Why The Prime Minister Is Wrong About The Separation Of Church And State In Australia

Max Wallace

On 28 February Democrats’ Senator Allison moved a motion which had as its intention a legislative change towards Australia separating church and state. The Prime Minister responded on 2 March that

What the separation of church and state means in this country is that there is no established church .. we don’t have the Anglican Church as the official state religion, that’s what it means.

He continued that the Democrats motion was

… an absurd proposition which shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of the separation of church and state.

In defining separation of church and state in this way the Prime Minister was echoing the words of Edmund Barton, the man who was to become Australia’s first Prime Minister. In the course of debates about Australian Federation Barton said in 1897:

The whole mode of government, the whole province of the state is secular. The whole business that is transacted by any community, however deeply Christian, unless it has an established church, unless religion is interwoven expressly and professedly in all its actions – is secular business as distinguished from religious business.

He went on to say

In these colonies where state aid to religion has long been abolished, the line of demarcation is most definitely observed.

The reference to the abolition of state aid to religious organisations in the nineteenth century is the way into explaining why the Prime Minister is wrong when in 2006 he repeats, in essence, what Barton said in 1897.

The reason is that the High Court in the 1981 Defence of Government Schools/State Aid case interpreted the religion s.116 of the Constitution to mean that far from preventing state aid to religious schools, s.116 should be read to mean that so long as aid was for educational and not religious purposes it was not unconstitutional. In coming to this conclusion the Court swept away the demarcation Barton articulated in 1897. It ignored the fact that religious schools were set up to foster religion.

What the four clauses of s.116 have in common is that they prevent the Commonwealth from doing things concerning religion. The Court told us what the Commonwealth can’t do as opposed to what the Commonwealth can do in respect of religion.

The first, as the Prime Minister says, restricts the Commonwealth from `establishing’ a national religion, presumably by an act of Parliament.

The second restricts the Commonwealth from imposing religious observance on citizens.

The third prevents the Commonwealth from restricting the free exercise of a citizen’s faith.

The fourth says there cannot be a religious test for public office in Australia. For example, one could not be denied a position in the public service because of one’s faith.

In the course of their deliberations on these clauses in the DOGS/State Aid case two Justices made it plain that s.116 cannot be interpreted to mean separation of church and state.

Justice Wilson said:

The fact is s.116 is a denial of legislative power to the Commonwealth and no more ? the provision cannot answer the description of a law which guarantees within Australia the separation of church and state.

Justice Stephen said that s.116:

… cannot readily be viewed as the repository of some broad statement of the principle concerning the separation of church and state from which may be distilled the detailed consequences of such separation.

So here is an extremely significant constitutional issue – the court is interpreting s.116 to mean (1) there is no separation of church and state in Australia while simultaneously asserting (2) that the first clause of s.116 means that the state cannot `establish’ a state church.

To put this in plain English, if the Anglican Church was the `official’ religion of Australia, as it is in England, there could not be a separation of church and state in Australia. As Justice Wilson said:

Establishment involves the deliberate selection of one to be preferred from among others, resulting in a reciprocal relationship between church and state which confers rights and duties upon both parties …

So, one could argue, as does the Prime Minister, that because there is no `reciprocity’ between the Anglican Church and the Commonwealth of Australia, that there is a separation between church and state. But this is to ignore the comments cited above by Justices Wilson and Stephen where they interpret s.116 as a brake on any Australian government separating church and state.

According to Justices Wilson and Stephen and Justices Barwick, Gibbs and Mason all s.116 does is prevent the Commonwealth from establishing a state church. S.116 does not – and this is where the Prime Minister is wrong – simultaneously create, either directly or indirectly, a separation of church and state.

The court did not say `non-establishment’ was equivalent to `separation of church and state’. In fact, two Justices plainly said, as we have seen, that it did not. The DOGS plaintiffs asked the Court to determine that s.116 meant separation of church and state and the Court said it did not.

Professor Charlesworth says that in the view of the Court s.116 was `only a fetter on legislative power of obscure origin.’1

Also, it is ironic that a former senior member of the Queensland Liberal Party published statements in 2002 that contradict the Prime Minister’s view.

Graham Young, who described himself as the chief editor and publisher of On Line Opinion and a former Vice-President and Campaign Chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party, said on 15 January 2002:

The separation between Church and State is an American concept and refers to the establishment of any particular religion as the official religion. From at least the time Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the Church of England there has been no such separation in the UK, and as a consequence no such separation in Australia, which takes its form of government from Britain. Queen Elizabeth is both Queen of Australia and Head of the Church of England, making a clergyman uniquely apt as her representative. (Emphasis added).

So while the Liberal Prime Minister in 2006 says that in Australia -

the separation of church and state means .. there is no established church ?

the former Vice-President and Campaign Chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party said in 2002 there is

no such separation in Australia …

and that

… Australia takes its form of government from Britain.

Young misses the High Court’s very clear statements that there is no established church in Australia. Similar comments on this subject were made by Archbishop Hollingworth prior to this appointment as Governor-General. Writing in the Brisbane Anglican magazine Focus in June 2001 he said:

Those who have raised [the question of separation of church and state] have confused the Australian Constitution with the US Constitution. The only `separation’ that applies here in Australia is to do with those pertaining to the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary of the Commonwealth itself. There is not a clear cut separation between church and state as is the case in the US tradition.

If separation is not `clear cut’, then how can the PM claim that non-establishment of a state church is equivalent to separation in Australia? And what does he say to the Court’s finding, cited above, that s.116 does not mean separation of church and state? The Prime Minister should be aware of this. As Treasurer in 1981, he was one of the three Ministerial Respondents in the DOGS/State Aid case.

Archbishop Hollingworth’s comments were more accurate. Also, there is enough expert opinion to say that, contrary to the Prime Minister’s belief, the Court did not interpret s.116 to mean separation of church and state.2

Also, when we turn to the State constitutions we see there is no mention of separation. Recently, this has allowed the Labor Government of South Australia to appoint the Vicar-General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide to executive positions within the South Australian government.

