Australia and the secular mindset

“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.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

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?

Julia Baird defends John Dickson…sort of

“It is easy to believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we agree.” (Leo McKern)

Like an episode of ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, Julia Baird yesterday came to the defence of John Dickson, although in a somewhat less convincing performance.

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One week ago Rev Dr John Dickson raised a question on his personal Facebook page, concerning the manner in which the same sex marriage debate is being conducted in Australia. Within hours the post was taken down by Facebook, and then reinstated one day later with a somewhat fuzzy apology attached.

In yesterday’s The Age, Julia Baird came out swinging, first of all using testimony from Prince and then proceeding to argue, ‘Dickson’s questioning should not be slammed but aired, and he is right to argue conservative viewpoints should not be so rapidly shut down or dismissed as hate. It was very odd of Facebook to delete this post.’

At the same time, Baird didn’t hold back in offering her own view on Dickson’s comments,

‘This is a massive, inadvertently inflammatory call and one I do not agree with. Surely acceptance, tolerance and absence of judgment about difference would make LGBTI youth feel better. But, isn’t it up to them, to say what makes them feel better? It is also highly provocative to accuse those who either belong to, or are allies of the LGBTI+ community of augmenting the very hatred they have spent their lives trying to fight and diminish.’

The fact that a journalist in Australia has freedom to speak her mind and to disagree with another Australian, and to do so in the most direct manner, is a sign of a healthy society. Would we want our sitz im leben to be less than this? 

In her closing statement, rather than reiterating Dickson’s right to offer an opinion, it seems as though Baird crossed the floor to the prosecutor’s table, and it is these remarks that I find most odd.

Baird finishes by quoting another Facebook post, that of Sydney Chaplain, Garry Lee Lindsay,

I can’t see how this helps anything. Please don’t try to convince me that it is intellectual debate or you are approaching the subject with an open mind and a loving heart. You might be, but why do you have to say it? And why is it so important to make comment about other people’s lifestyle or culture on Facebook? Just go out and make friends with people because they are people, made in the image of the Creator, inseparable from God’s love.

“What about calling people to prayer for those poor people in Japan and Ecuador that lost their lives and family in the earthquakes? To start with!!! What about we stop writing posts like this one, make some soup and sandwiches, go and hand it out to the hundreds of rough sleepers on our streets every night and give them some company? Why don’t I? Because I’d rather whinge about the terrible people that aren’t like me, don’t think like me, don’t live like me. And do it from a distance, because then at least I know I’m OK. What a wretched man I am? Who will save me? Thanks be to God.”

First of all, Lee-Lindsay (and presumably Baird, given she is appealing to the quote) dismisses the importance of people offering comments about lifestyle and culture matters on Facebook. Although I wonder, does  Lee-Lindsay realise that he is guilty of the very thing he is accusing of others of doing? ‘Others mustn’t use Facebook to express opinions about sexuality issues, like I am doing right now…!’

Do Lee-Lindsay and Baird not realise that these issues of marriage and of transgenderism are very much public issues? Marriage may be a personal relationship, but it is also a societal one. If it were not, why are wedding ceremonies held in the presence of witnesses, and why does Government have a role and why do we have a national marriage registry?  Similarly, recent discussions on transgenderism demonstrates it is not merely a private issue: should boys be allowed to use girls toilets in schools? How is society to relate to people who don’t wish to identify with their biological sex? It is incongruous to suggest these issues cannot be discussed in public forums; these matters effect families, schools, communities and Governments. And if they are discussed, are only agreeable voices to be allowed?

Second, the quote implies that Christians such as John Dickson are whinging as they make public statements about SSM, when what they should be doing is ‘making friends with people’ and helping people where they are at. This is not only a very smug caricature of Christians, it is hugely presumptuous. How do they know we are not providing food for the hungry, and not praying for victims of those earthquakes?

Can we not do both? John Newton was a preacher and an anti-slavery campaigner. John Wesley preached more sermons than most and he started orphanages. Jesus preached, taught and addressed all manner of social and spiritual issues, and even daring to question the political realms, and he cared for the poor and broken. Christians I know are committed both to speaking and sharing, preaching and praying, and I have no doubt John Dickson does likewise.

Despite initially supporting John Dickson’s right to post on Facebook, Baird lands on what is becoming an all to common place; while John Dickson technically has the right to freedom of speech, he really shouldn’t say anything unless he is offering unqualified support for those who wish to pursue non-heterosexual lifestyles. In fact, Christians should stick to helping people and leave public discourse to others.

Ultimately, Julia Baird falls for the false antithesis: disagreement equals hate. Why is Baird propagating such poor logic? The latter may be an expression of the former, but not necessarily. For example, as a parent there are occasions when I disagree with my children’s choices, and yet I still love them. Indeed, love necessitates that I sometimes disagree with them. More than that, Jesus Christ lived and spoke constant love, and yet this love sometimes manifested itself by offering correction to people, even rebuke.

If Christians are to be anything like Jesus we will continue to trust and graciously speak his words, the gospel, and seek to love others as Christ has loved us. As far as John Dickson has tried to emulate his Lord and Saviour, he given us a worthwhile example to follow. It is clearly unpopular, but popularity is often a poor test for what is truly good and right.

What did John Dickson say? Facebook outrage

What was so shocking about a John Dickson post that Facebook found it necessary to delete it? What vindictive or vilifying comment did Rev Dr John Dickson make? What disgusting accusation did he write?

