Charles Sturt University
Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

God and Religious Freedom in a Post Secular Australia

23 Feb 2018

By the Rt Rev'd Professor Stephen Pickard, Executive Director of the Australian Centre of Christianity and Culture

What place does religion have in Australian life? A good read on this is Roy Williams, Post God Nation - How Religion Fell Off The Radar in Australia and What Might be Done To Get It Back (2015). Williams argued that historically Christian faith has deep roots in Australia society but no longer; hence his provocative title ‘post God’. Williams made proposals to recover lost ground. It may be a pipe dream. In the event that such a recovery is unsustainable it does beg the question ‘after God what’?

The 2016 Census offers some salutary facts regarding the present state of affairs: 52.1% Christian (88% in 1966), Buddhism 2.4%, Islam 2.6%, Hinduism 1.9%, Judaism .5% plus of course many other smaller religious communities whose voices are increasingly heard; whose cultural and religious traditions enrich our life. So on the one hand it seems that Christianity and other religious traditions are very much alive and significant. This reflects our multi-cultural character; itself a feature of globalization. Furthermore multicultural means multi-faith. As a result of people movements over the past 150 years, and especially post World War II, the cultural and ethnic mix of Australia is such that in a global world Australia has people practicing the religions of the globe. Religion is evidently here to stay, albeit the mix will be very different as Christianity declines in numbers and other religious traditions grow. On the other hand the 2016 Census indicated that 29.6% of Australians indicated ‘no religion’.

So is Australia ‘post God’? Perhaps in the sense that the Church’s influence in our public institutions, political life and business commuanities is far less than it was 50 years ago. Certainly in the last half century government and corporate Australia have become closely entwined. Meanwhile the churches, NGOs and civil society organisations function increasingly from the edges. This is the logic of the triumph of the economic paradigm. The mantra of the modern homo economicus is simple: I consume therefore I am. Can God survive in the market? Or has the divine simply abandoned the endlessly calculating consumer to the idolatries of the acquisitive spirit of the age? Jesus words are both compelling and poignant: you cannot serve God and mammon. Nonetheless, the census stats indicate a certain resilience in matters religious. Allied to this is an underlying disquiet with an impoverished religious state of affairs expressed in the oft stated phrase: I’m not religious but I am spiritual. Maybe there’s a place for God in the cracks of our lives through which we detect an acute spiritual poverty.

Advocates for a post God nation draw attention to a secular Australia which is dismissive, ignorant and prejudiced when it comes to matters of religion and especially Christian faith.  And to some extent they have a point. There is a hard edged secular atheism which leeches the human spirit of its deepest truth. Yet it is worth recalling that originally the concept of ‘secular’ came from the Latin saeculum meaning ‘worldly’; ‘of a generation’; ‘temporal’; of not being exclusively allied with or against any particular religion. In other words the idea of the secular drew attention to any mundane endeavour. The secular opened up places of freedom in which religion might be practiced. The dichotomy and conflict between religion and the secular originated in the 18th century European Enlightenment. Religion was effectively reduced to the private sphere (notwithstanding the continued public practice of religion). These days the ‘secular’ has become associated with an anti-religious sensibility. Religion is often regarded as the irrational threat to stable, secular peace and good order. This modern imagining reckoned that religion could only be tolerated once it had withdrawn from the public square, allowing it to be safely privatized and consigned to the status of cognitive deviancy before a prevailing scientific rationality. Thereafter, religious beliefs and institutions that had once substantially shaped societies were effectively supplanted by new functional sacred realities: the nation state and the market. In a climate of enlightened scepticism and a growing Western hunger for freedom from religious constraint, secular society has insisted on religion keeping its place. But such sidelining has also invited militantly secular agendas–be they communist, fascist or radically free­market–to define reality.

This in turn has generated the current debate about religious freedom in Australia and is the reason for a submission by the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture to the Government Expert Panel on Religious Freedom. We argued that suspicion about religion is not warranted. Religious freedom does not equate with the licensing of cognitive deviancy, on par for instance with indulging the tobacco lobby's socially disastrous denial that smoking damages health. And religious communities are not so obviously the cause of violence, either, given the regularly predatory agenda of markets and nation states during the modern era. Likewise, religion need not be anti-secular. Indeed, serious Christian theology relishes serious dialogue with secular thought, contrary to the mutually self-defining fundamentalisms of militant religion and militant atheism that must be seen for what they are.

The reality of religions and their faith communities, with their public agencies, runs plainly counter to the idea of religion as an essentially private matter to be transacted between the individual and God. Nonetheless the way in which secular authorities regularly view such public church and other religious agencies (regarding their rights as employers, for instance) suggests that the incorrigibly public profile of religious traditions is not considered to be a legitimate dimension of religious freedom. Hence modernity's self-defining suspicions about religion are stubbornly maintained. But the emerging post-secular reality is more complex, and represents a challenge to the common view of religion as a purely personal and private matter unconnected to everyday life in the world.

In an emerging post-secular Australia culture religious beliefs and faith communities are not passing into oblivion; they are here to stay. And they  have much to contribute to the flourishing of civil society. Non-combative dialogue and open engagement furnish significant opportunities for post-secular societies to harness the good will of their religious citizens and sub-groups to the common good. Such engagement provides a model for wider positive engagement  across other social, political and ideological divides.

None of this is about unduly favouring religion. We simply recognise and  acknowledge that certain key conversations and commitments have shaped Western civilization. One of  these is the conversation between Christianity and the  classical  culture of  Graeco-Roman  antiquity, which continues in those many contests where faith and reason find a productive synergy.  One such is the conversation between faith and science, which is by no means purely a matter of contestation. Another example concerns the relationship between autonomy and authority, in which the Church has played a pioneering role in its dealings with other religions  and  with modern nation states, providing a model  for what today's  societies  seek  to  do. Consequently, we can regard the rising post-secular tide as an invitation to recover  things that matter  crucially to us all from these conversations that have defined our identity, without fear that our modern Western society is being called upon to betray its defining commitments. It is in this broader context that questions of religious freedom need to be framed.

In Australia, religious freedom belongs to a suite of freedoms that have to be both respected and nurtured. The key underlying question is: what makes for a flourishing society? And it is a question that applies more widely-for instance, as our defining commitment to honouring individual autonomy and self-determination is balanced with the proper claims of wider society. An obvious example is the right to conscientious objection, which is by no means limited to secular society accommodating the quirks of religious belief. Reflecting on our existing accommodations and commitments in that broader context can help to situate and illuminate questions of religious freedom.

The issues canvassed above concerning God, religion, and the emerging post secular environment of Australia gave rise to an important public seminar held at the ACC&C on the topic A Secular State? Reason, Religion and the Australian Polity. Dr Steve Chavura, Professor John Gascoigne and Dr Ian Tregenza discussed what it means to say that Australia is a secular state. They looked at how this self-conception developed and how the meaning of ‘secular’ had changed over the course of the nation’s history. The seminar raised issues concerning the place of religion in Australia, its viability, credibility and future. All matters close to the heart of the justly famous former Anglican bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Ernest Burgmann. The seminar was a concrete example of the intention of the Centre to host reasoned and robust discussions in a society increasingly deaf to the many voices that deserve a hearing. It is our firm conviction that such engagements are precisely the way this country will truly find wisdom for the common good.