Speaking at length in the Legislative Council to the Vicar-General’s appointment, Liberal MLC, the Hon. Julian Stefani said on 1 June 2005:

Monsignor Cappo has compromised his position with the church because of divided loyalties between state and church. He cannot serve two masters.

He said:

The perception which the Vicar-General has created is not likely to be removed from the hearts and minds of thousands of Catholics who, like me, disapprove and, in the strongest terms, condemn the acceptance of [Monsignor Cappo’s] three appointments, because we believe in the total independence and separation of powers and functions between the church and the state.

It follows that in his remarks about church-state separation, the Prime Minister was referring to Federal law only. What is clear is that at both the State and Federal levels the situation is a confused mess. The obvious way out of this mess, I suggest, is for Australia to have a Referendum that turns us into a Republic with a new law clearly separating church and state. The Referendum could include a clause that the new law separating church and state would also apply at a state level.

Of course, if you were a Constitutional Monarchist, you would deny there is a problem. That is what the Prime Minister has done. The reason he has done so, I suggest, is partly because as a Constitutional Monarchist, he has a Menzies-like sentimental attachment to the past. On 2 March he also said separation of church and state ?

Doesn’t mean that we abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage, it doesn’t mean we eliminate public … references.

But what about the significant proportions of the population who are not Christian or have no belief? Surely multiculturalism, if it means anything, means that the government recognises a strict equality between all its citizens in its public references and its government. It’s not a matter of forgetting our heritage. It is a question of recognising all of them without preference.

Australia is supposed to be governed by the rule of law. If separation is not spelt out clearly in constitutional terms, if there is doubt, then there is no constitutional separation at all. Where does that leave us?

While it appears the Anglican Church is one among many in Australia, our country of course is a Constitutional Monarchy. At the apex of our system of government sits the Queen of Australia represented here by her Governor-General. The Queen is also the head of the British Anglican Church.

While that does not mean that the Australian Anglican Church is the established church of Australia, the British Union Jack is in the corner of our flag with the crosses of three Christian saints: St George, St Andrew and St Patrick.

It is drawing a long bow, I suggest, to claim there is separation of church and state in Australia when the Anglican Christian tradition, as opposed to others (including non-belief) is so symbolically strong in our culture, and the law, as we have seen, is flawed.

I suggest separation of church and state is impossible within a Constitutional Monarchy. What the Prime Minister is unintentionally telling us that it is time he went and that it’s time that a Republican Prime Minister took over and put an end to the image of Australia as an enclave of British privilege in the South Pacific. It is he that has a `misunderstanding of the nature of separation of church and state.’ The problem is, when you look at the candidates on both sides of politics who might move to separate church and state, it’s hard to see who would do this. As the late Justice Lionel Murphy said of religion, `if put to the test, all might fail.’

But there is an incentive. In a Newspoll carried out on 3-5 February 2006, when asked `Do you think there is, or there is not, a law separating church and state in Australia?’ 46 per cent said `No’. 20 per cent said `yes’ and 34 per cent didn’t know.

When told there is no law `separating churches and religious groups and the governments of Australia, either Federal or State’ and asked whether they would support a law to separate church and state – in round figures – 32 per cent strongly agreed, 16 per cent partly agreed, 18 per cent partly disagreed, 19 per cent strongly disagreed and 16 per cent said `don’t know.’

These figures, I suggest, reflect concern with the impact of religion on politics in Australia and a willingness to find a better modus vivendi.

In addition to the need for Australia to become a secular Republic with both eyes open, there is also the question of what the DOGS/State Aid case was about: money. Billions of taxpayers’ dollars have flowed to religious schools after the DOGS/State Aid case. Since that time public education has been allowed to slowly wither on the vine. Suggestions are emerging now that public education be `privatised’. If there are problems in public education, they are more due to lack of funding rather than just the nature of the curricula, teachers’ skills and other issues. Why wouldn’t public schools lack a culture of learning when the public’s money has been given to private schools on a scale that was bound to lead to the long term denigration of public education? It is time to re-visit these questions and the first step is to clearly separate church and state in Australia.

Max Wallace is a Director of the Australian National Secular Association which is helping to organise a conference on separation of church and state at the University of Melbourne in June.

End notes:

1. Professor Hilary Charlesworth, Writing in Rights, UNSW Press, 2002, p.28.
2. Michael Hogan, `Separation of church and state: s.116 of the Australian Constitution’, Australian Quarterly, Vol.52, No.2, 1981; `Separation of church and state?’ The Drawing Board: an Australian Review of Public Affairs, 2000-2001, University of Sydney.
Professor George Williams, Human Rights Under the Australian Constitution, Oxford, 1999, p.111.

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Creating a better Australia: Reinventing Secularism

By John L Perkins

While society has in many ways become more secular, the public profile of religion in society has seemingly also become more pronounced. As the power of established religion apparently declines, there has been a resurgence in diverse forms of religious expression. These contradictory trends are just as evident in Australia as they are in many other countries. They can be thought of as being the product of multiculturalism and of multiple religions colliding with unresolved global injustice. Dealing with the problems caused by these contradictory tends will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century. However attempting to identify the nature of these problems presents a mass of contradictions, ones generally deriving from those that are inherent in the nature of religious belief itself.

Possibly the greatest hurdle to be overcome is that the contradictions within and between religions are not really considered to be problems. We have become so accustomed to valuing cultural diversity and its benefits that we have tended to assume that any problems associated with the contradictions in cultural beliefs are insignificant or non-existent. Implicitly, society has adopted a form of philosophical relativism, where all cultural viewpoints are considered to be equally valid. Much legislation that deals with cultural issues, in Australia and elsewhere, makes this assumption, which is generally held to be consistent with a liberal progressive tradition. However a policy that assumes that contradictions are not a problem, will itself become a problem if the problems caused by ignoring the contradictions become more significant. This is appears to be what is now happening.

