By Brian Morris
There’s a critical element missing from the whole debate on ‘Religious Freedom’ — and it’s one that must be addressed when Scott Morrison’s ‘Religious Discrimination Act’ is finally rolled out during the May election campaign.
Why is it — as a secular nation — we have become spooked on the topic of religion? We don’t communicate beyond our own sphere of beliefs! How is it that basic questions about religious faith are seen as “offensive”? For what reason do media outlets maintain a strict taboo — avoiding discussions which probe the provenance and foundational fallibilities that underpin all religions?
It’s time to confront religion as a man-made concept.
Currently, it’s a minefield. No pun. Discuss Palestine and you’re condemned as either pro-Israel or anti-Semitic; for Syria it’s pro/anti Shiite or Sunni; in Ireland (still) you’re for/against Catholics or Protestants; for Kashmir it’s Hindus vs Muslims; in Surabaya ISIS attack Christians; in Thailand, Buddhists persecute Rohingyas; and in Jerusalem — all three Abrahamic religions claim it as their own. Visualise every current conflict and almost all are internecine or involve two historically combative religions.
Religion is a ‘choice’ — it is not determined by skin colour or gender. And the ‘cultural’ argument just doesn’t wash. Children from every country on Earth are born without any religious DNA — all doctrines are learned, and at some stage in their lives, individuals can choose another faith; or none at all. True; with some faiths, that decision can be hazardous, but it does not change the fact. This is one illustration of how religion divides us.
Religious origins and dogmas remain incomprehensible to the public majority, including many who claim a specific belief. This confusion about religion and its various manifestations — of being “out of touch with the real world” — is just one psychological marker for schizophrenia. And it does seem insane that we cannot openly discuss the fundamental flaws of religion in today’s evidence-based society — four centuries on from “the enlightenment”.
At the core is “Religion” itself; its questionable histories, myths, and man-made dogmas.
God is not the issue here! There is no scientific evidence either way, ‘tho mounting material and circumstantial evidence would suggest no deity. But for Australia, where Christianity is predominant, there are highly relevant questions of provenance surrounding all Christian denominations. Contemporary historians and biblical scholars point to a faith that is built on highly unstable foundations in a Middle-Eastern desert.
Christianity dominates politics, education, and social administration in this country. It is the non-religious voice that has been silenced in the “public square” — not the privileged and well-financed Christian denominations. Token secular views are rarely heard on voluntary euthanasia, pro-choice, and a score of current issues — the loudest media voice comes from archbishops, devout politicians, and a plethora of Christian Lobbies.
A shrewd conservative strategy — promoting a myth of religion being “silenced” — began when the 2011 Census showed ‘No Religion’ had reached 22.3 per cent, pushing out Anglicanism, and falling just 3 per cent short of the Catholic vote. By 2016, ‘No Religion’ ranked highest, at 30.1 per cent (with Catholics at 22.6 and Anglicans 13.3) — and that secular figure will top 50 per cent when the Census question on Religious Affiliation is finally revised.
“Freedom of Religion” became a mantra following the Religious Round Table in 2015 — the meetings of church leaders in 2015, run by the then Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson. Regrettably, belated meetings for secular groups were cancelled at the last minute when Wilson resigned prematurely to prepare for his Liberal Party campaign for the federal seat of Goldstein, which he won in June 2016.
This mantra has run consistently, through to Philip Ruddock’s ‘Religious Freedom Review’ — a last-ditch strategy by (then PM) Malcolm Turnbull to placate his conservative party room, and squeeze through the vote to legalise same sex marriage in December 2017. Ruddock’s Review fielded more than 16,000 submissions — the vast majority coming as proforma emails from church congregations, organised by Christian lobbyists.
Detailed submissions from secular groups — calling for the winding back of religious privileges that provide legal means to discriminate against the non-religious — were swamped by the flood of Christian emails. Religion has this inherent advantage to effectively lobby all governments — even with their diminishing congregations. The secular public do not ‘congregate’ and ultimately lose an effective voice on all progressive social policy. It’s not surprising, too, that Australian parliaments are among the most Christianised in the Western world.
Recommendations from the Ruddock Review have been drafted by the Morrison government which will codify existing discriminatory privileges for all religious institutions. This Religious Discrimination Act will be a significant plank in the Liberal Party’s election platform. And for Scott Morrison, himself a devout Pentecostal Christian, his voice has echoed on the floor of parliament that we need a crusade to save Christianity.
So, will a reduction of religio-political influence come anytime soon?
A turning point could well be the 2021 Census. For decades, Question 19 on Religious Affiliation, has read; “What is the person’s religion?”. That is a ‘closed’ question which assumes every citizen has one! The Australian Bureau of Statistics has been urged for years to adopt an ‘open’ question, similar to other OECD nations — “Does the person have a religion?”. The ‘No Religion’ figure will then run closer to Europe, which is well over 50 per cent.
Meantime, secular and atheist organisations look to the media to be more even-handed and provide equal time to the Christian churches — whose voice has not been silenced, as their leaders claim. Religion does remain divisive; it has lost its moral authority, and it is long overdue that its flawed foundations are openly discussed.
With 40 per cent of secondary students now attending private religious schools, mostly Catholic, it is essential that these students think rationally about the religious doctrines and historical myths they are being taught through 12 years of education. Are we simply creating a new generation with schizoid perceptions of religion?
Philosophical ethics and critical thinking provide the moral and ethical foundations that allow for a rational and compassionate approach to facing the challenges of life. It is long overdue that public education bureaucracies (in every state) provide these essential life-skills to all public school students. But we can expect the mythical Hell to freeze over long before private religious schools deign to teach PE and CT in place of religion! Will mainstream media ever step up and join the debate?
Brian Morris is a former Journalist and Public Relations professional and the author of Sacred to Secular, a critically acclaimed analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm that it does. You can read more about him here.
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