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Australia’s Census Result Heralds a Religion-neutral Secular Shift

As published in Areo Magazine Australia’s Census Result Heralds a Secular Shift – 29 June 2017

The surge in “No religion” in the 2016 Census heralds a more secular Australia. With a rise from 22.3% in 2011 to 30.1% in 2016, “No Religion” has overtaken Catholicism to become the most popular belief category.

Mirroring the trend in similar western countries, Australia has been losing its religion over a long period — Christianity has fallen from 88% in 1966 to 52.1% in 2016. Given one third of Australians are now nonbelievers, and Christianity has fallen to below 50% in six out of eight states, we are now without a dominant belief system.

But “secular” is not synonymous with non-belief. The impetus for a more secular society results from acknowledging the end of Christian hegemony, and in recognizing our increased cultural diversity and religious pluralism. “Secular” means the separation of church and state. Specifically, our Constitution’s Section 116 precludes the Federal government from making “any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion…”

The religious neutral approach of our founding fathers was influenced by the “establishment” clause in the US Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But while the establishment clause has been applied strictly by the US courts, the similar words contained in Section 116 only apply to the Federal government, and have been interpreted so narrowly that no court has ever found any law to be in contravention of Section 116.

establishment clause

And so, our increasing pluralism, as evidenced by the Census result, provide a strong impetus to embrace a more robust understanding of secularism. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t emulate the United States in disallowing school prayers and prohibiting teachers from preaching religion. Similarly, Christian prayers have no place in opening Parliament.

Similarly, those in receipt of taxpayer funds, should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of faith. Thus, the blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination law which exist for tax payer funded religious institutions, including private schools, must be reconsidered.

But it’s more than this. Realizing a truly secular state requires a belief-neutral and evidence-based approach to policymaking. Specifically, policy must not become beholden to the religious views of individuals or religious lobby groups. Again and again we see the same old stalemate; as issues such as same sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, are stymied by the “religious convictions” of a few: as if religiosity grants them a sacred power of veto.

But an equitable and fair minded approach should not extend to banishing faith from the public square. Crucially, the distinction is between state-sponsored religious favoritism, and the secular freedom to discuss the tenets and values embedded in religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Indeed, a secular approach embraces the understanding of religious freedom outlined by Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the freedom to express any thought or belief, religious or otherwise.

Thus, religious beliefs continue to form a key part of our political discourse. Policies can be justified based on the tenets of religion, as long as they do not compel religious belief or worship. For example, the opponents of same sex marriage would continue to enjoy complete freedom to express their views in terms of a biblical view of marriage. Equally, the champions of policy change in abortion could express their views in whatever religious or nonreligious context they see fit.    

A neutral approach does not equate to saying that belief is only a personal matter, and that religion has no place in politics. Secularism is, after all, a tool for liberty, not a restriction on our freedoms. Free expression of all beliefs is the defining element of the secular state, and must be vouchsafed.

In that respect, a secular country is distinguished from an irreligious one. The “wall of separation” provided by the US establishment clause was built and fortified by Protestant versus Catholic enmities. Thus, the oft-repeated pejorative terms of “aggressive” or “radical” secularism, misunderstands the concept. Secularism is about fairness, not unbelief. A more robust form of secularism is evinced in the level playing field — maximizing freedom, and minimizing privilege.

JFK secularism

Thus, secularism cannot be weaponized by the nonbeliever: those who want to wield the “secular” hammer misunderstands it’s meaning. Secularism is not, as is often erroneously asserted, a separate set of irreligious values competing with Christianity in a zero sum game. We do not lose the values which underpin our society, and which are an amalgam of all of our various traditions and evolutionary history, stretching back and beyond the Athenian democracy of the 5th century B.C. We do not discard the values of Christianity; just as, we do not junk our democratic values, including the principle of government by the people and for the people.  Secularism simply means that the state cannot promote or dictate particular beliefs systems in preference to others. 

The 2016 Census result shows a significant shift away from Christianity as our dominant belief system, suggesting a shift toward a more secular society. In the long term, a religion-neutral approach would have the dual benefit of levelling the playing field, as well as protecting the rights of individuals and groups to hold and practice an increasingly diverse set of belief systems.

church and state

The Powerful New Force: Australian Politics And Media Should Reflect The Fact That Non-Belief Is On The Rise

As published in the Huffpost Australia – Australian Politics And Media Should Reflect The Fact That Non-Belief Is On The Rise – 28 June 2017

 

abc church and state

Take note, Australia: More Australians recorded “No religion” in the 2016 Census than any other individual religion or denomination. Surging from 22.3 percent in 2011 to 30.1 percent, non-belief has overtaken Catholicism, which fell from 25.3 percent to 22.6 percent.

