enough to say so. He didn’t do it for mateship or any other ‘value’ as far as we can tell, unless it was for manly duty and imperial loyalty, Victorian creeds to which craggy Australian bush dwellers were very susceptible.

Myths, alas, do not accommodate such complexities. When old soldiers got together to remember and the nation murmured “Lest We Forget”, Anzac Day served a good purpose and retained a connection with the realities men like Bert Facey lived through and bore all their lives. Late in his life, Facey nominated John Simpson as his hero of the campaign, and it was the humanist lesson of the stretcher bearer with the donkey – not the ‘values’ of mateship or identity – that generations of twentieth-century children were taught. The politicians, leader writers and historians came up with their theories about the ‘meaning’ of Gallipoli, the national character and the birth of the nation and all that: they were harmless fantasies compared to Simpson.

But Anzac has become something else now. The Prime Minister says it has grown “organically”. “That organic sense of growth has taken us to a new place on Anzac Day,” she said, after delivering a poignant speech to the now familiar crowds at Gallipoli who expected nothing less. By “organic” she meant that, unlike Australia Day, it had not been officially declared; it had grown of itself; the people (or something) had taken it to this “new place”. That she might have just ‘unofficially’ declared the day a national one did not seem to occur to anyone. In any event, Anzac Day is now a day “for all Australians” and represents “the deepest Australian values of mateship, good humour, endurance and bravery”, she said. A VC winner, back from Afghanistan, concurred: Anzac Day, he said, is “about the founding of our Australian values and our Aussie spirit”. Such a satisfying bounty from umpteen thousand bayonets in a similar number of gizzards.

From what they all say these days, you would swear they know better than the old soldiers. But how? Who has directed us to this “new place”? Did their voices come to John Howard on one of his morning walks? Does General Cosgrove double as a salesman for a brewery or vicar of the fallen?

Not for a moment would we say they are glorifying war: they are merely giving it a meaning that the dead could not come up with themselves. A much higher meaning. Dare we say a religious sort of meaning?

Not only do we have a new organic national day, to the inexhaustible advantage of politics, commerce, sport and wheedlers, cliché merchants and persuaders of all kinds, we appear to be in the presence of a default state religion. What does a religion do if not second-guess the dead? Turn them into an answer to the question of why we are here? We are here because of them. They died for us. So we might enjoy our freedom, our way of life, our national identity, even our sense of humour. So we may bloat our imagined selves and grease our rhetoric with their ‘sacrifice’. This is how the commentary now goes. They are our first cause. So well do we know them, an AFL football coach is reported to have told his players that they had betrayed the Anzacs by losing on Anzac Day. Too little commitment at the contest, not enough hardball gets, you see – blasphemies.

Cardinal Pell has given the thing his blessing. He says it is a day of “redemptive sacrifice”. By his lights it may have been, but possibly not by Bert Facey’s when he learned that his brother had been bayoneted to death while on guard duty. Tell us again, Cardinal, who and what was redeemed by the slaughter at Lone Pine?

Who knows why, but Cardinal Pell says he doesn’t think “a country without deep Christian roots can make a national day out of a defeat”. But it can – and did – make an Anzac Day, not for national breast-beating but for the soldiers who returned and earnest commemoration of the dead in secular memorials. What the Cardinal thinks hardly matters. It is the non-believers and those of nondescript belief who in their bumbling ways are urging this leap of faith upon us. Talk about meddling priests.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing. The Passion of Private White will be published in November.

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