Tag Archives: Australia

I feel like there’s something between us: how well do you know your neighbours?

“It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean.” – Jon J. Muth

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Do you know your neighbours? Do you know their names, their kids’ names, what pets they have? Do you know where they work? Their phone number? Would you recognise them if they appeared at your door?

According to the stats, for the majority of us, the answer to all of the above is “Not really, no”. Apparently we are most likely to refer to our neighbours as “freaks” and the closer together you live, the less likely you are to know or talk to your neighbours. Indeed, a 2010 survey of the situation in Australia revealed that:

  • 60% of Australian’s don’t speak to their neighbours
  • 38% don’t know their neighbours at all
  • 73% would like to know their neighbours better

That last one gives me a little hope, but I am concerned about this. I wonder, if I were ever in any real trouble, who would I, indeed could I, call on for help? Most likely it would be those who would care most, but are too far away to be of any real assistance.

This is a new problem for a modern age; most of the people we “live with” would call us strangers.

It would be easy to fool ourselves into thinking that this doesn’t matter much. Thanks to our vast choice of communications technology, we have the indisputably miraculous ability to stay close with the people in our lives who are the furthest away.

We have become extremely adept at building online communities – old friends, overseas family, a bunch of people whom you have never met, but are just as nuts about vintage hat pins as you are… who could doubt the good that the Internet has done for our social lives.

My only quibble is that this ability to remotely “connect” with our not-so-nearest and dearest, seems to have made us lazy at getting to know the people standing (quite literally) next to us… you know, in the real world.

While our phone batteries are charged up and our Internet connections are active, we have a false sense of being surrounded by friends. But in real terms, we couldn’t be more alone. Sever from those virtual moorings and suddenly you are once again that proverbial island – part of the archipelago that is suburbia.

But perhaps this is not just laziness. I think in some ways the meaning of being a good neighbour has changed completely.

A neighbour used to mean someone who you could ask to feed your pets or water your garden when you went away. You would have been happy to have them watch your kids, borrow your lawn mower or use your pool on hot days without asking. There was a sense of, dare I say it, community.

Now it seems that the fences between us are barricades – preferably 10 feet high! The new definition for a good neighbour could be one that minds their own business, doesn’t make too much noise and, if at all possible, doesn’t appear to exist.

If you extend the definition beyond real estate terms and take “neighbour” to simply mean somebody near you – at the shops, on a train, waiting in a queue – you still get a general sense that any form of direct communication wouldn’t really be welcomed. Earphones act as fences, body language creates an invisible shield, a friendly hello is met with a nervous fake smile that should come with a subtitle of “OMG, please don’t TALK to me!!!”

So what is going on?
Is this a symptom of our current obsessive need to control every aspect of our lives? Is this the rise of Individualism? Have we lost the art of making polite conversation with strangers? Is it because we work long hours at stressful jobs and feel like we have no time for this sort of thing?

 I don’t know… but I don’t think it would be too much to ask for us to make a bit more of an effort.

Perhaps we should consider what we can do to let more people “in” and widen our social circle to include those physically closest to us: strike up a conversation with that lady at the bus stop that you see every day but have never spoken to, use the looming holiday season to throw a street party, make a conscious effort to say more than just “hi” to the guy next door when you take the bins out for collection…

Who knows, they may not be such “freaks” after all!

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OMG: What if there was a church and God wasn’t invited!?!

“Not believing in God is one thing, but the more interesting question is: how can we use humans – who are designed for meaning in their lives, and for self‑improvement – to really help each other… and then to help other people?”

– Sanderson Jones, co-founder of The Sunday Assembly

ImageAustralia’s 2011 census shows that 26% of Australians identify as non-religious. Curiously, this is significantly higher than figures reported for both the US (16.1% *) and UK (15.05% **).

The ABS (Assumptive Bureau of Statistics) also asserts that the number of non-church-attenders is possibly much higher, considering the great many people who identify as religious, yet do not actually attend a church regularly.

