I have just read online what I regard as a brilliant and honest article about our public holiday system.
I was brought up in the UK in a Christian household – one verging on puritanism – and we did not confess and get absolution. Life was far less comfortable, because we had to live with a guilty conscience when we knew we had broken the rules!
Over time, having a scientific, logical background, I have become an agnostic (hedging my bets – maybe there is a god! – so not quite becoming an atheist!) but I largely share Stephen Fry’s attitude.
I am sure we all have our ideas about how religions have developed, and those who claim to be Christian need to acknowledge that there are other religions which are followed legitimately and just as ardently as Christianity.
I was fortunate, in that my C of E secondary school taught not only the Scriptures (as an academic subject, with the option of taking ‘O’ Level and ‘A’ Level GCE exams), but also, in the senior years, Comparative Religion.
We explored all the world’s major religions and I was left with one very clear perspective.
As communities formed and disputes arose, there was a need to develop rules to maintain a reasonably peaceful and cohesive existence. In addition, many natural phenomena, like lightning and thunder, earthquakes, etc, caused extreme fear and concern. So strong men (and possibly occasionally also strong women) claimed to be able to interpret these events (the gods are angry and must be appeased) and as they gained credence and status, they became the high priests who could dictate the rules the community must follow. Basically, they were developing a system of ethics.
As is obvious from Greek and Roman mythology, both cultures had a whole pantheon of gods, as does Hinduism. The Jews and the Arabs were possibly unique in having only one god, whose dictates were interpreted by the prophets.
So, we come to today’s materialistic world, where many still pay lip service to a religion and, because the Church of England is the recognised established church in the UK, as England colonised, so too it also left its religious footprint on its colonies.
Many parts of Ireland were more influenced by the Roman Catholic church, hence in part the ‘troubles’, and many Irish and European migrants have ensured a strong Catholic influence in Australia.
BUT – and it IS a big BUT – the Australian Constitution Section 116 states:
“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
The State and Territory legislatures are not bound by this clause although Tasmania does share a similar one in its Constitution.
Unfortunately, we are blessed (or bedevilled!) with elected representatives who regard their religious beliefs as taking precedence over their duty to represent their electorates’ views. Historically, recognition of major Christian events, reflected in public holidays, is quite understandable. But time does not stand still. Australia is now a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country and – as noted above – our federal government should not favour one religion over another.
It has long been recognised that many Christian festivals have simply taken over the place of previous pagan events. The December solstice in the Northern hemisphere was celebrated as Midwinter but is now Christmas, Easter has replaced the Spring Equinox so that now, given we have many religions, with many festivals, is it not time to rationalise the public holiday system?
There is nothing to stop people who have genuine religious beliefs from celebrating their special occasions, but, as a secular country, I suggest we need to detach our public holidays from any single religion.
Just as we have the Queen’s Birthday holiday (which will no doubt disappear when and if we become a republic), we can designate appropriately timed public holidays without religious affiliations.
We are already being asked to choose another date for Australia Day, while there are many who feel it appropriate to wait until we have suitably recognised the status of our First Nations and make that date Australia Day.
Underneath all this is the recognition that we do need a common system of ethics, divorced entirely from any religious beliefs yet still compatible with those beliefs. The foundation for that system is respect for others, irrespective of their religion, sexuality or origin and most recognised human rights statements would seem like a good starting point.
At risk of labouring an issue I have raised elsewhere and often – the expansion of scientific knowledge enables us now to travel in the air as well as on land and sea AND communicate wirelessly across the world in ways not even imagined when the world’s religions were founded. More recently, research into genetics has established that not all human beings are born as straight males or straight females. So, recognising the truth – that the LGBTIQ community has no choice in the orientation of their sexuality, we now have to fight an uphill battle against those who insist on relying on the scientific ignorance of the founders of their religious beliefs.
After all this, I wonder if we are not too late. After all, the dilatoriness of recent national governments, and not just in Australia, in taking necessary and urgent action on global warming, aka climate change, with its accompanying, and increasingly damaging, severe weather events, leaves me alarmingly and uncharacteristically pessimistic about our having a future!
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