Keeping Religion out of Australian politics  (2009+)

CPDS Home Contact The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools Restoring 'Faith in Politics'    Continuing the Separation of Church and State   Churches' Mission  Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions  Eliminating the Need for Chaplains in Australia's State Schools Secular Angels To 'Care for our Souls' Would Kill off Liberal Values  Godless Morality Would Raise Devilish Difficulties   The Dali Lama's Search for Moral Wisdom   A Bright Outlook? Contributions to Western Civilization   Challenging the Idea of an Islamic State
Introduction +



This document draws together perspectives on the apparently desirable goal of keeping religion out of politics in Australia (even though it is impossible to keep religion out of the individual), and on means to achieve this.

The issue is by no means straight forward. For example, in January 2009, a political leader (Mr Peter Costello) expressed the view that Australia had benefited from its Christian heritage, and because of this was said to be: 

  • mad for stating that God-given laws in the Bible had been and remained important to Australia. [However, unlike another politician who explicitly based his political philosophy on his Christian views, Mr Costello's statement was apparently made  to a Christian group, ie not in a political context - and thus seemed consistent with the separation of church and state that had advantaged Australia (see below)];
  • unsuitable for political leadership on the grounds that he was unable to separate religion and state because he suggested that a biblical heritage was important to tolerance and order. [However: (a) his statement seemed factual; (b) divinely sourced moral law keeps disputes about this out of politics; and (c) criticism of him was itself apparently an intrusion of religious bias into politics (see below)].

In April 2009 it was suggested that efforts by three new political parties to separate church and state would result in a much greater focus on religion in a future federal election. However such efforts seemed likely to increase rather than reduce the role of religion in Australian politics (which is the reverse of their apparent goal), and to have serious adverse consequences. Strengthening the ability of (broadly-defined) 'churches' to address spiritual questions and to define and disseminate the nature of moral behaviour without need to get involved in politics would be a better solution. Though there does seem to be an ongoing need for a 'default' religion to avoid politicising moral and spiritual questions facing governments, this can not make 'church' leaders into experts on public policy questions (see below).

In July 2010, ethics classes in Australian schools were publicly advocated which would have the effect of establishing claims about moral authority that were not based on Christian scriptures. This constituted a (presumably unintended) effort to 'liberate' Australians from the Judeo-Christian heritage that has been the basis of their liberty, and of the notion of a 'secular' state. It would create room for claims to moral authority by political elites - a process that seems to be already underway and likely to have adverse social, political and economic consequences (see below). 

Is a Religious View of History Valid?

Should A Religious View of History Disqualify Potential Political Leaders?

Important issues related to Australia's system of government were raised when it was suggested that Mr Peter Costello's 2009 Australia Day address to an evangelical Christian group proved that he was unable to separate church and state and was thus unsuitable for political leadership (Fitzgerald R., "Costello's hopes should have burned out after sermon", The Australian, 23/2/09).

Mr Costello's address had suggested that a biblical heritage was central to the development of Australia and the foundation of its society, and that the (Judeo-Christian) scriptures and Ten Commandments had been the basis of peaceful tolerance of each other and of order.

Ross Fitzgerald's criticism appeared suspect, as it surely is simply a fact that the Christ-ian approach to interpersonal morality (ie based in individual consciences responsible to God) provided the basis for tolerance and order for many hundreds of years in Australia and in British society whose traditions and institutions Australia inherited.

Moreover, it has been critical to getting religion out of politics (because, by contrast with many other traditions, this means that the state has not had to try to define the nature of, and enforce, morality in interpersonal relationships) - see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty. The latter also noted that:

  • keeping the state out of the business of defining and enforcing ethical and moral behaviour allowed the emergence of systems of law and government based on individual liberty, and these have conferred important political, governance and economic advantages;
  • there has been a significant decline in committed adherence to Christianity in Australia (as Ross Fitzgerald's article also pointed out);
  • numerous social dysfunctions have emerged, presumably as a consequence of the loss of the Christian 'put others first' ethical ideal within the community generally. For example, if the claims by those who have studied child sexual abuse are correct, there are (perhaps) millions of individuals in the broader community who are guilty of offences for which Fitzgerald suggested that hundreds(?) of priests and ministers have faced courts (see About Child Sex Abuse);
  • pressure is coming on politicians to 'do something' about the social dysfunctions that result from the breakdown of interpersonal morality - and this must involve attempts to regulate ethics and morality which will destroy the individual liberty that has been central to Australia's system of law and government.

As an email reproduced below noted, while Mr Costello pointed out to a group of Christians that the Christian foundations of Australia's society are important, he has not (unlike a more prominent political leader) sought to claim religious moral authority for particular political policies or to advocate church involvement in politics.

Peter's letters to the 'Nutters' (Email to Editor of Crikey, 28/1/09)

On 29/1/09, you suggested in Crikey Says that:

There’s a moment in Proust when he relates the experience of discovering through a sudden, illuminating fragment of conversation, that the person with whom you’re talking, someone you’d assumed was perfectly civilized, intelligent and rational, is in fact quite and utterly, mad.

Peter Costello produced just such a moment of revelation in his address to the Catch the Fire prayer rally in Melbourne on Monday. Delivered by video, the man who for so long craved the Australian Prime Ministership, declares his firm belief that the Bible and the Ten Commandments form the foundation of Australian society and its property laws, and that any movement away from those "God-given commandments" will lead to a breakdown of social order. "As we look back over hundreds of years of Australian history, we can still see the benefits of God to us in this country," says Costello, presumably surprising indigenous Australians, whose ancestors were here a damn sight longer.

Declaring one’s Christian faith is one thing. Arguing that only the maintenance of Christianity preserves order, directly implying that those of other faiths, or its complete atheistic absence, are a threat to that order, is an extraordinary statement from a major political figure in an allegedly secular state.

John Howard blocked Peter Costello from the Prime Ministership as long as he could, preferring even to take his party to defeat rather than let him run it. Based on this bizarre rant, it looks like Howard’s judgement was absolutely right.

(Enthusiasts can watch the full Peter's Letter to the Nutters here. Just click on the picture:)

Intrusion of religion into politics is a real concern.

However Crikey should note that Mr Costello is not the only Australian political leader to have invoked Christianity or religion.

For example Mr Rudd did so, see Restoring 'Faith in Politics' - though he used his Christian faith as the basis for publicly espousing a particular political theory and endorsing the role of churches in politics - rather than (as Mr Costello did) as the basis for exhorting prayer by a Christian group. There is moreover apparently a network of members of Australia's Parliament who gather to pray in Parliament House - and who routinely exhort others to pray for political leaders.

Furthermore Mark Latham (a former ALP leader) reportedly said that politics in future would be concerned solely with values (ie with the traditional business of religion), rather than with debates about programs and budgets.

Crikey is rightly concerned about the intrusion of religion into politics - because the separation of church and state has been critical to the individual liberties that have yielded significant political and economic benefits to Australia. There are moreover many signs that the foundation of that liberty is being threatened by the desire of political leaders to be recognised as the authorities on the nature of, and enforcers of, moral interpersonal relationships (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

However Mr Costello's endorsement of Biblical moral laws did not do seem to do this. He merely restated the traditional and uniquely Judeo-Christian view that defining and enforcing moral laws are the province of God (rather than of political leaders). It is the absence of such a world-view that leads to the loss of liberty (op cit). It is, for example, the view that religion should be the basis of government that makes Islamism unlikely to be a successful political theory (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism).

Finally, it is worth considering whether Ross Fitzgerald's article (which suggested that an individual should be disqualified from political office because of their Christian faith) itself reflected an unfortunate intrusion of religion into Australia's politics.

The fact is that widespread acceptance of New Testament teachings within the community (which must be a church rather than a state responsibility for reasons outlined below) is the foundation of Australia's legal and government system (including the very notion of a 'secular' state, ie one concerned with everything but religion) - so it is inevitable that a substantial number of Christians will be involved in politics

Familiarity with the Bible: Churches' not State Responsibility (email sent 24/12/09)

Paul Syvret,
Courier Mail

Re: 'My god, its personal', Courier Mail, 22/12/09

In your comments on Tony Abbott's call for school children to gain a working knowledge of the Bible, you argued that faith (or the lack of it) is a personal matter and that it is hazardous for this to be dictated by the state.

Your argument has a great deal to commend it (eg see Continuing the Separation of Church and State, 2006 and Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics, 2009).

However, the issue is not that simple, because it is not the Bible (or even the New Testament) that is the foundation of our civilization as Mr Abbott asserted. Rather it is general community understanding of, and belief in, what the New Testament says that has been foundational (eg see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

The title of your article ('My god, its personal') illustrates the point very well. It is the expectation that people will be morally guided by their individual consciences responsible to God (rather than by human authorities) that allowed the emergence of a legal and government systems based on individual liberty. The assumption by states that faith / moral behaviour would be a 'personal' matter, rather than a community matter with enforced individual compliance, is founded in widespread acceptance of New Testament teaching. Moreover the resulting assumptions about individual liberty have had major political and economic advantages (op cit).

Such liberty does not emerge other traditions (eg see Constraints due to Cultural Traditions in Competing Civilizations; A Response to Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain's Manifesto; and note that under Confucian traditions, which are increasing influential in Australia's environment, there is a presumption that social elites will define and enforce the rules of interpersonal behaviour so that what people are expected to believe in is anything but a 'personal' matter).

Restoring the moral foundations of our civilization must however be the responsibility of the churches rather than of the state, if liberal traditions are to be maintained. Some speculations about this are outlined in Ethical Renewal (in Competing Civilizations).

Can Political Activism Separate Church and State? +


Can Political Activism Separate Church and State?

In April 2009 it was suggested that religion was likely to play an increasingly important role in the next federal election, because three new parties, who favour the separation of church and state, will challenge the political influence of what were seen as 'self opinionated bishops and crazy imams' (Fitzgerald R.,  'Moves afoot to counter God's sway over the ballot box', The Australian, 20/4/09


However increasing the role of religion in a federal election is not a very efficient way of achieving the apparent goal of reducing the role of religion in Australian politics.

The new parties nominated as strongly favouring the separation of church and state were:

  • the Liberal Democratic Party - which was said to endorse small government, civil liberties and personal liberty;
  • the Australian Sex Party - which was said to oppose internet censorship, advocate a royal commission into sexual abuse in churches and standardised sex education;
  • a prospective Secular Party - which was said to want to remove 'advancement of religion' from the definition of charities under the tax act.

It is ironic that (by trying to reduce 'God's sway over the ballot box') these parties were expected to increase the role of religion in politics, and thus have an impact that was quite contrary to promoting the 'freedom' that was suggested to be their unifying goal.

The Origin of Freedom

Individual freedom in societies like Australia (which is quite rare in the world) has been the product of the long separation of religion and politics (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty). This has been possible because, given the past wide acceptance of Christ-ian teachings, the morality of individual behaviour could be assumed to reside in individual consciences responsible to God - rather than being defined and enforced at the whim of human authorities as is more commonly the case.

As Christian adherence has declined this assumption has become suspect in recent decades. Thus political leaders have sought, or been expected to, exert moral authority - thereby: putting moral values 'up for grabs'; bringing religion back into politics; and creating very profound new constraints on the freedom of individual behaviour (op cit).

Strengthening the Capacity of Apolitical 'Churches' to Operate Independently

A 'Secular Party' that wanted to keep religious questions out of political debates would be ill-advised to try to achieve this by disabling the non-political organisations that are able to address them - as this would just cause such questions to revert to the political domain.

Rather, increasing the separation of religion and state (which has had many practical advantages) would best be achieved by strengthening organisations that can credibly define and advocate moral behaviour based in individual consciences (responsible to God rather than to other people if liberty is to be preserved) and address spiritual questions while remaining independent of the state or of politics. There seems to be a solid basis for doing so (see Ethical Renewal in Competing Civilizations). However, in principle this could include not only organisations run by bishops and imams, but also organisations whose particular 'religion' was (say) atheism or humanism (both of which have their own current evangelists) - if they were able to present credible moral principles derived on that basis that would: (a) reliably locate responsibility for moral behaviour in individual consciences; and (b) not be able to be manipulated at the whim of powerful or influential people.

An Official 'Religion'?

This raises the obvious question about whether Australia should have an official (default) 'religion', and if so what should it be? This is clearly a matter of growing significance.

Taking Exotic Believers More Seriously (Email to David Burchell, 13/4/09)

RE: O ye of little faith, take these exotic believers seriously, The Australian, 13/4/09

As I interpreted it, your article:

  • suggested that the ABC has now, in effect, semi-officially stated that Christianity is no longer Australia's religious centre;
  • implied that this position is now occupied by the ideologies of unnamed intellectuals and the media;
  • argued that Western intellectuals (who originally were mainly Christian clergy) have:
    • undergone a transformation over the past 150 years on the basis of scientific advances and personal introspection, leading to the emergence of a new faith that is based on philosophy, the arts and the selfless pursuit of political causes;
    • been concerned about the continued influence of Christianity.

I should like to submit for your consideration that the said authorities of the new dominant faith (ie unnamed intellectuals and the media) are going to have a challenging time over the next few years because:

It may be that (as your article implied) the authorities of the official new faith will come to wish that they had taken those exotic believers more seriously.

The answer to the first question (ie whether Australia should have an official religion) is obviously 'yes', because there would otherwise be no default basis for determining moral and spiritual questions - so that they would become political issues (ie the separation between church and state would disappear altogether).

The difficulties of seeking to operate without a default religion has been well illustrated by vain efforts that have been made to politically define values that should be sought in state schools, when any value system depends on a much broader world view (eg see The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools).

