In Defence of Silly Hats


Michael Jensen had a great column published on ABC Unleashed, critical of the religious programme Compass:

Imagine No Religion

If you ever tune in to the ABC’s flagship religious affairs programme Compass after the bonnet drama of a Sunday night, then you could be forgiven for thinking that the group of people labelled ‘the religious’ are those who wear funny hats.

As the opening title sequence of the show scrolls by, viewers are treated to a veritable facebook of curious millinery – along with some impressive facial hair.

To the average ABC viewer, watching as they iron their work clothes, the message is clear: these people are not ‘us’. They are definitely ‘the other’: a group or groups of people to be observed, categorised, wondered at – and sometimes even frightened of. 

But is there such a category as the ‘religious’? Does ‘religion’ even exist? 

I am not convinced that it does – at least, not in the sense that the word is commonly used. The concept of ‘religion’ operates as an anthropological term, which like most academic language, enables the object under examination to be placed at a scholarly arm’s length. Like exotic butterflies, religions are to be caught in the wild, observed under the microscope, described in minute detail according to their visible forms, and then pinned to polystyrene. 

There are three enormous traps into which this method steps – and the result is a colossal misunderstanding of the ‘religious’. Categorising things is so much a part of our approach to life that we can imagine it promises more understanding of a subject than it can deliver.

The first mistake is that we think we have discovered a coherent concept because we can describe things that the various religions apparently have in common. If the religions are to be understood because of the things they seem to have in common, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that the things they have in common are the really important things about them. 

The problem is that the massive differences between the faiths are then ironed out. After all, termites and elephants both have legs.

The second trap comes with the triumph of imagining one has discovered the single catch-all concept at the heart of all ‘religions’. The scholar with this sort of claim – and believe me, they aren’t modest about it – imagines herself sublimely objective in this, uniquely capable of divesting herself of all vestiges of her home culture and its variety of faith.

For example, it is no accident that scholars from Christian backgrounds have gone looking for a ‘God of love’ as the core idea of all other religions. It’s a peculiarly Christian way of homogenising other faiths. 

We can see this in the work of John Hick – and Hick’s lesser hack, John Shelby Spong.

Thirdly, if we think in terms of ‘religion’ we will become far too distracted by the external and cultural forms of religion. This is what I call the ‘silly hat’ problem. 

When I was chaplain at an Anglican school, I was often sent sample ‘Studies in Religion’ textbooks. They were uniformly hopeless, in my opinion, because they concentrated almost entirely on ceremonies, rituals, ecclesiastical haberdashery and religious festivals. Was this what ‘religion’ was about? 

Perhaps – if you are looking in from the outside, as someone who is not ‘religious’ in this sense. But you do not understand Christianity (I speak only for my own faith) at all by observing its outward forms. In fact, you may completely misunderstand it. 

In its most hostile forms, at the hands of a Dawkins or a Hitchens, the idea of ‘religion’ is a means of dismissing it. If you pollute the concept with enough human evil – and goodness knows, there’s plenty of that to share – you can make it start to look like a concept we’d be better off without. 

You end up implying that the lady across the road who goes to church each week is just as evil as Osama.

But more often, using the term ‘religion’ is a way of taming the phenomena collected under this heading. If it can be boiled down to its core elements, and if I can then see that these core elements are available without ‘religion’, then …well, why would I bother? 

I don’t look good in hats, and I like to sleep in on the weekends.

So, I want to invite you to (to borrow from John Lennon) ‘imagine no religion’. If you are really interested in understanding those people we call ‘religious’, then realise that that thinking in terms of ‘religion’ is getting in the way.

And what’s more, you will continue to think of yourself as ‘not religious’, if you keep believing in ‘religion’.

Why deny yourself the chance of being challenged – and even changed – by what you discover?

Jensen’s point is excellent, but he relies partly on the fact that he is speaking from within the same cultural bubble as the producers of Compass. Hats, robes and facial hair are a method of denoting special office. Bikers, Mods, Punks, Goths, Scenesters and Ganguros all communicate through clothing. Baptists wear business suits. You wouldn’t be caught dead without a tie in some circles. What does that communicate? (and imagine a world where everyone wore business suits!)

Yes, we may misunderstand a religion if we only observe the externals. But the rites, millinery and facial hair so alien to us are very often direct expressions of the doctrines of any given religion. So, where Compass focusses on the exotic externals to put religion in a tidy box, the modern western Christian thinks he can divest his faith of its expressions and boil it down to some timeless “Greek-style” ideal. [1]

Despite their abominable doctrines, these exotic, alien religions are often more in touch with the physical world, and the symbolic nature of the creation, than we are. Their doctrines unashamedly create culture. It is a richness we have lost. Our Christianity has become a victim of the detached objectivity of the scientist. Our culture of worship, bereft of any real Biblical inspiration, has nothing to draw on but the mall.

Sure, the special attire of the servant eventually becomes a desired commodity. Pharisees and phylacteries! Human nature always ends up using religious robes as a cover for hypocrisy and unjustice. [2] But so does the Supreme Court. Snakes love gardens… best place to hide! In our wisdom, we think the robes are the problem. But when their message has been distorted by opportunists and tyrants and dandies, perhaps it’s time to come up with something altogether new. [3]

The Common Ground Christian sect has a coffee shop in Katoomba. Some of their doctrines are way off (such as there being a third way between salvation and damnation, a middle road of good works for those ignorant of the gospel). Some of their doctrines are spot on. They have a sort of “postmillennial” kingdom optimism. They want to transform society, not escape it (albeit via communes!). They have a way of dressing that reflects their worldview. It communicates modesty, honour and hard work. It communicates who they are. And it sure beats business suits. While our dying culture dresses children up like streetwalkers and pierces any available orifice, what’s wrong with a bit of visible glory to illustrate an official capacity in the church?

[1] See Communist Theology.
[2] See Rags to Robes, and of course Jordan’s classic The Dominion Trap on Adam’s robe.
[3] All this requires wisdom. From memory, Doug Wilson refuses to wear a clerical collar because of what this has come to communicate in American culture. See his article Vestments. And check out his facial hair.

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2 Responses to “In Defence of Silly Hats”

  • douglas haley Says:

    Thanks Mike, this is a great post. Question though: Are you happy for me to put it in the church magazine? I think our old stone edifice could appreciate it.

    Feel free to say no, but thought I’d ask.


  • Mike Bull Says:


    For sure – just include the basic blog URL.
    You’re bound to get some bites