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Secularism is not atheism

By Max Wallace - posted Monday, 10 November 2008

Secularism is a form of government where a nation opts for an identity that is neither religious nor anti-religious, but simply neutral. Neutrality means government disassociation from religion or non-belief. Religionists equate neutrality with hostility to religion and imply that secularism is a variation on the theme of atheism.

An atheist form of government can be hostile to religion. The USSR saw religion as a form of false belief and part of the cultural apparatus of the ruling class. It seized church property, jailed and even executed clerics, and put strict controls on religious practice including a ban on religious education in schools. If religion is tolerated at all in an atheist form of government there will be a strict separation and distrust between church and state.

Outside North Korea, and possibly Cuba, there are no governments that could be characterised as atheist. China and Vietnam come close but allow some religion.


Theocracy is the direct opposite of atheist government. In this case the state identifies with a religion. There is little tolerance of other forms of belief. Belief in another religion or non-belief may attract a death penalty. Apostasy, i.e. a decision to leave the religion, can also attract the death penalty.

There is no separation of church and state. The divine word, the source of all law, comes from a book, and there is usually one ruler who has authority to interpret and apply law and may delegate authority to other clerics in order to do so.

Women are in the control of men. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution the wearing of a black veil became compulsory for women there. But not all theocracies are so hard line. If you are a citizen of the Vatican and you decide to give up your Catholic belief and leave, you won’t be executed but you will face eternal damnation.

The defining characteristic of secular government is separation of church and state. What distinguishes secular government from atheist government is that where atheist government barely tolerates religion, if at all, secular governments agree to freedom of religion. That is, unlike North Korea and the Vatican which are not democracies, secular governments are democracies which respect a citizen’s right to believe whatever they want and usually practice those beliefs, so long as that practice does not entail breaking the law.

There are many variations on the theme of secular government with widely varying degrees of constitutional separation of church and/or mosque and state. Some of these in alphabetical order are: Angola, Brazil; France; Gabon; Guinea-Bissau; Hungary; Latvia; Liberia; Macedonia; Mexico; Mongolia; Mozambique; Philippines; Portugal; Turkey; USA.

In the United States, those members of Congress who choose to swear on the Bible rather than affirm once elected, swear on the Bible to uphold the Constitution. They do not swear on the Constitution to uphold the Bible. There is no mention of God in the US Constitution and there is little Federal funding of religious schools.


So despite the fact that about 20 per cent of Americans are evangelical Christians, over 70 per cent believe in creationism rather than evolution, and George Bush has in the last eight years all but totally compromised separation by various policies, the government is still, at this point in time, nominally secular, thanks to court rulings that have upheld the constitution against attacks by militant Christians. The defeat of the attempt to impose creationism in the guise of intelligent design on the curriculum of state schools was the most recent important example.

Notice all the countries not on the list above concerning constitutional separation of church and state. Among the absentees are Australia and New Zealand which are constitutional monarchies, not republics.

Given our two countries have not formally separated church and state it’s fair to say that we are formally theocratic in our style of government rather than secular.

  • We have the head of a major religious tradition as our head of state: Queen Elizabeth II;
  • our flag contains the Christian crosses in the Union Jack: England’s Anglicanism, Scotland’s Presbyterianism and St Patrick’s white Catholic cross of Ireland;
  • we have a Christian National Thanksgiving Day each year where it is said Jesus Christ reigns over Australia. This has been approved by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Governor-General;
  • “God” is mentioned in the Preamble to the Australian Constitution and the National Anthem;
  • Christian prayers are held to open our parliaments;
  • Bible study meetings have been held in Australian parliamentary offices;
  • hard core evangelicals exempted from laws that apply to others are given parliamentary passes to lobby members whenever they wish;
  • homosexuality has been decried in the Great Hall when it was hired by conservative Christians;
  • $12 billion annually is given to religious schools while state schools are languishing needing $3 billion annually to meet their commitment to children in state schools;
  • federal and state money is given to the Scripture Union to place Christian and other religious chaplains in state schools while humanists and others are banned from serving as chaplains.

Militant Christians see all of the above as perfectly normal and not an affront to secular governance. The notion that governments should be respectful of all opinions and favour none has been mostly abandoned. Our governments have become soft theocracies but with a secular twist according to political contingency. For example, despite the best attempts of militant Christians they have seen parliaments pass legislation allowing civil marriages, oral contraception, abortion, prostitution, women’s rights, gay law reform, IVF and stem cell research. But while they are losing battles their structural integration into government remains untouched.

For example, all religions that have a supernatural belief qualify for exemptions from all major forms of taxation and many minor ones, thus they are subsidised by all citizens irrespective of a citizen’s personal beliefs. This privilege can be sourced back to the 1601 law passed in the reign of Elizabeth I. It gave charitable status for the “advancement of religion”. As charities, religions are tax exempt. Atheism is not tax exempt because it is not a form of supernatural belief.

Religions also receive many hand-outs. The Catholic World Youth Day was sponsored by Federal and New South Wales governments to the tune of about $160 million but a breakdown of how the money was spent has been disallowed under Freedom of Information exemptions (see M. Moore “Pope visit too sensitive to talk about”, Sydney Morning Herald, September 20-21, 2008).

If Australia was a republic with a constitutional separation of church and state, straight out donations of cash to religions like this could be unconstitutional. In fact, they should be unconstitutional because it would not be the role of the Commonwealth of Australia to “advance religion” were it a republic with a constitutional separation of church and state.

That is not to say the various good works charities religions run could not continue as tax exempt organisations where they are serving a public purpose, such as the relief of poverty. But to “advance religion” is a private purpose, one that was considered to be in the public interest in the 17th century when religious belief was expected and blasphemy laws were enforced. Last July in Britain, blasphemy was abolished but the tax exemptions for the advancement of religion continue.

Those who oppose Australia becoming a republic are really supporting a system of tax exemptions for churches and, in principle, the monarchy. Those who support a republic have never argued that our republic should have a constitutional separation of church and state. Republicans are thereby tacitly agreeing with constitutional monarchists that tax exemptions for the advancement of religion and the monarchy are untouchable.

While the question of whether Australia should have a president elected by parliament or by the people directly is important, the question of separation of church and state as part of a republic is equally important. If it were not, why do the countries cited above have separation? If the United States can have it, why can’t we?

Clearly, the fear for political parties is that if they were to argue for separation of church and state the churches would rise as one against them to protect their tax exemptions, their school funding, their grants, their access to the minds of children, not just in their own schools, but also state schools. But this is an irrational fear. Christianity has declined at every census since Federation. In New Zealand now only 56 per cent state they are Christians. Also, moderate, even-handed Christians recognise that their voice is only one of many and should compete equally.

Secularism is a form of neutral government that listens to all points of view and tries to strike a balance between conflicting ideas. Militant and some moderate Christians don’t want that. They want it all their own way without qualification. They want a republic made in their own image.

To protect their interests they put the fear of electoral consequences into the minds of already compliant politicians while demonising secularism as godless atheism.

To put it another way, they don’t want democracy, they want soft theocracy: they want religious government with a democratic facade to continue to lock in their privileges. They talk about democracy but they practice theocracy because they don’t believe, they know they are right, and since they are right they believe they should impose their will on us.

In other words, they are doing the same thing they accuse “godless” secularism of.

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About the Author

Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

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