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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.

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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.

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The Open Secret of Religious Instruction in State schools

The Open Secret of Religious Instruction in State schools – ONLINE opinion 19 October 2016 #RE #SRE #Baird

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It’s long been an open secret that educators and politicians turn a blind eye to proselytising in faith classes.

In spite of numerous media reports highlighting proselytising in the Connect series of special religious instruction (SRE) lessons, Premier Mike Baird has pledged to continue with SRE, based purely on his own personal faith. Listen to him tell Werrawee Anglican Church:

“I’m not going to distance what I believe from who I am, and, in that context, I think, SRE should remain as part of our schools and will remain as part of schools while I’m there.”

And his Education Minister Adrian Piccoli stubbornly refuses to release the $300,000 report by ARTD consultants, investigating various concerns about SRE and ethics (SEE), despite holding on to it for nine months.

Advising on “the nature and extent of SRE and SEE” in NSW schools, a source from ARTD consultants said the report was an objective analysis, which no-one would be happy with. That could be why the state government has filed it under the rug.

Responding to inquiries about Connect lessons proselytising, the NSW Education Department Director, Jason Miezis (on behalf of Minister Adrian Piccoli), advised on 20 July 2016:

“Given that parents/caregivers have indicated their preferred religious persuasion for the child on enrolment, proselytising should not occur in school authorised activities”.

In other words, parental consent equates to a child being considered a Christian.

So, proselytising – soliciting a child for a decision to change their religious affiliation – should not occur.

The problem is, we’re talking about 6 and 7 year olds.

And, if the fallacy isn’t plain enough, the authors of Connect themselves remind instructors that most of their audience is not yet Christian. That’s why they’re proselytising! The NSW Education department earns the “Computer-Says-No” award for deliberately missing the point.
Additionally, the letter from Miezis states the department is perfectly happy for SRE volunteers to inform students of local church run activities.

“How about asking your parents if you could come along to kids club or kids church. (This would be a good time to hand out flyers.) (Connect Upper Primary, B2, Lesson 17, p. 181)”.

“Hand out the flyers for local church services if you have them (Connect Upper Primary, C1, Lesson 10, p. 100).”

But, in contrast, the recent Queensland education department review found the above were examples of possible proselytising.
Disturbingly however, it found no legal obstacle to proselytising.

“…legal advice provided by faith groups has indicated the view there is no legislative basis for prohibition of proselytising in the EDPA or EDPR [the relevant Education Acts]. The Department’s Legal and Administrative Law Branch supports this view”. (Page 6)

And nothing further has been done about it. While Education Minister Kate Jones has taken commendable steps forward in addressing age inappropriate and outdated materials in faith classes, the failure to address proselytising is curious.

Even more curious is the way the advocates of bible classes claim proselytising doesn’t occur, before rushing off to obtain favourable legal opinions to safeguard it.

Educator’s find themselves entangled in a Gordian knot. Scripture classes are by their nature evangelical. Making disciples is the unambiguous mission of evangelical Christians. For example, Connect’s own youthworks website says making disciples is why they exist.

When challenged, they will point out SRE is “preaching the gospel”. And so, reviewer’s must either tell evangelists not to evangelise, or allow faith classes to proceed on the basis of soliciting children to Christianity. In a nutshell, evangelising is allowed. Thus, parents should be aware that, as in NSW, consent to SRE is viewed by government as a license to convert their child to Christianity.

The Queensland review muddles the issue further by attempting to distinguish evangelising from proselytising. The Oxford online dictionary defines evangelise as: “convert of seek to convert someone to Christianity”, or “Preach the gospel”. To proselytise is to “convert of attempt to convert someone from one religion, belief or opinion to another”.

The following examples from the lesson materials illustrate how this is a distinction without a difference. Following allegations of proselytising, the authors of Connect preface the concluding prayer as follows:

“This is how Christians talk to God. If you would like to pray with me please join me. If you don’t then please lower your head so we don’t get distracted while praying this short prayer”.

And the prayer follows:

“Dear God, thank you that Jesus dies on the cross so I could be part of your family. I am sorry for wanting to live my own way, but now I want to live your way. Please forgive me and help me to learn more about you. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer in your head, welcome to God’s family! You’re a Kingdom Kid”.

Another example:

“The Bible tells us there are two kinds of people; the people who have faith and will live forever with God, and those who say no to Jesus.
“We need to decide which type of person we want to be. Will we follow Jesus?”

It hardly matters whether you regard these as proselytising or evangelising. Such muscular, coercive entreaties to join the faith, are plainly inappropriate for primary age children. Why are such brazen and explicit attempts to induct children into “God’s family” even necessary if they are already observant Christians?

Parents who think they’ve signed their child up to a harmless introduction to the bible, should think again.