In relation to the second question, it is clear that Christianity has an established role (eg providing the framework within which legal and governance institutions have been developed, and being the basis of religious observances at official events). Moreover the individual liberty that Christianity enabled appears to be one of the sources of strength that have benefited Western societies in recent centuries, and not all alternative religions would be compatible with Australia's social and political institutions (see also Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions).

None-the-less Christianity's founder, Jesus of Nazareth, did not use force to compel adherence with his teachings (eg consider Luke 18:18-23). Thus it would be reasonable for those proposing an alternative official 'religion' to make a case for submission to the electorate. Any analysis of the implications of such a shift would necessarily be much more profound and complex than for the average referendum.

Churches can't be Public Policy Experts

Anyone who believes that they have a better understanding of political questions than 'self opinionated bishops and crazy imams' should easily be able to make this clear to political leaders and the electorate. There is good reason to doubt that religious principles (which are timeless and applicable to individual behaviour) can ever in themselves provide a sound basis for deciding complex questions about ever-changing social and economic issues. Christianity's founder, Jesus of Nazareth, himself reportedly stated that he was not interested in establishing a 'kingdom of this world' (John 18:36).

Casting the First Stone

Anyone who really was serious about the problem of child sexual abuse, as the Australia Sex Party was said to be, would be insisting that governments establish a royal commission into the incidence of this in the general community - as homes (rather than church-run institutions) appear to be where the vast majority of such abuse arises according to those who have studied the subject (see About Child Sex Abuse) and there is nothing morally controversial about such behaviour.

Addendum A: Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism?

Accidentally Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism? (Email sent 13/7/10)

David Hill
c/- Parents4Ethics

Re: Churches don't have monopoly on good life , 13/7/10

As I interpreted it, your article described efforts that are being made through ethics classes in schools to establish claims about moral authority that are not based on Christian scriptures.

I should like to suggest the need for a 'big picture' view of this issue, because Parents4Ethics is (presumably inadvertently) encouraging moral authoritarianism.

In the first place there is nothing new about human claims to being the source of moral authority. For example Genesis 3:1-6 described the temptation of ancient humans to 'eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil' - so as to be god-like. The rest of the Jewish Bible described the coming of the Mosaic Law, its elaboration by religious authorities and the chaos that periodically emerged as those principles were disregarded. And the Christian Bible dealt with Jesus' influence on the nature and significance of God's law at a time when political authorities traditionally claimed to be gods in order to encourage others' obedience.

There are practical advantages that accrue to a society where social and political elites are not able to claim to be the source of moral authority (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths). The latter refers (for example) to the way this enhances the ability of individuals to make rational decisions (because they do not have to try to second guess the reactions of their societies 'moral authorities'), and to the scope also created for legal and governance systems that are based on the presumption of individual liberty. It is also worth considering the pressure that Australia's political leaders are increasingly under to claim to be moral authorities as adherence to Christian principles has declined - and the resulting erosion of scope for individual liberty and of the political and economic advantages that liberty confers (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

It is not possible to shift any authority from where it has traditionally resided without someone else claiming it for their own benefit. Idealists seem to believe that elected Presidents in Australia would continue to carry out the purely 'ceremonial' functions of Governors and the Governor General. Realists recognised that such people would be much more likely to claim that their electoral mandates give them political authority which over-rides that of Parliaments, and that this would result in political instability (see Republican 'Realism': A Purely Ceremonial Head of State?)

Likewise human claims to determine the nature of ethical behaviour must inevitably to result in moral authoritarianism by social and political elites. This certainly seems to be the case in all non-Christian societies. There are very good reasons for ensuring a separation of church and state. However trying to separate moral authority from the churches' teachings (and thus enabling that authority to be claimed by politicians for their own benefit) is quite the reverse of what is required to achieve this outcome (eg see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics).

Might I respectfully suggest that Parents4Ethics and associated entities need to give this matter deeper consideration.

John Craig

Further thoughts added later:

In addition to political claimants to moral authority (if the freedom from these that the Judeo-Christian tradition allowed were widely rejected) alternative human claimants probably also include:

  • Islam which presents a package of universalist moral values derived directly from the Judeo-Christian Bible, though enforced by communal or state pressure rather than by individual consciences responsible to God (see Thoughts on Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Australia);
  • non-theistic East Asian religions such as Confucianism which presents a package of particularist (rather than universal) moral values based on ancient Chinese traditions that social elites enforce amongst their subordinates (see A Simplistic View of Confucianism), and which China's Communist Party now seems to be promoting internationally to boost respect for China's culture as well as its economic power.

The liberating impact of the first two of the Ten Commandments (which refer to not having other gods or making idols) should not be neglected. Those who reject the (moral) Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed are likely to find themselves ruled by human moral authoritarians.



Addendum B: Humanism classes in government schools

Humanism classes in government schools (email sent 12/11/10)

Professor Des Cahill,

Re: Humanism classes have some merit, 10/11/10

I should like to try to add value to some of the issues raised in your constructive article. Your efforts to clarify the nature of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ are most useful, yet I must suggest that the issue is even more complex than you indicated and has even more important consequences for society as a whole.

My interpretation of your article: Defining religion is difficult, but most people believe that religion is important (and 50% of these are either Christian or Muslim). Australia’s Constitution takes a minimalist approach to relationship between state and religion (ie rejects established church, but allows religious groups to work along-side the state for spiritual / social wellbeing). States can take different approaches to teaching religion in government schools. Relationship between religion and state has been increased by decline of welfare state, and government funding of private schools. The word ‘secular’ is understood in different ways, and it is better to talk of ‘civil’ society. Civil society is founded on separation of religion and state. But there are different approaches to this (eg in French / US models of complete separation; UK’s model with established church; Australian / Canadian model of church cooperation with state in delivering services. Authentic religion contributes to social and cultural capital (through human services and teaching values). Humanism does this also. Victorian schools are required to be secular – which means that they don’t favour any religion over others (not that they be anti-religious). Victoria’s Humanist Society proposes teaching Humanism (just as other traditions / worldviews are taught). However this may be rejected on the grounds that it is not a religion. But the latter is undefined. Humanism would go beyond political philosophy and deal with issues beyond the physical (eg God’s existence, afterlife, evil, suffering, relationship between religion and science, morality). There are several forms of humanism (eg Secular / Enlightenment / Liberal Humanism and Confucian Humanism – which is becoming more important). Should Enlightenment / Liberal Humanism be taught in Victorian Government schools? There is a need to think in terms of spiritualties as a way of dealing with the metaphysical – rather than focus on organised religion. Neither theism nor atheism is provable or disprovable. Respect should be paid to all worldviews in Australia’s culturally rich and multi-faith society.

The question of what worldviews are taught in schools can not simply come down to respecting all such views simply because some people hold them. Culture (of which worldviews, including religions, are a major component) has practical consequences, because it affects the way people behave and how they solve problems and thus the way a society works (or doesn’t work). This point was considered very broadly in Competing Civilizations (from 2001).

It is thus not desirable to encourage the teaching of diverse world-views without also advocating understanding and consideration of the consequences of those world-views. For example:

  • Western societies have gained considerable advantages from their Judeo-Christian heritage because that worldview required social elites to relinquish claims to moral authority, and this permitted the emergence of the individual liberty which was essential for ‘rational’ methods of problem solving derived from the West’s classical Greek heritage to be effective (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths, from 2001). Rationality often fails in dealing with complex problems (eg those related to social and economic systems as a whole, or those confronting individuals who are not freed to make decisions without fear of the reactions of social elites). This point is explored further in Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions. It can also be noted that social elites in Australia (eg political leaders, ethicists) are increasingly claiming to be the source of moral authority as the traditional expectation that individual consciences responsible to God will ensure moral interpersonal relationships has declined (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty, from 2003). This trend must put at risk the liberty assumed by Australia’s legal and governance systems (and the practical advantages of that liberty). The separation of religion and state has many advantages (eg see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics, 2009). But this is only possible when a worldview which does not depend on human moral authoritarianism is widely embedded in the community generally;
  • It is naïve to teach Islamic idealism (as the Australian Curriculum Studies Association has advocated) without considering the practical consequences of Islamic worldviews (see Bringing Balanced Understandings about Islam into Australian Schools). Islamic worldviews appear to place responsibility for individuals’ behaviour in communal coercion (rather than in individual consciences) and thus impede the scope for change which is vital for economic prosperity. It is no coincidence that Muslim dominated societies have experienced centuries of economic backwardness. While Islam teaches similar values to Christianity, its approach to enforcement of moral behaviour (arguably reflecting pre-Islamic Arabic social traditions) makes a big difference to the outcomes;
  • While it makes sense to identify Confucianism as a variety of Humanism which is different to the Enlightenment version, it needs to be recognised that all East Asian worldviews emerged in the absence of the classical Greek thought that profoundly influenced Western philosophies (see East Asia, from 2001). And the systems of socio-political-economy that have emerged under neo-Confucian traditions in Asia seem quite incompatible with Australia’s individualistic, democratic capitalism – and community leaders have no way to assess what is going on because the consequences of differences in worldviews are not understood or considered (see Proposed ASX Takeover: Lifting the Level of Debate; and Resist Protectionism: A Call That is Decades Too Late ). Similarly the ‘yin yang’ symbol of Daoism was incorporated as a central element in Sydney’s 2010 New Year’s Eve Awaken the Spirit celebrations without the officials responsible apparently having any idea of the significance of that particular worldview (Sydney's 2010 New Year's Eve Celebrations: Awakening Which 'Spirit'? );

A number of other points related to the matters raised in your article are that:

  • Atheism presumably falls within the range of worldviews that should be able to be taught in government schools under the broader concept of ‘religion’ that your article advocates. However Atheists seem not to want to get this recognition, nor to have thought through their relationship with non-theistic religions in Asia such as Confucianism (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism);
  • The postmodern assumption that it is desirable to accept all ideas simply because some people hold them (ie to assume that ‘truth’ is merely a social construct, and thus arbitrary) is leading to practical failures in many areas (see Eroding the West’s Cultural Foundations, from 2001); and
  • Suggestions about the consequent need to be discriminating in what children in state schools are encouraged to be ‘tolerant’ of were presented in The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools (2004).

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig

Addendum C: Separating Church and State will Need More than a High Court Decision

Separating Church and State will Need More than a High Court Decision (email sent 5/2/11)

Richard Ackland,
Sydney Morning Herald

Re: Religiously follow the rules, or catch church in bed with state, 4/2/11

Your articles’ sardonic observations on the debate about government funding of chaplains in state schools (and a forthcoming High Court challenge) don’t convey a strong enough argument about the importance or difficulty of keeping church and state separate.

My reasons for suggesting this are outlined below (together with an outline of your article). In brief my comments relate to:

  • The reality of the breakdown in the separation of church and state to which your article referred, and the serious potential consequences of that breakdown for the way Australia’s government and society functions;
  • The dependence of that separation on widespread community adherence to Christianity; the social stresses that are emerging as many have drifted away from their ethical mooring; and the potential to undermine the individual liberty that has been vital to the effectiveness of Australia’s legal and government systems, as political leaders and others now attempt to impose their ‘values’;
  • The futility of efforts (eg by High Court challenges to government support for chaplains in schools), because the High Court can do nothing to reduce the social symptoms and stresses that now motivate human authorities to attempt to promulgate ‘values’;
  • The need to remind churches of the importance of success in their (evangelical) mission not only to individuals, but also to the continued viability of Australia’s liberal legal and governance institutions.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Outline of Article and Detailed Argument

My interpretation of your article: Government funding of church schools was considered by the High Court 30 years ago. Governments had sought to curry favour with parents who sent children to church schools – and this started a costly program at the expense of state schools. Constitutionally the Commonwealth can’t make a law to establish a religion, or require a religious test for holding any public office. In 1981 the majority of the High Court (with Justice Lionel Murphy dissenting) endorsed government funding of state schools – and argued that the main constraint was on government ‘establishing’ a church (as the Churches of England and Scotland are ‘established’ in UK).. In the Howard era there were determined efforts to impose Australian community ‘values’ (ie endorsing values thought to appeal to government supporters). Thus in 2004, the government tied school funding to flying an Australian flag. By 2006 there were requirements for migrants to know of Australian traditions, and many political leaders also supported a national schools chaplaincy program. Though this was not linked to any particular religion, protestant chaplains gained most funding. The program has been continued and expanded. The PM, despite her atheism, was seen to have values shaped by religion. Much of chaplains’ program is vague. They are not supposed to proselytise, but no one stops them doing so. A parent in Queensland has gained support from a Sydney solicitor and barrister to challenge the program on constitutional grounds (ie that such a program should have legislative backing, but none exists). Any chaplain engaged under this scheme holds an office under the Commonwealth – so a religious test as a qualification seems unconstitutional. There is now a new high court, and it will be interesting to see how this affects government-endorsed ‘values’.

As your article noted, the fact that government-endorsed values are being promulgated (eg by funding for a school-based chaplaincy program) demonstrates a breakdown in the separation of church and state. And there are other examples such as: public funding for church run social services; and political leaders proclaiming themselves moral authorities (or seeking to involve churches directly in politics, as noted in Restoring 'Faith in Politics') . This situation is highly undesirable, and is one indication of a crisis that Australia’s system of government is encountering (see Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building).

The separation of church and state has been an important component of the legal and government institutions that presume individual liberty that Australia inherited, and which provided very significant political and economic advantages to Western societies generally (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength). For example:

  • The fact that political rulers have been unable to claim moral authority is one of the factors that has facilitated more-or-less rational decision making by individuals, and thus dramatically increased their effectiveness in all walks of life. Individuals have a sound foundation for making their own moral judgments appropriate to their circumstances, when they do not have to try to second-guess the reactions of the politically powerful in that respect; and
  • Churches can’t validly claim to possess special wisdom in relation to the issues governments address. Religious principles that are relevant to individuals are unlikely to be an adequate basis for determining public policies – because governments deal with much more complex systems than individuals are exposed to (eg see Continuing the Separation of Church and State (2006) and Churches' Mission).