With the secularist trend faltering amidst a religious resurgence, the role of religion in society is increasingly becoming a political issue. Broadly, the issue is becoming a policy choice between secularism and its polar alternative: religionism. Creating a better Australia will require effort in many directions, but the most important may be in re-establishing secular values, particularly in relation to education. The arguments may be difficult and confronting, but they are ones that will inevitably have to be addressed. This essay seeks to outline, from a humanist perspective, the historical background to the issue, its increasing importance, and the arguments for a revival of secularism.

The historical rise of secularism

The appropriate nature of the relationship between religion and the state is an issue with a long history. Since ancient times, superstition and religion have played a prominent role in political affairs. Eventually, scientific discovery and the exposure of the fraudulent nature of many religious claims helped give rise to the Enlightenment and to secularism. After centuries of religious warfare in Europe, secularism heralded a new era of scientific progress and prosperity. Together with establishing political rights, the implementation of secularism was a key feature of the late 18th century revolutions in France and America. Central to these was the thought that human beings could arrive at truth through reason and could construct rational social institutions without the help of religion. The separation of Church and State was seen as critical in achieving this. Religion was to be protected from State interference and the State was to be preserved from religious domination. All would benefit from State impartiality with respect to sectarian issues.

The situation in Britain differed somewhat, where a more a more conservative attitude prevailed, in which the Church of England remained the established State religion. Although the development of political rights in a laissez faire climate allowed major conflict over religion to be avoided, the Church maintained power over all schools in Britain until well into the 19th century. A similar structure was brought to Australia, where in the early 1800s, Anglican clergy were funded by colonial governments to establish schools. In 1831, funding for schools was split between the Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian Churches. In the 1850s however, the first government schools were established. South Australia was the first colony to abolish state aid to religion in 1851, followed by NSW in 1865 and Victoria in 1870. Beginning in Victoria in 1871, each colonial government during the 1870s passed legislation establishing the principle that education should be “universal, secular and free”. In this, in other innovations like women’s suffrage and the secret ballot, and in social wages and benefits, Australia led the world.

The principle of public secular education was maintained up until 1951, when Federal government support for private schools first began to emerge via allowable tax deductions. In 1963, The Menzies government initiated specific grants to private schools, almost all of which were religious schools. In 1973, the Whitlam government institutionalised the Federal funding of private schools, however only 30% of such funds were specified for allocation to non-government schools. This commitment was abandoned by the Hawke government, and the proportion of Federal funding to private religious schools now exceeds 70 %. While education may still be said to be universal, the idea that it be free and secular has been thrown overboard. The entire secularist ideal has been severely weakened by this.

When the Australian Constitution was written, like the US Constitution, it included a provision regarding religion. Section 116 states in part: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for the establishment of any religion, … or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, …”. In Australia, “any religion” has been taken to mean “any particular religion”, whereas in America, “religion” is seemingly regarded as meaning “all religion”. There, government funding of religion, including for religion in government schools and for private religious schools is prohibited. Here, the interpretation has been that as long as no particular religion is “established”, there is little that the Constitution prohibits. The difference in interpretations may partly reflect the different intentions of the constitutional drafters. While in the US case there was indeed a secularist purpose, described by Thomas Jefferson as providing a “wall of separation” between Church and State, the climate of opinion in Australia at the time was rather one of “anti-sectarian endorsement of religion.”1

Although the wall of separation was never as clearly defined in Australia as it was in the United States, it could certainly be argued that the need for a non-sectarian consensus assisted secularism to become established nevertheless. Especially in education, secularism could be said to have been the standard of policy throughout the 20th century. It is no accident that the role of religion in education is considered an important issue. In terms of the dichotomy between secularism and religionism, education is where the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation takes place. Measures of increased secularisation, such as the declining adherence to religion, and the declining church attendance in the latter part of the 20th century may possibly be attributed to the secularist educational climate of the earlier part of that century. To the extent that the balance of the educational climate has more recently shifted toward religionism, we may expect to see the revival of religiosity in society, which already appears to be underway.

The resurgence of religionism

While secularism and the separation of religion from state affairs is still nominally considered an important principle, there does now appear to a reversal of the long term secularist trend. Religionism appears to be gaining ground at the expense of secularism, in Australia and elsewhere. Perhaps paradoxically, this trend may best be understood as a consequence of modernisation, multiculturalism and globalisation, rather than as being in spite of these phenomena. In many countries, more education has often meant more religious education. This, together with greater injustice and greater cultural diversity has opened greater possibilities for cultural friction.

Such friction may be surprising and unanticipated because of the great progress that has been made in banishing other forms of prejudice. It is rightly considered that the development of toleration, particularly with regard to the rights of minorities, has been one of the most significant advances to be achieved over the last century. In response to past persecution, religious and racial tolerance has been successfully established as a means of redressing past injustices. This has coincided however, over the last century, with an increased prominence of religious political ideologies such as Zionism and Islamism, which have also served to kindle a more widespread sense of religious identification and cultural division.

Within the new climate of toleration in many countries including Australia, multiculturalism, rather than secularism, has been advanced as an alternative measure to counteract sectarianism. In accordance with this process, the ideal of “full religious freedom” has been perceived as the ideal. Religionism, or at least multi-religionism, has emerged as something that is not merely condoned by the state, but actively supported and encouraged. While all States and Territories now have anti-discrimination legislation, these laws all give exemptions to discrimination when practised in pursuit of religious purposes. The intention of this, as commonly expressed in legislation, is to “avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities” of religious adherents.2 Further blanket protection of religious practices were suggested in proposals for a Federal Religious Freedom Act. While this has not been pursued, instead, in several State jurisdictions, what could be regarded as undue criticism of religions has been prohibited by religious vilification legislation.