Now I should say, I do not attend church. I am certainly not suggesting that anyone should if they do not share in that church’s faith or simply because anyone (even me!) told you to…

I must say, however, that there is compelling research to suggest that you will live longer, happier and more social lives if you do.

According to the results of these studies, regular church attendees tend to:

  • live longer (around 2-3 years)
  • display a more positive outlook on life (some reports even suggest lower levels of depression)
  • enjoy and utilise larger social networks for support
  • have a stronger sense of responsibility to their community
  • volunteer more than any other group (even in non-religious charities)
  • be less likely to smoke, drink or engage in fist-fights!

As Dr Ruth Powell, Director of the National Church Life Survey has said,

“You start with belonging. You start with relationship. You start going to church because a friend says, hey, this is a place that’s helped me in my life… It’s a good community to be part of.”

Even so, Australia’s public life is increasingly hostile towards religious figures and their followers, considering 69% of us are still committed enough to tick the “Christian” box in the census form.

There seems to be an increasing pressure for a more secular society in this country. Parents lobby for no more reference to religion in our public schools. There are calls for Parliament to stop opening each session with the Lord’s Prayer. We may no longer safely wish colleagues a “Merry Christmas”, with many workplaces suggesting the more widely acceptable “Happy Holidays”. People even complain when well-meaning assurances of “you are in my prayers” come their way in a time of crisis.

According to Dr Powell, the place of the church in Australia is being “renegotiated” with a “society that is saying ‘you are not relevant, you are not useful, I do not trust you’.”

For my own part, I find myself (as an agnostic non-church-attender) frequently asking what we are (or should we be) replacing our church attendance with, in order to gain the same sense of community responsibility, engagement and support? What about our ethical frameworks? What will drag us away from our materialistic values?

One possible answer arrives in the form of The Sunday Assembly. This is the church that didn’t invite God to the party. A self-proclaimed “celebration of the one life we know we have.”

Living by the motto “live better, help often, wonder more”, co-founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans hoped to create “a place where you can just recharge, think about all the good things that you have on offer in life.”

Attendees can enjoy all the benefits of a church community without subscribing to any particular deity or text. It is a veritable Pick-n-Mix of ideas and ideals, music and meditation, all the while delivering the essential ingredient of “belonging”.

A typical service, much like the more traditional religious variety, is organised around a theme – examples include “Goals”, “Gratitude”, “Beginnings”, “Happiness” and “Easter for Atheists”. The order of service goes thusly:

  • Each session begins with a song
  • Often a guest will give a talk on the theme
  • more music
  • a discussion involving the congregation
  • a meditation component
  • a collection (to cover room rental)
  • an address
  • final song

You can read more in their public charter on the Sunday Assembly website.

It all sounds pretty great to be honest: enjoy all the benefits of a church without the guilty aftertaste. Kind of like the fat-free frozen yoghurt of the worshiping world.

Interestingly enough, it seems the Assembly shares more than a passing similarity to the Christian Church – politics will still rear its ugly head. A Great Schism has already occurred, with the New York chapter recently announcing a split – those who wished to pursue a more purist Atheist bent (now named The Godless Revival) and the original Assembly members who wished to remain true to the “inclusive” nature of the group.

Despite this (somewhat minor) dispute, this “I can’t believe it’s not Christianity” version of church certainly seems to be spreading as easily as a blended vegetable oil butter substitute. There are currently regular Assemblies held in the US (New York), UK (London, Brighton and Bristol) and Australia (Melbourne). In addition, the leaders have been contacted by some 300 individuals across the globe wishing to start up Assemblies in their local area.

This idea of a Godless church could potentially fit the bill for many people who seek that sense of belonging, with slightly more spiritual nourishment than your gym membership or investment club affords.

It does raise the question though… if one attends these kind of Assemblies, would you still tick the “No Religion” box when Census time rolls around?

*Due to the American shutdown, I had to get my US figures from the CIA World Factbook website – the latest info is for 2007.

**This figure is from the 2004 Focus on Religion published on the UK Bureau of statistics website.

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