Breaking the Gordian knot involves removing evangelical SRE classes from state schools altogether. Replace them with comparative classes run by state school teachers, or remove them entirely.

The NSW Education department earns the “Computer-Says-No” award for deliberately missing the point.

No need or reason demands them given the multitude of churches and faith based schools in our country. But for now, it’s up to parents and principals to navigate contradictory and deceptive policies surrounding special religious instruction.

We’re left to wonder when State governments will honestly deal with the uncomfortable truth about proselytising, and whether Minister Piccoli will ever release the $300,000 taxpayer funded report.

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Religious Freedom Doesn’t Care What You Believe, But The Census Does

Religious Freedom Doesn’t Care What You Believe, But The Census Does  – New Matilda 08 August 2016

Ahead of next week’s Census question on religion, spare a moment to consider religious freedom: the right to believe and practise your religion or non-belief.

We acknowledge each other’s rights to believe and disbelieve. Thus, I don’t care if you believe in God or not. Neither do I care whether you believe in a universal spirit, angels, Paleo, or magic beans.

Scientist or a Scientologist, it’s all the same to me. I don’t care if you’re if you’re a Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Pastafarian, an Anglican or an astrologer, Jesuit or a Jedi, or, if you worship John the Baptist or the John Frum Cargo Cult. But I do care if you answer the Census question accurately.

Why? Because the Census helps to determine government policy and funding, and helps explain who we are and how we live. It gives a snapshot of what we’re like and how we’ve changed. This year’s Census will likely show a shift away from Christianity towards non-belief, which might tip the balance towards more secular policymaking.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) ‘no religion’ campaign invites Australians to consider if they’re “Not religious Anymore?”

AFA President Kylie Sturgess says the purpose is to encourage Australians to think honestly about their beliefs, so the Census result provides an accurate indication of religious affiliations.

“We’re letting people know they can mark ‘no religion’ when perhaps they didn’t realise that option was available to them, because until now, it’s always been at the bottom of a long list. You don’t have to be an atheist to mark ‘No religion’,” Ms Sturgess says.

“Many people feel spiritual, and lead moral lives encompassing values like charity, peace, and love without identifying as religious”.

Sportsbet reports ‘no religion’ is a favourite to shoot to number one place in our religious affiliation in the 2016 Census. It’s also giving good odds that ‘no religion’ will jump from 22.3 per cent in 2011 to over 30 per cent – a May IPSOS poll with the same question recorded 38 per cent.

When the 2013 Census answers were similarly reordered in New Zealand, ‘no religion’ leapt from 35 per cent to 42 per cent. In the UK and Wales ‘no religion’ has surged from 25 per cent in 2011, to 48.5 per cent in 2014.

The shift from Christianity to ‘no religion’ has been the topic of much speculation. The number of Christians is in freefall in Australia, only buttressed by the large number of people who record a Christian affiliation without necessarily believing in or observing the religion.

A 2012 McCrindle survey noted one third of Christians considered themselves “more spiritual” than Christian, and less than one in 10 Australians fill the pews regularly.

Australians are far less devout that our US cousins, but our country is also much less secular. Compared to the formidable Wall of Separation in the US Constitution, Australia’s impotent Section 116 (which has never been successfully upheld in Court) is scarcely a rabbit-proof fence, rickety and falling into disrepair, as millions of dollars in funding pass over it every year for religious enterprises.

Australian state and federal governments provide hundreds of millions of dollars for chaplains and for Sunday-school-style faith classes; they pour $11 billion into religious schools, and forgo 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 tax payer 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.

The beneficiaries of religious funding are organised faith groups, as opposed to individuals or groups from a cultural tradition. The taxpayer sponsors groups who may discriminate against them, espouse disagreeable views, and provide little or no public benefit.

Since the primary goal of most faith groups (especially Christian ones) 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 Nicene Creed? Is salvation and eternal life attained through faith in Jesus? Was Jesus virgin-born? Was Jesus the son of God and made of the same substance as God? Do they believe in Satan? Did Jesus rise from the grave and ascend to heaven?

It might seem counterintuitive, but the higher the numbers for ‘no religion’, the more likely governments will move to protect religious freedom. The more we affirm our secular nature, the greater the pressure on governments to remain religion neutral.

This is the real meaning of religious freedom, as originally invoked by the Danbury Baptists and the Australian Catholics, when both groups campaigned for secularism to be enshrined in our respective Constitutions, to protect themselves from State interference in religion.

Founding Father and former US President Thomas Jefferson epitomized the spirit of secularism thus: “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The problem in Australia is that we allow faith to continually pick the taxpayer’s pocket – to the tune of billions of dollars – despite fewer and fewer of us subscribing to it.

A substantial bump in the numbers marking ‘no religion’ may help illuminate a new understanding of secularism, as well as an old understanding of religious freedom.

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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.