The Growing Tide of Atheism in Austraila

If you want to get together in any exclusive situation and have people love you, fine – but to hang all this desperate sociology on the idea of The Cloud-Guy who has The Big Book, who knows if you’ve been bad or good – and CARES about any of it – to hang it all on that, folks, is the chimpanzee part of the brain working.

Frank Zappa

It seems there is a growing movement towards atheism in Australia. But it only ‘seems’ because it is difficult to quantify something which has a central thesis of simply not believing in something. It would be a lot easier to quantify people who believe in fairies. “Tick this box if you believe in fairies (1% tick box). Everybody else, tick this box”. And that’s what atheism appears to be: everybody else who hasn’t ticked one of the ‘belief’ boxes. The leftovers. Those who “have no faith”, follow no doctrine nor cultivate myth. Atheist are the ‘everybody else’, whose agenda is – by virtue of definition – not promoted because it has nothing to promote. Or does it?

Atheistic belief (a conundrum of paradox and quirk of language) has in recent years become a vociferous and in some cases belligerent voice against the perils of organised religion. Screen grabs of Christopher Hitchens belittling an evangelist on Fox News or scorning a rabbi in a public debate have entered America’s consciousness with little apology.

In Australia, the 2006 census showed the “No Religion” box ticked 19% of the time. The 1996 census showed 17%. In 1986 it was 13%, and in ’76 just 8%. Go back before the 50’s and it becomes less than one percent. This certainly does quantify a ‘growing movement’.

The contentious issue with categorical definitions however are plain to see if you consider the weight behind someone’s answer. One must ask, of the 64% (2006) who identify with Christianity (mostly Anglican or Catholic), how many of those are apathetic to the doctrine? For example, many kids who were baptised, went through religious schooling, did their Holy Communion and “confirmation” (all before 12 years of age), would therefore identify as a Christian in something like a census question, yet may hold no serious spiritual resonance or profess any active application to the teachings. Only a staunch ideologist would refuse to be married by a priest, for example. Yet those who ticked the Christian box accept it as ‘the norm’, despite the triviality of their religious belief. Likewise, those who ticked “No Religion” are not necessarily atheist, but may simply hold a non-aligned spiritual conviction.

Christopher Hitchens goes a step beyond the definition of atheism and identifies as an anti-theist. While this may seem an evolution of the term, it highlights why many people perhaps abstain from the categorisation: it seems negative, aggressive, impudent, and dare I say, sacrilegious. In 2006, an American study from the University of Minnesota found atheists are associated with undesirable attributes such as criminal behaviour, drug use, amoral materialism, and cultural elitism. Sociologist Penny Edgell, the study’s lead researcher, states “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

This view of atheism is precisely why there was a push to promote the word “Brights” as an alternative, in the same way homosexuality adapted “gay” into the modern lexicon. Although Hitchens and others rightly asserted this move to be cringe-worthy and conceited, the intention to rebrand atheism underscores the problem of categorising non-belief under a banner title. When the 2010 Global Atheist Convention was held in Melbourne earlier this year, critics attacked it as a church in itself, with Richard Dawkins as its pope.

In 2006 in the UK, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies began advertising on buses in what was one of the first instances in Western society where atheists proactively promoted their belief. Supported (and partly funded by) Dawkins, the message was simply that it is OK not to believe in God. But politics, it seems, is never too far away from any debate.

The separation of church and state is a keystone of secular political philosophy. Dr Trent Reardon from The Secular Party of Australia states that his party believes “in both freedom of and freedom from religion. This means that any individual can believe and practice any religion or none, provided that they do no harm to others or seek to impose their beliefs or practices on others without consent”. It’s a view shared by Jason Ball, former president of the University of Melbourne Secular Society, who says that “any political movement which mobilises atheists has to be about secularism, not ‘making everyone an atheist’”.

Humanism imparts its difference to atheism with ever more vigour. Stephen Stuart, president of the Humanist Society of Victoria, says humanism “is not driven by a lot of adrenalin like some of the atheists we know”, but rather “is a world-view; a life-stance – not a ‘lifestyle’”. He says it looks to “positive psychology, and is not motivated by some radical, atheistic ideology.”

