Render Unto Caesar: An Historical Account of Secularism In Australia
Old Ideas, Deep Roots
For thousands of years of recorded history, and likely thousands of years before that, humans have claimed to know of supernatural beings at work in the world. The nature of the human mind also made it inevitable that, prior to the invention of the scientific method, a plurality of beliefs grew and spread across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas. People have been interested in discussing these beliefs for as long as they have existed. One of the oldest and most concise criticisms of religion comes from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. In summary, it asks why evil exists when the (at that time) Jewish god is supposedly omnibenevolent and omnipotent. The age of this discussion suggests that there have always been those who were unconvinced by the evidence offered by mainstream religion, whether it was the pantheons of the Greek and Roman gods or the monotheisms of the Middle East. This collision of ideas is important, because wherever religion has held sway; it inevitably has a way of influencing politics. This is where the idea of secularism begins to emerge.
Secularism is the idea that “religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society.” It was born from a number of factors: most religions attempt to promote their message to the exclusion of all others; religions have traditionally been hostile to new ideas; and religion has been an extremely effective method of retarding social, scientific and moral development. Secularism is simply a response to these facts. It is important to note that secularism is not the equivalent of rejecting religious belief; it is simply the idea that religious belief should not play a role in politics. Australia has been comparatively free of overt religious divisions but many politicians have held some form of religious belief and even acted on that belief to influence public policy. With a separation clause lifted directly from the American Constitution, this latter approach is unacceptable. The idea that religion should be a source for public policy is logically indefensible. This paper will seek to show, with reference to Australian examples, that secularism is by far the best method for governance in a liberal democracy. To appreciate the principles of secularism and their logical underpinnings, some sectarian societies and secular thinkers will be considered.
Canossa: Unintended Consequences
The Dark and Middle Ages are well known for some of the most barbarous acts ever committed by Western civilisation. From the Crusades to witch burning, these atrocities were almost invariably inspired by various interpretations of the Bible. In the midst of this religious violence, the seeds of secularism were inadvertently sewn, not by a king, but by a pope. In an irony that is impossible to miss, Pope Gregory’s demand for a division of spiritual and temporal laws has led to the current landscape in Europe; one of almost completely secular politics. This happy accident has given the world its most inclusive political apparatus to date. Secularism, even in the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, meant the imposition of religious toleration. It would be several centuries before religious tolerance expanded to include those that professed no faith, but the fundamental structure emerged from Canossa in 1077 AD.
The religious divisions within Europe, and England in particular, are relevant because Australia’s political and social landscape has been influenced by our colonial heritage. After the establishment of the Anglican Church by Henry VIII, successive rulers attempted either to reconcile England with Rome or to establish an even more extreme protestant sect as the State religion. This essentially constant warring between religious sects may have been what lead to the relatively religious character of Australian society in the early colonial period.
Australia: A New Eden?
A distinction must be made concerning the religious denominations of early Australians. With respect to the British military officers, Anglican Protestantism was the overwhelming persuasion. When examining the convicts however, Catholicism and irreligion were the rule, not the exception. This division of religion, further fuelled by class divisions, inevitably lead to confrontations. The Castle Hill Rebellion was one such fracas, involving Irish Catholic convicts stealing weapons and ammunition from the colonial authorities and culminating in the Battle of Vinegar Hill. The religious and class divisions were heightened by the concurrent tensions between Britain and Napoleonic France. Many Irish were deported to Australia after being involved in rebellions in 1798 and 1803. Sectarian intolerance also manifested itself in the prohibition of Catholic chaplains during the first 30 years of the New South Wales colony.
The violence was not always State sanctioned. For most of the 19th Century, the authorities and other English prisoners often subjected Irish Catholics to severe beatings and even death for the ‘crime’ of speaking Gaelic because it was seen as a seditious language. The influx of Irish immigrants after the Potato Famine (1845-9) and their subsequent association with the Eureka Stockade ‘rebellion’ further scored a line between English Protestants and Irish Catholics. It is no great surprise that British feelings of superiority were reinforced by the in-group, out-group dynamic of the Protestant-Catholic divide; religion seems to have this acrimonious affect wherever it comes into contact with alternative ideologies.
