While other writing from social researcher Hugh Mackay has touched on the themes of belief and meaning, he has had this book in mind a long time, you can tell. “Over the past twenty-five years,” he writes, “our yearning for ‘something to believe in’ has become increasingly obvious …”
Mackay invariably takes as his starting point the bare bones of demographic indicators, then overlays insights drawn from many sources and disciplines, fleshed out with personal interviews, anecdotes and commentary. His books’ success lies not just in their author’s reputation as a trusted authority, but in the breadth of character they reveal.
Himself “Christian agnostic” (“ ‘Christian’ rather than ‘a Christian’ ”), Mackay’s own beliefs are founded in humility, compassion and doubt. The question of doubt – the flip side of yearning? – features in most of his interviews here “with people representing many different points on the spectrum of faith”. And Mackay himself extols doubt, urging readers to examine their religious faith for “reasonableness” and insisting that one’s faith ought not “contradict what you know to be true about yourself and the world”. Mackay runs “proofs” of God’s existence – miracles, visions, the power of prayer –through the filter of Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations and Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth. Nor does the muscular atheism of Richard Dawkins and co score high on the reasonable-ometer.
Mackay notes that, in 2011, nearly a quarter of census respondents ticked the “no religion” box, and wonders how many would tick a box for SBNR – spiritual but not religious – were it offered. Many of his interviewees would; certainly, few of them count among the 15 per cent of Australians who still attend church regularly. Chiefly lapsed churchgoers, they offer sadly similar accounts of what drove them away. And what draws them back, even if only at Christmas or for an Anzac Day service, is the music – provided it’s not amplified, like “commercial pop music”.
Though a wise and engaging writer, Hugh Mackay shows himself – and knows himself – to be out of touch with the social media generations. But Beyond Belief makes the case that, even in a “post-postmodern” world marked by rampant self-interest and declining emotional connectedness, the search for meaning finds its surest foothold in the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…”), that age-old byword for compassion. FL
Macmillan, 284pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2016 as "Hugh Mackay, Beyond Belief". Subscribe here.