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Australia: it’s time we got serious about the separation of church and state

by Keith Austin

Friday 1 August 2008, by siawi

(Published in: The Sydney Morning Herald, July 5, 2008)

In God’s name

Church and state need to get out of each other’s pockets, and give secularism a fair go, argues Keith Austin.

Have we come to the end of The Age Of Religion? Given the recent rise of fundamentalisms around the world, I suspect future historians will look back and say: "That’s when the end began, when the fundamentalists realised that blood-soaked millennia of hatred, persecution and violence in the name of God were coming to an end and began to kick out in their death throes, blowing up children, fighting desperately to stave off The Second Age of Reason."

Well, let’s hope so. Certainly if Australia is to make any significant progress as a multicultural and multi-religious society then it’s time we got serious about the separation of church and state and moved towards becoming a secular 21st century society.

First off, let’s get one thing off the table. A secular society doesn’t mean an anti-religious one, or a society without values - always the knee-jerk response when this subject is raised. We need only take a leaf from the First Amendment to the US constitution, which prohibits government preference of one religion over another, or of religion over non-religion.

Two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson understood that for society to be unbiased, all religions need to be equal in the eyes of the state - and only a truly secular state can achieve that. Anything else is hypocrisy.

But there is a world of confusion in the expression "secular state". When he delivered the Acton Lecture last December, Tom Frame, director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra and head of the school of theology at Charles Sturt University, hit the nail on the head when he said the secularising of Australian society had included anti-religious attitudes and that "the confusion of secularism with atheism has the potential to provoke extremism".

Secularism does not need to be anti-religious or godless. As Frame explained: "I believe that the principal objective of contemporary secularism must be the creation and maintenance of an open and inclusive society that recognises the importance of religious views to those who hold them and which respects the integrity and sincerity of religious communities in their quest for truth and purpose."

A truly pluralist, secular society - one that recognises all religions as equal without officially endorsing any - will, as Frame went on to conclude, "avoid creating the conditions that can be exploited by those who misread the sacred texts of their religion and confuse persuasion with coercion, and faith with fear in their attempts to create a society the rest of us I hope will be determined to resist".

Of course, this might not be as easy as we might think under the leadership of the Christian socialist Kevin Rudd. In her 2005 book God Under Howard: The Rise Of The Religious Right In Australian Politics, Marion Maddox tells of a certain "Labor regular" who described a Monday night prayer and Bible study group in Canberra as attended by "people who are reasonably comfortable talking about issues of personal faith".

So far, you might say, so what? Shouldn’t he be allowed to follow his faith? Yes, he certainly should, but the issue of personal faith takes on new meaning when Maddox then quotes Rudd as saying he would respect his fellow Bible study members more than "people who are not restrained by anything … So you tend to have greater respect for them. And does that have political consequence? You’re more likely to listen with some respect [when a group member is speaking from the opposite side of Parliament]".

So, you’re more likely to get a respectful hearing from the now Prime Minister if you study the Bible. Where does that leave those atheists/agnostics/general ne’er do wells who are supposedly "not restrained by anything"?

It seems the belief that atheists are values-neutral is alive and well and living in the Lodge. The French philosopher Michael Onfray, in his book The Atheist Manifesto, writes: "The old idea of the immoral, amoral atheist, with neither faith nor ethical rules, dies hard. The phrase ’if God does not exist, then everything is permitted’ - a refrain picked up from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov - continues to resonate … this misguided notion needs to be thoroughly demolished."

Perhaps this is a good time to remember, as Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, that it’s not OK to disrespect non-believers when your own moral code is seemingly dictated by fear of retribution from a divine being - especially codes that have, as Onfray points out, allowed their various adherents to "plot terrorist attacks in Manhattan, launch punitive raids into the Gaza Strip, or cover up the deeds of pedophile priests".

In a multicultural society like the one Australia is struggling to become, there is nothing so divisive as elected leaders dribbling on about Christian values, a Christian nation, or getting happy-clappy at Hillsong. As soon as you assert that you are a Christian you are, automatically, asserting that other religions are wrong. As Sam Harris puts it in his short and simple treatise A Letter To A Christian Nation, this is one area on which Christians and atheists find common ground: "We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so."

