Creating a better Australia: reinventing secularism

By John L Perkins

While society has in many ways become more secular, the public profile of religion in society has seemingly also become more pronounced. As the power of established religion apparently declines, there has been a resurgence in diverse forms of religious expression. These contradictory trends are just as evident in Australia as they are in many other countries.  They can be thought of as being the product of multiculturalism and of multiple religions colliding with unresolved global injustice.  Dealing with the problems caused by these contradictory tends will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century.  However attempting to identify the nature of these problems presents a mass of contradictions, ones generally deriving from those that are inherent in the nature of religious belief itself.

Possibly the greatest hurdle to be overcome is that the contradictions within and between religions are not really considered to be problems.  We have become so accustomed to valuing cultural diversity and its benefits that we have tended to assume that any problems associated with the contradictions in cultural beliefs are insignificant or non-existent.  Implicitly, society has adopted a form of philosophical relativism, where all cultural viewpoints are considered to be equally valid.  Much legislation that deals with cultural issues, in Australia and elsewhere, makes this assumption, which is generally held to be consistent with a liberal progressive tradition.  However a policy that assumes that contradictions are not a problem, will itself become a problem if the problems caused by ignoring the contradictions become more significant.  This is appears to be what is now happening.

With the secularist trend faltering amidst a religious resurgence, the role of religion in society is increasingly becoming a political issue.  Broadly, the issue is becoming a policy choice between secularism and its polar alternative: religionism.  Creating a better Australia will require effort in many directions, but the most important may be in re-establishing secular values, particularly in relation to education.  The arguments may be difficult and confronting, but they are ones that will inevitably have to be addressed.  This essay seeks to outline, from a humanist perspective, the historical background to the issue, its increasing importance, and the arguments for a revival of secularism.

The historical rise of secularism

The appropriate nature of the relationship between religion and the state is an issue with a long history.  Since ancient times, superstition and religion have played a prominent role in political affairs.  Eventually, scientific discovery and the exposure of the fraudulent nature of many religious claims helped give rise to the Enlightenment and to secularism.  After centuries of religious warfare in Europe, secularism heralded a new era of scientific progress and prosperity.  Together with establishing political rights, the implementation of secularism was a key feature of the late 18th century revolutions in France and America.  Central to these was the thought that human beings could arrive at truth through reason and could construct rational social institutions without the help of religion.  The separation of Church and State was seen as critical in achieving this.  Religion was to be protected from State interference and the State was to be preserved from religious domination.  All would benefit from State impartiality with respect to sectarian issues.

The situation in Britain differed somewhat, where a more a more conservative attitude prevailed, in which the Church of England remained the established State religion.  Although the development of political rights in a laissez faire climate allowed major conflict over religion to be avoided, the Church maintained power over all schools in Britain until well into the 19th century.  A similar structure was brought to Australia, where in the early 1800s, Anglican clergy were funded by colonial governments to establish schools.  In 1831, funding for schools was split between the Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian Churches.  In the 1850s however, the first government schools were established.  South Australia was the first colony to abolish state aid to religion in 1851, followed by NSW in 1865 and Victoria in 1870.  Beginning in Victoria in 1871, each colonial government during the 1870s passed legislation establishing the principle that education should be “universal, secular and free”.  In this, in other innovations like women’s suffrage and the secret ballot, and in social wages and benefits, Australia led the world.

The principle of public secular education was maintained up until 1951, when Federal government support for private schools first began to emerge via allowable tax deductions.  In 1963, The Menzies government initiated specific grants to private schools, almost all of which were religious schools.   In 1973, the Whitlam government institutionalised the Federal funding of private schools, however only 30% of such funds were specified for allocation to non-government schools.  This commitment was abandoned by the Hawke government, and the proportion of Federal funding to private religious schools now exceeds 70 %.  While education may still be said to be universal, the idea that it be free and secular has been thrown overboard.  The entire secularist ideal has been severely weakened by this.

