[Book Review] Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai

In this post, Liam Sutherland reviews Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai (2016, Routledge). He praises that the book persuasivelyliam-sutherland demonstrates hybridity of Indigenous Australian identification and makes contributions to postcolonial studies of nonreligion. However, Sutherland argues that the questions of the necessity and appropriateness of defining nonreligion when one investigates how and why indigenous peoples have identified themselves remain.

James Cox and Adam Possamai introduce this collection of essays by noting that according to the 2011 Australian census, identification as ‘non-religious’ is higher among Indigenous Australians (24%) than the general Australian population (22%). This fact challenges the widespread notion that indigenous peoples are overwhelmingly or irrevocably ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ but leads to questions such as, why is identification higher among Indigenous people and what does it actually entail for them specifically? It is questions such as these which drive this volume and its integration of ‘non-religion’ theoretically and empirically into the study of ‘religion’ among Indigenous Australians.

The key theme of the volume is Indigenous Australian cultural hybridity in relation to questions of religious identification. Cox and Possamai make a persuasive case for the use of ‘hybridity’ as an analytical tool (drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin), rejecting ‘syncretism’ because of its pejorative connotations and disavowing any notion of hybridity as the fusion of homogenised entities. For them the key is to emphasise the agency of the actors involved in this hybridisation, reminiscent of Claude Levi-Strauss’ concept of ‘bricolage’, which should challenge the characterisation of indigenous peoples as ‘passive’ recipients of history. Indeed, it would seem impossible to account for the interaction of peoples as once geographically and culturally distant as Europeans and Australian Aborigines without some concept of hybridity.

The first section of the book is specifically concerned with ‘non-religion’ among Indigenous Australians. Cox in his own chapter, examines the prevailing debates about the definition of ‘non-religion’ to provide theoretical groundwork for the incorporation of ‘non-religion’ into wider discussions of Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or research on contemporary Indigenous peoples generally. He defines religion as involving ‘identifiable communities’ with an authoritative tradition passed down the generations, with that which does not fit this classified as ‘non-religious.’ In their chapter, Awais Piracha, Helena Onnudottir and Kevin Dunn map Indigenous non-religious identification in the greater Sydney area and Australia as a whole. Although rather thin on available data, I would argue, Alan Nixon sets out to test the links between New Atheism and this rising Indigenous non-religion with online research.

The later chapters move on to discuss the continuing hybridisation of Indigenous traditions with Christianity, highlighting the lack of uniformity or finality of these processes. The linguist David Moore provides a vital deconstruction of the Aranda concept of ‘altjira’ (or ‘alcheringa’), the root of the term ‘Dreaming’, also translated as ‘God’ by missionaries. Moore demonstrates the variety of uses to which ‘altjira’ has been put by different actors. Hart Cohen in his chapter on the Lutheran Hermannsburg Mission in Aranda country locally known as Ntaria, discusses the particular relationship between Indigenous traditions and Christianity evident there. This case involves very particular combination of cultural influences from the Aranda traditional owners, the German Lutheran background of the missionaries and the wider Anglophone Australian culture by which Ntaria is surrounded.

Steve Bevis outlines the development of modern Indigenous Christianity and the changing influences it is subject to, particularly after the decline of the church-governed ‘missions’ to which many Indigenous communities were confined until the 1970s. Increasingly Indigenous self-determination has effected the ways in which hybrid practices or identifications have been negotiated but also other key factors such as generational differentiation are also shown to be significant. He also touches on the use of secular narratives such as ‘education’ and ‘the environment’ to legitimate Indigenous traditions. Theresa Petray reveals the centrality of churches to Indigenous political activists, including many non-religious people, in Townsville in Queensland which reveals how much the practices of those affiliating as non-religious must be thoroughly contextualised.

The final chapter written by both editors presents the results of interviews conducted among urban and rural Aborigines on their understanding of the categories of ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, and the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous traditions. What they demonstrate is that these understandings are highly varied, though discernibly distinctive from those of other Australians. Their informants varied in the extent to which they regarded the commonly identified Aboriginal Australian ‘religions’ as religions, most preferring ‘culture’, while one born-again Christian woman did not identify herself as ‘religious’, associating the word with falsehood. It is notable that only 1.28% of the Indigenous population identified with an ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ in the census while engagement with some of the practices associated with them is much wider than this would seem to indicate. To an extent then, the decline of Christian affiliation has led to a decline in affiliation as ‘religious’ akin to what has happened in the wider population but perhaps may not preclude the practice of these traditions.

Cox and Possamai as well as many of the other contributors suggest that this low identification with ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ may reflect the widespread Aboriginal Australian understanding of ‘religion’ as Christianity, with Indigenous traditions being understood as ‘culture’. This is reflected by the widespread Indigenous Australian adherence to a common ‘two ways’ paradigm – identifying with both the ancestors and the narratives and rituals associated with them and Christianity. This would also mean though that declining Christian affiliation would be understood as entailing ‘non-religion’ without necessarily indicating the absence of what some would label Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’. This demonstrates the legitimating function that categories such as ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ have. Though the necessity of providing an initial definition of ‘religion/non-religion’ considering that the research is so concerned with the emic perspectives of their Indigenous informants remains unclear to me.

However, this book should contribute to the necessary incorporation of indigenous peoples into the study of ‘non-religion’ and ‘non-religion’ into the study of indigenous peoples. It also provides fruitful theoretical reflection and original research. It is commendable that the study of ‘Traditional’ Indigenous religion, as well as Aboriginal Christianity and Non-Religion, are integrated together into a discussion of postcolonial social identity construction in Indigenous Australia (though other affiliations such as Islam and Buddhism are mentioned, they are not discussed). The book also shows that that hybridity is a vital tool for analysing these processes.


Liam T. Sutherland is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral research concerns the representations of religious pluralism and national identity in the literature of Scotland’s national interfaith association (Interfaith Scotland). He is a native of the city and gained his MSc by research and MA also from the University of Edinburgh. His MSc by research examined the role and relevance of Sir E.B. Tylor for debates about the definition of religion and Neo-Tylorian theories of religion, while his MA dissertation looked at modern Indigenous Australian spirituality. His current research interests include: religious pluralism, the critical study of the interfaith movement, religion and nationalism as well as theory and method in the study of religion.

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