These organisations do however actively campaign to reform religious instruction in government schools, as well ending the National School Chaplaincy Program, which costs $50 million dollars a year. David Nicolls, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, also takes issue with religious indoctrination in state and private schools, stating that it’s sanctioning by secular governments “is tantamount to supporting mental child abuse” – a seemingly bellicose claim, but one which nonetheless has the backing of the Australian Psychological Society.

Quality atheist literature in recent years is partly responsible for the growing momentum of atheism. Hitchens’ God is Not Great and particularly Dawkins’ The God Delusion have become blockbusters, and are probably the most high profile dissertations of the anti-religion movement. It’s been said that they are the atheist’s bible, but that is as daft as claiming Dawkins the pope of the atheist “church”. The point is that an anti-religion best-seller was an inconceivable prospect going back just a couple of decades. Go back two centuries to 1811, when Percy B. Shelley wrote The Necessity of Atheism, and you might – with some luck – just get expelled from university (as Shelley did from Oxford). At worst you’d be locked up as a heretic or put to the stake. In 2011 at least, the growing tide of atheism is one that Moses himself could not part.


POND @ The East Brunswick Club

16 Feb 2011

By Daniel Vigilante

Published on

The first thing you need to know about Pond (if you don’t already) is that the band is somewhat off an offshoot of Tame Impala. Kevin Parker, front man for the highly successful Perth psychedelic stoner rockers, sits behind the drums for Pond, while Tame’s drummer, Jay Watson, lays down bass for Pond, and occasionally guitar.

But this isn’t a gimmick. Pond are a highly accomplished musical outfit in their own right. Parker is a proficient drummer, while Watson is capable of playing stringed instruments to a standard almost as good as he hits the skins for Tame. Naturally this means the creative juices work in a different manner, and the end product is testament to this. They don’t sound like Tame Impala, but have arguably just as much appeal.

The real star of Pond however is Nick ‘Paisley Adams’ Allbrook (who also moonlights on guitar with Tame Impala), the charismatic front man who happens to play the flute with enviable musicianship. The diminutive West Australian is barely bigger than chipmunk – made all the more revealing in a skin-tight high-cut cream t-shirt – but he is living proof that the capacity of vocal chords is not commensurate with body mass.  He can belt it out, and has the fun-going attitude to match these often quirky songs, and the presence to hold his own when the band go off into jam-like trips of garage psychedelia.

The sceptical crowd – no doubt, like myself, there to see how well the Tame boys can wing it on ‘foreign’ instruments – took a while to warm to the band, but by song 3 were wolf whistling and applauding wildly between songs. There’s no doubt this band has its own quality, and with supporting slots alongside MGMT in the coming months and rave reviews every time they play live, we can expect this puddle to become a pond quick smart.

St Kilda (112 mins), 3.5 stars

Published in “COOKBOOK: north/south”

COOKBOOK north/south is a not-for-profit publication, letterpress printed by hand, with a limited edition of 500. It features an inquisitive exploration of ten of Melbourne’s suburbs via recipes, original artwork and short stories. Facilitated by the designers at Wolfgang, Shlomo & Max, this collaborative project is a platform for Melbourne’s chefs, artists and writers to personally and creatively interpret their city.

All proceeds donated directly to SecondBite.

Contributors were asked to find inspiration in a particular suburb and creatively interpret their surroundings.

St Kilda (112 mins) – 3.5 stars

By Daniel Vigilante

From the opening credits, it’s clear the director has a gripe to grate. It opens with distinctive signature forms—which work and probably always will—but what is new is the location, and this is, I suspect, a gripe.

To replace the beloved New York, a Coney Island (or sorts) is sought, but this time the urban wasteland is an Australian debacle; a Melburnian site for Melburnian types. A place to eat, and a place to scream, a place for those who want to be seen. The credits roll, Luis Armstrong soars, and a clown’s mouth fills the screen. We’re definitely not on 42nd anymore.

The image is iconic to St. Kilda the way the Opera House is to Sydney; a tourist postcard worthy of disdain, shot in vain, cute but inane. It’s clear this is happening a new way. The new way, of course is the St. Kilda way—loud, funny, colourful, egocentric, and utterly histrionic, where glamorous hues fade away like the flaky paint on the Pavilion kiosk.

A long shot slowly zooms out: the amusement park basks in its centennial glory; Port Philip provides a calmly backdrop, a child’s scream interrupts a (nondiegetic) trumpet staccato as a rattly rollercoaster distracts our vision.

