By Andre Axver
Word count: 1227
When the first European settlers arrived in Australia, they did not recognise the native Aboriginal peoples as having a religion, and such an opinion survived for a good deal of time – indeed, some very small minorities of Australian society still hold such an opinion. It is said that the simplest explanation is often the best, and it would appear that the simplest answer to the question “why did it take so long to recognise Aboriginal religion?” is because it is completely different to what the settlers knew as religion. In the following, it shall be shown that the old maxim is correct, for this is the best explanation for the settlers’ actions – when they went looking for religion, they found one, but it was so different from anything they knew as a religion, in practices, beliefs, structure (or lack thereof), et cetera, that they simply did not recognise it.
Firstly, an explanation of Aboriginal religion is required. Beliefs can vary greatly from tribe to tribe, but there are common elements. Aboriginal religion is basically animist, regarding the earth, animals, plants, et cetera, as sacred, and thus Aboriginals have strong ties to the land. This, at least in part, prompts their attempts to reclaim land taken by white settlers and to prevent development in areas. Although there are a good deal of variations, the significant common thread is belief in the Dreaming, which “can be defined as the past, the present, and the future.” It is believed that ancestral beings have left signs of goodwill in the world, with these signs directed towards the people they brought into existence. If these people recognised these signs, they would be benefited with good fortune. Aboriginal religion also believes that the human person is made up of both material and spiritual elements, has value, there are spirits that care, and the main religious rituals focus on renewing and conserving life.
European religion was – and still is – vastly different. The settlers were familiar with what are still the two main religions in the word, Christianity and Islam, and one of the most historically significant, Judaism. Throughout the Middle Ages up until the last century or two, Europe was ruled by Christian royals. They ruled via “Divine right” – that is, it was believed the King or Queen was appointed by God to rule in His place on Earth, and thus had absolute authority. Europe had a heritage rich in Christian tradition, and due to Jews being scattered throughout the continent and the Christian religion having strong ties to Judaism, the settlers were also familiar with Judaism. The third religion they were familiar with, Islam, they were mainly familiar with due to warfare. In two major wars, one in Spain, one culminating in a battle at Vienna, Islamic armies were repelled from Europe, and Crusades were launched to retrieve the Holy Land of Israel from Muslim control. These religions are completely different to Aboriginal religion, and in the following it will be shown how these differences led to the failure to recognise the Aborigines as having a religion.
All three European religions have holy books – Christianity has the Bible, Judaism has the Torah and Talmud, and Islam has the Koran. To the Europeans, a religion featured a holy book. Being Christians or at least from Christian lands, the settlers were very familiar with the Bible and had heard sermons from it, and the Old Testament of the Bible is also found in the Jewish scriptures. Due to the history of Europe, the settlers were most likely aware of Muslims waging war against them based at least in part upon Koranic passages such as Surahs 4:89, 8:39, 9:29, and 9:123. As far as they were concerned, religion – whether it be Christianity or Islam – had holy scriptures. The Aborigines, however, have no holy scriptures. Indeed, they had no written language when the Europeans landed and communicated via speech and crude paintings. It is unlikely much attention was paid to these paintings – and if any was, it is doubtful they were regarded in any way related to religion, considering they were very crude and unlike the high quality religious artwork of Europe – and so, not finding holy writings of any kind, it is unsurprising that the settlers did not believe the Aborigines had a religion. Due to the familiarity with holy writings and the expectation that a religion would have scriptures of some kind, and the fact this belief lingered on, it is at least part of the reason why Aboriginal religion was not acknowledged.
In addition, religion as the Europeans knew it featured large structures related to worship and the faith. They knew of Solomon’s Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, Islamic structures such as the Kabaa and al-Aqsa Mosque, and grand Christian buildings that littered Europe, from the Sistine Chapel to Westminster Abbey. To them, a religion had to have buildings, both as places to worship and symbols of the faith. The Aborigines had none of this. They did not have buildings of any kind, and this lack of settlement prompted Captain Cook to decree Australia terra nullius. Buildings of worship were an obvious outward sign of religion, and the fact the early settlers saw none at all would’ve contributed to their denial of Aboriginal religion. The continued expectation of a religion having worship structures lasted for a long time in Australian society, and it would have continued to allow the belief that the Aborigines had no religion to last.
The lack of other signs of religion as they knew it would have also prompted the Europeans to fail to recognise Aboriginal religion. They knew religion as having a holy order – priests, monks, nuns, imams, rabbis, et cetera – and expected any religion to have clearly defined doctrines and statements of faith like their own. Aboriginal religion, being so variant from region to region, and the lack of any written language meant that there were no statements of faith, nothing to define the religion that the Europeans could read, and there was no holy order. Not seeing any noticeable signs of what they knew as religion, the Europeans failed to see the signs of the religion that was there.
To conclude, when the European settlers in Australia went looking for religion, they went looking for something similar to the European religion they knew, and, seeing Aboriginal religion is so vastly different, they completely missed it. In a sense, Aboriginal religion is invisible – it is sustained by oral tradition, and has no holy writings, no cathedrals or other grand structures, no buildings of worship, no holy order, and no statement of faith. It is instead tied to the land and ties its adherents to the land. So vastly different from what the Europeans knew, and invisible, it is unsurprising that the settlers failed to acknowledge it. When looking for religion by one set of standards, if something is found that is actually a religion but doesn’t fit the set of standards being used, it will be overlooked and unacknowledged. This is exactly what happened in Australia, and until wider standards were used and expectations of something similar to European religion were dropped, it was not going to be recognised. The long time taken to drop this resulted in the equally long time to acknowledge Aboriginal religion for what it is – a religious belief.
Glad I have that finished, or at least the draft. Now just to make it sound good and to compile at least a half-decent bibliography. Also, I need to reduce the length closer to 1000 - I can't believe that, even when I have no idea, I can still waffle on and go past the word limit. Well, it's not a word limit, just it's to be around 1000 words.