Toward a Secular Australia

Secularism in Australia 2018: left out alone in the cold asking for reason and decency

Happy Darwin Day! Today is Charles Darwin's birthday and this blog takes a look at some secular issues and religious freedom in Australia in 2018. This is a transcript of my piece on last week’s Skeptic Zone podcast. You can hear that here.


I want to start this little rant by clearly stating I have no problems with anyone believing whatever they like. No religion is too weird, no cult too loopy that, if someone wants to follow those beliefs, who am I to stop them? Go right ahead. Knock yourself out on your spiritual journey of self-discovery. You can even drop me the occasional post card from your travels, let me know how you’re getting along. I’m happy for you!

But don’t expect me to join you.

There are only three caveats that I have about religions and belief: your beliefs must not harm you or others. You have no right to impose your beliefs on anyone else. And all your beliefs and practices must conform to the secular laws of this country.

That is what secularism is all about. Freedom of religion but also freedom from religion.

Personally I have no beliefs. I don’t think that belief is a particularly useful way to gain knowledge. To me, “belief” is about accepting a proposition without evidence, and that is a complete anathema to me.

I consider myself rationalist; I only accept what the evidence tells me to accept. So, bereft of evidence, beliefs don’t enter into my equations.

Given my three caveats around beliefs, I get very angry when I see various churches and other religious groups wanting to act outside of the laws of Australia. Claims for such actions are usually put forward under the name of ‘religious freedom’, but such actions are, in fact, usually the opposite.

Religious freedom is the freedom to choose what religion you want to follow and to involve yourself in the practices of that religion.

Freedom from religion means that you should not have to put up with the doctrines or practices of religions that you don’t agree with.

The latest kerfuffle about Religious Freedom centres around The Ruddock Review. This was set up to appease some of the more strident churches and other religious groups after the same-sex marriage debate concluded late last year. Their contention is that their religious freedoms will be affected if they are forced to recognise same-sex marriage.

What they are seeking is the right to operate outside of the secular-laws of Australia. Specifically, they want exemptions around Australia’s international obligations as well as Federal and State laws concerning freedom of thought, conscience and religious belief.

They want the right to discriminate.

Ironically, they already have that. As pointed out in a 2015 submission from the Law Council of Australia to the then human rights commissioner Tim Wilson, there are already strong protections for freedom of religion in Australia.

To quote from that submission “... under some state and territory antidiscrimination laws, if there is a conflict between religious freedom and equality before the law, the right to discriminate on religious grounds maybe justified but only when and if necessary”.

What the Law Council of Australia is saying there is that religions already have the right to discriminate contrary to the common-laws of Australia.

Why should any group, be they religious or otherwise, be given special privileges above the laws of the nation? As we have seen from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, that is a very dangerous thing to do. That Royal Commission revealed a gut-wrenching litany of child abuse across many churches and other religious institutions. In many cases the clergy didn’t even realise they were acting outside the law and, in no case did the church leaders take the offenders to the police.

Plainly they were putting church law above common law. And it got worse when the recommendations of the commission were finally released.

One of those recommendations was that the doctrine of the Catholic Church around the sanctity of the confessional should be revised. In other words, if a priest hears a confession of sexual abuse of a child, they should report that to the authorities. Predictably, instead of the Catholic Church giving careful consideration of this and other recommendations from the commission, they came out swinging that this was an abuse of their religious freedom.

Some clerics even came out and said they would rather go to jail then break the seal of confession.

In my view, if any crime is covered up under the guise of religious freedom, then a gaol term is probably the correct punishment. That is not an expression of religious freedom, it is aiding and abetting a crime. No laws should be suspended at the door of the confessional.

This is why I, and so many other people, are getting steamed up about the Ruddock Review. I am an Ambassador for the National Secular Lobby, a group who promote secular policy in Australia. We put in a submission to the Ruddock Review that basically said there are already too many protections of religion and that all religious practices ought to be bought back into accord with Australian law. But most of the other submissions have been from religious groups arguing for more protection of what they see as their religious freedoms; the freedom to discriminate, the freedom to act in secrecy, the freedom to act outside of the law.

While that voice must be heard in a free and fair society, that path must not be followed. Get religion out of Australian politics and bring all religions back to being law-abiding organisations.

And do you want to know what really shits me about this whole issue? We, the non-religious, are only asking the religious to act with decency and moral clarity. Those are supposed to be the domains of the religions! Why can’t they behave as they preach?


While it might be short notice, submissions to the Ruddock Review close this Wednesday. Why don’t you let them know what you think about this issue?

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