The separation of church and state has also been vital to the effectiveness of churches. The involvement of government in funding social welfare services run by churches has arguably compromised the ability of churches to perform their core mission, because it distorts the goals and perceptions of those affected – a point that is explored in Is the Smart State a Just State: A Commentary (2003). The latter noted that studies of serious social problems in Queensland by a church group focused only on advocating new government programs to provide support to the disadvantaged, whereas a more effective and permanent solution would have involved re-emphasis on the church’s evangelical mission so as to motivate and empower disadvantaged individuals and groups to better support one another.

While close linkages between church and state are counterproductive, keeping them separate has been dependent on widespread adherence to Christianity in the community. This has been needed because the Judeo-Christian tradition locates responsibility for the morality of individual behaviour in individual consciences responsible to God, rather than in communal or state pressure on individuals, as is usual under other traditions (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). However in recent decades many individuals have drifted away from their ethical mooring (apparently because of churches’ inadequate responses to the intellectual challenges to the credibility of their teachings). Severe social symptoms have been emerging as a result of thus leaving many with little basis for moral interpersonal dealings, and political leaders have been under pressure to ‘do something about it’ (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty and 'The Times They are a-Changing' - but not always for the better). But the more the state (or others) try to promulgate their views of appropriate values, the more the advantages of legal and government systems build on liberty must be lost.

An aside: In practice, efforts by governments to define values that should be promulgated (eg through schools) have been unsatisfactory (see The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools ). As one observer noted, it is impossible to define meaningful values separately from a comprehensive world-view, ie a religion. Similarly efforts by non-state institutions to take moral authority away from God must also erode scope for individual liberty (see Accidentally encouraging moral authoritarianism). And the even more radical proposals that Islamic Sharia Law could be needed to overcome the social dysfunctions that increasingly plague Australia would not be constructive (see Sharia 4 Australia?).

The problem cannot be resolved by High Court judgements about what governments can or cannot do. No matter what is decided in relation to (say) government funding of chaplains in state schools, the social dysfunctions that have caused political leaders to try to ‘do something’ are not going to go away. Likewise political activism to promote separation of the church and the state (as several groups are attempting) can’t provide a solution – as this merely increases the role of religion in politics by requiring political leaders to arbitrate on questions of religion (see Can Political Activism Separate Church and State?).

The key to restoring the separation of church and state must be to remind churches of the importance of their evangelical mission not only to individuals but to the effectiveness of Australia’s system of law and government (see Eliminating the Need for Chaplains in Australia's State Schools), and to support (ie encourage) them in undertaking that mission. Such a suggestion is outlined in A Nation Building Agenda - together with speculations about how to overcome intellectual obstacles to creating strong churches that do not depend on the state (eg to overcome intellectual obstacles that arise because Australians have had undue confidence in their ability to understand creation on the basis of science and reason).

Addendum D: Political Commentary Based on Religious Criteria can be Misleading

Political Commentary Based on Religious Criteria can be Misleading (email sent 4/4/11)

Matt Condon
Courier Mail

Re: Heatless pair use misery to showboat, Courier Mail, 18/2/11

Your article criticised two political leaders on the basis of religious criteria (ie it suggested that two Opposition MPs were not doing what God expects).

Key points: Your article started by quoting the Opposition’s immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, as referring to a passage from Jeremiah to illustrate the life values he derived from his religious faith: "I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord." [Jeremiah 9:24]. It then: (a) referred to Mr Morrison’s reservations about the federal government flying children to Sydney to attend the funerals of deceased relatives; (b) noted that Australians generally had demonstrated the ‘Aussie spirit’ by helping out their mates in dealing with flooding – a disaster of biblical proportions; but that (c) the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott a devout Catholic, had objected to the federal government imposing a levy that would enable expeditious rebuilding of much of Queensland. You questioned their motives for: (a) opposing government funding of flights for asylum seekers as such people are not in a position to provide for themselves; and (b) opposing help and assistance to Queensland – and suggested that such actions were the antithesis of the Australian spirit, reflected selfishness for which they should be ashamed. Your article concluded by suggesting that both men should consider what is said in Matthew: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." [Matthew 23:37].

Unfortunately I must belatedly submit that your article mainly illustrated the desirability of keeping religion out of politics. My reason for suggesting this are outlined below. The moralities of the political actions you criticised and of the community you praised are not as clear cut as your article suggested, and there are good reasons to doubt the adequacy of religious criteria in assessing public policies (a point that that was argued earlier in Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics, 2009).

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Detailed Reasons

Firstly, the moralities of the policy issues you mentioned are not as clear cut as your article implied. For example:

  • the misery facing the world’s 20+m refugees can only really be solved by eliminating the political and economic dysfunctions in various countries (mainly in the Middle East) that cause people to become refugees (see Complexities in the Refugee Problem, from 2001). People smuggling is not a satisfactory solution (because of the hazards involved, and the small numbers who can be accommodated). In the past Australia’s political leaders have not sought to address the problem at its source – presumably seeing this as too hard. Rather they have either: (a) tried to discourage people smuggling; or (b) unintentionally encouraged people smuggling (ie by giving potential refugees, and also would-be economic migrants, reasons to expose themselves to smugglers and the hazards of travelling in dangerous waters in poor quality boats). Your article criticised those who questioned funding children to attend the funeral of relatives who died when a people smuggler’s boat was wrecked. However it would have been fair to also criticise those who unintentionally encourage people smuggling, and were thus partly to blame for the wreck in which the relatives died;
  • the question about the flood disaster seemed to be not whether support would be provided, but rather about whether such support should be funded by a special new tax or by savings from other expenditures. It can be noted that: (a) there are good reasons to suspect that Australia faces a structural budget deficit (see references in The Long Term Impact of the Global Financial Crisis, 2009); and (b) the Federal Government’s 2011 budget seems likely to be focused on the pressing need to find savings (see Walking in Whitlam’s shadow, The Australian, 1/4/11).

Secondly ascribing widespread moral virtue to Australia’s community generally (because many were good neighbours immediately after a natural disaster) is not the full story. The admonition to Jerusalem that your article quoted has local relevance. Serious social symptoms seem to be emerging as the consequence of the erosion of individual morality within the community – and this could have painful consequences (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty, from 2001).

Finally, as the latter document suggested Western societies gained huge advantages from general adherence to Christianity within the community, eg the ability to create liberal social environments in which rationality could be an effective means for problem solving (see also Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions, 2010). None-the-less separating public policy from religion has also been beneficial (eg see Why separation of church and state allowed government to be effective).

Illustration: The systems that governments deal with are more complex than those facing individuals. Thus, for example, giving support to the poor is an individual virtue, but a potential source of welfare dependency if applied by governments. Also giving by individuals involves sacrificing one’s own money – but giving by governments involves spending other people’s money and can be subject to conflicts of interest (eg spending others’ money with no real community benefit might be simply a means for buying political support).

And, though Christianity sets high moral standards for Christian leaders as individuals, it does not provide a comprehensive basis for assessing public policies. In very simple terms, Jesus of Nazareth (Christianity’s founder) requires his followers (whether or not they are political leaders) to accept the Holy Spirit and live in accordance with his teachings (my interpretation of which is outlined briefly on my web-site). However, it is inappropriate to see those teachings as a sufficient basis for public policies (eg because: Jesus: (a) did things for the poor and sick, rather than lobbying others to do so; (b) emphasised the importance of a kingdom that is not of this world; and (c) said nothing about his followers gaining the God-like wisdom needed to make superior judgments about complex problems - see Church’s Mission, 2009).

Addendum E: Get God out of the Classroom: Good Luck with That!

Get God out of the Classroom: Good Luck with That! (email sent 12/4/11)

Jewel Topsfield,
Education Editor
The Age

Re: Let’s get God out of the classroom, Brisbane Times, 4/4/11

Based on its title your article (which is outlined below) seems to be an argument for getting God out of Victorian classrooms. From a Christian viewpoint, that goal (if taken literally) seems ambitious. If the Creator of the universe wants to be in classrooms, then that is presumably where He will be.

Closer examination suggested, however, that your goal was not to exclude God, but rather to exclude religious instruction – especially about Christianity.

Various observers with experience of religious instruction in schools have suggested to me in relation to your article (in brief) that:

  • Your experiences at school were unfortunate, and many people have had positive experiences and thus hold opposing views;
  • Your article is based on personal experience and emotion – and is not factual or well researched (eg opting out is actually quite easy). Also it is inappropriate to force Atheistic beliefs on children whose parents want them to learn about the Bible at school; and
  • Your article seems to contain errors, eg about (a) the difficulty of getting children out of religious instruction; and (b) the quality of curriculum material, as that available from the Victorian-based Council for Religious Education in Schools is excellent.

Moreover even from a pragmatic (secular if you like) viewpoint, your ambition seems problematical. For example, in more detailed (‘secular’) comments below this email, it is suggested that:

  • A ‘secular’ approach to government involves arrangements that are always in addition and complementary to religion (rather than an alternative);
  • It is impossible to satisfactorily teach children values except in the context of a broad world view (ie a religion). NSW’s ethics programs don’t provide this. And broad world-views that exclude God (eg Western-style Atheism, and various Asian traditions) are none-the-less ‘religions’, just as much as Christianity;
  • In deciding what broad world view (ie religion) should be taught to state school children, it is important to recognise that: (a) a community’s culture (including its religion) has significant practical consequences; (b) while there are sound reasons for keeping religion out of politics, there are practical advantages in widespread Christian adherence in the community (eg an ability to sustain liberal legal and governance institutions, which have political and economic benefits including a secular state); and (c) while learning about religions generally is desirable, this is not enough to provide those advantages.

Finally I wonder if you might consider another ‘flirtation’ with Christianity. A reading of the gospels with an open mind and an open heart might be a good place to start – as these present eye-witnesses accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, rather than the interpretations of modern believers. Perhaps next time a marriage might result.

John Craig


Outline of Let’s get God out of the classroom: Religious instruction has no place in our secular schools. Christian education classes were of no use in my experience, though I flirted with Christianity. My parents, atheists who had deliberately sought a secular education for their children, would have been furious at the claptrap that was taught. Victoria’s education department still forces primary schools to hold ‘special religious instruction’ taught by volunteers – of which 96% are taught by Christian educator Access Ministries. This is required by law, though less than 10% of the population attends church weekly. Proselytising is not supposed to be allowed, but happens. Volunteers are not educators, but are motivated by a desire to convert students to Christianity, rather than teach religion impartially. Website Religions in Schools attracts comments – eg that learning about religion is important, but indoctrination is not appreciated. Professor Gary Bouma (St Johns Anglican church in East Malvern and UNESCO chairman on interreligious and intercultural relations says Access Ministries’ curriculum is appalling. Government funds private schools so that parents can choose education in line with their own religious beliefs. Many choose government schools because they are not religious. But instead of expected secular education students in Victorian government schools must attend weekly religion classes – unless parents opt out (which is not easily done – a fact that has led to complaints to Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission). NSW offers ethics classes for students who opt out of scripture classes. Victoria was one of the first places to offer free, secular and compulsory education – but rather than upholding that tradition has allowed schools to be infiltrated by evangelising volunteers.

Some thoughts (in a fairly random order) are:

  • The original meaning of ‘secular’ in Western culture apparently did not imply rejection of religion, but referred to those aspects of human affairs that were outside (and complementary to) the sphere of religion;
  • Attempts to define ‘secular’ as something that is completely separate from religion encounters problems. For example:
    • There is a recognised need to teach values in state schools – and many attempts have been made to define values that should be taught, which seem to have been a struggle and unsuccessful (see The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools, 2004). It has also been realistically pointed out that ‘values’ can’t be taught except in the context of a broad world view – ie of a ‘religion’;
    • The ethics education programs that have been proposed in NSW as an alternative to the Christian scriptures were developed by the St James Ethics Centre and are limited to trying to define how individuals can make ‘good’ decisions in the social and institutional context that currently exists in NSW (see Code of Ethics). In other words, this does not present a broad world view, and is thus not a religion. Rather the St James’ ethics education program is derivative of, and dependent on, the world views that have underpinned the social and institutional context that exists in NSW. Given the growing need to adjust the social and institutional context that exists in Australia (see Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building), the ethical principles proposed by the St James Ethics Centre are not broad enough to guide social and institutional change (because they are constrained by taking the existing social and institutional framework as a given). Another significant issues is that St James’s ethical principles depend on human claims to moral authority – and the need for human authorities to then enforce those principles in the face of individual rebellion must ultimately break the separation between church and state and eliminate the advantages that this provides (see Accidentally Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism?);
    • Atheists apparently claim that they are proposing a broad world-view based on science and reason which has no need for religion – yet a good case can be made that Atheism is merely yet another non-theistic religion - of which there are a number of ancient examples in Asia (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism). The president of the Atheists Foundation of Australia argued that Atheism is not a religion, because it has no dogma / claims that can’t be established by reason – yet it was not hard to find examples of such dogma. It is also not hard to find serious problems in a world view based solely on science and reason (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?);
    • Political efforts to separate religion from a purely secular state (including your article) unintentionally have the reverse effect, because they make religion into a political issue (see Can political activism separate church and state?);
  • In considering what values and world views should be taught to children (as some values and world views must be taught), it is highly desirable to recognise that different world views have different practical consequences, and are not equally constructive (see Humanism classes in government schools, 2010);
  • There is considerable value in separation of church and state (see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics). None-the-less the liberal institutions of state that have provided significant advantages to Western societies have been and remain dependent on widespread Christian adherence in the community (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths and Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). As the former noted, the uniquely Judeo-Christian expectation that the morality of individual behaviour should be promoted by individual consciences responsible to God allowed the separation of church and state, and this in turn created simplified social spaces in which rationality could be a reasonably effective means for problem solving, Both citizens and a ‘secular state (ie one relieved of the responsibility for defining the nature of, and enforcing, individual moral behaviour) face simpler situations in which constraints on rationality are greatly reduced. The fact that Christian adherence has declined (as illustrated by the fact that less than 10% of the population attend church weekly) puts Australia’s institutions at risk (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions);
  • Your article referred to comments on the FIRIS website (Fairness in Religions in Schools). In essence FIRIS argues that students should be taught about religion generally, rather than being ‘indoctrinated’ with any particular religion. However it is adherence to religion (ie how people behave as a consequence of accepting it, rather than merely hearing about it) that is critically important. For example, as noted above the advantages that arise from liberal institutions under Judeo-Christian traditions depend on trusting that individual morality will be primarily ensured by individual consciences responsible to God. This is not a feature of other religions (see Constraints due to cultural traditions in Competing Civilizations). For example, a ‘guardianship’ principle seems to be part of Islam (perhaps a reflection of pre-Islamic Arabic social practices). Individuals are expected to take responsibility for the morality of others’ behaviour (see A Response to Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain's Manifesto). Even when this does not go to the extremes that Islamists propose, communal coercion on individuals seems to be a major constraint on their ability to apply rationality in decision making and initiate change (ie to innovate), and thus to be a major obstacle to progress and economic prosperity in affected communities (see Thoughts on Hizb-ut-Tahris in Australia);
  • The fact that Australia’s proposed National History Curriculum seems determined to avoid clearly teaching children about the ideas that have been critical to the emergence of Australia’s social and institutional framework (because of a desire not to discriminate against alternative world-views) seems to leave students ill-prepared for responding to pressures from the world Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding? Its failure to highlight the importance of Christianity to Australia’s heritage would make the educational process into a farce (see Australia's National History Curriculum: Making Education Futile and Highlighting the Importance of Christianity?);
  • The most effective way to separate religion and state in Victoria would be to remind Christian churches of the importance of success in their (evangelical) mission not only to individuals but to the viability of Australia’s liberal legal and governance institutions (see Separating Church and State will Need More than a High Court Decision). Thus, if current religious instruction practices developed by Access Ministries are inadequate, the real challenge for those wishing to ensure separation of religion from a secular state is presumably to find better ways to present Christianity to students.
Addendum F: Are Politicians Idiots?

Are Politicians Idiots? (email sent 13/5/11)

Jewel Topsfield,
The Age

Re: School religion classes probed, The Age, 13/5/11

Your article suggested that the federal and Victorian education ministers (Peter Garrett and Martin Dixon) would investigate whether teaching religion in schools might involve trying to make converts (‘proselytizing’) after Access Ministries CEO (Dr Evonne Paddison) had implied that this should be the goal in a 2008 speech to the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion national conference.

Surely politicians are not idiotic enough to believe that teaching Christianity through school religious programs will not tend to ‘make disciples’? This is the logical outcome of the process, and for reasons suggested in Get God out of the Classroom: Good Luck with That! this is not only of benefit to students (as Dr Paddison reportedly suggested) but also to the maintenance of Australia’s liberal legal / governance institutions (and thus to the notion of a secular state).


John Craig

Addendum G: A Confident Secularist Society?

A Confident Secularist Society? (Email sent 6/8/11)

Brendan O’Neill,

Re: A confident secularist society would tolerate school religion, The Age, 28/7/11

Your article concluded that secularists, who stridently call on governments to prevent church volunteers from providing religious education in public schools, are in effect admitting defeat in the battle of ideas. I should like to suggest for your consideration why such an admission of defeat may be necessary to defend the notion of a secular state (and the advantages that the separation of church and state has brought to Western societies).

My interpretation of your article: Can a half hour chat about God really warp children’s minds? Irate secularists have depicted special religious education in public schools as the modern day equivalent of a Christian crusade to convert young people to a lifetime of Bible bashing. Special religious education does not take place in all schools, and only takes a half an hour – and even the most fervent nun / pastor would struggle to convert children in this time. Secularists see this as indoctrination (not education). The Commonwealth Ombudsman insists that government clarify when chaplains cross the line from telling children about Christianity to trying to convert them. Proselytising is banned, but it is not clear when this occurs. Secularists’ panic reflects their lack of faith in their own creed, and their ability to win over the next generation to a grounded, rational, Enlightenment outlook. Children do not believe everything they are told. I was given religious education at school, but not converted. Those subjected to most religious education at school tend to become atheists or agnostics – because it increases their BS detection capabilities. A confident secularist society, which trusted in its rationalist public institutions, would have no problem with church run classes, because it was secure in the knowledge of a better secular alternative. But in the present world when people are seen as problems rather than as rational, humanists find it easier to attack faith-based institutions than to get their own house in order. Secularists who call on states to expel church volunteers from public schools are admitting defeat in the battle of ideas.

In the first place, as I understand it, the original meaning of ‘secular’ in Western culture did not imply rejection of religion, but referred to those aspects of human affairs that were outside (and complementary to) the sphere of religion. Thus strictly ‘secularists’ would presumably be indifferent to church teaching in schools, not because they favour an alternative, but because religion is outside their sphere of knowledge and interest,.

None-the-less your article suggested that ‘secularists’ have a creed (ie a religion) of their own – ie one featuring a ‘grounded, rational, Enlightenment outlook’ and confidence in ‘rationalist public institutions’. However, while there can be benefits in a rational Enlightenment view, such a view also has significant limitations (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?). The latter refers, amongst other things, to limits to rationality (both to those that are well known, and to some that are now emerging). It thus implies that winning over the next generation to the simplistic alternative ‘creed’ you have suggested would be a real struggle..

It is also constructive to consider the way in which the development of a ‘rational Enlightenment’ view (and many other features that contributed to the strength of of Western societies such as the separation of church and state) depended on widespread adherence to Christianity within the community (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions) and the challenges to liberal institutions and ‘rationalism’ that are emerging as Christian adherence in the community declines, and human claims to moral authority re-emerge to potentially break down the notion of a secular state (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

Your article may very well be correct in asserting that religious education in schools is not a very effective way of convincing children about Christianity. The challenge, therefore, for those who value a secular state is arguably to find more effective ways to present Christianity to students (a point that was explored also in Get God out of the classroom: Good luck with that!).

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig

Addendum H: Could 'Regular Teachers' Reliably Teach Religion in State Schools?

Could 'Regular Teachers' Reliably Teach Religion in State Schools? (email sent 5/3/12)

Professor Stan van Hooft,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Deakin University

Re: Religious classes in state schools must be about teaching, not preaching , Brisbane Times, 2/3/12

Your article (which also appeared in The Age) made a case for ‘general religious education’ in state schools (ie for regular teachers imparting knowledge and understanding of all of the world’s major faiths), rather than the ‘special religious education’ that has been provided by faith-based groups and emphasized Christianity. In particular it was suggested that:

“Australia is a society that guarantees freedom of religion and separation of church and state. It is a liberal society in which everyone is entitled to the religious beliefs they hold and to follow their religious practices as long as they cause no harm. This means religion is a private matter. Public issues are those the government is charged to regulate and control because they touch on benefits or harms that affect members of society. Private matters are those that touch on the consciences or lifestyles of individuals which those individuals are entitled to pursue because they have no public impact.

A liberal society should protect children in public schools from indoctrination by well-meaning religious adherents while also protecting the private right of religious groups to set up their own schools. Schools set up by a liberal state and pursuing public good should not be intruded upon by the private convictions of any groups within society.

There are basically two conceptions of religious instruction at play in this debate. The first is called "special religious instruction" and the second "general religious education". Both are provided for in state government policy, but only the first is widely practised. “

There are advantages in the separation of religion and state that your article endorsed (eg see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics, 2009+). However, as the latter indicated, this is anything but straightforward because even seeking state support for separation can lead to political decisions that disadvantage some religions (and this can produce outcomes that are the reverse of the desired separation).  

Moreover I suspect that teaching about religion is more complex than your article indicated, and that the issues involved go well beyond the likely expertise of ‘regular teachers’.

To gain ‘a genuine choice as to what they themselves will believe’, children would not only need general information about all major traditional religions, but also about: (a) the practical consequences for societies whose cultures are built around traditional religions; and (b) emerging non-traditional belief systems that also compete for adherents. This would require resource material that would be very difficult and time consuming to produce.

My reasons for suggesting this are outlined in more detail on my web-site, and I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig


What individual’s put their faith in is not only a ‘private matter’ that has consequences for themselves alone.

There is also an effect on the community as a whole because a society’s culture (which includes, or is heavily influenced by, the world view embodied in the dominant religion) appears to be a major determinant of a society’s ability to be materially successful and to live in relative peace and harmony. Culture affects: people's goals and aspirations; the way they understand reality (and thus how they go about solving problems, and whether they can develop technologies); their ability to learn, to cope with risk and to change; and the institutions their society maintains (see Competing Civilizations). For example:

  • the Australian Curriculum Studies Association developed material in relation to Islam that teachers might use, yet the product was inadequate for genuinely educating students (see Bringing Balanced Understandings about Islam into Australian Schools, 2010). Its ‘idealistic’ view failed to address the practical consequences for Muslim dominated societies, whose slow progress and modernisation in recent centuries arguably reflect:
    • the suppression of initiative where moral behaviour is enforced by communal coercion of individuals to conform to what is perceived to be God’s will (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism – which comments on the adverse effects of Islamist’s goals, ie state enforcement of religious laws, that would seem likely to increase such obstacles because the problem is not apparently understood); and
    • the goal of ‘Islamic science’ that seems to inhibit genuine scientific advance (see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science, 2005). Nature is apparently expected to be studied mainly as a way of understanding God, because it is assumed that nature also is coerced / micro-managed to conform to God’s will;
  • Australia’s liberal institutions (which, as your article noted, seek to guarantee freedom of religion and church / state separation) are largely a bye-product of widespread Christian adherence within the community (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). Suppressing human claims to moral authority (because Judeo-Christian teaching uniquely places primary responsibility for moral behaviour on individual consciences responsible to God) allowed legal and governance institutions that presume individual liberty. This created simplified social spaces based on individuals that then enabled rationality (derived from Western societies’ classical Greek heritage) to become reasonably effective as a means for problem solving (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths).

Unfortunately the practical consequences of cultural differences have not received much attention in recent decades apparently because of disinterest by students of the humanities and social sciences, who would traditionally have studied such questions (see Competing Civilizations, 2001). The emergence and ultimate dominance of post-modern theory (ie that social knowledge tends to be just a ‘construct’ to benefit elites, and that such ideas are just a matter of opinion and likely to be equally valid and useful) appears to be the main reason that such study has been discouraged.

The difficulty facing ‘regular teachers’ in trying to impart understanding of diverse faiths is not only complicated by the fact that many traditional faiths encourage social, political and economic institutions that are incompatible with Australia‘s liberal inheritance, but also by the emergence of new competing faiths in Western societies. In particular:

  • Atheism seems to be becoming an increasingly evangelical religion, and one that claims it should be the default adopted by secular states. In Western societies, Atheists seem to place their faith in ‘rationality, science and critical thinking’ as the way to gain positive knowledge. There is no apparent recognition of: (a) the limitations of those tools; or (b) the existence of traditional religions (eg Confucianism) that are also non-theistic but do not rely on the ‘rational’ tools that a classical Greek heritage gave Western societies (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism, 2010);
  • ‘post-modern’ assumptions (in effect that seeking positive knowledge is futile) are an alternative to both Atheists’ faith in ‘modern’ tools for gaining such knowledge and to Christianity’s faith in divine revelation. The ‘post-modern’ belief system, it may be noted, also seems to have contributed to: (a) practical problems in countries such as Australia (see Eroding the West's Cultural Foundations); and (b) much of the disadvantage and conflict experienced around the world (see Ignorance as a Source of Conflict).

For ‘general teachers’ to enable anyone to make an informed choice amongst major traditional faiths and their emerging competitors would require that they have access to resource material that provides a balanced account of issues such as those outlined above. Such resource material: (a) does not yet exist; (b) would take many years (perhaps decades) to assemble to the point that a consensus exists amongst experts; and (c) would involve complexities that are unlikely to be properly appreciated even by undergraduate students (and certainly not by young children).

By contrast it is possible to teach about Christianity simply as a belief that might be accepted by children on faith, or rejected. The New Testament not only provides evidence for faith in Jesus’ Gospel but also suggests that acceptance of that 'good news' should be voluntary and based on faith alone. And success by Christians in imparting such faith seems likely to be essential to countering threats to the foundations Australia’s liberal legal and governance institutions that: (a) have been emerging for decades (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions); and (b) would be exacerbated by the widespread acceptance of faiths that do not endorse "freedom of religion and separation of church and state”.

Addendum I: Teaching about religion in schools

Teaching about religion in schools - email sent 26/3/12

Roger Chao
Steppe by Steppe

Re: Why we should teach religion in schools, Online Opinion, 26/3/12

Your article suggested the need to teach about religion in schools because, even though religion is not rationally valid, it has consequences for societies.

While endorsing your view about the importance of understanding the consequences of religion, I would like to suggest that teaching about religion in terms of its consequences would be an incredibly difficult task – because the fundamental work on this has not yet really been done. My reasons for suggesting this are outlined in Could 'Regular Teachers' Reliably Teach Religion in State Schools?

