Reclaiming Secular Australia

Rationalist Society Principles and Priorities

If you are the kind of person who prefers reason to prejudice, science to superstition, and evidence to faith, then you may be a Rationalist. Rationalism is an intellectual, social and political worldview that promotes the role of reason and evidence when seeking solutions to issues that confront us in public life. Rationalists recognise and defend the importance of liberal democracy, freedom of thought, conscience and belief, and an open and just society.

The Australian Context

Australia has traditionally been wary of mixing religion and politics. Most Australians aspire to a secular system of government, one which leaves behind the religious disputes that have plagued Europe in the past and continue to cause division in the US and elsewhere. 

Unlike the UK and many European countries, Australia has no established church; unlike the US, there has been little pressure on political candidates to profess their religious credentials. The number of Australians explicitly rejecting religious affiliation has grown from just 4% in 1901 to nearly 40% in 2021.

Nevertheless, Australia has sometimes been troubled by sectarian strife, particularly animosity between Catholics and Protestants. This enmity came to a head in the 1950s with a campaign against communist influence in the trade union movement, masterminded by Catholic layman B. A. Santamaria, and sponsored by the powerful Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix. 

This campaign led to a split in the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and the infamous Democratic Labor Party was formed, basically a front for the Catholic Church. 

The split kept the ALP out of office for nearly two decades until Labor leader Gough Whitlam agreed to federal funding of a separate Catholic education sector. This funding has had disastrous long-term consequences for the Australian education system ever since, institutionalising religious indoctrination of generations of children.

In more recent times, evangelical Protestants have been exploiting the school system. Taking a cue from other countries, they have dominated legislatively-enabled Special Religious Instruction (Scripture) classes in government schools. Non-religious parents have been faced with an invidious choice: expose their children to explicit proselytising, or risk their social isolation by withdrawing them from the classes.

Despite the growing number of Australians professing ‘No Religion’ in the census, the influence of religion in Australian politics has been increasing. 

A well-funded Christian lobby group operates in Canberra. In 2006, at the instigation of Minister Greg Hunt, conservative prime minister John Howard introduced a federally-funded chaplaincy program in Australian schools. When Labor’s Julia Gillard became prime minister, despite being a publicly-avowed atheist, she directed even more funding to this overtly discriminatory program.

In Tony Abbott, we had a prime minister highly influenced by B. A. Santamaria. In the past, Catholic politicians tended to come from the working class; their natural affiliation was with the Labor party in parliament. Today, Catholics and other ‘muscular’ Christians are an influential force in conservative governments. 

In 2017, shocked by the acceptance of same-sex marriage by a significant majority of the Australian population, these ‘muscular’ Christians in the conservative federal government fought back by pushing for a federal religious freedom law, which would, in effect, extend and entrench the privileges already accorded religious institutions in this country. 

And in Scott Morrison, we had Australia’s first overtly Pentecostal Prime Minister.

As RSA Patron Michael Kirby has said, “The principle of secularism is one of the greatest developments in human rights in the world. We must safeguard and protect it, for it can come under threat in contemporary Australia.”

That’s why as Rationalists, we must Reclaim Secular Australia.

The Four Pillars of Rationalism

1. Reason

Rationalists are committed to utilising reason in their beliefs and in their behaviour. 

In forming beliefs, a Rationalist seeks to rely on empirical evidence, logic and thoughtful reflection, not on unquestioning obedience to authority, blind faith or emotional knee-jerk reaction. Rationalists believe public policies should be based on inquiry, evidence and reason, not on religious dogma or political ideology.

2. Naturalism

Rationalists believe in naturalism, that is, the idea that the natural world is the only world there is and that the life we live in this natural world is the only life we have.

This means Rationalists do not believe in an after-life, or a life before birth, or in any supernatural or ‘other’ world.

It also means that as humans, we derive our values and ethics from the natural world – from our need to live together and to try to improve the well-being of all around us

3. Liberalism

Rationalists support the political philosophy of liberalism – that is, freedom of the individual, social progress and reform, and government by law with the consent of the governed.

