From the President – December 2020

Meredith Doig / 06 January 2021

Australia has traditionally been wary of mixing religion and politics. Unlike the US, we don’t require our political candidates to wear their faith on their sleeve. Unlike the UK and many European countries, we don’t have a state-sanctioned ‘established’ church. We have in the past been troubled by sectarian strife, as those who remember the 1950s animosity between Catholics and Protestants will be able to attest, but it doesn’t seem to worry most of us.

Modern Australia was born of Enlightenment principles and grew up with a healthy skepticism towards unquestioning obedience to authority, particularly clerical authority. But of recent times, a new breed of ‘muscular’ Christians, some of them Catholic, some of them Protestants of one form or another, have pushed their way into Australian politics. We cannot afford to ignore the rise of aggressive religiosity.

RSA Patron Michael Kirby put it plainly,

“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 the RSA is embarking on a new campaign that we’re calling ‘Reclaiming Secular Australia’.

RSA stands for Reclaiming Secular Australia; Refreshing a Secular Attitude; Rebuilding Secular Associations and Academies, schools, hospitals and social services.

Rationalists support secularism in the political sense of legal and substantive separation of religious institutions (churches, temples, mosques) from state institutions (parliament, the public service, the courts). Secularism in this sense implies a pluralist democracy, where there is absolute freedom of religion or belief, but limits on the freedom to practise one’s religion or belief if doing so harms others. “I don’t mind what you believe in the privacy of your own mind, but I draw the line when you try to impose your beliefs on others.”

We do not support secularism in the sense of being ‘anti-religious’. The  RSA  bases its policies on universal human rights, shared by most religious as well as non-religious people. We believe in our common humanity, and the humanistic values of integrity (telling the truth; avoiding hypocrisy), trustworthiness (being dependable), benevolence (having goodwill toward others; seeking mutual consent) and fairness (appreciation where merited, punishment when deserved).

Our Reclaiming Secular Australia agenda covers society’s major social and political institutions: education, healthcare and the family, government, law and the media. In each institution, we list a small number of action priorities. Here are some examples:

Government 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.

Education The skills of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning should be taught in all subjects across school curricula. 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 sector, funded independently of government monies.

Law Exemptions should be removed for religious institutions and individuals professing a religious worldview from generally applicable laws, including anti-discrimination laws. 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.

Family 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. 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.

Health and Welfare Non-religious palliative care services should be funded at least in proportion to the number of Australians identifying as non-religious. Hospitals should provide non-religious ‘chaplaincy’ services at least in proportion to the number of Australians identifying as non-religious. Through regulatory agencies, governments should protect public health and safety by proactively evaluating and banning pseudoscientific practices and products.

Media 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.

Members can read the full Reclaiming Secular Australia agenda on the RSA website.

All the more reason.