It is within this context that the seismic shift in education away from government schools in Australia and toward private religious schools may best be viewed. Religions have been universally regarded as a force for good, where seemingly, the more intensely religions are observed, the more good is created. The nature of what may be taught regarding religion has not generally been thought as something that should be subject to prudential limitation. It has been acknowledged and accepted that religious schools “seek to teach and to promote the beliefs and values of the particular religion through the whole ethos and life of the school – not merely in religious education curriculum but in all curricula and all other activities”3. The central role that religious education has in specialist religious schools has never really been regarded as a problem. Private schools in Australia are now amongst the most heavily government-funded in the OECD but are the least accountable4.

With the advent of increasing numbers of Islamic schools, some with militant Islamist leanings, the wisdom of this policy is now coming into question. But it is not only the prospect of entrenching division and disharmony amongst our future citizens that is of concern. We seem to have overlooked some of the major philosophical problems of extending multiculturalism into multi-religionism. These involve an implicit endorsement of postmodernist philosophy and moral relativism. Religions have competing truth claims and competing moral claims. An official endorsement of multiple religions implies tacit official endorsement of the concept of multiple truths and multiple moralities. Perceptions of reality are certainly socially constructed, but there are universal truths and universal moral values that transcend cultures and religions. Civilisation itself relies on respect for the fact that there are singular truths, which are discernible by application of reason and evidence. Regarding multiple religions, the idea of multiple truths may be a convenient fiction, but it is not one that governments should endorse.

In a multicultural world, it seems that this postmodernist departure from rationality has clouded our view of what gave rise to modern society in the first place – the application of scientific method. As well as religion, or perhaps instead of it, many other forms or superstition and pseudo-science have increased in popularity as a result. While our own particular cultural myths may be exposed as disappointing frauds, multiculturalism combined with modern marketing methods elicits hope that the new-found myths of other cultures may provide substitutes of significance. Such a false “multiple truth” fantasy world is child-like, but the consequences are far from child’s play. If those in free and open societies like ours are not able to come to this realisation, there is little hope that those living in societies that are more oppressed by religion will be able to do so.

Freedom of thought

In a sense, it is not surprising that multiculturalism has led us down this path. Most people are at least somewhat religious and want to believe that their religions are beneficial for themselves and for society. Through history, persecution of religious minorities has often resulted in what would now be regarded as serious crimes against humanity. Guaranteeing freedom of religion seems like the obvious remedy to prevent repetition of any such iniquity. However an individual’s entitlement to any express any right or freedom must always be limited to the extent that it may infringe upon the rights of others. Has society’s sanguine view of religion perhaps impaired our judgement in this regard, particularly with respect to religious education for children and their development of freedom of thought?

The source and inspiration of much legislation on rights and freedoms and has come from international agreements and declarations. Arising from these, it is widely believed that there is a UN defined right for parents to prescribe a religious education of their choice for their children – what may be called a “right to indoctrinate”. It seems somewhat improbable that such a right should be declared, but there are indeed certain UN declarations that may be interpreted as giving such a right to parents. Although not unqualified, these refer to parties having “respect for the liberty of parents … to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions”5, and the rights of a child “to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents”6.

There are however many other statements that would seem to militate against such a presumed right to indoctrinate, such as the need to direct education to “the development of the child’s abilities … to their fullest potential”, to “strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”, to achieve desirable social outcomes, and in particular the need to protect children against “all forms of discrimination … on the basis of the … beliefs of the child’s parents…”7. In limiting freedom of thought to within what is religiously prescribed, and in instilling possibly divisive religious allegiances, the potential for infringement of these rights arises. Thus, there is scope for alternative interpretations of the seemingly contradictory declarations of such rights, and of related legislation.

Included in many such documents is the declared right of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”8. Left unresolved here is the seemingly obvious contradiction between freedom of thought and conscience, on the one hand, and freedom of religion on the other, especially if this freedom is assumed to encompass the right to religiously indoctrinate children. Where there are conflicts, the right to freedom of thought and conscience would appear to precede religious rights, and the rights of the child would appear to precede those of parents, although this is not something that appears to have attracted legislative attention. There is however at least one legal case, relevant in the European Union, where it has been determined that, “when the right of the parents as regards their religious convictions conflicts with, rather than supports, the right of the child to education, the interests of the child take precedence”9.

All religious schools have as their objective, the promotion of the idea that their own religion is true and correct, which necessarily implies at least this degree of indoctrination. Hence in this sense, a “right to indoctrinate” is widely believed to exist and is widely practised in Australia. Does this situation conflict with our obligation to protect the rights of children, does it meet our educational objectives, and is it in the long term public interest? To create a better Australia, we cannot continue, to ignore these questions.

Even the most ardent religionist advocate would perhaps concede that for most people, adherence to a particular religion is a matter of socialisation rather than rational choice, that religions are based more in faith than rationality, and that as history shows, religions can be divisive. The National Goals for Schooling state, in part, that schooling should develop the capacity of students “to make rational and informed decisions about their own lives”, and that outcomes should be “free from the negative forms of discrimination based on sex, language, culture, ethnicity and religion.10” Private schools in receipt of Federal funding are obliged to adhere to these goals, yet religious schools, by their nature, would appear to systematically violate them. Their acknowledged purpose is to instil a form of socialisation at variance with the full development of rational freedom of thought, while at the same time creating a sense of sectarian allegiance likely to lead to future divisiveness and discrimination.

The policy solution

We are at a turning point in history, where, regarding religion, a long-term change of direction is required – in our perceptions, our expectations and in our institutions. A postmodernist interpretation of multiculturalism is no solution to the age-old problem of religious conflict. Religions are now the major source of global strife and instability. Whatever consoling and charitable benefits religions may provide, these are now far outweighed by the dangers and costs. The moral systems found outside religions are often far superior to those found within them. Rather than implicitly endorsing all religious as true, we need to adopt the equally impartial but rational assumption – they are all false. Wishful thinking, hope and faith form basis for religious inspiration, but in the 21st century, these can have no part in legislative and institutional framework of society.