The next few scenes again defy the predictable; no voice-over narration, no plot, no hero, no point. Flyovers reign, close-ups get intimate. Anonymous figures like shadows fleet by, each depicting a district cliché. The homeless mix with the fashionable, the bohos nose-flick yuppies, and the bogans pickpocket tourists. Backpackers try to assimilate while locals run free and disseminate. A young German hotshot woo’s women on Carlisle, while his mate from Armadale buys Maccas to boot.

A gripe, you say, where is the gripe? But it’s there, if you look, it’s there on the beach, wearing bathers, bikinis, g’s and martinis; perving on bodies, slurping a slurpy, eating Dom’s greasy fish n’his chips. It’s Australian, this film—Hollywood for the careless. It’s porno on steroids, it’s vogue and it’s trash. A film with no story and rhetoric profuse, it speaks of distain to those who won’t listen.

We pull in from Brighton, hugging Beach Rd, a jogging couple hold hands as they bounce (her lover at home trades stocks on the net). Their son goes out in the warm evening twinkle, hits up Fitzroy Street, sits on a street seat, hits on a love cheat, they kiss as they just meet (glad eyes were gladly returned). We follow to Prince, nip into the bathroom, eat a ‘pistachio’, collapse on the mantle, she on her back, it fades to black.

A silence follows, a piano starts, and closing credits begin to roll.

Hallucination of morning:  the Espy has vomit clogging our nose, eyes sting from the burning Palace (or is it the Palais – who ever knows!), and plans for a ‘Triangle’ choking our throats. A gripe of sorts, we’ll never know. But the gripe (who knows!) may just be love. A weird, rackety, rollercoaster love.


For more information about the book or to purchase, visit

American: the Bill Hicks Story

“Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively; there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”

Some people would recognise this quote from the track Third Eye off Tool’s seminal art rock masterpiece, Aenima (and if you don’t, do yourself a favour). If, like me, this was your first introduction to Bill Hicks, coupled with his creepy image in the album’s booklet, chances are this was the seed which grew into an exploration and fascination with America’s comedic cult hero. And with good reason. If Tool think something is cool, it usually is.

This new documentary film sheds some light on just how cool Hicks really is (if you’ll allow me the indulgence of continuing to use the word socially adapted to unsophisticatedly denote intellectual agreement or adeptness. Synonyms include sick, wicked, totes, the bomb, or if it were 1975, far out!). Shot using a unique method of cut and paste images and photographs, montages and home movies, it is an inventive style of film making which is almost as interesting from a technical viewpoint as it is with regards content. The mash up of visuals act as a backdrop while the ‘story’ is narrated by voice-overs from friends and family who knew him best. The firsthand renderings of Bill’s life allow it to be told with intimacy and familiarity, and allow the imagination to fill in what the photos leave out.

Bill Hicks on Tool's Aenima

In the film, a friend comments that Bill’s genius was his ability to reconcile his inner voice with his outer voice, and it’s possible that the introduction of alcohol into Bill’s consciousness streamlined this reconciliation. His battle with alcohol is a fascinating exploration and study into the effects of the ‘poisoned chalice’. The golden revelation that alcohol brought him was that it made him more acerbic and indignant; arguably his most notable traits.

But the ‘poisoning’ aspect of drinking from the golden chalice is that it precipitated a meteoric downfall. There is a disturbing reminder of how alcohol can play havoc on someone who is already an extrovert, who is already attention seeking, who already has – for wont of a better term – the ‘gift of the gab’. It destroyed him and turned him into a spectacle where the joke was on him, mouthing off unintelligibly, being offensive without wit –simply, it turned him into an irrelevant drunk.

Naturally enough, however, the great ones always make a comeback, though Bill’s ‘comeback’ was more of a ‘beginning’ as it spurred his international venture to the UK – via Canada – where his talent was more readily appreciated. Apparently US-bashing is more popular offshore.

The film does a fantastic job of showing the person Bill Hicks, what drove him and what made him tick. The portrait of his rapid downfall from pancreatic cancer is genuinely moving and ultimately harrowing. It reminds us of the cruel fragility of health and the indiscriminate nature of its collapse. Bill was truly coming into mainstream success when his life was taken, and one can only wonder what he’d have to say about life in 2010. “Not cool” would be my guess.

