Australia: Healthy Pluralism or Dogmatic Secularism?

Australians are understandably focused on combating COVID-19 right now. We are also beginning to highlight the threat Communist China is posing to geopolitical stability around the globe. Indeed, perhaps because of the issue of Communist China’s ambitions it is important for Australians to understand and appreciate the values of our democratic system.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or if it stems from a failure in our university education, but it’s clear that there is an abundance of confusion regarding religion’s relationship with Australian public life. Indeed, this remains one of the key issues facing Australia, as evidenced by the same sex marriage debate in 2017 and ongoing discussions over the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

Take for example, these tweets by Jane Caro last night. Jane Caro is a well known social commentator here in Australia. She said, 

“I fiercely believe in separation of church and state and that religious beliefs should not be privileged (tax free status anyone) over any other beliefs. Theocracies are deadly dangerous, particularly to women and LGBTQI people. I don’t want to ban them, or privilege them.”

First of all, pretty much no one wants or believes in theocracies.  Is there a movement in Australia to turn our democracy into a theocracy?  This line of argument is a red herring. Supporters of theocracies are negligible, and it is certainly not what Christian Churches in Australia posit. 

Second, Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is after all, an historic Christian view. It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australia Constitution doesn’t advocate for a secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather that Government will not be controlled by any single religious organisation.

It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy today is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism  is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

No one disputes that there have been alternative views over 2,000 years of history, but our nation’s position on Church and State is the result of centuries of Christian influence and ideas. Christian’s aren’t wanting to diminish these distinctions.

Third, Caro’s real position is not in fact the separation of church and state, but the separation of religion and state. These are two quite different philosophical views. Caro’s public record demonstrates that she believes religious ideas should be squeezed out of the public square and receive no benefit of existence from Government.

To be fair, in last night’s Twitter exchange she later tried to backtrack a little, “Nope. As far as I am concerned you can keep your beliefs, proselytise them all you want, run & finance your schools & hospitals, exercise your right to vote, stand for office, pay your taxes & live according to your own values, just all the rest of us – no more & no less.”

In other words, tax benefits should only be given to organisations that represent a secular (which is now commonly although erroneously understood as atheistic) contribution to public life. The problem is, that’s not social pluralism.  

Earlier this year, Caro complained when the Prime Minister offered a prayer. She said, 

“Praying is fine, dedicating Australia – a secular, pluralistic democracy – to his god is not. It’s not his country to dedicate to anyone, and 30% of us have no faith & many that do – worship a different god from his. That was my issue.”

“As I responded at the time, the problem with Caro’s argument is that it falls flat no matter what the Prime Minister believes. If he was a Hindu and prayed to one of the thousands of Hindu gods, he would be out of sync with the majority of Australians. If the PM was an atheist and in principle refused to prayer, he would be out of step with the many millions of Australians who are praying during this crisis.

The Prime Minister praying for our nation doesn’t undermine our pluralism, it is a shining example of it.” 

Dr Michael Bird notes in the 2016 article, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, the parameters of secularism have been redefined, “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.”

A pluralist society allows difference whereas authoritarian secularism demands sameness. Which offers a better understanding of equality? 

At the end of the day, hardline secularists are not aiming for equality but for conformity. Behind this is either an intellectual laziness or dishonesty. The assumption is, secularism is morally superior and morally neutral. This doesn’t stack up on even a superficial level. Everyone brings to the table their own theological and moral commitments, which are always religious in some shape and form.

As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour’.

My point in writing today is this, the conversation about the role of religion in society isn’t going away soon. It’s not even on pause, the issue is simply gurgling quietly behind the scenes. Twitter is probably not the most useful way for challenging popular misconceptions about the partnership between religion and state, but conversations need to be had. 

2 thoughts on “Australia: Healthy Pluralism or Dogmatic Secularism?

  1. Jane Caro seems to be an advocate of the religion of human autonomy. The notion that humans are not self-sufficient is anathema to her creed. Sounds like the sentiment now cemented into the Marriage Act to me. And it would seem Murray, from what you have quoted, that these twittered sentiments are set forth oblivious to the persistent sentimentalised efforts, intensified of late, that legislate a viewpoint that suggests that those who disagree, those who affirm that humankind is not self-sufficient, (those who follow Jesus teaching that marriage is a husband-wife matter) have no public place to stand with there own creed intact. The beliefs of these “outsiders” are somehow irrelevant to the public thing (res publica) claimed presumptively for those who are self-sufficient. And no doubt the next step will be to present their own self-sufficient version of religion when they find themselves in some unanticipated way dependent in their language, mores or even instincts upon what they wished to say was an alien inheritance.

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  2. VIctorian public schools for example are secular and non secterian. All religions and no religious students are taught at these schools. As is victorian christian groups in lunch time along with muslim prayers to add to the mix

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