Date: 
Friday 20 November 2009

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Are we really the secular nation we think we are?

Author: Graeme Innes AM, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Publication: The Punch, (Friday 20 Nov 2009)


Everyone has the human right to freedom of religion and belief. But often religion and belief can be used as grounds for discrimination and as weapons of division and hate. As a nation, we need to make sure that this does not happen.

Over the next three weeks there are two very different religious conferences being held in Australia. One is the Parliament of the World’s Religions conference in Melbourne, with the theme, ‘Making a world of difference: Hearing each other, Healing the Earth’. The other, this weekend, is the National Conference for all Concerned Christians in Sydney, themed ‘Australia’s Future and Global Jihad’.

Australia is a nation of many religions and beliefs. Some people say we are a Christian nation. More often than not, we are described as a secular nation. But which is true? And why, if at all, does it matter?

The answer is that it shouldn’t matter. However, increasingly, we are finding that it does. It seems to matter more and more as world events act to shape our society and influence our community, as our population grows and more and more of our citizens come from other countries and cultures.

The claim that Australia is a secular country is based on a couple of facts. Firstly, and to get technical, it is because section 116 of our Constitution states that parliament cannot discriminate against people because of their religion. It also says that religion must not be a prerequisite for office, nor can the state establish or promote any particular religion.

The second is based on what could be described as our rather relaxed attitude towards institutional religion and scepticism towards its more austere expressions. Australian census data over the last century indicates that Australians are becoming decreasingly Christian. Church attendances - across all denominations - are generally falling, and we increasingly claim to have ‘no religion’.

This does not necessarily mean that we are less religious. Many Australians continue to have a sense of the spiritual, or they express their faith privately, or outside of institutional settings. But it is a fair observation that Australians, like many Europeans, enjoy a somewhat secular outlook on life.

As Australians, this might give us a feeling that secularity is ‘normal’. It isn’t. Across the world there has been a massive resurgence in religious belief.

The 21st century world, many argue, will not be increasingly secular. Our reality is likely to be increasingly religious. And not only will it be more religious, it will be more culturally diverse.

There are also a number of compelling global demographic facts at play. Populations are growing rapidly. This growth is primarily Asian and African. Wealthy ‘western’ nations are facing population decline or stagnation.

This means significant migration into these countries, including ours, will be necessary for their future economic and social functioning. And ever-increasing processes of globalization will only encourage cultural, economic and social exchanges through the movements of racially, linguistically, ethnically and religiously diverse peoples.

These are neither good nor bad facts. Their consequences will only be understood once we see how religion and culture come into the picture. And this will depend upon both the way our political leaders provide moral leadership on these issues, and how our citizens adapt to a radical increase in exposure to this diversity.

Increasingly, we are seeing our political leaders talking about their personal faith. Unfortunately, however, we are not hearing them talk as much about respecting diversity, multiculturalism or saying ‘no’ to race hate.

Inevitably, there will be a range of reactions and a great diversity of views. Many of the mainstream Churches are already engaged in these changes, seeing great opportunities to attract new converts and to minister to the needs of people, regardless of racial and cultural difference.

Religion, as is often forgotten by those without religion, has its roots in compassion, reciprocity, charity and peace-building.

But religion, like political ideology, can also have its dark side in the form of hate, exclusion and fanaticism.

Respecting the importance of these issues and the role that faith plays in the lives of many people, the Australian Human Rights Commission and our partners are conducting research into freedom of religion and belief in Australia. These freedoms are complex and sensitive.

Certain individuals and small and religiously conservative organizations have expressed alarm about conducting this social research. And small cogs can often squeak more loudly than the hum of a big engine.

At one of the conferences held this weekend – not surprisingly, the one with ‘Jihad’ in its title - some of the extremist voices from the ultraconservative fringe will gather and pretend that they represent a Christian, if not Australian, majority.

This is a free society, of course. And these people have a right, like any body else, to express a view - so long as this does not incite violence, or defame people.

But it is imperative that these views be seen in perspective by we, the ‘average majority’, which they will certainly claim to represent.

The world is changing. Australia is changing. The demographic, social, economic, cultural, political and ecological facts scream this at us, every day.

If we are to have a peaceful, respectful future, then all of us must learn to make a leap of faith and trust.

Demonising religions, such as Islam, spewing forth hate about gay people and vilifying women who want some control over their own bodies - for example - may make for entertaining, alarming stories in the media. But hate and moral vanity should always be called by its name. Only in that way can we hope to build a civil society.

Religion has, and will, have a critical role in doing this. But it will be the religious voices of love and acceptance that will contribute to a right and just future.