American: the Bill Hicks Story is playing at ACMI until 23 November 2010


The Trial (Franz Kafka)

Published in Spook (2010)

Malthouse Theatre, Aug – Sept 2010

Here it is, in all its glory, 255 pages of menacing complexity, brought to you by everybody’s favourite son of Bohemia, little Franzie. The Trial, his magnum opus of nightmarish proportions, stalwart of menacing injustice and champion of relentless futility – brought to life on stage, in a matinee.

The book first. Of course you understand that not understanding is a central precept of the Kafkaesque puzzle. That the narrative is senseless and disorienting is after all expected; the genius of it lies in how realistic the anxiety is. The sequence of events – while sequential in a literal sense – are not probable, yet nor are they fantastical. There has always been a question over whether to take Kafka realistically, allegorically, magicalistically, existentialistically, or supercallerfragicalistically (what’s with the bug story, for example? Is he really a bug? Is it a metaphor? etcetera etcetera…). And there’s little wonder – his stories are what modern day man might pronounce: pretty fucked up. The Trial is bureaucracy on acid. Damn good acid, too.

Scene from Orson Welles' The Trial

The film. When perplexing works of art get adapted into another art form, interpretation takes the reins. The more perplexing the original piece, the wider the scope of potential interpretation. This is when we see the creativity of the interpreter come to the fore. Orson Welles’ filmic adaptation is a case in point. In its own right as a film, it is genuinely intriguing and absorbing, with cinematic conventions wonderfully exploited to full effect. Welles’ own genius comes into play vividly, though his rearrangement of the chapters (in this order:  1, 4, 2, 5, 6, 3, 8, 7, 9, 10) perhaps speaks more of his pomp than his perspicacity. Nonetheless, it’s an example of the ‘medium as message’, with Welles himself claiming it to be his finest film. Is it his favourite book? Probably not. Then again, he didn’t write it. The point is that is succeeds as a film.

Theatre! Produced by ThinIce, this production again takes it own turn; except it turns into Farcical Lane when many others – such as Welles – fanged it down Broody Boulevard. The problem is that Farcical Lane merges into Silly Street all too often, and there are too many moments of slapstick when I was hoping to be disturbed. The effort is not without some appreciation however, and some giggly moments certainly tickle comedy’s darker side – except black comedy needs more blackness. The hallucinogenic hyperbole becomes a little irritating, and the over-sexualisation (I think I counted 18 lunging kisses) gets ridiculous. The fact that every character spends more time in their underwear perhaps speaks more to the Big Brother generation than Josef K.’s repressed desires.

Modern, therefore? Hardly. Sure the revolving stage had an impact, until, like the naked bodies, its overuse becomes a distraction. Since when should naked bodies become a distraction?! At the Malthouse, apparently, when sex (alas!) never felt so gratuitous.

The performances, with perhaps some questionable direction, are generally good, though protagonist Josef K., being one of literature’s least heroic heroes, and also one of the dullest, made the task of enacting him all the more problematic for Ewen Leslie. John Gaden is the standout here, with his lawyer and priest characters the only true ‘acting’ moments to strike a chord, although Hamish Michael had some memorable flashes of foreboding.

The final act produced one of the most aesthetic death scenes I’d ever witnessed and would claim it a visual victory if my own came about so beautifully – it’s just a shame there weren’t more moments as affecting as that of a brutal and poetic death. That’s why we love Kafka, after all.

The Real Frank Thring

Published in Inpress magazine (2008)

Interview with Michael F. Cahill

By Daniel Vigilante

Frank Thring is one of those Aussie icons a lot of people won’t admit to canonising. Cavaliering in funeral black outfits and bling to shame even the most successful ghetto rappers, Thring has been described as the most flamboyant, eccentric, intimidating, and often cruelly sarcastic rebels Australia has even seen. An iconoclast than an icon. Oh, and he was also a damn great actor—but that’s by the way.

He shared the stage with Laurence Olivier in the 1950s; a feat of which Michael F Cahill says: “You can’t really do any better than that as an actor.” His most famous role was as Pontius Pilot in Ben Hur, and he featured in other big Hollywood films such as King of Kings, El Cid and The Vikings, but also home-grown favourites like Mad Max.

So it’s with great excitement that the larger-than-life personality is going to be brought back onto the stage with Hoy Polly and Triple R’s world premier of The Real Thring, written by Barry Dickens and directed by Wayne Pearn.

