Page last updated at 04:48 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Faith Diary: Faith Falls Down Under

By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs correspondent

The world's leading atheists are travelling to Australia this month for a conference designed to show the world that atheism is a force to be reckoned with.

The Rise of Atheism event in Melbourne will attract secular stars such as Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling.

Professor Dawkins insists that religion poses a threat to science, reason, and truth itself, claiming: "We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organised ignorance."

The forces of "organised ignorance" are however perhaps weaker in Australia than elsewhere in the world.

Catherine Deveny
Catherine Deveny says atheism is "like a frog in a sock".

The country has a reputation as one of the least devout anywhere.

Almost 19% percent of people described themselves as having "no religion" in the 2006 census, although a Gallup Poll two years later put the figure much higher.

In 2001, before a secular option appeared on the census form, many Australians described their faith as "Jedi".

Catherine Deveny is a stand-up comedian, described as "atheist eye-candy", who'll appear at the conference.

She said: "The number of churchgoers in Australia is about 9% and dwindling, the diversity of spiritual belief is flourishing and atheism is going off like a frog in a sock."

Another, perhaps more even-handed, description of Australians by writer Paul Collins said they were "quietly spiritual rather than explicitly religious".

A Catholic priest was famously evicted from his parish in Brisbane when he found that being spiritual was not enough.

Peter Kennedy was attracting good congregations, despite his unorthodox approach.

He invited women preachers and married former priests to help celebrate mass, and gave up wearing priestly robes when he realised that members of his congregation had been abused as children by priests.

Now, after 45 years as a priest, Peter Kennedy says he doubts that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Mr Kennedy - who has just published a book about his experience of the Church - even claims that there's too little evidence to be sure that Jesus even existed.

HEIGHTENED DOUBT IN THE LOW COUNTRIES

Elsewhere in the developed world there's a similar story of dwindling congregations and changing attitudes to faith, and in the Netherlands another priest who doesn't believe in God, but kept his job all the same.

The Dutch Protestant Church began an investigation when the cleric, Klaas Hendrikse wrote a book entitled Believing In A God Who Does Not Exist.

Klaas Hendrikse
Klaas Hendrikse doesn't believe in God, but has kept his church job.

Mr Hendrikse explained "to me God is not a being, but a word for what can occur between people".

Instead of dismissing him as a cleric, the regional church assembly in Zierikzee in south-west Holland, is reported to have decided that Mr Hendrikse's views were not fundamentally different from other liberal theologians in the Protestant Church.

Mr Hendrikse - who is to continue to preach for another two years before he retires - claimed that 1,000 people were leaving the Church every week.

He said: "You can't keep telling the same stories your whole life, because everyone changes.

"No adult believes in the same way as he did when he was a toddler, or teenager."

Amsterdam's VU University says Mr Hendrikse is by no means alone among Dutch clergy.

Research by Professor Hijme Stoffels suggests that one in every six clergy like Mr Hendrikse no longer believe in God "in a traditional way".

Professor Stoffels says scepticism is, if anything, more common among older priests, because in the past theology was taught only in an orthodox way.

Now the students who are more doubtful can study religious studies rather than theology, and are, he says, less likely to end up as clergy.

A study among clergy of the Church of England carried out by researchers from Bangor University five years ago also found widespread doubt.

Although almost all Anglican clergy on the whole believed in the existence of God, a third doubted it.

Eight out of 10 believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and two thirds in the Virgin Birth.

A TEST OF FAITH IN TURIN

An icon of the conflict between doubt and faith is to resurface next month.

The Turin shroud, the piece of linen measuring 4.4m by 1.1m (14.4ft by 3.6ft), thought by many to have contained the crucified body of Jesus, is to go back on public display in the North Italian city for the first time in a decade.

The shroud of Turin
Debate still rages over whether the shroud held Jesus's body.

The archdiocese of Turin says Pope Benedict XVI is to go to Turin to see the shroud, and a million other people from all over the world have joined the waiting list for the opportunity to spend up to five minutes looking at the cloth.

Although many will travel across the world to see what they believe to be the image of Jesus visible on the surface of the shroud, others regard it as a medieval forgery.

Tests carried out in 1988 dated the fabric to between 1260 and 1390, and last year a professor of organic chemistry at an Italian university claimed to have reproduced it using medieval materials.

Even here the hand of increasingly pro-active sceptics is evident.

The work - by Luigi Garlaschelli - was funded by a group of atheists and agnostics.



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