We have become over-sensitive both in custom and in law, to “offending religious susceptibilities”. Even if the truth, as best we are able to determine it, offends, it should still have free expression, religious susceptibilities notwithstanding. It is a paradox that Mark Twain’s famous quip, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so”, is seemingly a less acceptable social comment now, than it was a hundred years ago. Yet it is more necessary and relevant now that such statements be made. In a world prone to environmental and high-tech disasters, postmodernist multiculturalism has helped to reanimate pre-modern religious ideologies. It is not necessary for us to deny our cultural heritage, but we must recognise its mythological aspects. Each religion aspires to provide cultural truths and cultural moralities that are asserted to be superior to those of others. They thus inevitably engender an undesirable notion of cultural supremacism, that only a universal secular approach can overcome. We must reinvent secularism to counteract newly rampant sectarianism.

In education, the policy implications may be profound, but are little more than what “freethinkers” have long advocated – the promotion of free thought, rather than religious indoctrination. To create a better Australia, either government support for religious schools must be phased out, or private schools must phase out their religious associations, affiliations and curricula. This should start with primary schools. As the founder of the Jesuits once said: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”. Religionist proponents are well aware of the importance early childhood indoctrination. It must be seen as our duty of care to children, and in the long-term interests of an informed and harmonious society, to prevent this from happening. Regarding primary schools in particular, we should simply return to the 19th century ideal of them being universal, secular and free. Secondary private schools should perhaps be given a more extended period in which to make the required adjustments. The newly emerging government support for private religious universities should cease.

Religious tolerance is a valuable ideal and its widespread acceptance is an achievement. Tolerance is, however, a limited form of acceptance. It should not be extended to the acceptance of falsehood, or to practices and customs that infringe basic rights, to the detriment of the creation of a harmonious future society. We already face looming long-term environmental and economic problems of daunting severity. We have no need of compounding those problems with others caused by religious and superstitious irrationality. We need to endorse universal secular values that transcend religions, such as those of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice. Australia once led the world in its expression of these secular and egalitarian values. We should reaffirm these values and re-ignite this vision. In this way, we may create not only a better Australia, but help create a better world.



1. Report on Freedom of Religion and Belief , Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Parliament of Australia, 2002
2. See for example Section 3, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act, 1986, (Commonwealth).
3. Section 4.3, Article 18: Freedom of Religion and Belief, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1998.
4. Section 2, Proposals for Improved Accountability for Government Funding to Private Schools, Chris and Terry Aulich, Australian Schools for Government Studies. Paper commissioned by the Australian Education Union, Nov. 2003.
5. Article 13.3, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dec. 1966.
6. Article 5.2, Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1981.
7. Articles 29.1 and 2.2, Convention on Rights of the Child, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Nov 1989.
8. Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, General Assembly, Dec. 1948.
9. European Union case law, right to education Martins Casimiro and Cerveira Pereira v. Luxembourg, Court decision of 27 April 1999. Refusal to waive the obligation to attend Saturday school of a child whose parents are members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
10. Goals 1.3 and 3.1, The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty First Century, Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, April 1999

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and President of the Secular Party of Australia.
This paper, a prize winning essay in the 2005 essay competition organised by the Humanist Society of Victoria, was published in Australian Humanist, No. 82, Autumn 2006.

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Dr John L. Perkins inverview with Bill Birtles

Transcript of interview of Dr John L. Perkins,
President, Secular Party of Australia
with Bill Birtles 2SER 107.3 FM

Dr John L Perkins (JLP):
Well, the Secular Party has been formed because we wanted to bring a new type of discussion to Australian politics. We want to raise issues that are currently not being discussed and we believe it is of critical importance that they are discussed. And if you like, I’d like to make a statement to illustrate the type of thing that we would like to bring to politics. Consider the following statement – Religions are delusions and they’re leading the world to destruction.
Now that is a statement that you won’t hear any politician make. It is a statement that even in the newspapers you are unlikely to see. Now we believe that that is a true statement. We can put forward a lot of rational arguments to say why that is the case. And given that it is the case, it’s a statement of critical importance, but it is something that is beyond discussion at the moment.

Well I want to get on to your key policy of the separation of Church and State. Many Australians would probably assume that the link in this country between the two isn’t that strong. How strong is it?

JLP: It’s commonly believed that Australia is a secular state but in fact it’s not. When Australia was federated, for example, education was universal, secular and free, whereas at the moment we have 70% of federal government funding going to religious schools, and also at the moment, we have all sorts of intrusions of religious views into political policies into Australia. So the separation of Church and State in Australia is more apparent than real. So one of the key objectives of the Secular Party is to reassert that separation of religion from politics.

Now I refer to a text written recently by Marion Maddox called God Under Howard, where she claimed that these days politicians to try to directly court the religious vote, and we’ve seen this through various leaders appearing at Hillsong Churches and so forth, but on many key issues which are important to religion, abortion being the key one, the PM has refused to open up a debate. So do you think that there really is a need in politics at least to formally separate the Church and State?

JLP: Yes definitely, I think there is. And on this issue in particular, people put forward various opinions, but underlying these opinions, there is a religious persuasion which influences their view. And it is what we regard as being an unnecessary and unhelpful intervention of religious views in politics, and it is not an openly acknowledged one, but it should be.

But surely there’s always going to be the problem that politicians have their own religious views which will influence their decisions in politics, and even if you separate church and state, that’s always going to be there, their own religious views?

JLP: Yes, I agree. But the problem here is that the religious views are having influence but the religious views are not being acknowledged, so people are putting forward their moral ideas on abortion or the contraceptive pill and so forth, but they will not acknowledge their moral views in these matters derive from a religious doctrine, and we regard these religious doctrines as being unhelpful in forming a balanced moral view which is the way political judgements in these things should be formed.

