After two years of delays, I received word that my field trip to Australia was finally to go ahead. Conditions for the trip were subject to significant uncertainty due to the continuing social upheaval in the country. But with no end in sight to the current confusion, it was deemed a case of now or never and I accepted the risks and boarded the plane for Melbourne.
What became apparent from the very first but which I was very reluctant to accept was the dreadful state of our anthropological literature on the country of Australia. The picture given to me by our reference books jarred so strongly with the country I experienced by my senses and intellect that I wondered whether or not the pilot had taken me on a misadventure to a completely different land. I shall attempt in these initial notes to convey the main points of difference between the reality I saw and our lofty tomes on the matter and thereby to begin to correct our understanding.
The first error which I mean to correct is the notion that Australia is a culture devoid of faith, religion and religious ceremony. From the very first, my journey to Melbourne forced me repeatedly to call this assumption into doubt. Indeed, the Australians have as sophisticated and complex an array of religious ceremonies as any culture that we nominally call religious. Entry to the country is predicated on one such ceremony known as a “test” whereby a member of the priestly caste dressed in a full ceremonial outfit suffered me to open my mouth and have a special stick stuck down my throat. The stick, known as the “sample”, is promptly presented to the oracle who decides whether entry into the country may be allowed. Fortunately, in my case, the oracle favoured my entry. However, several others were not so lucky and were thus tripped up at the first hurdle.
On arrival at the airport in Melbourne, members of the priestly caste were once again highly notable for their elaborate outfits by which they were distinguished from the functionaries responsible for processing my paperwork for entry. Of this priestly caste I will have more to say presently. But let us now attempt a brief description of the religion from which the priestly caste derive their authority.
The god of the Australians they call by the name “science”. It is, to be sure, a very strange god by both anthropological and theological standards for the Australians say their god is nothing more or less than truth itself. Apart from truth, he has no properties. This disembodied god has no feelings nor emotions, he appears not in any art or painting and only rarely and very indirectly in literature and song. One might say of this god that he is all head and no heart. In this way he is perhaps the exact opposite of the old god who ruled in the west who was all heart and no head.
Of the priestly caste I have hitherto referred, the highest type are known as the “experts” and it is they who intermediate between the god and the general public. Now this leads us to the second great error in our anthropological literature on the country of Australia for it is said that the Australians have a separation of church and state and that the priestly caste and the political class are entirely divorced from each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. The priestly caste, the experts, run the country to such a degree that I often found it difficult to ascertain in what way the political caste was involved at all. A phrase I heard repeated over and again by the political caste was that they were just “following the advice” while the common folk would often admonish each other to “trust the experts”. In this way, fealty to the god and to the priestly caste is almost universally practiced by the highest and lowest members of the society.
The main day-to-day responsibility of the priestly caste of experts is to cast oracles which are referred to as “models”. These oracles are used extensively by the political class and the general public. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most of the activities of daily life are based around these oracles, once again putting paid to the notion that the Australians are an irreligious people. Indeed, it was the casting of such oracles in March 2020 that led the Australians to completely overturn their social arrangements, a matter I will return to presently.
Oftentimes I asked my informant to explain such and such a cultural practice and he would refer back to the oracle as if that by itself was enough explanation. The wearing of a mask, for example, is dictated by an oracle who at any time may declare that the mask must be worn indoors, outdoors or not at all. The dictates of the oracle are final. Several times, upon attempting to interpret the oracles for myself, I asked whether or not they seemed incorrect and my informant simply laughed and said that I must “trust the experts” and that was the end of the matter.
Beneath the experts in the priestly caste are a number of lower level ranks among whom are counted the “bureaucrats”, the “journalists”, the “fact checkers” and the “opinion writers”. It is their role to disseminate the expert “opinion” and the details of the latest oracle readings to which the public must adhere. It is here that a significant change has occurred in Australian society since the great upheaval of 2020 for a new class of experts have come to prominence and replaced the old readings with new oracles while also implementing a completely new set of social practices and ceremonies. The old oracles which governed society were from the experts in the field known as “economics” and the name of the priestly caste were the “economists”. However, beginning in March of 2020, a new caste took power who call themselves “epidemiologists”. These epidemiologists threw out the old oracles such as the “GDP” oracle, the “inflation” oracle and the “unemployment” oracle, and implemented new ones, the most important of which is the “cases” oracle. It alone seems to drive much of the new practices and ceremonies that have been introduced by the new priestly caste.
The majority of the public does not concern itself with the act of divination, preferring simply to be told what the latest reading is. Nevertheless, the “cases” oracle is all important in Australian society. It is the first thing a man checks of a morning whereupon he gives much thought to what the oracle portends for his business, his career and his personal life. The political and merchant class also pays much attention to the oracle and will often announce new ceremonies and rules based on the oracle reading. Even in my short time in the country, I was surprised by the varying nature of the oracle which one day says this and the other says that and the two have little to do with each other. This has been the charge of a small group that has formed within the society who have criticised the new priestly caste of epidemiologists saying their readings of the oracle are false and there seemed to me to be substantive grounds for this accusation. However, when I put the idea to my informant he became angry and I was keen to avoid the subject thereafter.
This latter observation also contradicts the statements in our literature on the country of Australia where the Australians are said to be an easy going and satisfied people. This was not my impression at all but rather a general tension was the predominant emotional atmosphere of the land leading often to anxiety and anger in equal parts. This tension seemed to me directly related to the arrival of the new priestly caste who have implemented many new ceremonies and practices in a very short period of time from an anthropological point of view. This has included a society-wide initiation ceremony known as a “vaccination” which is now a significant determinant of a man’s social standing. Many of the new ceremonies and practices follow directly from participation in this ritual and this has caused significant discontinuity for many members of the public who do not wish to partake in the ritual saying that the oracles used to justify it have been read wrong while also denying the ascendancy of the new priestly caste about whom they say they were not consulted.
The speed with which the new priestly caste has taken power has given rise to a small but determined sect of dissenters that is made up a wide cross section of the society including a number of members of the priestly caste itself. These have been written off as blasphemers and heretics in the usual fashion by the use of such derogatory phrases as “anti-vaxxer” and “conspiracy theorist”. It appeared to me as if what had happened in the last two years in Australia was really the beginning of a sectarian religious split although my understanding of this was greatly hampered by the curious fact that the Australians themselves do not believe they are partaking of a religion at all and thus any attempt to get my informant to speak on the subject hit a dead end. If I may speak philosophically rather than anthropologically for a moment, it seems to me problematic that the Australians believe their god to be truth itself for this negates appeal to their god on any other basis while also preventing the questioning of the oracles which are assumed to be correct a priori rather than a posteriori.
In closing, I posit that one explanation why our anthropological literature has got it so wrong on the country of Australia is perhaps because the country, like many of its civilisational sister countries, is right in the middle of what is either a religious collapse, revival or realignment. Which of these it is and the exact nature of the phenomena are not clear but I suggest that subsequent field trips in the years ahead will repay the investment by what looks to be a major anthropological change occurring with great rapidity.