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mug shot of the accused

Here is the full gross hate-filled speech that has caused Facebook to act with swift justice, resurrected from the hidden vaults of a computer’s history:

“I might be wrong, but I think I detect a pattern of argumentation over same-sex marriage that potentially harms LGBTI youth and, yet, is partly the fault of those advocating for gay marriage.

It is true that demeaning insults were once part of the stock language against the LGBTI community in the public square. I can only imagine the damage that did to young (and old) people wrestling with their sexuality. It is a terrible part of our recent history. God, forgive us!

But I haven’t seen many demeaning insults directed at the LGBTI community in the public square in the last few years. Whether on The Project or ABC’s Q&A, it seems that all or most of the intemperate language and spiteful tone comes from advocates of gay marriage, while defenders of classical marriage—even if they are wrong and loopy—seem to have learned to engage in this contest of ideas with respect and civility.

But here is the thing that intrigues me most. At the climax of many of these public debates, as advocates of gay marriage raise their voices and deliver their insults, they frequently declare with unnoticed irony something like, “And this is precisely why we shouldn’t have a national Plebiscite on gay marriage: the discussion is so negative and hate-filled, and it can only reinforce feelings of rejection among LGBTI youth.” They sometimes cite a recent surge in calls to LGBTI helplines to prove it.

But my fear is that by heightening the tone of the debate and reiterating the hatred which classical marriage advocates allegedly have for the LGBTI community, it is advocates of gay marriage themselves who are unwittingly entrenching in young gay and lesbian men and women the sense that there is something wrong with them, that there is a whole segment of Australian society that despises them and sees them as second-class citizens. In short, isn’t it possible that the LGBTI community’s frequent claims of being a despised minority are exacerbating feelings of being hated among LGBTI youth?

But imagine an alternative scenario. If gay marriage advocates chose tomorrow to emphasise in public debate that it’s entirely possible to disagree with same-sex marriage and be deeply respectful of LGBTI people, isn’t it possible that young gays and lesbians listening in would be spared some of the harm this debate could cause? If calm and civil discussion was the order of the day, instead of tribalism and slurs, wouldn’t LGBTI youth feel better about who they are and less ‘under attack’ from other segments of society?

I realise I see all this through the lenses of classical Christian convictions and centuries of social power. I have tried to assess my motives and look at it from the perspective of others. But I am left wondering if gay marriage advocates bear as much responsibility as traditional marriage advocates for ensuring that LGBTI youth are not harmed in the lead up to the Plebiscite.”

The offence is as easy to spot as a Facebook algorithm…well, no, it’s not.

Facebook stipulates that,

“We remove content, disable accounts and work with law enforcement when we believe that there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety. Learn more about how Facebook handles abusive content.”

Fair enough, but where are any of those things in John’s post? Perhaps someone wrote a comment in the thread, so appalling that it required the entire discussion to be erased? Unfortunately the entire discussion has been deleted and so we cannot verify, although I did read many of the comments while the thread was still available and I only read civil dialogue, even when disagreement was proffered.

No one is surprised by the fact that Facebook contains millions of appalling groups, pages, comments, and images; things that are truly sickening and derogatory, toward all kinds of peoples. If Facebook was genuinely concerned with bullish, defamatory and hateful speech, perhaps they might consider visiting the pages of some football clubs, or ABC’s QandA, or The Age newspaper (I’m referring to comments posted by members of the public).

Let us be clear, John has raised a reasonable question, one based on valid observations about current conversations on LGBT issues. He was not preaching a message; he offered an opinion and then asked what other people thought. He was respectful, and called for  ‘calm and civil discussion’. He made it clear (at the end of his original post) that he would delete any harmful comments. As anyone can see for themselves, John expresses concern for LGBT people, and bemoans the fact that too often debate on SSM resorts to insults.

And yet, Facebook determined to have this respectful conversation taken down. Why? At this point in time Facebook have not responded to John’s enquiry, nor that of others who have written and asked questions.

The famous American Chef, Anthony Bourdain once said, “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.”

It appears as though Facebook is joining the league of those who haven’t read Bourdain’s recipe!

Disallowing serious and legitimate discourse is not a sign of a mature society, but of a regressive culture that has become enslaved to an absolutist and oppressive ideolog. This is increasingly the case in Western societies as we see politicians,  media personalities, and entertainers insist the population adhere to their self-defined and unprovable moral truths. The fact that their definitions frequently change doesn’t get in the way of them demanding unquestionable allegiance. Under such a system it is irrelevant whether one speaks with compassion and clarity, and with evidence and grace; it is enough that the secularist’s sexual proclivity has been questioned.

We are somewhat stunned by Facebook’s actions, but let’s remember, this is nothing new. During his life Athanasius found himself exiled 5 times for speaking his views. William Tyndale was burnt alive for giving the English people the Bible in their own language, and John Bunyan had freedom of speech snatched from him and a prison cell given instead. This is not the first time in history when sensible speech has been censored, and it won’t be the last. Yes, it is irrational and intolerant, but such was the experience of the gentlest, most loving, rational, gracious man to have ever walked the earth, Jesus Christ.  The full beauty of glory of God dwells in Him, and yet the world disdained his talk of peace and love, and people despised the fact that he showed grace toward people, even those with him he strongly disagreed.

With perspective, last night’s actions by Facebook are pretty small, but they are certainly symptomatic of a broader issue that ought to concern not only Christians but all people who believe in fair, truth-seeking, and respectful debate.