Secular Should Not Mean Anti-Religious


These days a growing number of activists and groups are working towards a strict and, in my view, unachievable separation of church and state as part of a conscious campaign which seeks to eliminate religious belief in Australian public life.

Organisations committed to strict separation of church and state have been present in Australia since colonial times. Most of the secularist societies had their heyday in the 1970s as part of the wave of protest movements that characterised that time. But their anger was largely spent and their energies fading until a meeting of humanists in Sydney in September 2005 sensed "the need for a new political party to counteract the undue intrusion of religious views into political opinions and policies". Three months later a larger gathering resolved to form the Secular Party of Australia, which was launched in February 2006. Its foundation president was longtime atheist John Perkins.

The Secular Party sought Senate representation in the 2007 Federal election. Campaigning under the slogan "Freedom from Religion", its aims included bringing "about a true separation of church and state", the promotion of "secularism worldwide", the "fullest use of science for human welfare", and the espousal of "policies which support a rational approach to human problems". It received 4861 Senate votes for all candidates in the six states. The highest percentage (0.08 per cent) was achieved in Tasmania with the party polling poorest in Queensland and Western Australia (0.02 per cent). This means that its best result was securing less than one in every 1200 primary Senate votes in Tasmania. At the next election, the party intends to put the name "Secular Party — Freedom from Religion" on the ballot paper and thinks it will be more successful.

The Secular Party is against "unwanted impositions of religious dogma, government support for religious schools, religious attire at schools, religious indoctrination of children and all forms of religious coercion and theocracy". It argues that "a truly secular country is one in which society is fully organised on the basis of reason", which requires the state’s indifference to "beliefs based merely on tradition, superstition and notions of the supernatural". In wanting to "uphold the internationally recognised Rights of the Child", the party wishes to protect "children from religious indoctrination. This involves instructing them with moral values based on universal principles, free from the corrupting influence of religion".

The party is not opposed to private schools, but they need to "disassociate themselves from their religious affiliations" and exclude anything in the curriculum which "suggest[s]there is such a thing as ‘the one true religion’".

The party’s literature and website consistently assert that religion is intrinsically evil and needs to be eradicated for the sake of the public good; nonetheless, the party claims that it is "non-religious rather than anti-religious". In response to a series of written questions that I submitted to the leadership in 2007, I was advised by vice-president John Goldbaum that the number of members was "nearing 500 across all states" with membership being free. Members variously described themselves as "secularists, rationalists, humanists, atheists and sceptics". Goldbaum remarked that "you and the Anglican Church are not our enemies. We are opposed to right-wing conservative political Christianity but are not opposed to a pluralist world".

Despite their claims to neutrality, the clear and unambiguous message proclaimed by the Secular Party and similar groups is that anyone possessing religious beliefs is deluded and dangerous, which apparently entitles them to stand in judgment of all religions and to condemn all believers. While these extreme ideas and radical aspirations are presently promoted at the fringes of popular political discourse, they are slowly moving into the mainstream.

The fundamental discontinuity between secular worldviews and religious outlooks has prompted three broad responses within Australian faith communities. The first response holds that if the state will not acknowledge the sovereignty of God, religious believers are justified in rejecting the body politic and, at critical points of dispute, defying the state. Members of such groups become a community within a community. They choose to be distinct and different and to live according to their own lights, minimising their contact with the world’s corruption. We usually have nothing to fear from such groups. They keep to themselves and do not obstruct the lives of those who do not share their beliefs.

The second approach is direct confrontation with the institutions and machinery of the state in an effort to reverse those secularising trends that are considered tantamount to promoting godlessness. I detect a growing tendency in all religious communities to confront and challenge what is deemed a godless rather than pluralist society. This becomes a cause of concern when the response is extreme. This is more likely to happen when religious communities believe the state requires some action or attitude that is contrary to the community’s sacred texts and which involve an effective denial of core convictions, and when the host society leaves no room for religious convictions to shape personal belonging or behaving. One of the possible outcomes is the creation of religious ghettos manifest in separatist schools, sporting competitions and cultural activities. From such ghettos, demands for exemptions from a range of civic duties and obligations, such as voting, jury service and taxation liabilities, are likely to come. I do not believe such a situation serves this nation’s best interests.

The third response is to seek a broader accommodation of religious ideals while working to promote the universality of one’s religion for human flourishing. This is, in my view, the most reasoned and productive approach to take towards secularism.

I believe that the principal objective of contemporary Australian secularism must be the creation and maintenance of an open and inclusive society that recognises the importance of religious views to those who hold them and which respects the integrity and sincerity of religious communities in their quest for truth and purpose. A genuine, mature secularism will be confident of its character, convinced of its core values and competent in their promotion. Such an approach to civic life does not oblige anyone to drive religious views out of public sight in the hope of pushing them out of private minds.

The genuinely secular state does not presume itself competent to make judgments about the truth or otherwise of religious beliefs and claims. It does not claim the entitlement to prohibit the expression of any religious view nor will it seek to discourage anyone from associating with any religious community. The genuine secular state will respect the rights of citizens to hold and profess a range of views in their own homes or in private gatherings. These citizens must be able to discuss and even propagate their views in public unless and until they attempt to impose them on others by coercion or try to further their aims by illegal means.

A secular state is not entitled to exclude the religious views of citizens from a position where they might influence the shape of the public space, nor should it ignore these views when formulating policy that will affect every citizen. The secular state must not, of course, discriminate between those with religious views and those with none. The state is, however, permitted to contribute to programs offered by religious organisations that coincide with the interests of the host society on the basis that these programs are open to every citizen and that the principal beneficiary is the civil society rather than the religious organisation.

Secularism does not, of course, occupy a sanctified place or a privileged status from which bias, prejudice or ignorance are banished simply because as an approach to public life it is not based on belief in God. Nor can the secular state assume wisdom, insight and understanding on the basis that it feels no obligation to embody divine laws. Secularism does not exist in a vacuum: it is a product of fallible reason and faltering experience. It has philosophical origins and a historical pedigree, although its outward manifestations and practical forms will change. It embodies certain beliefs that require the exercise of faith. It is, in my view, a form of idolatry to believe in the utter self-sufficiency of human beings and the perfectibility of human reason.

Although I remain committed to my religion and try to live according to its principles, I am a staunch defender of the religious plurality that has been an historic feature of Australian public life. But there is an enormous difference between devotion and extremism. In wanting to promote my religion and to propagate its convictions, I believe that persuasion is the only means mandated by the religious texts from which these convictions are drawn. Coercion is prohibited because it violates the freedom that is necessary for the exercise of faith.

As a secularist, my first and best energies are devoted to a cogent intellectual defence of my religious beliefs, and an explanation of the practices of the religious community to which I belong.

This is an edited extract from Losing My Religion by Tom Frame (UNSW Press, $34.95).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.