Whose Religion? Which Secularism?

Secularism ensures space for all faiths and none, not the removal of faith altogether.

The editorial in The Age last month could scarcely contain its enthusiasm that the Andrews government in Victoria had recently decided to end Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in school hours and replace it with lectures on domestic violence and respectful relationships.

The editor writes:

“At last, classrooms in the government school system in this state will be used for what they were intended: academic teaching and not religious instruction. Some 143 years after Victoria’s Education Act made clear that education must be free, secular and compulsory, the Andrews government has committed to abolishing special religious instruction classes during school hours. That is as it should be. The Age has consistently argued over decades that, beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, there should be room for lessons about various belief systems and for discussion about ethics and social awareness. But the school hours funded by the taxpayer should not be used for indoctrination.”

As I see it, this statement illustrates the fundamental problem we have with “secularism” and “religion” in Australia. Few people, not even educated journalists, have a clear idea of what these terms mean. It is a problem that stems from a lack of religious literacy.


What is secularism?

First, we need to understand the origins and meaning of secularism. Secularism is (ironically) a uniquely Christian and Western construction. Secularism emerged in post-Reformation Europe as a way of curtailing Protestant and Catholic rivalries, promoting religious freedom and reducing religious influence on the affairs of State. The German Reformer Martin Luther himself taught a political theology of “Two Kingdoms” whereby Christians lived simultaneously in two separate but parallel spheres of church and the wider culture.

When European States ceased enforcing one particular brand of Christianity on their subjects, whether it was Protestantism or Catholicism, citizens were relatively free to choose which version of the Christian religion that they wished to adhere to without fear of reprisal. It became a natural consequence, especially concurrent with the advent of philosophical rationalism and developing political theories stressing individual freedoms, for the choice to be whether one even wanted to be religious at all. Thus, secularism emerged in Christian Europe as a way of dissolving religious sectarianism, neutering the political ambitions of the Church and promoting religious freedom.

The Australian constitution was drawn up in this context, and Australia was intended as a secular nation. However, this secularity was never intended to sanitize the public square of religion. It was “secular” in the sense of ensuring that sectarian divisions in the old world would not be imported into the new.

The meaning of secularism in Australia has evolved from non-sectarianism, to pluralism, to militant anti-religious perspectives.

This is why there is still so much religious paraphernalia in our constitution and parliamentary traditions. The assumption of our founding documents and practices was that most people would be religious at least some of the time, and they were free to choose when, how and where. Consequently our secular education system was never envisaged as prohibitive of religious instruction, only prohibitive of one religion being allowed to be imposed and to dominate.

In the post-World War II period, secularism became a great platform for multiculturalism and pluralism. This happened initially by virtue of our place in the British Commonwealth, which was diverse both culturally and religiously, and where Commonwealth countries facilitated heightened levels of interaction and transmigration.

Secularism subsequently became a way of supporting multiculturalism whereby numerous cultures with their diverse customs and religions could co-exist in a society that had no mandated religious adherence. Where religion is a matter of conscience, then relative freedoms and opportunities abound. This is not the case in many parts of the world. It was not true of the old communist bloc in the 1950s-90s, and it doesn’t apply to much of the Middle East today, for example.

It is in the early 2000s that we see a different approach to secularism emerging – a redefinition of secularism as the partitioning of religion from the public sphere. The gradual uncovering of sex abuse scandals in religious organisations and the growth of Islamic jihadism meant that, for many, the two dominating images for religion have become paedophilia and terrorism. This led to a wide-scale antipathy towards religion.

On the back of this, the movement of “New Atheists” offered scathing and acidic critiques of religion as an enemy of a tolerant and pluralistic society. The most successful move of this group has been to redefine secularism, no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.

Thus, the meaning of secularism in Australia has evolved from non-sectarianism, to pluralism, to militant anti-religious perspectives.

But it gets even more complicated. Secularism is not a monolithic concept and it is better to speak of secularisms in the plural. The secularism of Turkey is different to the secularism of France, which is different again to the secularism of Britain, and different again to the secularism of the United States. When people say “Let’s have secularism!” my instinctive reflex is to ask, “Sure, which one?”

Religion itself is very hard to define; academics do not fully agree on what it is.

And it gets worse again. Another thing we have to remember is that in most places in the world – especially the Middle East, parts of Asia, Africa, and even Russia – there is no secularism. In many cultures religion is simply infused with economics, politics, national identity and other cultural facets of life. Religion forms an integral part of social identity, civic customs and ethnic boundary markers. For many, to be Russian is to be Russian Orthodox, to be Malay is to be Muslim, to be Thai is to be Buddhist. Secularism is not globally shared.

Here’s the gist: secularism has undergone significant changes in Australia, there are different species of secularism across the world, and most regions in the world are not secular in the sense that many Westerners prefer.

What is religion?

Next, we need to understand why people are religious. The impression I get from years of reading some sections of the media is that religion is a lot like pornography: a mostly repulsive thing, which should be done only in private, and safely away from public view. The problem is that this assumes a jaundiced and caricatured idea of religion as an ideology, and one essentially hostile to so-called secular values of tolerance and pluralism.

Religion itself is very hard to define; academics do not fully agree on what it is. But one thing is certain: “religion” cannot be reduced to dogma instilled by indoctrination. Religion, in most places, is a way of life, lived under the auspices of certain beliefs about the divine and an orientation towards supra-natural realities.

I think it worth mentioning that religion is actually an attractive option for several reasons:

  • Religion can create a sense of identity – not merely a convenient tag, but a way defining oneself among a swirl of local sub-cultures.
  • Religions often contain rituals that infuse meanings into elements of life including birth, marriage and death, and give them transcendent significance.
  • Religions tend to see life as teleological, in that life has a meaning and a purpose – a welcomed alternative to secular anthropologies that promote either nihilism (life is meaningless) and or hedonism (consumption and pleasure as goals of life).
  • Religions often prescribe ethics and values, in relation to honouring the divine, but also behaviour towards others.
  • Religions create communities, hubs of families, which are often racially diverse and united by a common form of worship.
  • Religions imbibe a sense of hope, believing that it is possible to construct a better future, and to believe that God is working immanently in the world to bring one about.

In sum, religion is a blend of identity, symbol, purpose, behaviour, community and hope. If this is what religion is, then at its best it can make significant contributions to the lives of individuals and to our communities.

The way forward

I actually believe in secularism; I think it’s the best way to promote peaceable social relationships in a society which includes people of all faiths and none. But we have to stop allowing journalists and politicians to insist on this non-sense that secularism means – and could only ever mean – the removal of religion from the public square.

The greatest achievement of Australian secularism is allowing peoples of all faiths and no faith to create a respectful space for each other, not the exclusion of faith communities from the public square.

Religion is more than dogma and rules. It is a mixture of worldview and praxis that permeates all of peoples’ lives. We should remember that religion has had a prominent place in Australian history, and religious organizations form the backbone of our welfare network. Faith communities and the state can work together for the common good, and religion is an inalienable aspect of human existence, like music, art and literature.

What’s more, religion is remarkably robust – it is not going to disappear. So it is far better that we treat religion as indelibly part of human life than as something to be begrudgingly tolerated and excised from public life.

Michael Bird is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College, Melbourne, and is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.