Paul Richardson, July 1997

AUSTRALIA MAY NOT be at the top of the league table for GDP or GNP but there is one set of statistics in which this country leads the rest of the Western world. Every year, more than 2,500 Australians take their own life, a bigger proportion of the population than in any other Western society.

The problem is particularly acute among teenagers. It is estimated that one in seven of young Australians make a determined attempt to end their life. Young men are particularly at risk; four times as many men as women commit suicide and this is by far the commonest form of death for young males between 15 and 24. All this makes the designation of Australia as “the lucky country” sound a little hollow and sheds important light on the debate about euthanasia that is raging here at the present time. But readers in Britain and North America ought not to feel complacent: deaths by suicide are rising among young adults (especially males) in all Western societies.

Why should this be? In some cases unemployment is a factor but it does not appear to be a major cause. Substance abuse and sexual abuse also need to be taken into account and there is no doubt that more suicides take place on isolated farms than in urban communities. But Richard Eckersley, a journalist who has made a special study of the issue, has drawn attention to deeper influences at work.

In a recent article in the Medical Journal of Australia, he singles out development two “crucial prerequisites” for healthy growth and that are often lacking in the lives of young Australians, a close relationship with a dependable adult and a wider sense of meaning and purpose in society.

Young people feel alienated, cynical and fatalistic; they are distrustful of other people and reluctant to make commitments. Partly this is due to poor relationships with their fathers. Steve Biddulph, a Catholic layman who has addressed over 400 men’s organizations, has discovered that 30% of the men he has met no longer speak to their fathers, another 30% have only a token relationship and a mere 10% claim to be able to talk openly to dad about everything.

Few young Australians feel hopeful about the future. A recent survey of 800 of them aged between 15 and 24 found that more than half thought the next century was more likely to be a time of crisis and trouble than a period of peace and prosperity. Only a third felt the quality of life in Australia would be better by 2010 than it is now; the same proportion expected that it would be worse and the rest had no views.

The Australian Commission for the Future has summed up the mood in this way: “Youth seem unusually apathetic about the future. They are not negligent or ignorant of the challenges: they just feel powerless to do anything about it.” Eckersley quotes an international survey conducted by advertising agencies that found the teen generation characterised by four moods – alienated, cynical, experimental and savvy. The survey revealed that Australian teens were not excited about much in life and had little sense of direction about the future, only a good deal of uncertainty and apprehension.

All of this represents a mood that Karl Rahner was seeking to describe when he coined the phrase “troubled atheism”. He had in mind a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness where human beings are crushed by a secular world in which they do not feel at home and which they are powerless to change.

The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski summed up the contemporary situation when he spoke of a world “stripped of any meaning, any aim, any directional signal, any structure” and went on to comment that in the hundred years since Nietzsche announced the death of God “few cheerful atheists have been visible”.

You might imagine that this sorry state of affairs presents the Christian church with a wonderful opportunity for evangelism. Unfortunately the results of the 1996 National Church Life Survey are just being published show the number of young people attending our churches continues to plunge. Only 27 per cent of church goers are aged between 20 and 40 and one-third of congregations are aged over 60. Only 6 per cent of church goers are teenagers.

This is a major problem for Anglicans and other mainline denominations. Only Baptists and Pentecostals have any success in attracting younger worshippers but even they are not doing very well. Christians seem unable to hand on the faith to their children. As one member of the survey team put it: “Churches are bleeding and the evidence to suggest that many of those who are being lost will return in later life is not encouraging”. Figures for the Roman Catholic Church are not yet available but they are expected to conform to the same pattern when results of a parallel survey are published.

If current trends continue, hundreds of churches will be forced to close within the next twenty years. Anglicans remain the biggest denomination after the Roman Catholics with a quarter of all attenders although their position is slipping.

Part of the reason for the failure to communicate with young people lies in the style of worship and the ethos of parish life. But the churches also are unwilling to address the real questions asked by young people. While Anglicans argue endlessly about the ministry, young people are impressed by the claims of some scientists that belief in God belongs to the past or wonder why they should choose one religion rather than another. Buddhism is now Australia’s fastest growing faith.

The media is generally hostile if not contemptuous of the churches. High schools have chaplains but they are really counsellors and there is no formal secondary religious education in the state system. A whole generation is being lost but the churches do not know what to do about it.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.