Moreover I also submit that there is a need in debating such issues to recognise that there are very real limits to human rationality as a means for decision making (eg see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?). Those limits seem to be the basis of the radically different epistemologies and methods of problem solving that prevail in East Asian societies with an ancient Chinese cultural heritage (see East Asia in Competing Civilizations), while the creation of simplified social spaces (eg through a rule of law) seems to have been essential to the effectiveness that rationality has had in Western societies (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength).

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.


John Craig

Addendum J: A Wise or a Foolish Nation?

A Wise or a Foolish Nation? - email sent 21/4/12

John Turner,
Hunter Skeptics

Re: A Clever Country? Online Opinion, 20/4/12

I should like to suggest that your article somewhat oversimplifies quite complex issues.

My interpretation of your article: Modern science (based on mathematics) has now become more competent and complete in covering both subatomic and universe scale matters. Despite this many parents still submit their children to teachers who do not accept scientific evidence. Australia can’t be a clever country when un-evidenced views / dogma are taught. Students from state schools have 5% better results at university than those from religious schools. Schools need to teach students to think – but this is not assured in schools influenced by dogma. Introducing a weekly philosophical discussion for year 12 students could solve this quickly – and could then be extended to other grades. In primary school, the NSW ethics classes (which are Philosophy for Children in disguise) could be expanded Australia wide. This would improve students’ ability to think. In NSW however this is only available to students whose parents have released their children from the stranglehold of Special Religious Education in public education (the heart of secular Australia). Ethics / philosophy classes with no dogma would improve student’s intellectual capacity. The problem is that politicians and church leaders prefer a controllable, unthinking, easily misled population. We will live in peril so long as religious delusion persists.

There is little doubt (as your article suggests) that Australia currently has an excessively ‘controllable, unthinking and easily misled’ population. However this has causes, and potential solutions, which do not simply relate to the absence of ‘Philosophy for Children’ classes that would teach individuals to think. Some speculations about the nature of the problem and possible solutions are in Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building. The latter refers, for example, to: (a) the increased complexity of public policy issues which now often have no readily identifiable rational explanation or solution and thus encourage political leaders to advocate ‘populist’ initiatives (ie those that sound good, but would not work in practice); and to (b) new institutional support to the political system that is needed to overcome this problem.

More generally it is noted that there is a great deal of current attention to what has been described as the ‘Asian century’, and if this eventuates, its primary implication would that the thinking ability of individuals would have been shown to be an inadequate foundation for civilizational success. My reasons for suggesting this are outlined in Asian Millennium or Asian Decade?

It is also noted that:

  • Your article implies that those who do not accept that everything has to be explainable in terms of science are wrong, and thus unsuitable to be teachers. However;
  • While science (which seeks mathematical laws through observation / experiment) is very useful in discovering how the universe works, it has limits. And those limits are most obvious to those who study relatively rapidly changing social systems rather than those concerned with the more stable systems studied by the physical sciences. This point is explored in How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'? Amongst other things the latter suggests that gains in information about a system through the emergence of new order, which occur relatively frequently within (say) social, biological and ecological systems but perhaps very slowly in physical systems, are incompatible with the scientific view that outcomes are simply determined by the initial state of a system and (usually mathematical) scientific laws which do not permit any increase or decrease in information. In particular, it seems that economists fail to develop adequate understanding of economic growth because economics tries to be a ‘real science’ like physics and to discover ‘laws’ governing the behaviour of economic systems, rather than recognising that the better goal is to change the way such systems operate – ie to change, rather than discover, what amounts to ‘scientific laws’;
  • Thus your article’s claim that science is the ultimate arbiter of what should be taught to students needs to be recognised to be a dogma. [In a 2010 exchange with the president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, he claimed that Atheism had no a priori claims / dogma. However that exchange revealed mainly that he was not aware of the dogma on which his arguments were based - see Atheism's Claims];
  • Ethics / philosophy classes, as an alternative to Special Religious Education which provides a Christian perspective, would not simply teach children to think. Such ethics / philosophy classes would encourage children to see themselves (or their ethics / philosophy teachers) as moral authorities. And blocking human claims to moral authority (because Judeo-Christian teachings recognise that individuals are ultimately responsible to God for the morality of their actions) is critical to the individual liberty that has been built into Australia’s legal and government institutions and provided immense political and economic advantages for reasons suggested in Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions (and Accidentally Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism?).

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Addendum K: Problems with Freedom of Religion

Problems with Freedom of Religion - email sent 10/5/12

Dan Hessler

Re: When freedom of religion becomes bullying, Online Opinion, 3/5/12

I noted your concern with the current rights that Christian schools have to discriminate in favour of staff whose lifestyles are compatible with what those schools argue is Christian values. You suggested that: (a) discrimination leads to adverse consequences for gay and lesbian individuals; and (b) people should be able to worship as they like providing this does not adversely affect others.

An extract on adverse consequences: “In what is reportedly the first systematic review and analysis of suicidality and depressive symptoms in sexual minority youth, Dr Michael Marshal PhD from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania conducted an analysis of nineteen studies that included a total of 122,995 participants. He says, "gay and lesbian individuals experience much more violence, discrimination, and victimization than heterosexual teenagers, which in turn leads to increased stress and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that can develop into depression and [suicide]." He also argues that gay teens are socially marginalized and ostracized from mainstream social groups and, as a result, they gravitate to "fringe" social groups, where there tends to be more risky behaviour, including drug and alcohol use.”

I should like to suggest that the issue is more complex than your article indicated. There is not only a need to study to the stresses that sexual minority youth face (eg ‘suicidality and depressive symptoms’), but also to study the source of those stresses, because it seems likely that both the stresses they face and their homosexual behaviour itself may often have a common cause (ie abuse / neglect as children) – see Public Acceptance of Homosexual Behaviour. The latter also suggests that, because of this and another link with child abuse, the public acceptance of homosexual behaviour seems morally indefensible.

Moreover, in relation to exercising freedom (eg in matters of religion) where this does not adversely affect others, it is noted that:

  • Very little attention seems to be paid to the adverse effects that cultural / religious assumptions can have on some communities - see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism. The latter suggests various ways in which this failure currently limits the quality of education that is being offered. For example communal coercion to enforce compliance with moral prescriptions seems to be traditional under Islam, and this has severe adverse economic consequences for affected societies because of its constraining effect on initiative / innovation, yet proposals for programs to inform children in Australian schools about Islam do not seem to consider the practical consequences – see Bringing Balanced Understandings about Islam into Australian Schools. Likewise adverse effects on scientific progress of Islamic religious assumptions (see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science) also seem to be ignored;
  • The erosion of ethical standards in the Australian community is leading to many serious social symptoms (including child abuse and bullying), and this is putting at risk the legal and governmental institutions based on individual liberty that have provided huge economic and political advantages to Australians in the past (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty). .

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Addendum L: Eclipsing Liberty?

Eclipsing Liberty? - email sent 12/5/12

Rodney Croome,

Re: ‘Eclipsing the religious right’, Online Opinion, 4/5/12

I should like to offer a couple of comments on your suggestions that the parliamentary inquiries into marriage equality are likely to permanently eclipse the religious right’s influence on Australian politics.

First it is unwise to try to make long term projections about Australia’s political system when that system is has clearly been struggling in trying to cope with its challenges (eg see Recognising the Need for Nation Building – in Australia's Governance Crisis and the Need for Nation Building). The latter presents suggestions about the nature of the problem and what might be required to repair Australia’s system of government. It includes, for example, reference to: (a) dubious responses to strategic issues because of superficial assessment they received; and (b) the trend towards political populism (ie the adoption of policies that sound trendy but don’t actually have good results in practice) because issues are extremely complex. And there seems to be little doubt that the issues involved in same-sex marriage have also received only superficial assessment (eg see Same-sex Civil Unions: Endorsing Child Abuse?).

It can also be noted that other observers are pointing to potential weaknesses in the democratic process related to a lack of collective fiscal discipline (eg see Monk P., How we can save democracy, The Age, 11/5/12).

Second it is highly desirable to keep religion out of politics (whether that of the ‘religious right’ or any other) for reasons suggested in Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics. Moreover religion has largely been able to be kept out of politics in the past because: (a) there was very widespread Christian adherence within the community; and (b) the Judeo-Christian tradition is apparently unique in enabling a high level of separation between religion and the state, because of the expectation that individuals are responsible to God for the morality of their actions (eg see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength). However the erosion of Christian adherence within the community now seems to be giving rise to serious social dysfunctions, and to claims to moral wisdom and authority by various social and political elites as they seek to find ways to reduce those dysfunctions (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

And, as the latter notes, those human claims to God’s moral wisdom and authority must undermine the Christian foundations of legal and governance institutions that presume individual liberty, and which have provided massive economic and political advantages in recent centuries (see also Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). There is a large range of alternative traditional and emerging religions that are seeking dominance (eg see Could 'Regular Teachers' Reliably Teach Religion in State Schools?). Each of these has claims and consequences, but none seem to provide a foundation for separating claims to moral wisdom and authority from the state, and thus to creating an environment in which individual liberty can be tolerated.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Addendum M: What does secular education mean?

What does secular education mean? - email sent 21/6/12

Catherine Byrne
Macquarie University

Re: School chaplaincy case: a missed opportunity for secular education, The Conversation, 21/6/12

Your article suggested that:

“Williams’ courageous act highlights the potential for change when a brave parent asks “what does secular education mean?” “

But just what does ‘secular education’ mean? As I interpreted it, your article implied that this might mean compulsory study of religions and ethics

However there are some problems with such a proposal, because (as I understand it) ‘secular’ deals with all aspects of society apart from ‘religion’ – so a compulsory study of ‘religions and ethics’ can’t be considered to be ‘secular’ because it includes study of religions. Moreover, it has been realistically pointed out ethics / values can’t be realistically taught except in the context of some sort of broad world-view. So there is a need to determine what ‘broad world view’ should be presented, as the foundation for presenting particular views of ethics.

This is anything easy to do because, for example:

  • Though Atheists claim that their world view is secular, it clearly is not because it is based on assumptions that can’t be objectively established (see Celebrating a New Evangelical Religion: Atheism);
  • If one backs away from strict ‘secular’ education by allowing a general study of religions, it is anything but easy to do this reliably (see Could 'Regular Teachers' Reliably Teach Religion in State Schools?’). The latter points to the fact that religions have practical consequences (which are sometimes very negative) for affected societies and these would need to be presented if students were to be reliably informed. And there are many complex world views emerging that would also need to be taken into account. Furthermore:
    • the ways of thinking that are the basis of different traditional religions are radically different, and not easily comprehended (eg consider the implications of the difference in epistemology between Western and East Asian societies which makes the realistic explanation of (say) Daoism, Confucianism and Shinto essentially impossible within rational / analytical Western styles of thinking);
    • there are consequent differences amongst traditional religions which (if they were presented in terms of the way their adherents think) make it impossible to support just one set of ethics. For example, some imply that there is a difference between good and evil, while others (eg Daoism) see good and evil as equivalent / complementary;
  • The ethics courses that have been developed (eg in NSW) raise difficult questions about the authority base for those teachings (see Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism?). Australia’s liberal legal and governance institution are founded on the absence of human claims to moral authority that is a unique feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). And emerging human claims to moral authority (from the authors of ethics courses and many others who seek to ‘eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so as to be godlike’ – with apologies to Genesis 3) have been undermining the foundations of those institutions (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions).

In light of these complexities, I would be interested in your view of what secular education should involve.

John Craig

N: Religion Should be Taught Better

Religion Should be Taught Better - email sent 19/2/13

David Zyngier,
University of Melbourne

Re: Religion should be taught in the home, not at school, The Conversation, 18/2/13

Your article suggested that there are fundamental problems with the fact that religion (especially Christianity) is taught in Australian state schools.

My interpretation of your article: Australia’s religious education system is outmoded and damaging to students / families / teachers. Special Religious Education (SRI) is a flawed / segregated / unprofessional model that caters to interests of religious organizations. Irrespective of how many students participate, state schools must allow in non-teacher volunteers – which disrupts classes and excludes students who don’t participate. Students are segregated according to religious beliefs and this contributes to: stereotyping / suspicion / religious exclusivity. It also breaks separation of church and state (which is central to Australia’s democracy). NSW offers ‘Primary Ethics’ to some students who opt out – but this: (a) is not available elsewhere; and (b) legitimizes proselytizing young children by religious groups. The exclusive nature of these programs: (a) discriminates against those who sit out; (b) does not meet the needs of a multicultural society where students should learn about diverse religious / ethical traditions; and (c) exacerbates social problems such as prejudice / racism / religious vilification. Scholars and community members are concerned that religious groups can proselytize children in what should be a secular education system. This is prohibited in US schools, and UK shifted to world religious education in 1970s. Australia’s laws on this are open to challenge. 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians committed to nurturing appreciation for religious diversity. Families are better placed to provide specific religious education (eg after school or through churches, synagogues, mosques, temples). Doing otherwise forfeits the secular nature of public education. Public schools now present children with outdated religious education – often a singular / exclusive faith presented in pedagogically unsound ways. Access Ministries who provides 90% of religious education openly acknowledges ‘fishing for souls’. They are not about educating children, but about making others believe what they do. This is at odds with governments’ commitment to promoting a socially-inclusive society.

