“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
What do we mean when we say, Australia is a secular state?
One of the popular myths circulating around Australia is that secular means freedom from religion. This myth has taken on almost legendary status, at times informing public policy and many an op-ed piece. Sadly, this kind of historical revisionism and hijacking of language isn’t rare, but it is effective: inject new meaning into a word or phrase and then repeat it often enough, and people will soon absorb, believe and adopt it soon enough.
It is no wonder that we often experience confusion in conversations with each other,; it’s because we understand important words to hold quite different meanings.
In a recent exchange between Jane Caro and John Dickson, the issue of the secular state has once again come to the fore. The topic at hand is the school’s chaplaincy program.
In Caro’s version of a ‘secular state’, God has no place in our schools. Writing for Rational Magazine, Caro presents her case as to “Why God has no place in public schools”. She says,
“To my mind, the very concept of religious education is an oxymoron. Education is meant to teach children how to think, not what to think. If you do the latter, it is not education; it is indoctrination and certainly should not be publicly subsidised.”
Historian John Dickson yesterday responded to Caro in the form of an open letter. Regardless of whether one supports chaplains in Government schools or not, John offers what I think is a fair and legitimate critique of Jane Caro’s argument. He outlines 6 flaws with her argument, but my interest here is the way they each think of the word, ‘secular’.
John refutes Caro’s view of secular. He writes,
“It seems to me that you fudge the word “secular”. The history of this word in political discourse makes plain that “secular” does not refer to the “exclusion of religion” from public life, whether from politics, education, the media, or whatever. It refers to the spheres of life that are not controlled by religion. When a healthy secular democracy shifts from “freedom of religion” — where anyone can choose to believe or not believe — to “freedom from religion” — which your article explicitly promotes — it is no longer either healthy or secular. At this point the word deserves the tag of an “-ism”. This is secularism, an ideology that seeks to keep religion out of important aspects of the live of our community.”
Dr Dickson is correct. Secular does not equal atheist. Secular does not mean ideological or theological neutrality. While the adjective is sometimes understood in these ways, this is not the historical meaning of secular in Australia’s political and social setting. The topic at hand, religion in schools, is a case in point.
The idea that education should be “free, compulsory, and secular” was settled in Victoria in 1872. This understanding of schooling became universal across Australian States in 1902. This concept of secular didn’t keep God out of school, rather it was a response to religious sectarianism. Secular education means that public schools should not be controlled by any single denomination. It was Protestant churches who strongly supported this approach to education.
Far from being atheist or religiously vacuus, the Australian secular education is about the promotion of pluralism and the healthy exchange of ideas (including religion). The approval of (and even encouragement of), Religious Instruction or Scripture classes in our schools is a historical example of the inclusive design of secular education. This is often done well, and sometimes poorly, but that is not the argument here. Our concern here is the principle guiding secular education.
In his excellent essay, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, Dr Michael Bird, explains how the parameters of secularism have been redefined in recent years from “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.”
“The Australian constitution was drawn up in this context, and Australia was intended as a secular nation. However, this secularity was never intended to sanitize the public square of religion. It was “secular” in the sense of ensuring that sectarian divisions in the old world would not be imported into the new.”
Whereas John Dickson understands ‘secular’ in its historical sense (which is important if we are to properly defend secular education), Jane Caro adopts what is a relatively new and now commonplace version of secular. In other words, Caro is less defending secular education as she is preaching for atheist education. Of greater interest to me here is how, once John presented the facts about Australia’s secularism, Caro doubled down as she retweeted comments such as,
“No you are legally very wrong, we live in a secular society.
You may think it’s pluralistic but we have a Constitution that says otherwise. How have you not heard of “separation of church and state”.”
This is the unfortunate influence of doublespeak. We appeal to language that fits with a priori assumptions and preferences, and we reject definitional understanding when it clashes with those commitments (this is something we can all be guilty of doing). Whether we approve of Australia’s understanding of secular or not, John Dickson has accurately summarised the definition which has instigated, shaped and promoted Australia’s education systems and culture in general.
Caro concludes, “Australia is a secular country. It supports and celebrates citizens of all faiths and none. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are among our core values. Our public schools must reflect that.” While her conclusion sounds attractive (and it is true, depending on how one unpacks the meaning of her chosen language), Caro’s meaning is that public schools must be emptied of religious influence. This thinking is the fruit that comes from a faulty premise, that is, secular equals epistemological and moral neutrality. Of course, 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. Schools don’t only teach children how to think, but also what to think. Perhaps more than ever, schools are consciously shaping our children’s values.
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.”
Again, the meaning of language matters. This new version of secularism is far from ideologically neutral, as though removing religion makes education neutral. Instead, it is driven to educate, form and even control public life and policy. Indeed, Victoria’s Education Curriculum contains material that is not only antithetical to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but expressly describes mainstream religious beliefs as bigotry. Not only that, the new secular agenda (what I call, authoritarian secularism) doesn’t end at the division between public and private education or the public square or private life. The current Victorian Government recently passed laws limiting the freedom of religious schools to employ persons on the basis of their religious beliefs and practice. In other words, today’s secularists don’t believe in the division between church and state, but instead, they argue for a State overseeing Church. I don’t know what Jane Caro thinks of this intrusion, but it would be interesting to find out.
Australia is facing an important crossroad: will we uphold Aussie secularism and pluralism, or will we turn down the path of authoritarian secularism?
Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is, after all, a 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. 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 secularists want, 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?