The Irish diaspora contributed to a much higher proportion of the Australian population being Catholic than in Britain. This, in turn, lead to more influence for Catholics in the community and in the naissance of Australian colonial politics. The religious division took on a political character, with Catholics being heavily involved with the labor movement and the founding of the Australian Labor Party. Conversely, the Anglican and Presbyterian sectors of society were typically conservative and played an unequal role in Australian business. This trend continued into the 1930’s.
The divisive nature of sectarian politics was made brutally clear during the First World War, when Anglican British loyalists were broadly and enthusiastically in favour of the war whereas the Catholic Irish were openly critical. Inevitably, this brought calls of treason from the conservative loyalists. In retrospect, it could be said that the Catholic Left have been vindicated in condemning one of the most pointless and destructive conflicts in human history. However, at the time, anything less than open bellicosity was treated with disdain and distrust. The Easter Rising was obviously an extremely inconvenient event that served only to intensify anti-Catholic sentiment in Australia, despite nearly instant and universal denunciation by prominent Australian Catholics.
The post-war period did nothing to diminish the hatred and distrust of Irish Catholics by their Anglo-Australian compatriots. The movement for Irish independence was seen as sedition and was rallied against by Australian Anglicans and Presbyterians. In a small way, the suspicion and mistrust that would characterise late 20th century Belfast was flourishing in inter-war Australia. A secular approach to politics and society would not only have been more productive, but also more inclusive of religious difference. By rejecting each other’s religious views, Catholics and Protestants were in effect destroying any hope of a tolerant society, with religious and class differences being instilled in generation after generation through many social mechanics. After Irish Independence was achieved, sectarian divisions were less prominent, and there was no repetition of the anti-Catholic bigotry on the outbreak of the Second World War. Although the social divide between Irish Catholics and English Protestants would be almost completely unrecognisable to us today, it still permeates society, albeit in a less overt manner. The debate surrounding Australia potentially becoming a republic is essentially of the same character: loyalist Protestants versus republican Catholics.
Although the two groups can no longer be accurately described by this religious dichotomy, the origin is rooted in sectarianism. This overview of Australian sectarianism has hopefully displayed the unhelpful and divisive attitudes that religious differences produce when they are allowed to become pervasive in a societies politics and social institutions. Many historical thinkers were of the view that this state of affairs can be overcome with a strict and rigid separation of Church and State.
The American Constitution is often touted as the origin of modern secularism. This is usually because the actual origin, the French Revolution, produced a ‘secularism’ so mired in political dogma as to be almost indistinguishable from its religious counterpart. All of the American founding fathers were at least secular, if not openly hostile to the idea of Christianity. Given the limited information that even these learned men had access to, Deism was the most that they could logically espouse without trespassing onto the traditionally religious territory of claiming knowledge where there is only silence or disreputable texts. This was a controversial view at the time and many conservative Christians today attempt to square their beliefs with the framers’, attempting to impart some transient Christianity to men who were eminently secular. Although, as mentioned earlier, secularism has nothing in principle to do with atheism, it must be acknowledged that proponents of secular politics often come into conflict with religious demagoguery. Given the claims that religions make about reality, a system that does not allow State endorsement of one or other religion can be perceived as hostile to the ideology. The benefits of secularism become self-evident when set against the inevitable background of a pluralistic society.
