One reason why Christian faith has declined in the West is because of the reliance placed on a literal reading of the testaments. Such an approach has tangled the Christian faith in a confusion of contradictions.
By encouraging literalist analysis of the Bible, many churches have inadvertently invited people to question the validity of a faith that seems to be based on questionable facts or outdated prescriptions.
I recently read the transcript of the cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan in the famous Scopes trial of 1925.
The state of Tennessee had sought to outlaw the teaching of evolution in its schools. When a teacher, John Scopes, deliberately flouted this law, he faced trial in a high-profile battle between evolutionists and the supporters of Biblical creation.
The prosecution was assisted by the serial presidential candidate and one of the giants of Democratic politics, William Jennings Bryan, who was called to give evidence.
What followed was the humiliation of Bryan and his literal interpretation of the Bible as he sought to argue the historical truth of Genesis. That Adam and Eve were really the first humans to walk the Earth just 6000 years ago; that 2300 years before Christ, all living things - apart from those saved by Noah - were wiped from the planet, and that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish.
From my perspective, Bryan's most damning words were: ''I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it, I will accept it."
There are some who will with great conviction, even to this day, argue that all of these things were so. In fact a number of fast-growing evangelical Christian churches in Australia take a literalist approach to the scriptures.
While most leaders of the older churches have moved away from such a position, there is still an alienating literalism that pervades many faiths, and Christianity is not alone in this regard.
Those of you who are political junkies will be avid watchers of The West Wing. You may recall an episode in which President Jed Bartlet confronts a right-wing radio host who has led a crusade against homosexuality based on biblical doctrine. Bartlet wonders that if he were to form his views on homosexuality based on the prescriptions of Leviticus whether he should also be following the guidance of the Old Testament in relation to the sale of his daughter into slavery; whether he should be putting to death his chief of staff for working on the Sabbath, or what he should be doing about footballers playing with a ball made of pigskin, or his wife for wearing cloth made from different threads.
Those who seek to proclaim the prescriptions of the Bible selectively or literally provide an armoury of ammunition to those like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Laymen like myself struggle with the logic of such an approach. While debate rages about such matters, the true message of the scriptures - of compassion, justice, equality, dignity, forgiveness, charity and respect for other people - inevitably takes a back seat.
Hitchens and Dawkins go further than simply trying to pick holes in a literal or historical interpretation of the Bible and the texts and teachings of the other great religions.
They argue that not only are all religions based on falsehoods but also that religion is a malevolent force. Again, in this they are supported by those across the globe who have used their faith to justify and explain suffering, war, cruelty and calamity.
It is a debating technique as old as discourse itself - to seek to define your opponents on terms that suit your hypothesis, usually by selecting the extremes, and then send in the wrecking ball. It's an approach that anyone in the Australian Parliament would find familiar.
I don't accept that any of the great religions envisage a God or a divine force that sanctions the worst failings of humanity. Religion asks of us to become better people - to choose a life of giving and compassion. This "Golden Rule" is a thread that runs from Confucius to Christianity, from Buddhism to Islam.
For me this is the essential message of all faiths - that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Muhammad spoke in his final sermon, "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you." Or as the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel put it: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow."
The God of my faith is not full of revenge, as the Old Testament would suggest with a literal interpretation. The God of my faith does not cause earthquakes or tsunamis as acts of retribution.
As the Pope identified in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth): "Love is God's greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope."
It is not a loving God who wilfully inflicts pain and suffering. No God of any mainstream religion would do that if God's love is real.
The Koran does not encourage Muslims to bomb buildings. God does not march off to war supporting one nation over another or the persecution of those of different creeds and colour. My God does not discriminate against women, or favour first born children over others. Nor does God support one political party.
All of these things have been claimed as acts of God at various times in our history. They provide easy targets for those who argue that religion causes harm rather than good. However, they are not propositions that I believe have any foundation in the mainstream religions.
Many today look at the world and see one that is divided by religion. This is inflamed by fear of the unknown and views formed by the actions of fundamentalists.
There are some who wonder, for example, whether Islam and Christianity can peacefully coexist.
My father migrated to Australia from the Middle East - the son of an Armenian father and a Palestinian mother. While Dad was a Christian growing up in Jerusalem, his closest childhood friend was a Jewish girl. Dad speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic. He taught me tolerance. He is very ecumenical for someone who lost his home to a war that was based on faith. In Australia he found a country that tolerated diversity.
Australia has embraced religious diversity. It must always remain so, and as a Member of Parliament I am a custodian of that principle of tolerance. That is why it is disturbing to hear people rail against Muslims and Jews, or Pentecostals and Catholics. Australia must continue, without fear, to embrace diversity of faith provided that those gods are loving, compassionate and just.
An extract from In Defence of God, a speech by the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, to the Sydney Institute last night.