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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.

The Census surge in non-belief heralds a new secularism

 
Census surge heralds a secular state – The Courier Mail 28 June 2017

MORE Australians ticked “No religion” in the 2016 Census than any other belief category. The results, released yesterday, show non-belief surging from 22.3 per cent in 2011 to 30.1, overtaking Catholicism which fell from 25.3 per cent to 22.6.

The change represents a watershed. The number of Christians has fallen from 88 per cent in 1966 to 52.1 per cent in 2016; a free fall which looks set to continue given 39 per cent of adults aged 18-34 now report no religion.

nation of nonbelievers

Christian dominance is ending and, marking a seismic shift in our belief landscape, nearly one third of Australians are now nonbelievers.

The effect should be wide ranging: a new voting block of nonbelievers surely forces us to consider bolstering our rather weak version of secularism.

Providing further impetus to consider this change is the fact that a fading religious belief runs deeper than just the rise in nonbelievers. Many of those marking “Christian” on the Census are expressing a “cultural” preference rather than genuine religious belief.

A 2012 McCrindle survey reported one third of Christians were more spiritual than religious.

In that respect, Australian data on Christian religious observance mirrors that of other western countries such as the UK, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries. Less than 10% of us attend church regularly, and the majority of weddings and funerals are now secular events. Caring more about everyday matters, mainstream Christians are mostly nominal, and unobservant.

Driven by our sharp decline in religiosity, we can expect to see our type of secularism become more robust, and more determinedly belief-neutral. In contrast to the US, which has enforced the Establishment Clause strictly, our Constitution’s Section 116 has always been interpreted narrowly (it doesn’t even apply to the states!), allowing a blurry and uneasy relationship between religion and governance.

Which explains how we allow prayers in parliament, along with Christian chaplains and faith-based religious instruction in secular state schools. Bizarrely, blasphemy is still a crime in most states of Australia. The lip service paid to secularism stands, sits uncomfortably with our decreasing piety.

Symptomatic of this decline, parents are increasingly opting their children out of faith-taught religious classes in NSW and QLD state schools. And in Victoria, religious classes were scrapped from curriculum time, in 2015, to allow more focus on core learning.

A new understanding of secularism resists the privileging of specific belief systems in the public domain. As the handmaiden of democracy, secularism insists that Abraham Lincoln’s democratic principle of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, remains pure and undiluted by prioritising the beliefs of one group over another.

A notable disparity exists when taxpayer-funded and tax-free faith groups enjoy blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. So, the taxes of some nonbelievers subsidise groups who actively and legally discriminate against them.

Rising non-belief shines a light on certain areas of public policy where the lobbying of Archbishops and religious groups continue to stonewall progress. Why, for instance, is same sex marriage still not legal? Why is there such a deference to minority views, favouring religious convictions over nonreligious convictions, that the parliament fails to enact popular opinion?

Similarly, consider euthanasia: 75% of Australians support assisted dying and of those who object, 92% have religious connections.

Why does abortion remain technically illegal in NSW and QLD? Providing a safe and legal option for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies is supported by 80% of our populace.

Advancing religion remains a tax free charitable purpose, under laws dating back to the 1600’s, despite a 2016 IPSOS poll showing less than 20% of Australians support the measure. In the same poll, 55% of respondents answered that religion had no public benefit.

2016 census

Necessarily, the freefall in Christianity increases Australia’s diversity of beliefs, emphasizing our pluralism. Each year there are fewer of our fellow citizens who think religious freedom means the right to impose their beliefs on others. Most Australians would agree with the version of religious freedom expressed by article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which protects theistic, nontheistic, and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right to profess any religion or belief.

