Thursday, 1 March 2012

Influence of Religion

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From early Australian Aborigines to European settlement, the country has been impacted greatly by religion. Christianity especially has played a major part in the areas of law, education, public morality, medical care and social welfare. Buddhism, a smaller populated religion in Australia, has had an influence on society also.

Before the arrival of white Europeans there were probably around 650 000 Australian Aboriginal people living within 600 groups, each with its own religion. The Europeans saw and treated Aboriginal people as animals because the Europeans didn’t understand their diverse and complex way of life. The Aboriginal belief system is often misunderstood by ethnocentric western societies due to the vast differences it has with European cultures.

It would be impossible to simplistically define the Aboriginal belief system because of the various varieties of the belief that exist. However, the religion can be interpreted through several aspects. These include their strong connections to the land, their ancestors/spiritual beings, the dreaming and totems.

To Aboriginal people the dreaming is the center of their religion and life. It refers to a time before anything existed, a time at the very beginning. There are many Aboriginal stories about what happened in this time and how Spiritual beings formed the land. Aboriginal people believe these spiritual creators are their ancestors. Each of these ancestors is associated with one species of life or nature. Early European interpretations of the Aboriginal religion described it as an animistic religion - that is they believe everything, living or not, has a spirit within it. The link between an Aboriginal person or group and a species of life, such as a snake or crocodile, is called their totem. They are assigned a totem which gives them an identity and guides them through life giving them strength. To maintain the connections with the ancestors of the dreaming Aboriginal tribes practice ceremonies, songs and dances to worship them.

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They have strong connections to the land. The land is everything to Aboriginal people, it provides everything they need to live and they never take anything they don’t need. Aboriginals have sites which are sacred for one reason or another, for example Uluru. Many of these precious sites were overtaken by white Europeans in the late 1700’s. The large difference between European and Aboriginal belief systems is Europeans are individualistic and aboriginals are collective - that is they live and work for the good of the group. They do not have a sense of ownership of land and when the white Europeans claimed the Australian shores, the Aboriginal people were confused with the concept of ownership.

The first idea to found Australia took place in Rome 1681, when a body known as Prefectura Apostolica Terra Australis was formed to encourage the Christianization of a “south land” or “the fifth land”. However, the Vatican’s plans were never carried out. Some 107 years later in 1788, a British penal colony was established on the east coast of Australia which saw the beginning of European settlement in Australia. From here, the Australian population grew with haste and spread from coast to coast.

There were several reasons for Britain’s need to expand their empire. The most significant factor was to reduce the number of convicts in the overcrowded prisons of the Thames and London. This decision to separate disorderly prisoners from the rest of the prison populace was made by the British government after a few violent incidents at overloaded prisons.

Furthermore, Australia provided a much wanted base for the Royal Navy in the eastern sea. Additionally, Australia could be used to boost Britain’s economy, by providing an entry point to the economic opportunities surrounding the land.

Subsequent to Lord Sydney authorization of the colonization of Australia, Captain Arthur Phillip, commanding eleven vessels full of British convicts, landed at Botany Bay on May 1, 1787. Due to poor soil, the fleet left the bay and sailed a few kilometers north to Pork Jackson where Sydney was then established. The eleven ships carried 1,7 people, including 7 convicts. Although, the central religious affiliations of the convicts were Church of England and Roman Catholic, most were drawn from the slums of London where Religion was not high on the priority list. However, the prisoners were expected to attend Church of England services. This was not effective in enforcing Christianity as the prisoners saw the services as a punishment.

As schools were established in early Australia, some religious upheaval came about. Catholic parents prohibited their children to attend schools, as they would be letting their children to be exposed to the influence of the Church of England. Secular schools were frowned upon by Catholics because in Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” government run schools had been condemned. From here, many Catholic schools were established and many still existing today.

Sabbatarianism ruled out any trading on Sundays, this idea was supported by Australian laws. Not only was the Australian law system affected by Sabbatarianism, but also by Christianity, for example the Lord’s Prayer is recited at the beginning of every Federal Parliament session to this day. Although, the Australian law system claims to be secular, it is based around the ten commandments of the Christian faith.

As the Australian government did not provide the country with extensive medical care each of the major religious bodies of the nineteenth-century took it into their hands to provide medical assistance or those in need. The sisters of charity were the first professional nurses in the penal colony and they used their skills to treat convict women and children. They then went onto establish St. Vincent’s hospital. Since a lot of the early Australian populace was convicts, there was a low sense of public morality. Religion was the only hope to improve this. The Protestant Church’s main concerns were with gambling, alcohol and Sunday trading. Although Catholics were very conservative when it came to morality, they seemed to have lenience with drinking and gambling.

Religious organizations have had a huge part in the social welfare of Australia. St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic organization, worked to visit people in hospitals, prisons and assisted the elderly, homeless and deprived. Anglicare, run by the Anglican Church, offered welfare to anyone who required it. The Sydney Rescue Work Society was set up by the Anglican Church to support poor families.

The first recorded arrival of Buddhists in Australia was in 1848 during the gold rushes, when Chinese labourers were brought into the country to work on the Victorian gold fields. These workers usually returned home within five years due to anti-Chinese feelings. It was not until 1876 that the first lasting Buddhist community was established by Sinhalese migrants on Thursday Island. There the first Buddhist temple in Australia was built by the Sri Lankans, while they were employed on the sugar cane plantations of Queensland.

Many Japanese Shinto Buddhists migrated to Australia in the 1870’s and were active in the pearling industry across northern Australia, forming other Buddhist establishments in Darwin and Broome. The national census in 181 indicated that, in the late 1800’s, there were slightly more Buddhists in Australia (at 1.%), than there are today (at 1.1%).

In conclusion, Australian society has been influenced greatly by religion in general.

European settlement brought several religious affiliations to Australia, where different sectors of Christianity helped form law, education, public morality, medical care and social welfare. Buddhism arrived in Australia with the gold rush in the mid 1800’s; it was then driven out by racism. The religion was then later founded in Australia when Sinhalese migrants came to work on the sugar cane farms of Queensland in the later 1800’s.

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