I should like to suggest that the issues involved are more complex than your article indicated, because:

  • A communities’ culture (including religion) has practical consequences, and widespread Christian adherence is foundational to the liberal legal and government institutions that have benefited Australians;
  • It is highly desirable to promote inclusiveness in Australian society, but not to promote uncritical acceptance of diverse cultures without evaluating, and promoting awareness of, their practical consequences;
  • There are many advantages in maintaining a separation of church and state (as your article suggested). However this is not something that governments can promote unilaterally, but depends on churches’ success in promoting widespread Christian adherence in the community;
  • Declining Christian adherence is putting Australia’s liberal institutions and secular state (and the political and economic advantages these provide) at serious risk;
  • While there may be inadequacies in the way religion is currently taught in schools, the fundamental challenge is to do better.

The above points are developed further on my web-site.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Detailed Comments

A key factor to consider is that culture (including religion) has practical consequences. And one of the consequences of widespread Christian adherence in a community is that it is possible to have ‘liberal’ legal and governmental institutions – for reasons suggested Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions (2010). And those institutions (which presume individual liberty and separate the church from a secular state) have been vital to the progress that Western societies have achieved in recent centuries, because they have enabled rationality, ie the manipulation of abstract concepts as a means for problem solving, to be: (a) a reasonably reliable basis for individual initiative; and (b) reasonably successful also in dealing with the simplified roles of a secular state (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strength in Competing Civilizations).

Liberal institutions (ie those built on a presumption of responsible individual behaviour without state / communal coercion) are not possible other than under Judeo-Christian traditions - as human authority always otherwise seems to be claimed for defining the nature of and / or enforcing ‘moral’ behaviour by individuals (eg by tribal elders, social elites, divine kings, communities).

There is, as your article suggested great value in promoting inclusiveness in Australian society. However this should focus on individuals and should not involve endorsing diverse cultures without considering (and ensuring that there is wide understanding of) the practical consequences of general adherence to particular cultures. Australia’s approach to multiculturalism needs reconsideration, because the consequences of an uncritical approach can be very serious – eg to perpetuate disadvantage and / or promote violence (see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism). While I am not familiar with the UK practice that you mentioned, ie trying to teach ‘world religions’ in schools, I would suspect that doing so adequately would be almost super-humanly difficult because of the complexities involved (see Could 'Regular Teachers' Reliably Teach Religion in State Schools?).

There is, as your article also suggested, a great deal to be gained by separating church and state, but this outcome depends on churches ensuring widespread Christian adherence in the community. It is not valid to suggest that governments can ensure the separation of church and state by discouraging Christian proselytizing in schools or elsewhere. It may well be that Access Ministries (and similar groups) are not doing an effective job through religious education in schools, and / or that other methods would be more effective. However, if so, the challenge (for those who wish to promote a separation of church and state and maintain the advantages that flow from liberal institutions and a secular state) is to find more effective ways to promote widespread and genuine Christian adherence in the community (see also Get God out of the Classroom: Good Luck with That!).

Australia’s liberal institutions are currently at risk because declining Christian adherence has led to diverse and serious social pathologies for which a ‘solution’ is seen to require that others (eg political leaders, philosophers) claim that they, rather than God, are the source of moral authority (eg see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions). For example, suggestions were recently made that the prime minister should present herself as Australia’s moral authority without considering the implications of thereby breaking the separation of ‘church’ and state (see a Godless Morality Would Raise Devilish Difficulties). Likewise efforts to teach what some believe to be ‘primary ethics’ stripped of the broader Christian world-view from which they emerged are not providing a credible framework for acceptance, and also risk accidentally encouraging moral authoritarianism.

O: Challenges Facing the Secular Party

Challenges Facing the Secular Party - email sent 16/8/13

John Perkins,
Secular Party of Australia

As I understand it, the Secular Party seeks to ‘question beliefs, in a reasoned manner, as part of political debate’ and has policies that focus on promoting ‘true separation of church from state, ensuring freedom of and from religion, and a liberal, secular democracy”.

I should like to submit for your consideration that:

  • ‘questioning beliefs’ (while highly desirable) is more complex than is indicated by material on the Secular Party’s web-site;
  • while separating church and state is also desirable (eg for reasons suggested in Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics), the Secular Party’s web-site suggests that it may at present inadvertently be headed in the opposite direction. There is absolutely nothing unusual about politicians' policies generating unexpected and counter-intuitive consequences;
  • the Secular Party could most effectively achieve its goal of a truly secular state by helping in non-state efforts to promote widespread Christian adherence in the community.

My reasons for suggesting this are detailed further on my web-site. I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Detailed Comments

The Secular Party’s views on religion on its web-site suggested that:

“The Secular Party is not anti-religion in the sense that we believe that people should be free to indulge their beliefs, provided they do not infringe the rights of others. We support freedom of religion. We also recognise that, as with any freedom, there are inevitable limitations that must be applied to this freedom in support of the public good. Where religious practitioners err, we contend, is in presuming that the supposed authenticity of their beliefs gives rise to a right to impose their beliefs on others.

Belief in religion requires faith. Faith is not necessarily a virtue. Beliefs can be tested on the basis of reason and evidence. The Secular Party reserves the right to question beliefs, in a reasoned manner, as part of the political debate.

We concede that in providing psychological consolation and in inspiring charitable works, the practice of belief may be beneficial. We also contend that by invoking needless fear and guilt, in hindering progress, and in fostering social division and violence, religions are on balance harmful to society. We doubt they are necessary. In the 21st century we can aspire to do better.

The Secular Party seeks a harmonious and peaceful world. It is undeniable that some extremist religious beliefs can cause harm. We contend that it is not wrong to raise questions about the nature of belief, and that in some cases this must be done in order to seek to counter the harm that religions cause.

While in an ideal world we might prefer that all religious practices and freedoms should be conducted in private between consenting adults, we are realistic enough to accept that this will not be achieved. However we certainly think that curtailing government support, endorsement, subsidy and promotion of religion is possible. This is what we advocate.”

The Secular Party seems to be making a political issue of religion (eg by endorsing the Party’s right to question others’ beliefs in political debate and apparently seeking political action to prevent anyone imposing their beliefs on others if they are incompatible with the beliefs of those who founded the Secular Party). This is not likely to promote separation of church and state (see Can Political Activism Separate Church and State?). The latter suggested that building effective ‘religious’ institutions that are independent of / not reliant on the state is more likely than politicising religion to ensure that Australia retains / develops liberal governmental and legal institutions that are truly ‘secular’ (ie concerned with all aspects of society other than religion).

There is no doubt that the Secular Party’s core goal of questioning beliefs is desirable. Beliefs, cultural systems and world-views (including religions) do not usually simply affect individuals separately and in private. Rather they have a major effect on societies as a whole because they affect: people's goals and aspirations; the way they understand reality (and thus how they go about solving problems, and whether they can develop technologies); their ability to learn, to cope with risk and to change; the way people relate; the scope for initiative; and the institutions a society maintains (see Culture Matters in Competing Civilizations).

While ‘freedom of religion’ for individuals is desirable, the post-modern ignorance of the practical consequences of beliefs, cultural systems and world views (eg of religions) that has been maintained by most students of the humanities and social sciences (perhaps out of a desire to not offend believers) can be extremely damaging (eg see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism which refers amongst other things to the effect of such ignorance on perpetuating disadvantage and encouraging conflicts).

However questioning beliefs is anything but simple.

For example, the Secular Party implies that the beliefs that should be questioned are ‘religions’. Yet it is hard to define the limit of ‘religions’ / faiths that should be questioned. The Wikipedia definition suggests that “religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural and to spirituality”. However it seems unwise to regard ‘belief systems’ that have no supernatural or spiritual component as being outside the scope of ‘religions’ / faiths that a truly secular state would need to avoid endorsing. For example:

  • there are many belief systems (see Religions and Belief Systems) and some conventionally-recognised ‘religions', which are imposed on others through the state, have no supernatural component (eg neo-Confucianism which is an authoritarian hierarchical system for ethnic social organisation that has played a significant role in in generating economic ‘miracles’ in East Asia in recent decades);
  • some belief systems are claimed to not be ‘religions’ (and thus that they should be accepted by a secular state) on quite dubious grounds. For example Atheists seem to put their faith in ‘reason, science and critical thinking’ (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism, 2010). However, while those methods for increasing understanding have value, they have limitations because: (a) reason fails in dealing with complex systems (because such systems will contain unknown and unknowable relationships); and (b) the internally-deterministic time-reversible ‘laws’ that science seeks to discover do not predict or explain the observed phenomenon of change / development / evolution or indeed of the fact that anything exists at all (see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?). ‘Supernatural’ events (ie those that can’t be predicted on the basis of how ‘nature’ behaved in the past) are an almost everyday occurrence in ‘soft’ systems (see What is a Miracle?).

Thus the Secular Party arguably needs to take a very broad approach to identifying the religions / faiths / belief systems that need to be questioned. There are moreover beliefs reflected in the views on religion that the Secular Party has itself endorsed (above) that arguably need to be questioned. For example:

  • Can beliefs adequately be tested on the basis of ‘reason and evidence’? - as noted above ‘reason, science [which theorises on the basis of observation and evidence] and critical thinking’ have limitations;
  • Do ‘religions’ foster violence? While 'religion' (as simplistically understood) can at times be associated with violence, this only seems to arise where a religion is adopted as the ideological basis for seeking political power. Moreover over the last century 'religion' did not motivate the major conflicts (eg the world wars) and great tyrannies (eg those of Stalin and Pol Pot) that had the really big body-counts. Political extremists (ie those who believed that they have a great 'mission' which justifies extreme measures) have played a role in these events - but advancing what are commonly perceived to be 'religions' was not major factors in any of those 'missions'. The only significant role that 'religion' seemed to play in major 20th century conflicts and tyrannies involved: (a) Shinto (a non-theistic religion) in Japan in WWII; and (b) the Cultural Revolution in China (which involved an attempt to purge Confucianism (also a non-theistic religion) because of Mao's view that, as the prior foundation of the Chinese state, Confucianism had oppressed the Chinese people). Moreover recent clashes between Western societies and Islamist extremists can't validly be said to be based on 'religion' (see God on My Side: A Conspiracy Theory?). The internal conflicts that are currently plaguing the Muslim world are only partly justified by Islamism (ie making Islam the basis of the state in Muslim-majority nations). This is as much violence by those advocating secular states (see ‘elaboration’ in The Muslim World Seems to be Headed for Chaos) while the leadership in extremist groups (such as al Qa'ida) seem to be seeking ways to modernize the Muslim world by displacing Islamic fundamentalism (see Modernizing Islam). Furthermore, while Western rulers have at times coopted Christianity to support their claims to power (and thus caused Christianity to be seen as a factor in violence), this alignment is incompatible with the separation from the state that is implicit in New Testament Christianity (see Comment on Church's Mission);
  • Do 'religions' hinder progress? Undoubtedly some do (eg consider UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage? and Even Moderate Islam Seems Damagingly Rigid). Yet this was not the case in relation to Western societies’ rapid progress in recent centuries for reasons suggested in Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible. The latter pointed: (a) to the significance of widespread Christian adherence to the creation of liberal legal and government institutions; and (b) to fact that this increased the effectiveness of people in all walks of life by reducing the obstacles to the use of rationality as an effective means for problem solving (see also Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). It also pointed to the advantages that governments have when they are not embroiled in seeking determine the nature of, and enforce, moral interpersonal behaviour. Judeo-Christian teachings (which provide no support for imposing beliefs on others eg consider Matthew 19: 16-12 and Luke 9: 3-5 and which were never envisaged as reliant on the state) uniquely provide for moral interpersonal relationships on the basis of individual consciences responsible to God. Claims to moral authority by human elites seem otherwise to inevitably be seen to be necessary. Some thus ‘eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil so as to be like god’ (with apologies to Genesis 2-3) and impose their invariably-blinkered conclusions on others through the state or communal pressure. The latter tendency now unfortunately seems to be re-emerging in Australia because the Christian foundation needed for a truly secular state has been eroding (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions and Accidentally Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism?).

As the latter implies, if Australia is to gain the benefits of a truly secular state (ie one concerned with all aspects of society apart from religion), it requires strong and widespread adherence to Christianity within the community. Thus if the Secular Party is serious about ensuring the separation of church and state the most effective way to achieve this would involve:

  • ceasing its current efforts to make religion a political issue. While it is highly desirable to question religions / faiths / belief systems, it is impossible to have a truly secular state (ie one concerned with everything other than religion) if this questioning is undertaken in a political context;
  • questioning the practical consequences of its own and others’ beliefs in an apolitical context, and then (on the basis of likely conclusions from such questioning);
  • joining those who have taken up Jesus’ commission to His followers to introduce the spirit of God into individual human hearts (as also suggested in A Confident Secularist Society? , 2011). Doing so not only provides eternal benefits for individuals, but provides here and now advantages for their communities.
P: Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View

Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View - email sent 14/11/13

Daryl Passmore and Anthony Gough,
Sunday Mail

Re: ‘No room in curriculum for religious study’, Sunday Mail, 10/11/13

Your article was very useful in highlighting a desire by some to remove ‘religious education’ from Queensland’s state school curriculum. However the informal ‘debate’ about this that your article recorded was superficial.

My interpretation of your article: Queenslanders want compulsory religious education kept out of schools. Sixty per cent say it should not be included with mandatory subjects such as English and maths. Some principals believe that time could be better spent on core subjects such as literacy. The Australian Christian Lobby does not believe that children should be forced to study religion. The Education Minister (John Paul Langbrook) has no plans to change the law requiring state schools to provide religious instruction from faith groups. This allows parents to opt their children in to such classes when they are enrolled. But critics suggest that many receive the instruction without enrolling. Australian Secular Lobby national director (Hugh Wilson) said most students were wrongly lumped into classes on Christianity – and parents find it hard to get this changed. Queensland Association of State School Principals (Hilary Black) says that religious education should be left to parents. Schools need to get children to read and write, but for at least half an hour weekly they go to religious education, or fiddle around. History will need to be squeezed into an increasingly crowded curriculum from next year. Australian Christian Lobby state director (Wendy Francis) said the body did not support compulsory religious education – and believes principals should have the choice. Schools have an ‘opt-out’ system. Marg Pethiygoda (Education Queensland) said that schools were audited regularly to ensure compliance with policy.