From this zeitgeist emerges a New Secularism. Underpinned by overwhelming popular support – 75% of Australians support the separation of church and state – the move towards secularism becomes inexorable now that non-belief joins the mainstream. Non-belief is the new normal. The bright light of secularism will guide us away from Christian hegemony, and towards a fairer, more inclusive, state-neutral approach to matters of belief.

religious chart info

The Child is Father of the Man

As published in the Rationalist Society of Australia Journal, September, 2016

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What should we tell a child about the world? How do we distinguish between knowledge and beliefs? Answering this question requires us to reach deep down into ourselves and grasp for the forgotten struts that hold one’s view of the world together. Proceed with caution however, as once the supports are prized away the whole thing is apt to collapse.

childthinking

My atypical view comes as a result of my six-year-old son’s placement in a fundamentalist and evangelical religious instruction (RI) program. Despite us immediately pulling him out of it, and even after I’d written opinion pieces opposing RI in the Australian media, our boy was put back in the class without our knowledge.

The experience brought me unwillingly face to face with the question of what to tell my son about religion. I’d prefer him to find these answers on his own. The conversation went like this: I tried to explain the limits of our knowledge, and cast some doubt on his new found certainty of the existence of a Creator God; while my son grilled me as to what I believed – presumably so he could instantly adopt my position. The resentment at being placed in this position cements and reinforces my opposition to proselytising in schools.

The school curriculum is a perennial source of controversy. Was Australia settled or invaded? Is Safe Schools an anti-bullying program or misguided social engineering? What should we teach children about culture, and religion? Opponents of both religious instruction and the Safe Schools program argue against teaching children contested beliefs or ideologies.

One of the architects of Australia’s National Curriculum, Professor Ken Wiltshire, recently demanded a stop to the “outsourcing’’ of religious instruction and sex education to “ideological interest groups’’.

“We don’t want material creeping into the curriculum without it being quality assured. You should never outsource the development of a curriculum to any group with a particular agenda, or blindly accept any curriculum material they have provided to be used in schools”.

The issue is fraught by evolving attitudes toward the rights of children – no longer merely the “don’t speak until spoken to” property of parents.

We should distinguish between rights as they apply to learning in three ways: the rights of parents, the best interests of society, and the rights of the child. In western cultures, parents still enjoy inordinately high levels of control over their child’s education.

According to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), parents have the right to bring up their children in their chosen religious or non-religious belief system.

Consider the tension between the rights of parents, and the rights of the child. The child cannot assess what is best for them and can only rely on the assumed best intentions and good judgement of their parents. But what if the parents insist on inculcating their child into an extreme or harmful belief system?

We also need to balance the entitlements of parents with the utilitarian notion of what is best for society, and reflect on the significance of a child’s potential.

As poet William Wordsworth noted “The child is father of the man”.

 

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety

 

Our days “bound each to each” the child begets the adult, connected by a continuous line of experience. The outcomes of what we teach children extend well beyond the lives of the parents, influencing the temper and texture of our future society.

But how can we measure the rights of parents? Beyond chattel ownership, parent’s rights can be measured in maximising the child’s ongoing welfare and opportunity to flourish.

So, to the extent that the parent’s rights rely on satisfying the best interests of the child, then the child’s rights take precedence. The rights of the parent turn on the best interest of the child. Given the prevailing balancing of parent’s rights over children’s rights, this should give us cause for alarm.

Children’s rights aren’t adequately protected when it’s legal to indoctrinate them into closed orders, send them to extremist schools, or proselytise fundamentalist dogma in state schools. Serving the best interest of society involves providing the child with knowledge and arming them with the critical skills to deploy it.

Those arguing against teaching contesting beliefs strike upon the crucial distinction: beliefs are secondary to knowledge. By definition, beliefs lack the verifiability and or universality which would otherwise render them as knowledge.

So, how about this rule of thumb? If adults cannot agree on a particular proposition, don’t teach it to children.

Challenging the generally accepted meme of parental entitlement, involves allowing the child greater autonomy and freedom of thought to develop their own framework of ideas and beliefs. Wordworth’s phrase evokes the unbroken link between a child’s world and the adult world, but it should also motivate us to reflect upon the gradations between belief and knowledge.

man-w-child-inside

The Census Asks About Religion Not Culture

My Neighbour Can Say There Are 20 Gods Or None, Just Not On Census Night The Huffington Post Australia 9 August 2016

Until recently, I was ambivalent about the welcoming smiles of faith. I’ve always admired the famous quote from U.S. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or no god.”

