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Secularism as an ideal

By John Perkins - posted Wednesday, 15 February 2006


It is a common view that when all else fails, religion is something to turn to for solutions. But what if embracing religion is actually the cause of more problems than it is a source of solutions? For various reasons, issues like this involving religion are generally considered to be beyond public debate. Questioning the validity of particular religious beliefs has become almost taboo, an impolite transgression of multicultural tolerance.

But is something serious being overlooked here? Are there issues that may affect the future of our society that we really should be talking about? A group of rationalists and humanists from Sydney and Melbourne have come to think so. We think that forming a new political party might actually be the only way to get going the kind of debate that is needed in Australia.

We believe that society is heading seriously off track regarding the role of religion, not just in Australia, but globally. The original idea of secularism was the separation of church and state. The state would remain impartial and not endorse or compel the practice of any particular religion. That way, sectarian disputes could be averted.

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This idea does actually work, because before it was implemented in Europe, religious wars raged for hundreds of years. Secularism was held as an ideal in Australia at the time of Federation, when education was declared to be “universal, secular and free”. In modern times, however, when 70 per cent of Federal funding for education goes to religious schools, I think it can be said that we have strayed a long way away from this ideal. As a result, a rise in sectarianism is perhaps already underway.

So long as there is no discrimination between religions, it has been accepted that all religions should be encouraged and supported. However, politicians now set out deliberately to court religious voters. We find that increasingly, political decisions are being made on a whole range of issues, not just moral issues. Religious beliefs are influencing these decisions, and yet this influence is not acknowledged. These issues range from the prohibition of same-sex marriages, to the decision to invade Iraq. We contend that the influence of religion in politics and in society generally, is unnecessary, unhelpful, and should be reduced.

Despite the prevalence of decisions that are motivated or influenced by religion, in the 2001 Census, 30 per cent of people did not identify with any religion, and many of the remaining 70 per cent did not have a strong identification with religion. Yet these people do not have an effective voice. No existing party is willing to risk the possible displeasure of religious voters. Hence the need for a new party, the Secular Party of Australia.

The key objective of the party, as we see it, is to achieve a true separation of church and state in Australia. This would involve the withdrawal of state endorsement of religion of any kind. In many cases, this will require changes in ceremonies and declarations that are really quite superficial.

In other areas, such as education, where we seek to end all state support for religious schools, the reorganisation required would be more substantial. Even here though, the changes needed might not be as great as they seem. We are not in-principle opposed to private schools, but would require them to disassociate themselves from their religious affiliations. That would preclude all aspects of any school curriculum that suggested that there is such a thing as the “one true religion”. This is reform would not cause significant concern to many parents, because many send their children to private schools, not because they are religious, but because they are private.

We see the Party’s position on the political spectrum as being neither left nor right, these being terms that are losing their political relevance. The concept of politics as a battle between the forces of labour and capital is quite outdated, because all such debates are really about finding the right balance between private gain and the public good. The Secular Party would seek to resolve such issues, not from a predetermined ideological position, but by finding an appropriate balance through application of reasoned judgment. Philosophically however, the Party is aligned with the classical liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, ideals that the Liberal Party of Australia unfortunately abandoned long ago.

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The main political issues of the coming century are likely to centre around divisions between religionism on the one hand and secularism on the other. In this regard, it is clear where the Secular Party (and only the Secular Party) stands. Many people look at events around the world and observe with horror things that are done in the name of religion. The Secular Party also views such developments with grave concern, and seeks to add a clear and rational voice offering secular solutions based on universal moral principles such as compassion, honesty, freedom and justice.

If we are able to succeed in merely in having such issues discussed to a greater extent, we will regard that as success. In addition, we also seek to enlist members and subsequently field candidates in elections. Who knows where this may lead? We like to think, of course, that it is the dawn of a new era in politics.

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Article edited by Rebecca Mann.
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About the Author

Dr John L Perkins is an economist at the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research and a founding member of the Secular Party of Australia.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by John Perkins
Related Links
Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups
Australian Political Parties
Secular Party of Australia

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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