With a 2014 WIN/Gallup International survey revealing that a majority of Australians are non-religious or convinced atheists (58%), the Secular Party of Australia has called into question the over-representation of religion in modern Anzac Day ceremonies. “More than half of Australians consider themselves non-religious according to this poll,” says Secular Party Spokesman Trevor Bell. “Just 34% are religious, and that also includes minority faiths like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. If we want non-Christian groups to integrate and participate in our ceremonies, it makes sense to keep them as secular as possible, especially in light of these statistics.”


The next Australian census will not occur until 2016, but figures from the 2013 report on Australian Social Trends by the ABS, drawn from the last census, indicate that since 1911 the number of Australians reporting to have no religion has increased from 1 in 250 to at least 1 in 5. The question of religion was voluntary on past censuses, so the WIN/Gallup International statistics suggest the actual number of non-religious Australians may be considerably higher than was reported just four years ago.


Anzac Day ceremonies around the nation vary greatly. Some include minimal religious content while others are dominated by scriptural references, mostly Christian. Over the history of the commemoration, religious lines have often been drawn. In the 1900s, Catholics refused to attend services over which a Protestant clergyman presided, and Anglican General Sir Henry Chauvel , commander of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division that made the famous charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba in 1917, later declined to lead an Anzac Day march to the Shrine in Melbourne, complaining the service had been “de-Christianised.”


“There’s little chance of that accusation this year,” says Mr Bell. “For example, one public service in Brisbane yesterday included two Christian hymns and four separate prayers, among them the The Lord’s Prayer, one blessing and a bible reading. Surely, when you start to feel you’re at mass, that’s far too much religion for what should be an inclusive ceremony.”


A scroll back through historical records reveals that religion often played a smaller role in commemorative ceremonies than it does today. The program for the first Anzac Day gathering in Brisbane, in April 1916, now exhibited at the State Library of Queensland, included just two hymns and no scheduled prayers or bible readings, in favour of secular addresses by the clergy and that was while the war was ongoing! The rest of the program was made up of classical music, addresses by prominent figures, secular readings and poetry.


Traditionalists argue that most soldiers were themselves Christian, fighting for God and country, and keeping the Christian elements is a mark of respect. But while many diggers were Christian, many were not, especially in later conflicts. It is increasingly likely that a high percentage of Australia’s Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq war veterans consider themselves non-religious.


“I’ve heard people insist there are no atheists in the foxholes,” Mr Bell continues. “But that’s not an argument in favour of religion; it’s an argument against foxholes. To me, addressing a gathering of thousands of people with ‘Let us pray’ seems dismissive of the non-believers in our defense forces and among our population. Beginning with ‘Let us reflect upon’ might encourage those of different faiths, or indeed no faith, to be more active in ceremonies.”


Analysis of diary entries, war poetry and histories over the course of Australia’s many conflicts reveals numerous secular approaches, including Vance Palmer’s The Farmer Remembers the Somme, or Charles Shaw’s celebrated World War II poem The Recruit, which posits that a digger might go to war “…only that the sun-swept Austral land/Might still lie warm within the Austral hand…”
Such readings add a poignancy unfettered by devotion to anything other than a love of country and an understanding of the horrors of war. Replacing hymns, prayers and bible readings with modern, secular songs, tributes or poetry could also encourage more creative young people, Indigenous Australians, and the wider Australian arts community to be involved in future ceremonies.


“The point is not to diminish Christianity,” insists Mr Bell. “The Secular Party of Australia accepts that religion is a personal matter. The point is rather to reflect the changing, more secular face of Australia and to make Anzac Day an opportunity for all to show and pay their respects to those who have defended this nation’s interests,” Mr Bell says.

Apr 26, 2015