Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. – Matthew 22:21
As debate around the privileged position of the christian church in Australian society slowly grinds its way into the mainstream discourse, it becomes increasingly important to clarify the fundamental issues.
Those of us who believe firmly in the need for a secular state are often shouted down for being amoral, immoral, anti-religious or worse.
It is worth taking a little time to understand the distinction between secularism and atheism.
Justice Michael Kirby spoke about this often, noting that the two terms are often used interchangeably; not just in common usage but also in political and scholarly discourse. The most important part of the distinction is that atheism refers to the beliefs of an individual where as secularism refers to the political principle that the state should be separate from the church.
Pulling together the work of English liberal humanist philosophers Hume and Locke, Kirby puts it succinctly.
Secularism is a principle by which society and its lawmakers ensure that religion does not enter the public sphere in an active way. The object of these principles is not only to stop an excessive interference of religion in the lives of the people but to ensure that people of different faiths (and those of no religious faith) can co-exist peacefully.
Thus India is a society with a huge emphasis on secular government, not because the members of the government do not hold, or respect, religious beliefs but because the diversity of religious belief in India demands secularism. It demands that government define rules around how religions interact and that avoid one religious group interfering with the human rights of another.
The problem with most governments is that they are not truly secular.
One reason for this is that they pander to the majority of their citizens to ensure their popularity. This is as true in dictatorships as it is in democracies.
Another reason is that institutional religion is a handy tool for ensuring the compliance of the population. This may be used overtly, as it is in religious states such as Saudi Arabia, or more subtly as it is in the USA. The truth is that organised religion in is largely a tool of the state invented to harness faith and govern people without the requirement of forceful coercion. The divine right of kings is one expression of this, Emperor Constantine’s latter day conversion to Christianity is a classic example of cynical manipulation and appropriation of religious ritual to empower the state.
As a result of this legacy, a modern democracy such as Australia has a number of regulations and laws in Australia that cross this boundary and confuse the issue. Four examples:
- Churches are exempt from paying tax because they provide a public good
- Church agencies are actively involved and supported in providing welfare services
- Church based educational organisations are actively funded
- Commercial activity is banned on Good Friday and Christmas day
- Parliament prays to a Christian God
- Witnesses in court generally swear on a Christian bible
While atheists actively campaign against the inherent injustice in this favouritism, that does not mean that only atheists oppose the state support of a particular religion, or religious institutions in general.
Indeed, one would expect competing religions to be unhappy with state support of a particular religion, on the grounds of unfairness, if nothing else. The requirement for the state to be even-handed when it comes to dealing with citizens of different religions is the most easily understood requirement for secularism in government. The phrase “regardless of faith” or its equivalent is present in many declarations of rights from the Magna Carta, the US Constitution through to the UN declaration of Human Rights.
The handling of disputes between religions, though, is much more complicated and philosophically much more fundamental. Whether you are religious or not, it is patently obvious, that if religions have different and competing rules over some aspect of behaviour then an untractable dilemma emerges.
Either the differing religions acknowledge the other religion’s right to do things differently, or they go to war to enforce the will of one religion over the other. Secularism is an agreement by the citizens of a state to allow the government to set the rules such that war does not break out. What it effectively does is put the law of the land, above religious law.
This is where the confusion enters the debate. Religious fundamentalists argue that the state has no right to limit any group’s beliefs on the basis that the law of God is above the laws of humanity. Religious moderates accept that the outcome of such fundamentalism is endless hostility and that tolerance involves compromise.
In terms of juggling the tension between fundamentalism and moderation, atheism is just one more belief system. The anti-theists who actively attack religion as a set of false beliefs do just as much to destroy harmonious governance of religious morality as any fundamentalist preacher.
For the sake of clarity, it is critically important that we get the anti-theism out of the advocacy for secular government so we can build the broadest and strongest coalition possible.
The aim of that coalition must be to reclaim the billions in lost tax that we squander on empowering and enriching religions. To achieve that believers and non-believers will have to work together to create a truly secular state that respects one’s right to be religious or not, to follow any god, or cultural practice that does not contravene the laws of the land. It should arguably be a secondary aim of that project to get the religious institutions out of the delivery of welfare and education services, with the possible exception of ministering to their own congregations.
Inherent in the broader project is the requirement to change those laws and regulations that are implicitly or explicitly religious. It does not imply that the laws should undermine the realm of the spirit or pit scientific evidence against faith. Those belong in a different realm and deserve their own discussion.