Now religion has always been an important part of Australian society, and in the 2001 census, over 70% of Australians still identified with some form of religion. So do you think that secularisation of the state could still win some form of popular support?

JLP: That statistic also leaves open the alternative that there’s 30% of people who don’t identify with a religion. Now, those people don’t have a voice at the moment. We hope to provide it for them. I think once these views are aired, people will hopefully begin to look at the situation differently. We hope to put forward the view that people don’t need to identify with a religion, and that in fact the identification with a religion is causing a whole lot of problems in the world and within our own society that are not helpful and not necessary.

I want to ask you about your other policies. You seem to put forward a mix of progressive social policy combined with a mix of progressive economic policy. Where would you say you stand on the political spectrum?

JLP: Well we stand right in the middle as regards to left and right issues and we deliberately take a policy stance in that area. We believe that the old left and right battle between labour and capital and so forth is an anachronism. And these issues can simply be resolved by a balance between the interests of the private individual and the public good. All parties, no matter what identification they have, they all seek to achieve a balance in that area. And we believe we can seek to achieve that balance based on rational arguments and judgements and we believe that the primary issue now is based on where society is going between this division between what we’d say is religion-ism and rationalism or secularism, and that’s where we stand – putting forward the argument in favour of secular values and increasing the value of secular values in society.

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The Need for Global Secularism

The need for a new global secularism

By John Perkins

Secularism is the ideal on which modern civilisation was built. Specifically, secularism is the separation of religion from state institutions. More generally, it is a recognition that the affairs of state are too important to be subjected to the whims of ancient myths and superstitions. Secularism was a key historical development because it was primarily the relegation of the status of religion that it provided that allowed scientific progress to take place, from which all technical and economic benefits have flowed. In addition, secularism was the proven solution to centuries of religious conflict in Europe. Despite this legacy, secularism in now under threat.

In the past, the benefits of secularism were more widely recognised than they are today. In the 19th century, although adherence to religious traditions was strong, the advocates of secularism were respected and were reasonably successful. For example, public schools in Australia at that time were founded on the principle that education should be “universal, secular and free”. While public expressions of religious observance were common, there was a general acceptance that political decisions should not display overt religious bias, particularly in the Catholic versus Protestant context.

It may now be largely overlooked, but the economic backwardness that strict religious adherence could engender was also at one time well known. This was particularly apparent to the colonial governments of the Arab states in the 18th century and into the 19th. Seen then as a choice between “mechanisation or Mecca”, local populations tended to choose the latter. Ataturk certainly recognised this deficiency in the Ottoman legacy and was determined to overcome it in building modern Turkey. While his view that Islam was little more than superstition was not popular, being the victor at Gallipoli, Ataturk’s national stature as a military leader was such that he was able to abolish the Caliphate and impose secularism on Turkey. His reforms, safeguarded at times by the military, remain in place to this day, despite opposition from Islamists.

Secularism in general however is now very much in retreat. Almost everywhere politicians seem to be overtly propounding their religious credentials. This is despite the fact that populations have become less religious. The explanation for this paradox lies largely in the nature of globalisation and multiculturalism in the context of the conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The abandonment of secularism, at least amongst political elites, has complex causes, but the effects are becoming increasingly dire, to the extent that those in significant positions of power and authority suffer from a mental outlook that now represents a dangerous disconnection from reality.

The problem of reality disconnection
When societies were more culturally homogenous, religion could more easily be criticised, since cultural sensitivities were less threatened. As we became more ethnically diverse, the ethos of multiculturalism was highly successful in fostering tolerance and in assisting the advancement of minorities. The acceptance of cultural diversity certainly does help in fostering social cohesion. However religions are cultural phenomena, and multiculturalism has had the adverse effect of placing religious cultural beliefs beyond question, shielding them from the rational assessment that they need, and to which they were previously exposed.

The effect of multiculturalism applied to multiple religions has led to a postmodernist psychology in which all forms of cultural belief are deemed to be equally valid and equally true. However since contradictions indicate falsity, this hypothesis of multiple inconsistent “truths” is inherently nonsensical. We thus have a widely adopted protocol that is fundamentally absurd. It involves a mass disconnection from reality, the nature of which has become more prevalent and the consequences of which appear to be becoming increasingly dire. At its worst, we have reached an Orwellian state where politicians are apparently able to successfully construct “the truth” to be whatever suits their purpose. “Reality based” policies are seen as just one of many possible alternatives.

Regarding religion, this situation is compounded by the fact that Islam poses challenges for multiculturalism in a way that other preceding cultural phenomena did not. Part of the motivating force behind this is undoubtedly the injustice that has been meted out to Palestinians over many decades. This has fostered a legitimate and understandable sense of grievance and resentment amongst Muslims globally. However a significant difficulty also lies in the fact that Muslim aspirations for governance by sharia law are inconsistent with democracy. Where religious laws are held to be immutable by elected legislatures, then democracy is curtailed and the multicultural compact falls apart. Regrettably, as a result, we see an increasing tendency for ethnic separatism amongst Muslim minorities in Western countries.

The dysfunctional irrationality that postmodernist thinking has spawned appears to have had serious consequences at the highest levels of global government. At least three instances where this appears to have led to grave miscalculation, if not dire cognitive error, may be cited. These are in relation to the invasion of Iraq, and regarding proposed solutions to the Israel-Palestine question, and in relation to solutions to global warming.

There are many countries that have enshrined Islam in their constitutions and none are working democracies. This is not coincidental. Secularism, at least in a weak form, is necessary for democracy. This was known to the founders of Constitution of the United States, but lost on the current leadership. Without constitutional protection, the political aspirations of Islam will always subvert democracy. With both Afghanistan and Iraq having newly installed Islamic constitutions, attempts to install democracy in these counties is a doomed and futile exercise.

