Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Secularist State

This is a response to the article, "In God's name" by Keith Austin, which appeared in the News Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald, 5th July 2008.

In this article Austin makes a case for a secular state, and canvases a number of contemporary issues. His thinking at various points seems confused, and deserves critical comment, which is where I begin this post. Austin begins by contemplating how Australia can 'make any significant progress as a multicultural and multi-religious soceity', and that this situation required us to get 'serious about the separation fo church and state and move[d] towards becoming a secular 21st century society.

Austin makes the point that being a secular society 'doesn't mean an anti-religious one, or a society without values'. He correctly asserts that secularism means a non-privileging of religious positions, and is distinct from atheism. He rightfully criticises those who collapse the idea of a secular society with an anti-religious society.

However, Austin fails to articulate the fact that a society will always have values, and those values will reflect the beliefs of its constituents. The values, or ethics, or a secular society are still grounded in a view about the world, just as a Christian ethic is grounded in a broader Christian understanding of the nature of things. I will return to this point later.

Austin quotes with approval Tom Frame, saying that '[a] truly pluralist, secular society...will..."avoid creating the conditions that can be exploited by those who misread the sacred texts of their religion and confuse persuasion with coercion, and faith with fear...."'. It seems to me here that this lack of clarity begins to become apparent: how does a secularist society determine that groups are misreading their sacred texts? What of faiths that faithfully read their sacred texts and conclude that coercion is consistent with their beliefs? Secularism of this kind runs the risk of depending on a relativist assumption - that all faiths can be assessed on some objective external criteria that is superior to the perspective of those faiths.

Austin then goes on to criticise Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, reported as saying he would listen with greater respect to parliamentarians whom he knew studies the Bible. Austin makes a bifurcation between Rudd's permission to follow his faith as a personal issue, and his right to allow that to influence his public role. Yet, I ask, isn't it equally likely that Rudd will listen with respect to a number of people, and listen less attentively to others? Surely we listen to people we consider to have integrity with greater attention, than to those we know to be hypocrits, corrupt, etc.. Faith is not the only criteria we apply in discriminating those 'worthy of a hearing', though those criteria, inevitably, are related back to a personal ethics and personal beliefs. The question shouldn't be whether a Christian PM will listen with greater attentiveness to those he respects, but whether he will give a hearing to those he disagrees with.

Continuing, Austin criticises elected leaders talking about Christian values, and correctly asserts what atheists and Christians agree on, "to be a Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so" (quoting Sam Harris). Yet, to be honest, isn't this also the position of the majority of adherents of other faiths? To be a Muslim is to believe that other faiths are wrong. To be an atheist is to deny the truth of all faiths that assert there is a god. It's a mark of those belief systems, and one that shouldn't need to be apologised for. The secularist issue is not whether people can hold those positions, but how that will impact civil society. Austin writes, "Political leaders are elected to represent the people - and that's all of them, not just the Reverent Fred Nile's chosen few". This is not a fair and accurate representation of the reality of the Australian political system. At best, our elections allow groups of people to chose a person to represent them, a person who is elected by a preferential-voting system, and so may actually be the first choice of a minority. Furthermore, their conduct in office is not beholden to their election or representation, so it is more accurate to describe them as elected leaders than elected representatives. Our system is set up so that people will elect a person, and by and large expect that elected leader to act in accord with how they have portrayed themselves, not as some kind of 'electorate barometer'.

The next section of Austin's article deals with education, in which he goes on the attack against faith-based schools receiving funding. Here is where I think Austin exhibits some confused thinking. Thinking on education has shifted from being considered, for a long time, a privilege, to now being considered a (human) right. With that has come the peculiar Australian concept of rights as obligations - education is not only a right, it's mandatory. Austin suggests that faith-based schools shouldn't be funded by a secular state. If he checks his history, he'll see that religious schools in NSW threatened to close for their lack of funding, and the state responded by providing funding because it knew it couldn't cope with the influx. Simply put, education is not a value-neutral 'product'. Parents, I would argue, retain the right to raise their children as they see fit, including determining their education. The kind of 'blank-slate' idea that some secularists advocate - raise kids agnostically, teach them objectively about all religions, and then let them decide - is really to default to a relativist ethic without acknowledging it.

Austin quotes Jefferson, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical". To insist that parents who desire the children to go to faith-based schools pay the whole sum is to ask them to do the same - fund secularist, agnostic education systems through taxation as well as pay for the education of their own children. If a secularist state is going to continue a dual right/obligation of education, is it really wrong for that state to fund religious schools, provided it consider all such applications for such schools with impartiality?

Blocking money to religious schools is the issue Austin ends on, an issue I think he's wrong about. But the deeper issue is this - what is the worldview that underwrites secularism, and what ethics is it going to uphold? As a christian, I also advocate a secularist state, but the secularism I advocate emerges from the Christian worldview, a faith that does believe faith must be non-coercive, persuasive not persecutionary. A faith that is subjectively held, but believes in objective truth.

Austin and secularists of his ilk need to own up to their own presuppositions. How will such a secularist society determine its laws? If one's faith-community thinks domestic violence, child abuse, coercion, and the like are consistent and coherent with its belief systems and not illegal, from what perspective will a multi-faith and multi-cultural society legislate against it? Austin likes to quote Jefferson, but Jefferson too is a product of his time and his beliefs, is he right, and how will we judge that?

1 comment:

The Pook said...

I haven't read the article so my comments are based only on your summary.

I don't understand the call for a secular state when we already have one. Australia has never been a Christian nation, nor has there been an established religion, either in the colonies before Federation or in the Commonwealth or States since.

It seems to me what he really wants is not secularism but state atheism. Or perhaps capital 'R' Relativism, where the only religion that will be allowed to say anything is the Religion that says that all religions are true. Which is really a patronising materialist way of saying none are true.

I think what we have already is the best. We don't need to change anything, either towards the secularists like Austin or towards those calling for a more "Christian" state. History teaches us that all previous attempts at creating Christian Commonwealths have ended in dictatorships. And I don't believe there is any such thing as a 'Christian nation' anyway. There are only Christians, living within nations and influencing their societies and laws.