When the Australian Constitution was written, like the US Constitution, it included a provision regarding religion.  Section 116 states in part: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for the establishment of any religion, … or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, …”.  In Australia, “any religion” has been taken to mean “any particular religion”, whereas in America,  “religion” is seemingly regarded as meaning “all religion”.  There, government funding of religion, including for religion in government schools and for private religious schools is prohibited.  Here, the interpretation has been that as long as no particular religion is “established”, there is little that the Constitution prohibits.  The difference in interpretations may partly reflect the different intentions of the constitutional drafters.  While in the US case there was indeed a secularist purpose, described by Thomas Jefferson as providing a “wall of separation” between Church and State, the climate of opinion in Australia at the time was rather one of “anti-sectarian endorsement of religion.”1

Although the wall of separation was never as clearly defined in Australia as it was in the United States, it could certainly be argued that the need for a non-sectarian consensus assisted secularism to become established nevertheless.  Especially in education, secularism could be said to have been the standard of policy throughout the 20th century.  It is no accident that the role of religion in education is considered an important issue.  In terms of the dichotomy between secularism and religionism, education is where the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation takes place.  Measures of increased secularisation, such as the declining adherence to religion, and the declining church attendance in the latter part of the 20th century may possibly be attributed to the secularist educational climate of the earlier part of that century.  To the extent that the balance of the educational climate has more recently shifted toward religionism, we may expect to see the revival of religiosity in society, which already appears to be underway.

The resurgence of religionism

While secularism and the separation of religion from state affairs is still nominally considered an important principle, there does now appear to a reversal of the long term secularist trend.  Religionism appears to be gaining ground at the expense of secularism, in Australia and elsewhere.  Perhaps paradoxically, this trend may best be understood as a consequence of modernisation, multiculturalism and globalisation, rather than as being in spite of these phenomena.  In many countries, more education has often meant more religious education.  This, together with greater injustice and greater cultural diversity has opened greater possibilities for cultural friction.

Such friction may be surprising and unanticipated because of the great progress that has been made in banishing other forms of prejudice.  It is rightly considered that the development of toleration, particularly with regard to the rights of minorities, has been one of the most significant advances to be achieved over the last century.  In response to past persecution, religious and racial tolerance has been successfully established as a means of redressing past injustices.  This has coincided however, over the last century, with an increased prominence of religious political ideologies such as Zionism and Islamism, which have also served to kindle a more widespread sense of religious identification and cultural division.

Within the new climate of toleration in many countries including Australia, multiculturalism, rather than secularism, has been advanced as an alternative measure to counteract sectarianism.  In accordance with this process, the ideal of “full religious freedom” has been perceived as the ideal.  Religionism, or at least multi-religionism, has emerged as something that is not merely condoned by the state, but actively supported and encouraged.  While all States and Territories now have anti-discrimination legislation, these laws all give exemptions to discrimination when practised in pursuit of religious purposes.   The intention of this, as commonly expressed in legislation, is to “avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities” of religious adherents.2   Further blanket protection of religious practices were suggested in proposals for a Federal Religious Freedom Act.  While this has not been pursued, instead, in several State jurisdictions, what could be regarded as undue criticism of religions has been prohibited by religious vilification legislation.

It is within this context that the seismic shift in education away from government schools in Australia and toward private religious schools may best be viewed.  Religions have been universally regarded as a force for good, where seemingly, the more intensely religions are observed, the more good is created.  The nature of what may be taught regarding religion has not generally been thought as something that should be subject to prudential limitation.  It has been acknowledged and accepted that religious schools “seek to teach and to promote the beliefs and values of the particular religion through the whole ethos and life of the school – not merely in religious education curriculum but in all curricula and all other activities”3.  The central role that religious education has in specialist religious schools has never really been regarded as a problem.  Private schools in Australia are now amongst the most heavily government-funded in the OECD but are the least accountable4.

With the advent of increasing numbers of Islamic schools, some with militant Islamist leanings, the wisdom of this policy is now coming into question.  But it is not only the prospect of entrenching division and disharmony amongst our future citizens that is of concern.  We seem to have overlooked some of the major philosophical problems of extending multiculturalism into multi-religionism.  These involve an implicit endorsement of postmodernist philosophy and moral relativism.  Religions have competing truth claims and competing moral claims.  An official endorsement of multiple religions implies tacit official endorsement of the concept of multiple truths and multiple moralities.  Perceptions of reality are certainly socially constructed, but there are universal truths and universal moral values that transcend cultures and religions.  Civilisation itself relies on respect for the fact that there are singular truths, which are discernible by application of reason and evidence.  Regarding multiple religions, the idea of multiple truths may be a convenient fiction, but it is not one that governments should endorse.