Take note, politicians: Observe the irreligious voting block comprising nearly one third of all Australians — a figure comparable to the the 34.9 percent that the ALP polled in the 2016 Federal election. Thus, nonbelievers represent a powerful, new force in politics.

Take note, media: The large non-believing demographic demands a voice. Secular groups and activists are rarely seen on television or radio, even on issues featuring the intersection of religious belief and politics.

Recall the ABC’s ‘Q&A’ special episode on Church and State in April 2016? The topic was secularism, but the panel featured not one secularist. The panel were exclusively Christian, featuring Christian pastors, academics and, of course, the Australian Christian Lobby.

acb christian church and state

Our public broadcaster features numerous religious programs, but none specifically dedicated to discussing non-belief. These programs include ‘Compass’, ‘For the God Who Sings’, ‘Religion & Ethics Report’, ‘Songs of Praise’, the ‘Spirit of Things’, and ‘God Forbid’.

Despite a veritable baptism of religious programmes, the scrapping of the 15-year-old Sunday Nights necessitated crisis talks with Catholic priest, Father Frank Brennan, Baptist minister Tim Costello, and Reverend Elenie Poulos, of the Uniting Church. All this, even though a new half-hour program, ‘Religion and Ethics’, was added to Radio National.

Jesus wept. I don’t have a problem with religious shows, but surely the secular viewpoint deserves a run also. Further, overlooking one third of taxpayers, altogether runs against the ABC’s policy of presenting a diversity of views.

ABC’s online Religion and Ethics, makes a pretence of catering for the secular voice, but only rarely is a rationalist or secular view represented. By and large, the site features religious commentary by local and international academics and apologists. Tellingly, the public comments facility has been disabled and old comments deleted. One suspects, perhaps uncharitably, that it is due to their overwhelmingly negative character.

The diversity of secular views has been, until now, nearly invisible in the Australian media. But, it contains particular value. Focussing on rational thought and empirical evidence would be a breath of fresh air, in a climate of fake news, zingers, and Left versus Right ideological warfare.

In the UK, secular voices such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, and AC Grayling appear regularly on panel shows. In the US, Bill Maher fosters are irreverent take on politics, and a variety of nonreligious authors and thinkers including Sam Harris, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking contribute to debate. Additionally, many of the well-known Australians with secular views such as Peter Singer, Geoffrey Robertson, Clive James, and Tim Minchin, are based overseas.

The lack of secular voices in the media perpetuates Christian privilege. Declining religiosity hasn’t lessened the influence of the increasingly unrepresentative lobby groups claiming to speak for mainstream Australians. One key issue is the decline in observance and belief among the religious. A 2012 McCrindle survey showed a third of those identifying as Christian were “more spiritual than Christian”.

Empty churches sit idle on street corners, while in Canberra, Christian lobbyists perpetuate the transfer of religious observance from churches into secular state schools. Schools teaching religion as a comparative subject are the norm in most similarly irreligious countries, such as Finland, UK, New Zealand — some of which have zoomed past us in the international PISA rankings.

While fewer people believe all the tenets of scripture, the religious hierarchy successfully pressures politicians to maintain a biblical view of marriage, to oppose assisted dying, and to continue to over-subsidize Catholic schools.

For many, marking ‘Christian’ represents little more than a cultural affiliation. Emphasizing the nominal nature of their belief, is the fact that a majority of Christians support for same sex marriage, and that 70 percent of Catholics and Anglicans support assisted dying. Of those who support the latter, 84 percent are non-observant. But of those Christians opposing euthanasia, 92 percent are “true believers”: that is, prayerful, church goers. These represent a vanishing minority of Australians, given a mere 8 percent still attend church regularly.

It’s high time politicians abandoned the fallacy that religious outrage is a vote changer. For the vanishing few true believers who swap their vote, there exists an order-of-magnitude-larger group of nonbelievers to cancel them out.

The increase in non-belief marks a seismic shift in our belief landscape. So, it’s about time the voices of the godless were heard in the corridors of Canberra, and their faces became more recognisable in the mainstream media.