Given that the disastrous consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq were not only predictable but were in fact widely predicted, the question as to the mind-set of those responsible for the debacle remains an open question. A plausible explanation is that a reality disconnection occurred amongst a powerful group of US neo-conservatives, who were motivated by a sectarian desire to protect Israel. They had effective powers of persuasion over the Bush circle that was already open to notions of “faith based intelligence”, American manifest destiny and Christian evangelical eschatology. This combination gave rise to a disconnection from reality that has been disastrous not only for Iraq, and for America, but for the entire rule of law internationally.

The extent of this debacle can hardly be overstated. The Iraq invasion is arguably the gravest war crime ever committed by the countries involved. The negligent conduct of the occupation, starting with the dismissal of the Iraqi army, police and security forces, leading to a situation of unrelenting sectarian chaos, has arguably been an even worse crime against humanity. While the consequences have flowed inevitably from the actions of the invading forces, they were obviously not intended. The whole adventure has been a disastrous failure of rational judgement at the highest levels. Only the suspension of disbelief that religion engenders would appear to provide an explanation for the cognitive disconnection necessary for what has been allowed to occur.

A second example of disconnection of perceptions from reality with grave global consequences surrounds the Israel-Palestine issue. The realisation of the Zionist dream in 1948 has not been a success. The concept of a state that has as its purpose the preservation of the dominance of a particular ethnic or religious group at the expense of other groups is not one that can be morally sustained. This holds, however much one may sympathise with the historical plight of Jews, and whatever their adversaries may do. The assertion of such a supremacist purpose by Israel has been highly destabilising, to the region, and globally.

The question is always posed in term of the state of Israel’s right to exist. This is asserted despite the routine denial of the right of a viable state of Palestine to exist. However as with the former apartheid state, the question is not whether a such a state should exist but what kind of state, and in the case of Israel, with what boundaries. In this regard, Israel’s strategy since 1967 has been to annex occupied territory and build settlements in the remainder, in fulfilment of further Zionist aspirations, and for its own perceived security, to deny any future Palestinian state any prospect of viability. In the latter regard it has been successful.

To counterbalance the existence of a Zionist state in which Jews have ethnic supremacy, the final solution is widely proposed by world leaders as the creation of an additional independent Palestinian state within the residual territories of the West Bank – the so called two-state solution. Yet since the grid network of Israeli settlements will never be removed, the remaining land available for a Palestinian state would represent a set of discontiguous Bantustans. There is no conceivable possibility that this could ever permanently satisfy Palestinian national aspirations. In addition, it is ludicrous to suppose, with so much integration of infrastructure and water supplies, that the supposed Palestinian state could be sovereign in any reasonable sense. Therefore the idea of that two-state solution for one of the world’s most serious and long running disputes constitutes a further serious disconnection from reality. The fact that this gross cognitive error is confounded by religious mythology on all sides confirms the role of religion in such psychological dysfunction.

A third example of reality disconnection concerning a dire global problem is that of global warming. All available evidence suggests that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration due to fossil fuel consumption is causing a global temperature increase that portends disastrous climate change and rising sea levels. To address this issue, on current knowledge, global CO2 emissions need to be reduced by 60 % from current rates. Yet if all current proposals, including the Kyoto protocol, are implemented fully, the best case scenario is that emissions will continue to increase by 50% over current rates by 2050. Thus there is no proposal under consideration that even remotely addresses the magnitude of the problem.

As the Stern report has indicated, global warming represents the biggest case of market failure ever in history. Other instances of market failure are well known in economics and typically occur in situations of scale economies that lead to monopoly power or in the case of externalities, where market costs do not represent the true cost to society. The known remedy is some form of government intervention to impose taxes or regulations. In relation to global warming however, the elaborate carbon trading schemes that have so far been devised and proposed do not in any way address the magnitude of the apparent problem. Instead they may be worse than useless because they give the appearance of doing something while achieving very little.

The problem seems to be that, being so gripped by an ideology of market fundamentalism, political elites are blind to the reality of market failure and hence the need to properly address it. Admittedly the nature and the scale of the problem is unprecedented, as is the required remedy. There is a similarity with the previously mentioned two problems in that errant global policies are proceeding in defiance of known realities and consequences. In this case there may not be a direct link to the dysfunctional thinking that religion may have engendered, except perhaps in that there is a hope that some miracle will intervene to save us. Such notions are typical in religions of course, and generally go unchallenged, despite that no miracle of any kind has ever been proven to have occurred in the known history of the universe.

The secular solution
Two hundred years ago secularism was successfully advanced as a rational solution to sectarianism, in view of the fact that a literal interpretation of religion defied credibility. Since then, scientific knowledge has advanced to the point where we can now rule out any rational possibility that the contentions proposed by religions are anything more than mythological. That this is denied by the god-deluded populace is a problem that we must seek to overcome. It is from this particular gross disconnection from reality that many others follow. The god delusion arises from habit and socialisation, but such things are amenable to change given sufficient motivation and opportunity. The advantages of secularism need to be vigorously promoted.

In this regard we may take note of the resolution on “comprehensive secularism” passed at the 2005 IHEU conference, as reported by Prakash Narain in Australian Humanist No.83. Impartiality between religions and separation of religion from state institutions are essential elements, but a third component is also necessary. This is a preparedness to intervene to protect human rights from violation by religious injunctions. As well as threats to life and safety, the right of children to an education free of religious indoctrination is surely an important part of this.

A further aspect of comprehensive secularism must be the advancement of the concept of secular multiculturalism. This is the acceptance of the value of cultural heritage, but without suspension of rationality and with the explicit recognition that myths are myths. People naturally react defensively when confronted with their delusions. The practical experience of multiculturalism should be an advantage in dealing with this, in that all cultural myths should be treated with equal incredulity. Internationally the advancement of comprehensive secularism will have profound benefits. I now turn to how secularism, and application of reason to policy, can be used to address the three key issues of reality disconnection cited above.

