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.
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.
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.