Political leaders are elected to represent the people - and that’s all of them, not just the Reverend Fred Nile’s chosen few.

Many people would argue that Australia already is a secular democracy. If so, it’s a little confusing how the state government can throw many millions of taxpayer dollars at a papal visit, and install Orwellian law to silence those who might not agree. And this for a church leader who has done irreparable damage in Africa through his stance on condoms, who opposes homosexuality as unnatural (while living a non-sexual bachelor lifestyle) and thinks God will only talk to women with a man’s help.

This supposedly secular society also spends an awful lot of taxpayers’ money funding an awful lot of private religious schools. And what secular government, do you think, would have decided to provide $90 million of taxpayers’ money to fund a program to put chaplains into schools? Not qualified social workers; chaplains. Quite confronting for a Muslim, a Jew or a Hindu, you might think.

So, as the first part of this move to a secular society that fiercely protects the rights of individuals to worship as they wish, and to not worship if that’s their wish, we should put an end to taxpayers funding religious schools of all denominations.

That’s not to say religious schools should be banned - that’s ridiculous - but if you want to bring your child up to believe he or she is inextricably Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu or whatever, and that Creationism and its ilk are science, you should use your own money, not clamp down on the public teat.

And, no, it’s not a new idea, as shocking as it might sound. Here’s that old revolutionary Thomas Jefferson again, writing in 1786 about taxation and religion: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical …"

I’m with Jefferson; in a truly non-partisan society governments would refuse funding for religious schools. Education has been getting a raw deal in Australia for many years and it’s about time the tide turned. For all the talk about the future of the country at the 2020 gabfest there seemed to be no acknowledgement that the future flows from education - and a massively well-funded, secular education at that.

Why in God’s name do we think it’s good for Jewish children to be educated with other Jewish children? Catholics with Catholics? Muslims with Muslims? In their book The Stupid Country: How Australia Is Dismantling Public Education, Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro ask exactly that. "One can only assume," they write, "that the purpose of faith schools is to sustain the faith … we should start asking what impact schools that are built around specific religious beliefs might have on cohesion in the wider community."

The question is, they add, to what extent should public funds be used to support the creation of separate and competing faith schools? "Should public funds support a structure of schooling that has a greater potential to divide, rather than unite?"

In the wake of the Cronulla riots and the sort of hate-filled diatribes that spewed forth at the public meetings into the proposed Muslim school in Camden, it’s an important question. Do we really think that never encountering someone from another religion and/or culture at school is healthy?

The British philosopher Stephen Law went a little further when he described religious schools as "the psychological equivalent of foot-binding" and said "they turn children into moral sheep". Is this what we want for future generations of Australians?

Thanks to the Liberals, there are more private religious schools in Australia than ever before, a state of affairs frighteningly echoed in the British experience where, as Dawkins pointed out in his foreword to Harris’s Letter To A Christian Nation, "our most pious political leadership [Tony Blair] since Gladstone is hell bent on supporting ’faith schools’ … egged on by an heir to the throne … actively sympathetic to the ’us-too’ bleatings of other ’faith communities’ eager for state-subsidised indoctrination of their children".

Professor Frame, in his Acton Lecture, talked about the creation of religious ghettos manifest in separatist schools, sporting competitions and cultural activities: "From such ghettos, demands for exemption from a range of civic duties and obligations, such as voting, jury service and taxation liabilities, are likely to come. I do not believe such a situation serves this nation’s best interests because it entrenches a mood of hostility that can turn very ugly."

Noah Feldman, a professor at the New York University law school and the author of Divided By God: America’s Church-State Problem, agrees. In an article in The New York Times in 2005 he wrote: "State financial aid for religious institutions like schools or charities does not encourage common values; it creates conflict and divisions." And this in the US where, as Don Watson points out in his book American Journeys, "religion is on the front line of just about everything".

Feldman goes on to say that "the tradition of institutional separation that must be reasserted goes beyond blocking money for religious schools". That might well be the case, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

Keith Austin is a senior Herald journalist.