Toying with our Moral Compass

Published in the Courier Mail 29 October 2008

HEAVENS knows we need a good laugh at the moment, with the Australian banking and finance sectors trying to grapple with the effects of the bank deposit guarantee scheme, and the world being reshaped by economic forces.

So I’d like to think Harry Jenkins’ recent remarks were just trying to lighten the mood. After all, his comments would be great for a laugh – if he wasn’t being serious.

Jenkins, Speaker of the House of Representatives in Federal Parliament, would have us believe that the pressing issue people outside of Parliament wish to discuss at the moment is the Lord’s Prayer. Or more specifically, whether it is recited at the opening of Parliament.

Jenkins was reported as saying: “One of the most controversial aspects of the parliamentary day I found, from practically day two, is the prayer. On the one end of the spectrum is why have a prayer? The other end of the spectrum is where we have discussions about the words of the prayer. For people outside the Parliament there are a lot of things they wish to discuss.”

I confess I find it hard to believe that the wider population of Australia really finds the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer so controversial, particularly as 74 per cent of Australians believe in God.

I wondered whether it was the values represented by the Lord’s Prayer that were causing such controversy for these mysterious “people outside Parliament”.

It’s true that Australia lives within a framework of principles and norms that are based largely upon a Judaeo-Christian world view. Many of the qualities we hold so dear – such as care for the poor, equality of all peoples and the golden rule, are sourced from this world view. Corporate social responsibility and environment stewardship flow from it. A prayer which represents such values surely couldn’t be “one of the most controversial aspects of the parliamentary day”.

So perhaps it is less the values, and more the very idea of a god to whom we would pray, that is the essence of the controversy.

Certainly, there is a small percentage of the population – about 9 per cent – who think that we are all there is and who eschew the idea of a god. While they are in a minority, they often seem to revel in loudly reacting against many of our founding values and principles, and often against the thought of God. Antitheism is often seen as a safe harbour for individuals with a desire to live apart from a sense of responsibility to a higher being.

However, proponents of antitheism often avoid extrapolating the social implications of such a philosophy. After all, it wouldn’t be pretty. As Dostoevsky said: “If God is dead, everything is justifiable.” If we are looking for controversy, the idea of a Parliament where everything is justifiable delivers that perfectly.

I trust Jenkins’ pronouncement was more an act of distraction during inconvenient fallout from recent financial policy, as opposed to a serious political statement. If it was the latter, let’s hope he never finds himself up the proverbial creek without a paddle – or he’ll be well and truly without a prayer.