 But when my son came home from state school singing songs about Jesus and waxing about the amazing Creator-God who made the world, I was jolted out of my metaphysical slumber. Apparently, not everyone is ambivalent. Ingratiating smiles suddenly hardened with purpose.
 Many Australians inherit a cultural affinity with Christianity. Many of us have attended Christian schools, baptised our kids, been married in church-run ceremonies, or attended church for life’s big moments. But cultural heritage is unaccompanied by belief in the tenets of the religion, or by regular participation and membership.
Thus, question 19 of the 2016 Census provides an opportunity to reflect upon our beliefs and to reassess our religious affiliation. The Census collects data used for planning and funding.

The beneficiaries of religious funding are organised faith groups. The state provides hundreds of millions for chaplaincy and Sunday school style faith classes, it pours $11 billion into religious schools, and forgoes about $20 billion in tax. Many tax-free faith groups run profitable businesses as well. Taxpayer funded faith-based groups enjoy blanket exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

More taxpayer money per student is provided to independent schools run by the secretive Plymouth (ex-Exclusive) Brethren, and those linked to Scientology, than to State schools. While new developments in genetics and evolutionary biology make headlines, we spend a billion dollars on schools teaching Creationism.

There’s scant benefit for the nonbeliever in the state financing of religious enterprises. The taxpayer sponsors groups who may discriminate against them, espouse disagreeable views, and provide no public benefit. Since the primary goal of most faith groups is to promulgate their own beliefs, citizens marking the Census should carefully consider whether they still subscribe to those beliefs.

Do they believe in the profession of the faith? The Nicene Creed? The Apostle’s Creed? Was Jesus virgin-born? Do they believe in God? The Trinity? Do they still believe in Heaven and Hell? Did Jesus rise from the grave and ascend to heaven? Are humans aggregated to either eternal bliss or damnation on the basis of faith?

Many Australians have turned away from church because of the child sex abuse scandal, and the spectre of jihadism. Despite Muslims only accounting for 2.2 percent of the population, a preposterous scare campaign encourages lapsed Christians to tick a Christian denomination on the Census to avoid Australia becoming an Islamic country.

Even if this fear were remotely justified, a more appropriate response would be reasserting our secular nature by marking “No religion”: the only response likely to lessen the influence and funding of faith-based groups.

Other Australians have turned away from faith due to skepticism of its non-evidenced and unverifiable claims. In an information exploded world, where facts are clicked in an instant and where medicine and technology proceed at warp speed, the dizzying claims of faith face an unprecedented challenge.

Most Australians strongly support secularism: 78 percent of those polled by Ipsos in January thought it important to separate religious beliefs from the business of government.

We inherit a rich cultural tradition, arising out of enlightenment thinking, Christianity, Westminster, free-market economics, and secularism, and we are now a culturally diverse, multi-faith society.

We applaud the freedom “for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or none”, but as Jefferson went on, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.

Alas, in our democracy, religion does pick the pocket of taxpayers. Governments are hardly ambivalent towards faith, subsidising it to the tune of billions of dollars, despite fewer and fewer tax payers subscribing to it. So when filling out the Census on Tuesday night, I hope Australians look beyond a historical cultural affiliation, and critically reflect upon their religious or irreligious beliefs.

Religious Instruction in Queensland schools is discriminatory

Religious Instruction in Queensland schools is discriminatoryBrisbane Times 14/03/16

When I found out my eight-year-old had been taught at school that there’s no God, I was shocked.

Well, actually, it’s the opposite: I’m an atheist and in Religious Instruction, my son was taught that God exists, and his saviour is Jesus.

Religious Instruction has no place in Queensland schools, argues Hugh Harris.
Religious Instruction has no place in Queensland schools, argues Hugh Harris. (photo: courtesy The Brisbane Times)

This admittedly contrived example illustrates why religious instruction is inherently discriminatory.

Considering we’d previously opted out our son from the program, I was appalled when he still attended the first class of the year. How vigilant must I be?

Read the rest here.