This ‘debate’ reflects serious failures in Queensland’s education system. None of the contributors seemed to be aware of the importance of widespread Christian adherence in the community in relation to the emergence and sustainability of Australia’s liberal legal and governmental systems – and to the current erosion of the social, political and economic advantages that have derived from these in the past.

It is submitted for your consideration that;

  • Though Christianity’s most important implications are for individuals and relationships within communities, widespread Christian adherence potentially improves the effectiveness / efficiency of individuals in all walks of life by allowing:
    • liberal government / economic institutions to be created on a foundation of ‘responsible liberty’; and
    • rationality to thus become much more useful than it otherwise is as means of problem solving;
  • The ‘core’ of the school curriculum arguably needs reconsideration. Supposedly ‘core’ subjects (eg English and maths) that are the tools of abstract / rational problem solving would be of much less value without the liberal institutions that widespread Christian adherence permits;
  • There is thus a need to upgrade Queensland’s education system as a whole to give recognition to the practical implications of cultural (including religious) traditions. Students in state school who don’t participate in religious education classes could perhaps spend time studying such issues (ie studying why religious education is important), rather than ‘fiddling about’ for one period each week as they now do;
  • Also Queensland’s approach to religious education (whether through families, churches, schools or otherwise) needs upgrading, because declining Christian adherence has been generating serious social dysfunctions and these are increasingly:
    • eroding the ‘responsible liberty’ that liberal institutions require; and
    • contributing to family / community environments in which children have limited prospects of being properly educated.
  • Humanism (ie attempts to impose the values of human moral authorities) is not a viable alternative.

The latter points are developed further on my web-site.

John Craig


Implications of Christianity

The most obvious and important implications of Christianity are for individuals (eg see Mark 8:35-38 and Matthew 6: 19-21) and for their relationships with God and within families / communities (eg see Matthew 22:36-40).

However Christianity also has secondary implications in terms of potentially creating an environment in which ‘liberal’ institutions can be sustained (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions). The latter is based on an undoubtedly-improvable attempt (in Competing Civilizations) to consider the relationship between the progress (or lack of it) that various societies have achieved in recent centuries and prevailing cultural traditions.

The ‘responsibly liberty’ that the Judeo-Christian tradition sustains (because the morality of individual behaviour is presumed to be most-appropriately ensured by individual consciences responsible to God rather than through coercion by families / communities / human 'moral authorities’) does not seem to exist under other (eg tribal / Islamic / East Asian) religious traditions. And ‘responsible liberty’ has permitted the creation of social / economic / political environments in which rationality (ie the use of abstract concepts as models of reality) has been able to be used to significantly enhance the performance of individuals in all walks of life in ways that are not otherwise possible (because rationality tends to fail in dealing with complex systems).

Those environmental simplifications involve, for example an emphasis on: individual welfare / capabilities; a secular state (ie one concerned with everything but religion); a rule of law; market institutions; and profit-focused investment. Rationality's potential failure in complex situations can be illustrated by:

  • the counter-intuitive responses that can result from government programs because the 'logic' of the program took no account of unsuspected feedbacks;
  • the failure of central economic planning - related to the inability of such 'planners' to acquire all of the information required to make appropriate decisions; and
  • individuals' need to second-guess the reactions of the powerful if there is no rule of law to simplify the environment in which decisions are made.

What Should Be the Core of the Curriculum?

There is a need for serious re-consideration of what needs to be the ‘core’ of children’s education, because no recognition is currently given to the importance of widespread Christian adherence as the foundation of Australia's institutions.

This is not just a Queensland problem. For example, the so-called National 'History' Curriculum provides students with no apparent insights into the connection between Australia’s institutions and its Christian heritage (see Proposed National History Curriculum: Information without Understanding? and Australia's National History Curriculum: Making Education Futile and Highlighting the Importance of Christianity?).

The latter points to the fact that what are conventionally regarded as the ‘core’ curriculum subjects in the education system (eg literacy, maths etc) involve the use of abstract concepts (ie of rationality) and that this doesn’t work effectively except in the simplified environments that liberal social / economic / political institutions (which in turn depend on widespread Christian adherence) allow. The fact that ‘liberal’ institutions (and a liberal / egalitarian society) tend to be associated with education systems that seek to encourage students to understand and be rational can be illustrated by considering East Asian societies which traditionally (and often currently) have neither of these characteristics (see Asian Education and Competing Thought Cultures).

Upgrading Queensland's Education System

There is a critical need for the school curriculum to provide children with an awareness of the practical consequences of different cultural traditions (see also Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism).  This would have the effect of informing students (including those in state schools who currently 'fiddle about' instead of participating in formal religious education) about the practical implications of religion.

The religious education of children also require higher priority generally - ie not just in state schools.

For individuals the most important question is whether a religion (such as the Christian Gospel) proclaims truth. This is not something that can be proven on the basis of rationality or science (eg because the complexity of the issue defeats 'rationality' - see also How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?).

However the viability of Queensland’s / Australia’s liberal institutions depends on the majority of the community concluding that the Christian Gospel is truth. Thus, while the state can’t coerce adherence without undermining ‘liberty’, individual liberty (and its political / economic advantages) can’t be maintained unless children have an opportunity to conclude that the Christian Gospel is truth. Whether this is best achieved through families, churches or religious education in private / state schools can be debated. The important point is that it happens.

While a secular state can not validly take any role in advancing the Christian gospel, it would have a vital role in not allowing its institutions to proclaim 'religions' which claim to be 'non-religions'. Particular attention needs to be paid to Atheism as its adherents frequently seek exemption by claiming that their religion is 'secular' (see Celebrating a New Evangelical Religion: Atheism). Proclaiming naturalistic explanations of everything (and thus denying God's role) is just as much a religion as faiths that ascribe a role to God (ie depend on assumptions that cannot be absolutely proven). It is thus important that (for example) school science curricula provide a serious and balanced account of both the strengths and limitations of naturalistic explanations of reality (eg see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview).

The Need to Reduce Social Dysfunctions

Greater importance also needs to be attached to the religious education of children because declining adherence to Christianity in the community seems to be generating severe social dysfunctions (see Eroding the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions). The Narcissistic Personality Disorder (discussed in Pavey A., ‘The feuding parents divorced from reality’, Sunday Mail, 10/11/13), whereby parents pay no heed to their children’s’ welfare, is only the tip of the iceberg in relation to the breakdown of ‘responsible liberty’. And evidence that this is eroding the foundations of Australia’s legal and governance institutions is increasing.

Likewise the erosion of ‘responsible liberty’ is adversely affecting children’s education. The Gonski Review identified the existence of educational disadvantage affecting individuals / regions – and recommended substantial rises / changes in educational funding. This seemed poorly advised because many factors (including social dysfunctions that derive from a loss of ‘responsible liberty’) are likely to be involved in generating disadvantage (and must be remedied to correct it) – see (Gonski Review: An Example of the Limitations of Government Initiatives).

The need for a broadly based Christian foundation also follows from the increasing risk that governments will be unable to finance community expectations regarding public services and income transfer (see The Challenge and Potential Cost of Inequality and Insufficient Income). This implies a need to emphasis mutual and self-help within the community on the basis of philosophies that are compatible with Australia's liberal institutions (see The Probable Need for a Community-based Solution).

Humanism is Not a Viable Alternative

Consideration has been given for some years to teaching values in state schools that are based on human authority (see the Debate in The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools, 2004+). The latter points, amongst many other things, to the fact that 'values' can't be validated in isolation but only as part of a broad world view (ie of a religion).

Another constraint on 'humanistic' values involves its effect on eroding individual liberty when efforts have to be made to enforce those values (see Accidentally Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism) . It can be noted in passing that:

  • the 'fall of man' from a relationship with God was seen in the Bible to be associated with 'eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil' (ie human claims to moral authority) - Genesis 3:1-7; and
  •  the introduction of the Mosaic Law (ie the Ten Commandments) was arguably the historical start of a process of liberating individuals from state and communal moral coercion (ie because God's law blocks human claims to moral authority) - see The Emergence and Advantages of Responsible Liberty .

Practical problems with 'humanistic' values can also be illustrated by informal reports of the 'values' being developed at a state school in Brisbane. This involved a long list of detailed do's and don'ts. This was equivalent to the detailed prescriptive moral legalism that Jesus' simplification of the moral law down to the so-called Great Commandments had reformed. The school also felt obliged to call upon local churches to validate their 'humanistic' values and did not seem to respond to suggestions that they seemed too prescriptive. A long list of do's and don'ts constitutes an inflexible 'moral destination', whereas Jesus' Great Commandments constituted a 'moral compass' (ie a sense of direction - love God and love your neighbour as yourself) that both: (a) embodied the spirit of the earlier Law; and (b) could be used to guide decisions in new circumstances.

Q: Heckling Christ: An Opportunity to Change Society for the Better! +


Heckling Christ: An Opportunity to Change Society for the Better! - email sent 2/2/14

Josh Ladgrove

My attention was drawn to the opportunity that you are offering people in Adelaide to Come Heckle Christ in your re-enactment of his crucifixion at an AdelaideFringe event. A chance to heckle ‘Jesus’ creates a massive opportunity to get large numbers of South Australians think seriously in ways they may not have done for decades.

There is nothing new about heckling Jesus. He was radical outsider who proclaimed the Kingdom of God (which eroded claims to unfettered power by the god-kings and imperial cults of his day). As well as creating a ‘lighter burden’ for people to bear (Matthew 11:30), Jesus also emphasised the value of, and empowered, those on the bottom of society. The powers of the day were not amused by this challenge from the ‘fringe’ and arranged his crucifixion in about 30 CE. In that process Jesus was reportedly heckled by mobs near Jerusalem (eg see Matthew, 27:39, Mark 15:32 and Luke 23:35-36).

Though the ancient hecklers had no way to know it, history shows that Jesus was right in what he claimed about the consequences those events (John 12: 32). The effect on the world was massive (eg consider impacts such as those explored in: Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View (an Australian perspective); and Mangalwadi V., The Book that Made Your World (an Indian perspective); and in many other sources). Jesus’ life, teachings, crucifixion and resurrection have been the foundation on which ordinary people ultimately gained freedom from elites’ claims of authority on the basis of their presumed-superior moral wisdom. And that freedom has translated into huge social, economic and political benefits (eg see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual).

Might I suggest that after the audiences that your shows attract have finished heckling ‘Jesus’, it might be worth quietly reminding them that there are serious issues at stake – both for individuals and for societies as a whole. After Jesus had been crucified, the mobs of hecklers repented when the significance of what they had been doing was explained to them (see Acts 2: 22-41).

A similar explanation to would be relevant today. For example, as many Australians are ceasing to acknowledge even the light burdens they have to carry as subjects of the Kingdom of God, the resulting social dysfunctions are encouraging the emergence of elites who seek to gain power on the basis of their claims of superior moral wisdom. This trend must erode the benefits of freedom from such elite claims (eg see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions and Accidentally Encouraging Moral Authoritarianism?). And the resurgent ambitions of would-be moral-authoritarian elites in some other societies (eg in the Islamic world and in Asia where rulers long held both civil and religious power) are even stronger (eg consider China’s encouragement of The Dali Lama's Search for Moral Wisdom).

I am sure that organisers of the AdelaideFringe (and key supporters such as the Government of SA and the Bank of SA) would agree that Jesus’ example of ministry to, and empowerment of, those on the fringes of society in the face of the claims of would-be moral authoritarians and thoughtless hecklers deserves to be highlighted whenever possible.

John Craig

Response from Josh Ladgrove - 2/2/14 - reproduced with permission

What a beautifully written and well thought out e-mail. I sincerely thank-you for it.

To be frank, I've never considered any of my comedy (I've been doing another character called Dr. Professor Neal Portenza for 4 years, and it's the silliest thing you could imagine) to be encouraging of social, political, philosophical or theological debate, and in spite of the title of this show, it was only ever meant to be a very light-hearted opportunity to reverse the dynamics of comedy performance allowing the audience to drive the evening’s events, rather than the performer.

My role will simply be to respond to the heckles, and ironically, I will likely end up defending Christ more often than not, and I'm also hopeful that many other non religious topics will be yelled and heckled. For example, in Melbourne Fringe, the most controversial heckle was someone who spoiled the ending of Breaking Bad. One can never dictate how the audience will respond.

Whilst I appreciate that the show might be an opportunity to remind the audience to consider with piety the social implications of their words and actions, I have always strongly believed that it's not my place to do so. Many comedians, performers, musicians and writers do a much better job than I could ever hope to. I am just a provider of stupidity. That's really all I consider myself. This show was (and I mean this very, very sincerely) not intended as a religious attack, not intended to get cheap publicity (remember it didn't receive 1 complaint in Melbourne) and is not for me an exercise in chastising Christ.

It would be remiss of me to underplay the importance that predominantly Judeo-Christian values have played (and indeed continue to play) in shaping modern Western liberal democracies. However, it would also be remiss of us not to consider the many failures of (particularly the Catholic) the Church in defending those most vulnerable at times. I am aware of some of the beautiful work Christian organisations undertake, particularly with providing support to asylum seekers, which is something I have an infinite amount of respect for, and so that's why this show isn't designed as an attack. None of us are perfect. Sometimes we need to laugh at ourselves to remember life is a strange journey and that we ought not always take ourselves so seriously.

