A Vision for a Secular Australia: Talk Notes

Notes for a debate I participated in at the University of Melbourne, 18 August 2016

Key principles

  • Begin from the premise that Australia is a liberal democracy, and should strive to best implement this form of governance
  • A liberal state does not enforce one vision of ‘the good life’ on its citizens, but which seeks to establish a free, fair, and cohesive society in which individuals can pursue their own vision of the good life, subject to the no harm principle
  • The state best achieves this aim when it takes no position on matters of faith or religion
  • A secular state is thus a state where the government abstains taking a side or conferring any advantages or disadvantages on the basis of religious belief, or lack thereof
  • Secularism is thus a position about the proper relationship between the government, including legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and its citizens and their religious practices (or lack thereof)

What secularism is not, or should not be

  • State atheism: enforced or promoted atheism is just as contrary to secularism as having a state religion
  • Opposition to Christianity: while in Australia a focus on Christianity is natural, secularists should be just as concerned about any efforts to privilege or disadvantage any other religious or irreligious belief
  • Total privatisation of religion: expression of faith can still be a public activity in a secular state. I’m not an advocate of the hardline French model of laicite, which I think is anti-liberal. Religion can be taught in the streets and promoted by public figures, be cannot be promoted or disadvantaged by the state
  • (Most controversially) separation of religion from politics: religion always has and always will have political dimensions, and secularists should not try to forbid or remove this. A liberal state needs to allow for freedom of exercise of political beliefs, including on religious grounds. Such beliefs, however, ought not have the effect of specifically benefiting or disadvantaging religious groups through government policy

Some policy applications, deriving from these principles

  1. No government-funded chaplains in schools
  2. No institutionalised prayers in parliament
  3. No special provision for SRI in public schools
  4. ‘Advancement of religion’ not considered a charitable purpose
  5. No special religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws
  6. No government preference for funding to religious charities or social institutions
  7. Government standards of service applicable to all government-funded institutions, with no special religious exemptions (in particular, access to reproductive services provided by all government funded medical centres, provision of age appropriate sex education at all government funded schools)

Why Christians should endorse Secularism

  • History of Christian persecution by authorities:
    • Persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire
    • Persecution of those attempting to translate the bible into vernacular
    • Corruption and abuse associated with mixing of religious office and political power
    • Persecution of Protestant reformers
    • Persecution of dissenters and other Protestant minorities
  • Religious freedom was in large part invented by Christian minorities wanting religious freedom. Atheists and agnostics likewise have a long history of persecution for their beliefs. It is precisely because of this shared history that we should join together in support of a secular Australia
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