First, I must acknowledge that I stole the idea and title for this column from Simon Canning, marketing and advertising writer for The Australian. Simon rang me last week, as he does occasionally, and asked me to comment for an article he was putting together for his paper. We exchanged niceties, I answered a couple of questions, he thanked me, and I hung up and went back to work. I haven’t seen his piece yet and have no idea what tack Simon is going to take, but his questions got me thinking.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

He wanted to know which icon I thought was winning this Christmas: Santa or Jesus. As I said to him, a few years ago, I would have said it was Santa, hands down, but now I think it is Jesus.

Far from being an improvement, I added, the increasing religiosity in our society — in brash, pragmatic, secular, irreverent Australia is starting to frighten me. There is a tone of voice developing amongst some commentators, which chills me to the bone; a declamatory, triumphal, ringing self-righteousness shot through with ribbons of pure nastiness. There is a belligerent assumption of rectitude, of certainty — a lack of doubt and humility that is deeply disturbing.

Angela Shanahan’s recent column about the ACT’s Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, was remarkable for just such a gleeful and vicious tone. Shanahan and Stanhope are on opposite sides of the abortion debate, a topic characterised by deeply felt emotions. No doubt, they are political enemies, but since when did political enemies have to be personal ones too?

Shanahan’s piece praised the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, for cancelling an invitation to Stanhope to give the Melbourne Commission for Justice, Development and Peace’s Rerum Novarum Lecture. This is a Catholic forum aimed at Catholics and Stanhope is an unusual and gutsy choice, but I presume he got the gig because he alone among the Premiers and Chief Ministers had the courage to leak Howard’s anti-terrorism legislation on the principle that the public had a right to know. No mention of that in Shanahan’s piece, I notice.

The only conclusion I can draw is that Catholics like Shanahan do not believe their faith is robust enough to withstand listening to views that are different to their own, even at a Church-endorsed function.

But it wasn’t always like that. In 1976, I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband) something that at the time was often called, revealingly, ‘living in sin’. A uni friend of mine was from a devout Catholic family. She was the eldest of seven children and her mother taught at a nearby Catholic boys’ school. When my friend’s mother heard about my living arrangements, this rather wonderful woman immediately invited me to come to the school and participate in a debate about such lifestyle choices with a priest and the senior boys; boys who were only a couple of years older than me, at the time.

Although I was frightened of being painted as a scarlet woman, we had a lively, articulate and respectful debate and I left with a newfound admiration for Catholic schools. However, I wonder how Angela Shanahan would feel about Catholic schools today holding such a debate? What about debates on abortion, gay marriage, married priests, or women priests? Or would she prefer that any voices heard on such subjects present only the party line?

The entire tenor of politics in the US also terrifies me. When did it become a reasonable thing in a democracy to treat what the Americans call ‘liberals’ as traitors? What exactly does free speech mean if atheists, agnostics, liberals, Marxists, feminists, Lefties, anarchists, conservationists, gays, pro-choicers et al are howled down, mocked and reviled every time they dare to voice their opinion?

As a recent letter to The Weekend Australian said, churches are only too happy to play dirty themselves but cry foul if not treated with kid gloves in return. Because churches claim supernatural authority for their viewpoints, their opinions are regarded as moral values. But because non-believers claim no greater authority than their own conscience and reason, our views are sneered at as mere opinions.

It is hard for an opinion to do battle with a moral value, but nevertheless, it must. Because the moral value underpinning those who use conscience and reason as their guide is a dearly held belief that adults have the right to live according to their own conscience, rather than having to obey the edicts of somebody else’s.

Wanting people to live the way you and your God think they should (and feeling entitled to insist that they do) is really a form of bullying. When a society (and a government) decides that verbal and intellectual bullying is an acceptable tactic to use against political and ideological opponents, it leads directly to the sort of bullying we have seen on the streets of Cronulla. Bullies do not differentiate — send a message that it is okay and all sorts of people will heed it.

Nasty liberals (small ‘l’, of course) are not without their own resources, particularly to the considerable chagrin of the religious Right in the media. The liberal press and arts community is fighting back, thank whichever deity you believe in. There is a riveting piece by Evgenia Peretz in November’s Vanity Fair about bereaved mother Cindy Sheehan’s vigil outside Bush’s ranch describing the vicious personal anger of locals who disagree with Sheehan’s stand.

And I await with considerable enthusiasm Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s acclaimed movie about Edward R Murrow’s stand against the bigotry of Senator Joe McCarthy. Mike Leigh’s 2004 movie, Vera Drake, was a powerful reminder of what the world was like for women the last time abortion was a criminal offence. And Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman, a quiet and bleak film featuring an exquisite performance by Kevin Bacon, is a reminder that even those who have done the worst (molesting small girls) are human and have their story.

But we appear to be entering a more authoritarian world. A world full of punitive, aggressive, bigoted voices, whether the strident pseudo-patriotism of young thugs on Cronulla Beach; or the censorious, anti-women preaching of extreme mullahs; or the sanctimonious, judgemental tones of the religious Right. And those who challenge and question such views are not just disagreed with, but vilified.

It has always taken courage to stand out from the crowd, to refuse to take at face value what you are told. Now, terrifyingly, Gods of all kinds are being used to re-establish, legitimise and police not just authority, but the stamping out and silencing of dissent. This is particularly ironic, given that the historical Jesus was anti-authoritarian before he was anything else. Indeed, he was crucified, I believe, for sedition.

Which brings me back to Christmas, the winter festival with a Christian message tacked onto it after Europe converted. Both the major icons of Christmas are Christian figures. Baby Jesus needs no explanation, and Santa Claus was originally Saint Nicholas. But Santa has been thoroughly secularised. His quaint red, white and black outfit is believed to have been invented by Coke in the early 20th century for advertising purposes, and his jovial, bell ringing, bountiful persona no longer holds any religious connotations.

If Santa is the patron saint of anything these days, it is consumerism. But at least he makes no bones about it. Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Halloween (whatever their original purpose), Santa now represents retail.

It is interesting to speculate that, in Western countries at least, the current relative dominance of Jesus over Santa at Christmas is a rather revealing litmus test of the relative dominance of the religious over the secular.

And, I never thought I would say this but, due to the tendency of religion to close mouths, minds and options, give me the symbol of consumerism over the symbol of religiosity any day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.