Michael F Cahill is cast as Thring, and being British, admits to not knowing a great deal about Thring before taking up the post. But it’s something that has proved beneficial in this depiction because an impersonation is something the team took pains to avoid. “This is very much a piece of theatre,” Cahill says. “It’s a written play, not an impersonation. The character we’re trying to get to is the one that he [Thring] didn’t show you. Everybody knows the flamboyant, hard-drinking, witty, biting Thring who cropped up on TV and whatever, but the play tries to get behind that. The only thing I’ve really got to go off is Barry’s script, so in the end you just treat it like any other play—you just go back to the text.”

As for the text itself, Cahill describes it as “a very lyrical piece. The language is quite dense and rhythmic. Frank was well known for doing these theatrical monologues, particularly on radio; he used to use a lot of rhyme and dog lore and was very fond of limericks, so Barry’s woven a lot of that in there. It’s a very rich tapestry of language and images and people. It’s pretty much an epic poem more than a monologue.”

There is a biographical thread running through the “epic poem”, and it runs fairly chronological, from Thring’s upbringing in Toorak to the West End then to Hollywood and finally to Mahoney Street Fitzroy, where he often found safe harbour in the studios of Triple R.

Not quite a biopic, Cahill prefers to call it “an evocation of the man”, and theatrically explores what it was like to be Frank Thring. “It says a lot about fame and celebrity and whether that relates to talent, and whether the talent can survive celebrity. So from that point of view, it’s got quite a contemporary message.”

Apart from turning up drunk on chat shows, and coming up with “some rather risky witticisms”, Thring’s notoriety also gained stir in his raging homosexual orientation, especially considering he was at his peak during a time when homosexuality was not quite as accepted or celebrated the way it is today. “He probably only stopped short of standing on the stage and saying ‘I fuck men!’ because he would have got arrested,” Cahill says.

Cahill is aware that some people may come to the performance with their own personal view of Thring, but says those people may end up disappointed if they’re expecting an impersonation. “I think the people who will probably enjoy it most are the people who know least about him because the writing is strong and interesting enough in itself.”

From a performance point-of-view, Cahill says: “I’ve never been giving a character that I can cut so loose with, because you pretty much can’t go over-the-top with Frank Thring. What ever I do, I’m only going to be a pale shadow of what the real Thring was like.”

The Real Frank Thring

Triple R Performance Space (221 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East)

12 – 27 September 2008

Bookings: 9016 3873

Georgia Fields and the Freeways

@ Manchester Lane, 24th July 2008

Ms. Fields and co. have been causing quite a stir on the indy folk scene throughout the past year, and the pot is reaching an almost boiling-point of new star creation. And that new star—backed-up by a crowd spilling out the doors at a boutique venue (Manchester Lane) on a cold Thursday night—should rightly burn for Georgia Fields and her slow driving Freeway band, with a standout performance of eclectic quirky pop confirming  the purport of her talent and deservedness.

Boasting an “indy-folk orchestra” to back up Ms. Fields’ gorgeous vocal, tonight’s gig was somewhat of an extravaganza compared with her weekly stripped-back acoustic shows. Tonight was glitz and glamour, comparatively, with brass, electrified guitars, choir, harp and—no kidding—a drill and children’s toys. Even a soft-drink can had its sequence of melodious input.

But it wasn’t quite the raucous performance that may be interpreted: you could hear a pin drop in many of the breakdowns, and Ms. Fields certainly does test a audience’s listening diligence, with only the occasional drunk rebelling with an inability to contain a “We love George!” midway through a pianissimo segue. But the heckle goes unpunished. Justified by the mass agreement, perhaps.

There is no doubt young Georgia was nervous; the turnout and applause-volume maybe surprising her a little, but there was no show of it in the songs (in her awkward between-song speeches, perhaps yes, but even that is endearing, like a kid with new skates falling over).Her stunning EP was brought to a new life with the added instrumentation, and some new songs (notably Happy Accidents, written by her sidekick extraordinaire, Judith Hamann) promise further acclaim whenever the next recording comes along. In the mean time, you’ll have to see it live, and you may just find yourself humming “This could be the start of something beautiful” as you leave, with a touch a prophetic hope.  Only, this reviewer would argue, it’s already started.