  • We support absolute freedom of thought, conscience and belief. All humans should be free to choose and hold their own religious or non-religious worldviews, provided they do not attempt to coerce others into accepting their preferred worldviews.
  • We support the freedom to express one’s worldview and the freedom to associate with like-minded others, provided such actions do no harm.
  • We believe men and women are intrinsically equal in dignity and rights. There should be no negative discrimination on the basis of a person’s worldview, race, sex, sexuality or gender identity. 
  • We believe in our common humanity, and the humanistic values of personal integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence and fairness.

4. Secularism

Rationalists support secularism in the political sense, meaning legal and substantive separation of religious institutions (church, temple, mosque, etc) from state institutions (parliament, the public service, the courts, etc). 

Secularism in this sense implies a pluralist democracy, where there is freedom to practise one’s worldview (as long as such practice does not harm others) or to change one’s worldview, and where there is no positive discrimination by governments that privileges any particular worldview. 

Secularism values both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, and seeks to balance all human rights in practice.

Principles and Priorities

The RSA’s principles cover society’s major social and political institutions: education, healthcare and the family, government, the law and the media. 

Our priorities list the actions we see as necessary to truly Reclaim Secular Australia.

1. Government

Principle:  Clear separation between religion and the State

  • All Australian constitutions should be reformed to ensure clear separation between religion and the State, and all references to God removed.
  • Parliamentary prayers should be discontinued. Oaths and affirmations for official purposes should be replaced with promises to tell the truth or to faithfully execute the duties of an office. 
  • Any laws or decisions made by executive government that privilege or promote religion should be removed entirely or revised to ensure religion is neither promoted nor privileged.

2. Education

Principle:  School education to be genuinely secular

  • The skills of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning should be taught in all subjects across school curricula.
  • No government resources should be used to advance religious views, programs of religious instruction, or employment of religious chaplains.
  • Religious instruction/Scripture should be replaced by the study of a range of religious and non-religious worldviews, taught by professionally trained teachers.
  • Over time, the three school sectors in Australia (government, independent and Catholic) should be reduced to two: a government school sector, generously funded by federal and state governments, and an independent school sector, funded independently of public monies. 

3. Law

Principle: Laws to apply equally to all, enforced without discrimination or privilege

  • Exemptions for religious institutions and individuals professing a religious worldview from generally applicable laws, including anti-discrimination laws, should be removed.
  • The ‘advancement of religion’ should be removed from the statutory definition of charity, so that religious institutions do not enjoy automatic tax-exempt status but like other charities, are obliged to demonstrate their activities are in the public benefit.

4. Family

Principle: Children not to suffer because of any ideological views of their parents

  • Decisions about children’s healthcare should be based on evidence-based medicine, not the religious worldviews of their parents. Medically unnecessary cutting of children’s genitals, whether female or male, should be illegal.
  • No organisation, whether religious or not, should be allowed to prevent children from accessing the full school curriculum or isolate them within closed communities. 
  • Governments should initiate prosecution of religious or non-religious cults that use physical or mental coercion to attract or retain members, particularly if those members include children.

5. Health and Welfare

Principle: Autonomy over one’s own body

  • Termination of pregnancy should be decriminalised in all states and territories.
  • Evidence-based sexual and reproductive health information and health services should be universally available.
  • Voluntary assisted dying should be legalised in all states and territories.
  • Non-religious palliative care services should be funded at least in proportion to the number of Australians identifying as non-religious.

Principle: Healthcare available to all regardless of the provider’s religious views

  • To qualify for any government funding, religious hospitals and aged care homes must prohibit proselytising, comply with anti-discrimination laws, and allow the provision of legal healthcare services such as abortions and voluntary assisted dying.
  • Public hospitals should not be allowed to restrict treatments on the basis of religious worldviews.
  • Hospitals should provide non-religious counselling and support services at least in proportion to the number of Australians identifying as non-religious.

Principle: Protection from pseudoscientific products and practices

  • Through regulatory agencies, governments should protect public health and safety by proactively evaluating and banning pseudoscientific practices and products.

6. Media

Principle: Governments to advance an open society through media diversity

  • The federal government should ensure genuine competition among commercial media businesses.
  • Media businesses should be made legally accountable if they facilitate the dissemination of hate, defamation, pseudoscience or intentional misinformation.
  • The federal government should fund its public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, at levels that allow them to fulfil effectively their public benefit missions and should defend them from attacks by commercial media businesses.

All the more reason.