In a multicultural world, it seems that this postmodernist departure from rationality has clouded our view of what gave rise to modern society in the first place – the application of scientific method.  As well as religion, or perhaps instead of it, many other forms or superstition and pseudo-science have increased in popularity as a result.  While our own particular cultural myths may be exposed as disappointing frauds, multiculturalism combined with modern marketing methods elicits hope that the new-found myths of other cultures may provide substitutes of significance.  Such a false “multiple truth” fantasy world is child-like, but the consequences are far from child’s play.  If those in free and open societies like ours are not able to come to this realisation, there is little hope that those living in societies that are more oppressed by religion will be able to do so.

Freedom of thought

In a sense, it is not surprising that multiculturalism has led us down this path.  Most people are at least somewhat religious and want to believe that their religions are beneficial for themselves and for society.  Through history, persecution of religious minorities has often resulted in what would now be regarded as serious crimes against humanity.  Guaranteeing freedom of religion seems like the obvious remedy to prevent repetition of any such iniquity.  However an individual’s entitlement to any express any right or freedom must always be limited to the extent that it may infringe upon the rights of others.  Has society’s sanguine view of religion perhaps impaired our judgement in this regard, particularly with respect to religious education for children and their development of freedom of thought?

The source and inspiration of much legislation on rights and freedoms and has come from international agreements and declarations.  Arising from these, it is widely believed that there is a UN defined right for parents to prescribe a religious education of their choice for their children – what may be called a “right to indoctrinate”.  It seems somewhat improbable that such a right should be declared, but there are indeed certain UN declarations that may be interpreted as giving such a right to parents.  Although not unqualified, these refer to parties having “respect for the liberty of parents … to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions”5, and the rights of a child “to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents”6.

There are however many other statements that would seem to militate against such a presumed right to indoctrinate, such as the need to direct education to “the development of the child’s abilities … to their fullest potential”, to “strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”, to achieve desirable social outcomes, and in particular the need to protect children against “all forms of discrimination … on the basis of the  … beliefs of the child’s parents…”7.  In limiting freedom of thought to within what is religiously prescribed, and in instilling possibly divisive religious allegiances, the potential for infringement of these rights arises.  Thus, there is scope for alternative interpretations of the seemingly contradictory declarations of such rights, and of related legislation.

Included in many such documents is the declared right of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”8. Left unresolved here is the seemingly obvious contradiction between freedom of thought and conscience, on the one hand, and freedom of religion on the other, especially if this freedom is assumed to encompass the right to religiously indoctrinate children. Where there are conflicts, the right to freedom of thought and conscience would appear to precede religious rights, and the rights of the child would appear to precede those of parents, although this is not something that appears to have attracted legislative attention. There is however at least one legal case, relevant in the European Union, where it has been determined that, “when the right of the parents as regards their religious convictions conflicts with, rather than supports, the right of the child to education, the interests of the child take precedence”9.

All religious schools have as their objective, the promotion of the idea that their own religion is true and correct, which necessarily implies at least this degree of indoctrination. Hence in this sense, a “right to indoctrinate” is widely believed to exist and is widely practised in Australia.  Does this situation conflict with our obligation to protect the rights of children, does it meet our educational objectives, and is it in the long term public interest? To create a better Australia, we cannot continue, to ignore these questions.

Even the most ardent religionist advocate would perhaps concede that for most people, adherence to a particular religion is a matter of socialisation rather than rational choice, that religions are based more in faith than rationality, and that as history shows, religions can be divisive.  The National Goals for Schooling state, in part, that schooling should develop the capacity of students “to make rational and informed decisions about their own lives”, and that outcomes should be “free from the negative forms of discrimination based on sex, language, culture, ethnicity and religion.10”  Private schools in receipt of Federal funding are obliged to adhere to these goals, yet religious schools, by their nature, would appear to systematically violate them.  Their acknowledged purpose is to instil a form of socialisation at variance with the full development of rational freedom of thought, while at the same time creating a sense of sectarian allegiance likely to lead to future divisiveness and discrimination.