Secular, rational solutions
The disaster in Iraq can only be addressed by replacement of the Islamic constitution with a secular version. Sectarian strife, tyranny, and economic and social deprivation are absolutely guaranteed by the 2005 Iraq constitution, which defines Islam as the main source of legislation. The replacement should be modelled on the constitution of neighbouring Turkey, which robustly mandates secularism and excludes any religious influence on legislation. A further enhancement would be a provision that would limit claims of truth to issues that are subject to rational and empirical verification. Such a development is the only way that Iraq cane be rescued from the catastrophe that the 2003 invasion has created. It is a sad reflection on the state of disregard into which secularism has fallen that this necessary solution is not even on the radar of most politicians or commentators. It does however present a great opportunity to showcase the benefits of secularism and its success would provide a great example for other Islamic countries to follow.

The only conceivable long-term solution to the Israel-Palestine issue is the creation of a single secular state in which all citizens have equal rights irrespective of religion and ethnicity. The dream of a Jewish state has become a nightmare. The notion that a state could be both Jewish and secular was always a contradiction in terms. Israeli “facts on the ground” have now destroyed all possibility of a separate viable Palestine 1 . It is delusory to persist with the notion of two states or any other form of ethic cleansing as a solution. Again it is a sad reflection of secular advocacy that the only viable option is yet to appear on the radar screens of most politicians and commentators. As with religiously inspired delusions, they are mutually reinforced by frequent repetition, as if the mutual agreement to deny reality will somehow obviate it.

The one-state solution requires compromise on all sides, but the good will that such compromise will generate will ensure its success. As well as strict constitutional requirement of the separation, impartiality and interventionist aspects of secularism, the new state would also need an impetus for reason and rationality. There is no place in the world where it is more necessary that myths be separated from tradition and no place where it would be more beneficial. In lands of significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the new state, in overcoming the dark forces of ancient superstition, will truly be a light to the world.

The remedy for global warming will require far more than a mere change in mental attitude, and is therefore far more formidable in real terms. However since global warming has not been caused by religious delusion, it should therefore be more accessible to rational solution. The magnitude of the required solution is currently too daunting for policy makers to contemplate. What is required is a full mobilisation of the world economy as if for war – a war for our survival, a war against carbon emissions. The aim of this policy must be, at least in part, the total abolition, globally, of the use of coal for combustion.

The reason for focussing on coal specifically rather than fossil hydrocarbons is not only because it is more polluting per unit of energy produced. It is because it is plentiful and will therefore remain cheap, if left to market forces alone. A tax on carbon is required that will have significant cost and cause major global economic disruption. To pretend otherwise is further indulgence in delusion. Given that energy resource price increases produce a less than proportionate reduction in demand, to bring large demand reductions and energy substitutions, the price rises required are punitively large. The required tax is of the order of $500 per tonne of emission. This is a reality that is so unpalatable that it has policy makers rapidly summoning all their well practised powers of reality denial.

For Australia the prospect of such a tax may appear particularly bad. Coal is not only our major source of energy but our major export. Australia is also the largest exporter of coal. However this provides an opportunity to turn the threat into an advantage. Australia can band together with other coal exporters to implement an International Coal Tax on exports as part of a global carbon tax scheme. The revenue thus earned can be used to fund investment in alternative energy production.

The challenges that humanity faces are such that they threaten the survival of global civilisation. In response we must summon all our capabilities of reason and rationality, implementing comprehensive secularism in a spirit of co-operation based on the universal values of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice.

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and software developer. He is President of the Secular Party of Australia.

This paper was originally published in Australian Humanist, No 85, Autumn 2007
(C) Copyright 2005 John L Perkins

See: The One-State Solution: A breakthrough for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, by Virginia Tilley, University of Michigan Press, 2003

Two column print version.
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Losing religion


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Why the Secular Party?

  • The Liberal Party is too socially conservative
  • The ALP is too economically conservative
  • The Greens are too socialist economically
  • The Democrats are confused about their role
  • All these parties condone the unwarranted imposition of religious views.

Unlike the other parties the Secular Party is:seperation_of_church_and_state

  • both socially liberal and economically liberal
  • the only party which stands for separation of Church and State

Right wing parties allow economic freedom but oppose personal freedom, while left wing parties oppose economic freedom but allow personal freedom. The Secular Party is in favour of both economic freedom and personal freedom.

Economically, the Secular Party is neither left nor right. Inevitably there are policy choices between private gain versus the public good. We believe that solutions to such questions are best achieved via application of reason and balanced judgement, rather than resorting to any particular ideology.

The Secular Party is non-religious rather than anti-religious, however we do recognise the supremacy of scientific method as a means of establishing truth. We therefore hold that excessive adherence to religious belief is both unwarranted and can be harmful to society and to the world. We hold that “separation of church and state”, the ideal of secularism, is the key policy for the future of humanity.

Internationally, the Secular Party supports multilateral global solutions. To achieve these, a far greater ethic of international cooperation is required, based on putting the interests of global humanity first. To achieve this we seek to end global divisions based on ancient ideologies and superstitions. We seek to promote secularism worldwide, and oppose all forms of theocracy, whether Judaic, Christian or Islamic.

All existing Parties have significant religious allegiances and hence are unable to advocate a truly secular agenda. The Secular Party seeks to bring to political debate issues that other parties do not raise. We seek to bring reason and evidence to debates, where due to unwarranted deference to religious sensibilities, reason and rationality have hitherto been absent.

The Secular Party dares to argue what others fail to mention – religions are not only untrue but harmful to society. We assert the superiority of secular moral values based on universal ethical principles.

“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” – George Orwell

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Authorised by John Goldbaum, Secular Party of Australia,
7 Rockwall Crescent, Potts Point NSW 2011

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