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If freedom of religion is the question, secularism is the answer

By Chrys Stevenson - posted Friday, 1 April 2011

Towards the end of 2007, the Australian Human Rights Commission put out a call for public submissions on the subject of Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century. The level of public concern surrounding this issue was revealed when the AHRC was overwhelmed by nearly 2000 submissions from religious institutions, non-religious organisations (atheist, secular, rationalist and humanist) and from many individuals.

Initially scheduled for release at the end of 2008, a meta-analysis of the submissions and nationwide public consultation process has only just been published. Given the wealth and diversity of input, the involvement of some of Australia's leading academics, and the length of time taken to produce the report, I expected something really 'meaty' with some decisive recommendations for action. Instead, by trying to please everyone, the result is a disappointingly shallow and, at times, biased, analysis concluding in a number of rather vague and half-hearted recommendations.

I certainly appreciate the difficulty of providing a satisfying synthesis of so many diverse opinions over a very broad range of subjects, but the report prepared by Professor Gary Bouma, Professor Desmond Cahill, Dr Hass Dellal and Athalia Zwartz just seems … well … wishy-washy. After reading nearly 2000 submissions and three years of careful consideration the main conclusions drawn from the research are – ta-dah! – that 'there is a need to develop appropriate responses to the unique and varied Australian religious contexts and settings' and that better education about Australia's diverse religions will help to reduce ignorance and fear. Really? That's it?


To be fair, there are some other recommendations, although they do little to diminish the disappointment. The researchers recommend that the AHRC should continue to monitor issues of freedom of religion and belief, including non-belief, and to foster a discussion which allows 'for the view to be heard that religious rights are absolute, and then to allow that view to be tempered by other views.' The way in which such discussions might be translated into solutions is, regrettably, left to the imagination of the reader.

In fact, in the entire document the only substantive recommendations are for an organisation to oversee issues relating to religious practice within the education system (wouldn't it be simpler just to take religion out of the education system?) and for comparative religion to be instituted as an on-going subject in primary and secondary schools. While the second suggestion is admirable, there is, in my view, insufficient emphasis on the need for non-religious ethical systems, such as secular humanism, to be included in such a course.

The bias towards religion in the report is, at times, quite disconcerting for a paper which purports to provide equal weight to the diversity of voices. Most telling is the way in which statistical data is reported. Whether intentional or not, the emphasis of the AHRC report is subtly (and at times, not-so-subtly) slanted to make it seem that religion is far more important to Australians than it is.

Despite drawing their statistical data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project (2002) to support their claim that Australian exists in a very religious world, the research team neglects to mention the major finding of this study – that amongst wealthy nations, the United States stands alone in its embrace of religion. Inexplicably, while noting high levels of religiosity in developing nations, Bouma et al ignore the 'lack of intensity in belief' that prevails throughout Western Europe while emphasising the 33 per cent of Britons who find religion important rather than the 67 per cent who don't.

Narrowing their focus to Australia, Bouma's research team reports that, according to the National Church Life Survey of 2010, 38 per cent of Australians think religious faith is either very important (13%) or important (25%) with almost a quarter (23%) saying it was of little importance. The implication here is clearly that more Australians (38%) think religious faith is important than not (23%). But, go back to the survey and one unearths a major omission - the whopping 38 per cent of Australians who found religious faith or spirituality not important at all! That figure, which reveals that, in total, 61 per cent of Australians say that religious faith has little or no importance in their lives is simply omitted.

Also absent from the report is any recognition of the irony implicit in the 'high level of concern' about Islamic religious imperialism. A comment from a Mrs Thorpe was sufficiently representative to be included:


… the one thing I am really afraid of for our country is that it will be taken over by Muslims. It only takes a few Muslims to force the rest of us to do their bidding and for Australia to become as dangerous a place as elsewhere in the world where Islam has been allowed to spread its poison.

Concerns were also raised during the NSW Australian Christian Lobby consultation that Shari'a or tribal Hindu law may be introduced to Australia.

And yet, according to Bouma et al, 'no religious group argued that it sought to make its religious law the law of Australia or of the individual states and territories. All saw their role as working within the constitutional framework of Australia.' That may well be true of Australia's minority religions, but many Christians were less hesitant about stating their belief that Christianity should be the guiding force in Australian society, politics and law. Indeed, the AHRC was reminded in no uncertain terms that Australia is a Christian nation whose 'values and culture are based on Christian teachings' and that 'these values are reflected in our public ethos and institutions, our legal system, and our social and political structures'. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney insisted that:

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In consultation with a working group of Australian members from Atheist Nexus, Chrys Stevenson spent four months researching and writing a lengthy submission on Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century for the Australian Human Rights Commission.

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About the Author

Chrys Stevenson is a writer and historian. A founding member of Atheist Nexus and the Sunshine Coast Atheists, Chrys is also a member of the Australian Skeptics. Chrys writes the atheist/sceptical blog Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear and contributed a chapter on the history of atheism in Australia to the recently released The Australian Book of Atheism edited by Warren Bonett.

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