The policy solution

We are at a turning point in history, where, regarding religion, a long-term change of direction is required – in our perceptions, our expectations and in our institutions.  A postmodernist interpretation of multiculturalism is no solution to the age-old problem of religious conflict.  Religions are now the major source of global strife and instability.  Whatever consoling and charitable benefits religions may provide, these are now far outweighed by the dangers and costs.  The moral systems found outside religions are often far superior to those found within them.  Rather than implicitly endorsing all religious as true, we need to adopt the equally impartial but rational assumption – they are all false.  Wishful thinking, hope and faith form basis for religious inspiration, but in the 21st century, these can have no part in legislative and institutional framework of society.

We have become over-sensitive both in custom and in law, to “offending religious susceptibilities”.  Even if the truth, as best we are able to determine it, offends, it should still have free expression, religious susceptibilities notwithstanding.  It is a paradox that Mark Twain’s famous quip, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so”, is seemingly a less acceptable social comment now, than it was a hundred years ago.  Yet it is more necessary and relevant now that such statements be made.  In a world prone to environmental and high-tech disasters, postmodernist multiculturalism has helped to reanimate pre-modern religious ideologies.  It is not necessary for us to deny our cultural heritage, but we must recognise its mythological aspects.  Each religion aspires to provide cultural truths and cultural moralities that are asserted to be superior to those of others.  They thus inevitably engender an undesirable notion of cultural supremacism, that only a universal secular approach can overcome.  We must reinvent secularism to counteract newly rampant sectarianism.

In education, the policy implications may be profound, but are little more than what “freethinkers” have long advocated – the promotion of free thought, rather than religious indoctrination.  To create a better Australia, either government support for religious schools must be phased out, or private schools must phase out their religious associations, affiliations and curricula.  This should start with primary schools.  As the founder of the Jesuits once said: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”.  Religionist proponents are well aware of the importance early childhood indoctrination.  It must be seen as our duty of care to children, and in the long-term interests of an informed and harmonious society, to prevent this from happening.  Regarding primary schools in particular, we should simply return to the 19th century ideal of them being universal, secular and free.  Secondary private schools should perhaps be given a more extended period in which to make the required adjustments.  The newly emerging government support for private religious universities should cease.

Religious tolerance is a valuable ideal and its widespread acceptance is an achievement.  Tolerance is, however, a limited form of acceptance.  It should not be extended to the acceptance of falsehood, or to practices and customs that infringe basic rights, to the detriment of the creation of a harmonious future society.  We already face looming long-term environmental and economic problems of daunting severity.  We have no need of compounding those problems with others caused by religious and superstitious irrationality.  We need to endorse universal secular values that transcend religions, such as those of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice.  Australia once led the world in its expression of these secular and egalitarian values.  We should reaffirm these values and re-ignite this vision.  In this way, we may create not only a better Australia, but help create a better world.

 

Notes:

1.  Report on Freedom of Religion and Belief , Joint  Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Parliament of Australia, 2002
2.  See for example Section 3, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act, 1986, (Commonwealth).
3.  Section 4.3, Article 18: Freedom of Religion and Belief, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1998.
4.  Section 2, Proposals for Improved Accountability for Government Funding to Private Schools, Chris and Terry Aulich, Australian Schools for Government Studies. Paper commissioned by the Australian Education Union, Nov. 2003.
5.  Article 13.3, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dec. 1966.
6.   Article 5.2, Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1981.
7.  Articles 29.1 and 2.2, Convention on Rights of the Child, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Nov 1989.
8.  Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, General Assembly, Dec. 1948.
9.   European Union case law, right to education Martins Casimiro and Cerveira Pereira v. Luxembourg, Court decision of 27 April 1999. Refusal to waive the obligation to attend Saturday school of a child whose parents are members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
10.   Goals 1.3 and 3.1, The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty First Century, Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, April 1999

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and President of the Secular Party of Australia.
This paper, a prize winning essay in the 2005 essay competition organised by the Humanist Society of Victoria, was published in Australian Humanist, No. 82, Autumn 2006.