The American Constitution was a response, not only to the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, but also to the very reason for which America was colonised: to escape religious persecution. As evidenced by Anglicans and Catholics in England; by Puritans in America; by Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa; and by Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, any attempt to establish a State religion and enforce its observance on the entire population leads only to persecution and bloodshed. The push for conformity unavoidably comes at the cost of scientific, social and moral progress. Consider Galileo: he used the tools of science to observe the movements of the sun, stars and planets to determine that the Sun was at the centre of our Solar System, as opposed to the Earth. This seems like an uncontroversial statement to make now, but in the 17th century this was heretical. This is because the Catholic Church dogma of geocentrism was widely accepted and had a biblical source. In a secular society, the opposition of scientific facts based on religious arguments would have been unintelligible. This is but one of the benefits of a secular society; an approach to knowledge that does not defer to ‘sacred cows’, only to empirical reality. This not-so-ancient opposition to seemingly obvious scientific truths may seem quaint to modern observers, but the same opposition can be seen in contemporary society, if only towards social and moral issues.
Proselytising in Schools
The School Chaplaincy Scheme is a much maligned LNP policy to, ostensibly, give school children access to quality pastoral care. This is belied by the fact that under the policy, secular pastoral care workers are excluded. The policy essentially provides funding to explicitly religious organisations to “encourage reflection about the spiritual dimensions of life.” The six members of the National School Chaplaincy Association are all Christian. On first glance, this appears to be in direct contradiction to section 116 of the Australian Constitution; the government is paying explicitly religious organisations to provide ‘spiritual guidance’ to children and specifically prohibiting secular pastoral care workers from being included in the scheme. This is troubling on several levels.
Firstly, it is inevitable that some chaplains will proselytise. This is unacceptable. Children are impressionable, especially in the emotional circumstances that often lead to a visit to the school counsellor. No religion has even slightly compelling evidence in its favour and to take advantage, even inadvertently, of a child’s emotional turmoil to foist a baseless understanding of life’s “spiritual dimensions” is both unconstitutional and immoral. Secondly, the government is prohibiting counsellors, who could offer a secular understanding of grief and bereavement, from being included in the scheme. This is because the government, or at least Tony Abbott in particular, seem to labour under the illusion that religion is the only realm of discourse that has anything to say about ethics, morality, grief, or death. This is patently false and misleading. A secular view of death or other misfortunes at least has the virtue of being grounded in a scientific understanding of reality. “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” These issues would be non-existent if the Australian government was making policy based on secular reasoning, rather than on the outdated notion that religion; conveniently, the Christianity of the Prime Minister; has a monopoly on morality and spirituality. We need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to have a comprehensive grasp on sadness and the way it can impact vulnerable children.
The Inevitable Objection
The debate surrounding same-sex marriage is often mired in religious objections stemming from one inconsistent text or another. This is not an issue in political terms, only logical ones. However, the Prime Minister’s public and consistent statements that his stance against same-sex marriage has a religious basis are totally contrary to the principles of secularism. By imposing his religious beliefs on the political process, the Prime Minister is essentially forcing a religious conception of marriage on many who do not agree that Bronze Age mythology should govern our social constructs. This is why secularism is important; because it can both protect the religious conception of marriage, however discriminatory, and allow for a more inclusive definition at the same time. A secular solution would be to allow people of the same sex to get married. This wouldn’t force Christians to get married to a person of the same gender as them; nor would it force a priest to marry a same-sex couple because of his idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. It would allow for religious freedom and civil rights. This is blindingly obvious, and yet with a leadership and religious community that fails to acknowledge it, there has been no progress. Instead, it is argued that legalisation would mean taking away religious liberties. This is flagrantly untrue: if a believer asks for non-believers to be subjected to their idea of marriage, they aren’t asking for their liberty to be respected. They are asking for submission.
In Conclusion: The Need for a New Enlightenment
It should be patently obvious that secularism is a system of political discourse that can serve Australian society, and global society generally, far better than deferring to any particular religious denomination. Not only does it allow for a plurality of beliefs to exist within countries, it also stifles sectarian violence and prejudice of the kind in 19th and 20th century Australia. Secularism provides an environment where scientific, moral and social progress can be discussed without having to submit to faith. It is the only societal structure that we know of that fosters both diversity and consensus. “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
 James Mellaart, Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (McGraw-Hill, 1967) p. 181.
 Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome (W.W. Norton, 2007) chapter 2.
 Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, Addressing Epicurus’ quote about God willing to prevent evil (No Date) <https://carm.org/epicurus-god-willing-to-prevent-evil>.
 Merriam-Webster, Secularism (2015) <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/secularism>.
 Hilary Carey, ‘An Historical Outline of Religion in Australia’, academia.edu (September 2009) <https://www.academia.edu/398970/An_Historical_Outline_of_Religion_in_Australia> p. 2, para. 2.
 Independent Australia, Tony, religion and the dumb country (25 September 2013) <https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/tony-religion-and-the-dumb-country,5759>.
 Marion Maddox, ‘An Argument for More, Not Less, Religion in Australian Politics’ (2009) 22.3 Australian Religious Studies Review at 347 para. 2.
 New Statesman, Europe’s first revolution (9 October 2008) <http://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2008/10/europe-christian-essay-less> paras. 11-13.
 Ibid para. 15.
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 Hilary Carey, ‘An Historical Outline of Religion in Australia’, academia.edu (September 2009) <https://www.academia.edu/398970/An_Historical_Outline_of_Religion_in_Australia> p. 2, para. 1.
 Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Longman, 1996) at p. 352.
 Above 10 at p. 1, para. 5.
 Lynette Silver, The Battle of Vinegar Hill (Watermark Press, 2002).
 Above 11 at p. 116-8.
 John Rickard, Australia: A Cultural History (Longman, 1996) at p. 88.
 Thomas Keneally, The Commonwealth of Thieves (Random House, 2005) at p. 148, 181-4, 480.
 Ibid at p. 227.
 Philip Knightley, Australia: A Biography of a Nation (Vintage, 2001) at p. 57.
 Above 15 at p. 36
 ABC, The Religion Report: Sectarianism, Australian style (September 2003).
 John Rickard, Australia: A Cultural History (Longman, 1996) at p. 147.
 Philip Knightley, Australia: A Biography of a Nation (Vintage, 2001) at p. 80.
 Above 21 at p. 119.
 Simon Blackall, The People Who Made Australia Great (Collins Publishers Australia, 1988) at p. 147.
 Above 22 at p. 96-7.
 Hilary Carey, ‘An Historical Outline of Religion in Australia’, academia.edu (September 2009) <https://www.academia.edu/398970/An_Historical_Outline_of_Religion_in_Australia> p. 2, para. 3.
 Above 21.
 Britannia, Europe in Retrospect: A Brief History of the Past Two Hundred Years (2015) <http://www.britannia.com/history/euro/1/2_1.html>.
 Archiving Early America, Document Proclaims Secular Government (2015) <http://www.earlyamerica.com/early-america-review/volume-2/secular-government/>.
 Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Publishing, 2009) at p. 65.
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 Wikipedia, Galileo Galilei (2 August 2015) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei#Controversy_over_heliocentrism>.
 Above 29 at p. 255.
 National School Chaplaincy Association, About School Chaplaincy (2015) <http://schoolchaplaincy.org.au/>.
 Matthew Knott, Tony Abbott to keep secular workers out of school chaplaincy program (27 August 2014) <http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbott-to-keep-secular-workers-out-of-school-chaplaincy-program-20140827-1091u0.html>.
 Above 34.
 Constitution of Australia Act 1901 (Cth) s 116.
 Inside Story, School Chaplains: Time to Look at the Evidence (21 July 2011) <http://insidestory.org.au/school-chaplains-time-to-look-at-the-evidence>.
 Above 34.
 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (Random House, 1995) at p. 12.
 Matt Akersten, Student asks Abbott: “Why are you so against legalising gay marriage?” (15 March 2014) <http://www.samesame.com.au/news/10688/Student-asks-Abbott-Why-are-you-so-against-legalising-gay-marriage>.
 Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Publishing, 2009) at p.277.
 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (Random House, 1995) at p. 12.