Friday Filing: Religious Freedom and Secularism

There have been a few media reports during the week now coming to an end of various submissions made to the current government instigated review of religious freedom in Australia headed by the former Commonwealth Attorney-General – and now Mayor of Hornsby – Philip Ruddock. Many of the media reports have focussed on the various submissions made by organisations – churches included – to the review on various aspects of the nature of religious freedom in Australia, particularly its place in various legislative frameworks across the various jurisdictions that compromise the Commonwealth of Australia.

Not surprisingly, may reports of the submissions from churches and other religiously based organisations have been less than enthusiastic. It has at times appeared to this reader at least that the media’s presentation of the submission of any religious entity, of whatever religious persuasion, as being an attempt to enshrine in legislation the various religious teachings of whichever entity was making the submission. A reasonable person might assume that the position of various religious entities, at least as reported by some parts of the media, was something that was entirely at odds with the prevailing mores of Australian society and therefore should be rejected as being at odds with the secular nature of Australian society. To be fair to the media, some of those assessments could be considered entirely accurate, but such an assessment could not be applied to all submissions by any stretch of the imagination.

At the heart of the assessment, however, is an attempt to reduce the issue of religious freedom in relationship to the ‘values’ that are implicit to Australia and which are enshrined in various legislative instruments to a zero-sum game. In other words, if secular values are to be paramount then religious values, and religious freedom, must be suppressed. There can be no compromise, no modus vivendi, that permits Australians who have strong religious beliefs to live their lives in accord with those religious beliefs while remaining good and productive citizens of Australia. On the other hand, there can be no compromise on the part of some Australians who do have strong religious beliefs to recognise that not everyone shares those beliefs and, as such, Australian society cannot be governed solely on the basis of religious beliefs – whichever religious beliefs happen to be being promoted by whichever person happens to have access to the public discourse at any particular moment.

I would argue that this attempt to reduce the religious freedom vs secularism debate to a win-lose situation relies on a false understanding of secularism, one which argues that religion has no place in the public square in any way and must be restricted solely to the private domain. In this view of secularism, religion, religious belief and religious practice is something that an individual may embrace if they choose to do so, but in the public discourse or public life religion is not to subject to the prevailing secular values and mores. It also means that no religious entity, of whatever persuasion, has no role to play in that same public discourse. Where religious entities are involved in the delivery of some social good – education, health, social welfare, etc – they should do so not because of their religious beliefs and underpinnings but entirely, again, in keeping with the prevailing secular values and mores. This is especially so if the said religious entity dares to take government money or grants to assist in the delivery of those social goods.

But this view of secularism is a false one. Secularism does not mean that religion, religious belief and religious practice has no place in the public square. Secularism in this understanding does not mean the absence of these things from the public discourse. On the contrary, secularism means that religion, religious belief and religious practice has an equal place in the public square alongside the more non-religious worldviews. In the public square there must be a contest of ideas which is impoverished when the religious worldview is relegated to the private domain. And it is the whole of society that suffers when this is the case, where the ardent secularists are prepared to acknowledge it or not.

As a result of this more proper understanding of secularism, there is a need on the part of religious entities – and individuals who hold strong religious beliefs – to engage not simply in the demand for the acceptance of religion, religious belief and religious practice, but to develop a rational case from which religious practice is seen as a socially beneficial good, something that is inherently good for Australian society, and something that has a proper place within the public domain. It is also necessary for those same religious entities to make the public case that secularism does not mean they must completely submit to the prevailing secular values and mores but rather a situation must be developed where there is compromise and mutual recognition between those who hold secular values and mores and those who hold religious beliefs.

The latter task, of course, is where the difficulty lies, and where the argument currently playing out in the Ruddock review finds its focus. Attempting to find an acceptable modus vivendi requires dialogue and understanding, something that is not always present in contemporary Australian society.

When those at the extreme end of the spectrum between secular values only and religious beliefs only come into conflict, the middle ground is hard to claim by those who seek to do so and who see the value for all of society in doing so. Stridency in public discourse is an all too familiar feature of contemporary public discourse and we have seen some of this in the media reporting around the Ruddock review or in response to that media reporting. Unfortunately, such stridency does little to encourage the kind of dialogue necessary to reach a place of mutual recognition that contributes to the development of the public good of society.

Whatever the result of the Ruddock review, one hopes that cooler heads prevail.