THE hold that religion has on Papua New Guinea has always puzzled me, especially since nearby Australia is rapidly becoming a majority secular society.
Unlike Australia, Papua New Guinea mentions Christianity in its constitution and its politicians frequently remind us that it is a ‘Christian’ country.
Anecdotal and some empirical evidence suggests the churches in Papua New Guinea have a large influence on the government.
This begs the question that if the churches are so influential why is there still widespread corruption? The inference, of course, is that the churches are complicit. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this could be true.
The politicians also frequently remind us that Papua New Guinea is a democracy. Yet the churches are all autocratic theocracies. I’m not sure that you can have a true democracy if you are surrounded by and heavily under the influence of several large autocracies.
Separation of church and state, although not a mandatory requirement, is usually accepted as necessary in most democracies.
The other curious aspect is that most Papua New Guineans don’t really get much out of being Christians.
You might argue that this is wrong because the churches provide vital educational and health services. This is true, but one of the reasons they do it is because the politicians are too useless and corrupt to do their jobs. Health and education are, after all, supposed to be core functions of government.
I can’t help thinking that perhaps the churches like it this way. By providing these services they can reinforce their hold on people and, to be really cynical, extract a maximum level of tribute.
In Australia secularism is largely a product of dissatisfaction with organised religion and a realisation of its true motives.
People in Papua New Guinea don’t seem to see this though.
I might offer my own experience to illustrate how this dissatisfaction occurs.
After my family arrived in Australia in 1956 and after we had moved out of the migrant hostel I was slated to attend a Catholic school but my protests were loud and long. My mates were all going to the State school and I wanted to go with them. My parents eventually relented and I got my way.
My parents had married in 1945. My father was Irish and nominally Catholic. My mother was English and a Methodist. There was no way her local Methodist minister was going to entertain marrying her to someone who was a putative Catholic and Irish to boot. If they wanted to marry it had to be in a Catholic church and she would have to convert and bring any children up as Catholics.
The only alternative was a civil ceremony but that was generally looked down upon as something only pregnant women did to quickly to legitimize their unplanned offspring.
Despite my objections to attending a Catholic school I still underwent the usual Catholic rituals, attending weekly Mass, confession, catechism classes, first communion and confirmation. This was at the behest of my mother; my irreligious father regarded the undertaking to bring us up as Catholics as a convenient lie so they could be legally married and keep the relatives happy.
My mother’s motivation puzzled me; it could have been a simple country girl fulfilling the promise she undertook to bring us up as Catholics but I suspect it was deeper than that. I can understand her turning to religion in later life with the pressures of living and my father’s increasing romance with alcohol and all the problems that engendered but in those early years things were generally rosy and the future looked good.
Perhaps it was the isolation of living in Australia away from her relatives that brought it on; she was, after all, reluctant to migrate in the first place. Maybe the church gave her a sense of belonging and companionship.
Whatever the cause, she took it up with a vengeance and my sister and I were dragged along in her wake. At least I think that we were dragged along. I like to think that I had seen through the flawed logic of religion at an early age but this may not have been true.
I do recall that the rituals involved had a certain allure and the accoutrements like the plaster icons and the catechisms and prayer books, with their sleek fake leather bindings and the rosaries, pendants and strange cloth scapulars were attractive.
I was particularly taken by the small Madonna medallions that we were given or could buy for a few pence. They were a silver colour with a light blue painted background attached to what proved to be a very flimsy metal chain. From my point of view they were an effective and cheap counterpoint to the crosses and St Christopher medallions worn by some of my non-Catholic friends.
Unfortunately the first roughhousing they received in the schoolyard saw the chain inevitably snapped and the medallion lost. Sometimes I managed to salvage the broken parts and repair them but it wasn’t long before they were broken again. I often wondered why the Catholic Church, with its vast wealth, was such a cheapskate with its icons.
Some of this stuff actually survived the years. When my mother died my sister found the battered rosary beads I had been given by my Irish aunts before we left England. They also found a glossy framed print of a pained looking Jesus with the spooky image of his exposed and pierced heart visible. The luminous crucifix that glowed green in the dark, also marketed by the church, was thankfully missing.
I tossed Jesus and his heart out but I kept the rosary beads, not so much in memory of my doomed religion but my well-meaning Irish aunts.
Whether I actually once believed the dogma that accompanied these things is another matter. Perhaps I just succumbed to peer pressure. Perhaps the constant proselytising in the compulsory religious instruction classes at school had an impact.
Perhaps it was easier to go along with it all rather than fight it. Perhaps I didn’t want to upset my mother. We do strange things in our lives for strange reasons. There were a few things that I recall that indicate that my dedication wasn’t quite up to scratch.
When I attended confession, for instance, I invariably lied about my alleged sins. I made things up; there was no way I was going to tell anyone, let alone a priest, about some of the things I’d gotten up to since my last confession.
I also had a distinct dislike of the papery and tasteless wafers received from the priest during communion that we were supposed to dissolve on our tongues. I wasn’t game to openly chew them but quite often they were was spat into the bushes outside the church after Mass.
What all this eventually bred was disenchantment with organised religion and its beliefs. Over the years I have had some good Catholic friends, even priests and nuns, particularly the missionary ones in Papua New Guinea but as for their religion I’m afraid they can keep it.
My experience was largely one of confusion, pressure, guilt perhaps and finally rationalisation and complete abandonment.
Why doesn’t this happen in Papua New Guinea? Surely people have experienced similar things. We may look different and think differently on occasion but we are still all rational human beings. And in both countries we do not have fanatical and bloodthirsty zealots in power that force adherence to religion.
I guess it’s just another thing in the litany of things I’ll never understand.