Tuesday, 9 October 2007

New words for old...

AWAYE! is an indigenous affairs program on Radio National, which is part of Australia’s Public Broadcast network, the ABC (which is in not to be confused with the US network of the same name). As a substantial part of my job involves working with kids from indigenous backgrounds, I try to make a point of tuning in each week to try and gain some insight into the latest issues confronting their communities.

As part of this week’s show they played a documentary on the role of storytelling within native American communities, and how reclaiming traditional narratives is helping people regain their sense of identity and culture.

At one point there was an interview with a ten year old girl, who was obviously benefitting greatly from her involvement with the project. She made a fascinating remark when describing what she felt had happened to her people at the hands of European colonists::

“…they killed us, and then they took away our religion – well not really religion but, like, spiritual beliefs.”

In saying this, the girl made a distinction I’ve noticed elsewhere: “religion” is coming to mean something different to“spiritual beliefs”; the latter is good and empowering, the former bad and disempowering. While the surface logic of trend is probably pretty sloppy: “spiritual beliefs” are by definition “religion”, albeit religion with few (if any) liturgical and ecclesiastical accretions and rarely any systematic dogma, that people feel the need to make this distinction is interesting.

What they may actually be trying to say is that their experience of mainstream religion, irrespective of the flavour, has been so negative as to leave them wanting to disassociate from it entirely. As a result anything they encounter which is good simply can’t be part of the package they’ve rejected called “religion”, and hence there's the need for a new description, at which point “spiritual beliefs” seems as good as any.

I wonder then, can it really be said people today have rejected religion in greater numbers than at any time in the past? Or have they simply using the term to describe their beliefs – whatever these may be –since because these beliefs don’t leave them feeling guilty, humiliated, ignorant, unclean or discriminated against these beliefs simply can’t be “religion”?