Again, thank-you for the kind response, have a great day

Josh Ladgrove

R: It's Time to Expel Religious Naivety from Universities +

It's Time to Expel Religious Naivety from Universities - email sent 27/2/14

Cathy Byrne
Southern Cross University

Re: It’s time to expel religious extremism from schools, The Conversation: 24/2/14

Your article raised questions about the adequacy of current approaches to religious education in Australia. However the issues are arguably even more complicated.

My interpretation of your article: Some Victorian principals have axed religious instruction (RI) – and others believe this should be done elsewhere. There have been media reports of extremist teaching or proselytizing. RI curriculums can be racist, sexist, anti-science, age-inappropriate or objectionable even to church going Christians. Religious extremism is not innate. It must be taught. The skills to counter religious extremism can also be taught. Religious extremists reject human equality. Religious world-views are preferred to democratic institutions, values and processes and one religion is seen as the best and only basis for society. Many Australian RI programs are evangelical and biblically literal – and position narrow, extremist views of Christianity as a superior way to live / believe. A new book by Marion Maddox highlights the potential for RI programs to be part of Pentecostal quest to create a totalitarian fundamentalist Christian society in Australia, with schools as the training grounds for the army of Jesus. Most Australians assume the education system is secular – and religious extremism is not involved. But extremism can emerge from religious radicalism or scriptural literalism. Australia has a blind spot regarding RI. No state education agency oversees what is taught or by whom. Teachers are often not present. RI volunteers are vetted by their own organizations; usually have no formal teacher training – and this allows extremists to target young children. Adding volunteer-led ‘ethics’ options just legitimizes the extremists. Parents who are dissatisfied get no help from governments. State education agencies are not equipped to deal with the issue. It is assumed that children only learn harmless stories (eg about Jesus, forgiveness and the Good Samaritan) – which are seen to do no harm. But religious division and indoctrination can do a lot of damage. National curriculum is to be reviewed by Kevin Donnelly who believes that Christianity’s privileged position should be maintained – rather than taught as just one religion amongst Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam. But defending privilege paves the way for extremism. Religious radicalism is seen only to be associated with Muslim communities. Christian religious extremism can be a risk to pluralistic democracy and liberal freedoms. Aggressive, highly funded and secretive extreme religious evangelism in Australian schools needs attention. The Victorian Department of Education found that a children’s evangelical organization (OAC Ministries) operated outside approved policy guidelines. It is dedicated to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus – especially outside the church – and took students on excursions away from school. Australian society and the wider world are no longer focused on a singular Christian world view. Unprofessional, segregated and unaccountable RI should be expelled from state schools. Children rather need a comprehensive understanding of different religions, non-religious world views and ethical systems. They need to learn to navigate the diversity of the real world – and how to identify and be careful of extremist views.

As your article suggests there is undoubtedly a need for greater understanding of ‘different religions, non-religious world views and ethical systems’. However such understanding needs to give particular emphasis to the practical consequences of those various world-views – for reasons suggested, for example, in Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism.

Unfortunately contributions to such practical understanding seem to have been suppressed in the humanities and social science faculties of Western universities in recent decades as the result of the widespread acceptance of ‘post-modern’ ideologies. The latter appear to be characterised by viewing supposed ‘knowledge’ about society as largely or simply social constructs (ie a reflection of elite opinion rather than having any real-world consequences). This post-modern world-view in turn excuses a lack of applied research / realism and has clearly had seriously adverse consequences. The controversy that erupted some years ago at QUT about what some saw as the collapse of concern for real-world knowledge as a result of the dominance of post-modern world-views illustrated the problem (see A Crisis in Education at QUT? 2007) though the adverse effects are far broader than mere matters of academic controversy (eg see Eroding the West's Cultural Foundations and Cultural Ignorance as a Source of Conflict). Uncritical acceptance of post-modern ideologies has also arguably resulted in very poor returns from the community’s investment in Australia’s universities – and this is one of the pressing justifications for reform of those institutions (eg see A Case for Restoring Universities).

Unfortunately also your article seems to reflect a post-modern assumption that all world-views are equally valid and valuable. Suggesting otherwise appears to be seen as a rejection of human equality. It was implied that it was wrong to suggest that there were material differences between religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam. There was no mention of the dramatic differences between the effects that different world-views have on societies. Economists realistically regard information / knowledge as the key factor in economic growth. However different world-views have quite different assumptions about the nature and use of information / knowledge – thus implying that culture will have a major effect of different societies’ economic potential and performance (eg see Culture Matters in Competing Civilizations). Christianity’s founder transformed the world (and this ultimately, amongst other things, created the social foundations for what became Western civilization) by valuing and empowering those on the bottom rungs of society as potential children of God (see Heckling Christ: An Opportunity to Change Society for the Better!). Confucianism requires the existence of a social hierarchy dominated by intellectual elites which: (a) is incompatible with Australia’s egalitarian traditions; and (b) has been / remains a source of tension (eg see Communism Versus Confucianism: The Continuing Contest in China). The way in which Islam is enforced seems to suppress the individual differences / initiative / innovation required for social, economic and political progress (see Saving Muslims from Themselves) and to be incompatible with Australia’s liberal traditions. It is simply naïve to imply that all world-views are equally valid and valuable.

If (as your article suggested) schools should teach about ‘different religions, non-religious world-views and ethical systems’ it would be irresponsible and misleading not to highlight their practical consequences. Doing this would be well beyond generalist teachers (see Could 'Regular Teachers' Reliably Teach Religion in State Schools?). Thus a cadre of specialists would presumably need to be created who would, in effect, be charged with promulgating what would become an official state world-view / religion. The notion of a secular state (ie one concerned with everything but religion) and the practical advantages of the separation of church and state would disappear.

There is none-the-less no doubt about your article’s conclusion (ie that there is a need for a serious review of Australia’s approach to religious education). However the nature and emphasis of such a review needs to be quite different to that suggested in your article (eg perhaps along the lines outlined in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View , 2013). Even though the allegations of ‘religious extremism’ that you cited (such as ‘a Pentecostal quest to create a totalitarian fundamentalist Christian society’) may be a bit extreme, the necessary re-examination would, amongst other things, presumably reveal a need to improve religious instruction programs in schools. However reform would have to be a matter for religious groups. As implied above, government authorities (eg education agencies) could not present themselves as the experts on religious instruction without breaking the separation of church and a secular state that has been critical to the many benefits gained from Australia’s liberal institutions. Churches arguably need to get their acts together. But they, not Australia’s hopefully-secular state, have to be the ones to do this.

Universities have the potential to make a major contribution also – once the need to expel religious naivety is recognised.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Response from Cathy Byrne - 28/2/14 - Reproduced with permission

Many thanks for your detailed response to my article. Your comments raise large and complex issues that I cannot address in a simple email and I am rather pressed for time. However, I thought I would at least respond to a few things that you have raised and I hope you forgive my inability to do so in great detail.

As you highlight, there are significant shortfalls with ‘post-modern’ ideologies. However, rather than arguing that all world-views are equally valid and valuable. I would propose that many more religious world views than are currently given credence are at least worth studying in a critical and exploratory fashion. That does not necessarily mean that they are equally valuable, just worthy of investigation.

My reference to Mr Donnelly's concern, about "Christianity … (being) treated as one religion among many" does not deny material differences between religions. I was pointing rather to the assumption that Christianity is assumed by some to be superior and to therefore have privileges within education. My point is that such privilege cannot not be justified. Unfortunately a 1000 word piece does not allow an analysis of the influence on society of different religions and world views.

Might I suggest that your insight regarding different world-views having different assumptions about the nature of information, knowledge and culture gives a rather post-modern take on social constructivism.

Christianity’s founder may indeed have contributed to transforming the world - as did Siddhartha Gautama and many Hindu sages and Islamic mystics. I never implied that all world-views are equally valid and valuable - only equally worthy of study and balanced critical analysis. Certainly, a world view held by a Hindu is as valid and valuable to that person as the Christian worldview is to a Christian.

I agree with you that schools that teach about ‘different religions, non-religious world-views and ethical systems’ must also examine the practical consequences of those world views. I would suggest that this must be done through the eyes of the practitioners and from within the cultural perspective of those being studied. Not in some orientalist fashion (ie by only Christian teachers). I also believe that specialist teachers could be charged with the task (as in many modern western societies: Canada, England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway). In England, many religious and non-religious groups participate in this process.

I question your notion of a secular state. I define secular in relation to education as non-doctrinal, inclusive, designed and delivered by the state. A secular state can, and must, be concerned with religion if religion is an issue in the public sphere. To ensure that one religion does not dominate in a plural and diverse society, the state must engage and facilitate dialogue and democratic fairness. A neutral position is possible and emphasises values of democracy and inclusion.

Reform cannot be left to religious groups - they have had their turn for the last 150 years - and, as my evidence shows, things are getting worse, not better. In this endeavour, education agencies need not present themselves as the experts, but could work with religious and non-religious groups to ensure that significant groups are represented, able to participate and yet - be critiqued in an educationally sound and accountable manner. It wouldn't hurt that teachers were better trained in the field.

Australia’s increasingly less-secular state education agencies, must be the ones to do this, because, they are the ones with the mechanisms of accountability to the people - who are increasingly more diverse and less religious. If this is left to the religious groups, then those with the lobbying power, resources and 'soldiers' will do as they have done, and worse.

More on: It's Time to Expel Religious Naivety from Universities - email sent 2/3/14


Thanks for your comments. Unless you have an objection I would like to reproduce your email on my web-site (ie with It's Time to Expel Religious Naivety from Universities).

The issues involved here are very complex. They arguably ultimately come down to questions about the limitations of human understanding of the complexity of the universe – limitations (and alternatives) that were mentioned, for example, in Job 38 and 1 Corinthians 1:22-25. Those limitations were also a major feature of Buddhist ‘enlightenment’ (eg consider teachings on ‘dependent origination – related to the multiplicity of ‘causes’ of anything), though as noted below Buddhism provides no means to escape them.

I would like to offer a couple of comments on the particular points you have raised:

  • Kevin Donnelly’s claim that Christianity can’t be treated as just another religion in Australia is valid. The Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in ascribing moral authority to God (eg consider Matthew 7, Luke 6: 37 and John 8) and avoiding moral legalism (eg consider Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark 12:28-34). Blocking human attempts to claim moral authority (ie claims on the basis of superior understanding, high social status or anything else) has major implications in terms of allowing (and, given injunctions such as Matthew 6: 19-21, perhaps even forcing) the creation of social systems built around ordinary individuals rather than around any presumed-superior elite (eg god-kings, bureaucrats or philosophers). The resulting social institutions free individuals from much of the world’s complexity (eg the need to consider the reactions of the powerful) and thereby artificially simplify the decisions that individuals need to make. This in turn: (a) helps to reduce the limitations on rationality that complexity otherwise imposes; and (b) ultimately has the effect of raising the effectiveness of individuals in all walks of life (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual, 2001+). The ‘liberal’ institutions that exist in countries such as Australia have, and depend on, a Christian foundation (ie the existence of a community in which responsible behaviour by individuals is presumed without reliance on control by human moral authorities) – see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions. The erosion of that Christian moral foundation in recent decades, and the resulting emergence of ever-more-intrusive human claims to moral authority, poses a major risk to the effectiveness of Australia’s social, economic and political institutions (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions, 2003+);
  • There is value, as you suggested, in studying various religions / world views in a critical / exploratory fashion. But one should not thereby expect to reach reliable conclusions about the validity of those religions / world views – because the issues involved are too complex. The limitations of human rationality (ie attempts to understand reality in terms of abstract concepts) are well recognised in management, economic and public administration literature. There are similar limitations in human attempts to understand the natural world through science (for reasons suggested in Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview). The latter (which is anything but well recognised) comes down to the fact that there are always influences from outside any given system (which the internally deterministic laws of science don’t take into account) which affect the creation of the order that is the source of causal relationships which can be: (a) discovered as ‘laws of nature’; or (b) observed as the homeostatic feedbacks that allow ecological / biological systems to exist. There is mystery in this beyond what humanity can discover by reason and science. Penetrating that mystery requires faith or revelation – not just study of religions and world-views which represent human attempts to understand those intrinsic mysteries;
  • As noted above, recognition of the limits that natural / social interconnection (ie complexity) placed on understanding was a major feature of Siddhartha Gautama’s ‘enlightenment’ (ie the multiplicity of causes of anything implied an inability to discover the simple causality that statements of ‘truth’ contain). However, though Buddhism recognised these constraints, it did not lead to a way to overcome them – because there was no perception of anything beyond the natural world and human society. Recognition of God beyond the natural world permitted consideration of truth beyond the world’s complexity, and thus permitted the creation of social arrangements in which reason (despite its intrinsic limitations) actually worked fairly well. Without that broader perspective, social arrangements to facilitate effective use of reason would not have been created, and humanity’s entrapment in the incomprehensible complexity that Buddhism proclaims would have been self-fulfilling;
  • It can noted also that while Judaism and Islam perceive God’s creative influence beyond the complexity of the natural and social worlds, neither are free of the moral legalism which seems to afflict all human attempts to define what is ‘good’. Moreover:
    • Judaism is limited to a fairly closed group – whereas Christianity extended Judaism’s foundation to all humanity;
    • though Islam has strong Judeo-Christian roots, it does not free individuals from human moral authoritarianism– see Liberty and Islam in Australia (2014);
  • It is not a case of giving Christianity privileges within education. It is more a case of recognising that Christianity is the foundation on which social institutions can be erected within which the approach to education that is adopted in Australia (ie one that seeks to facilitate individual understanding) can be effective. Reasons for this were suggested in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View. Thus it is not a case of Christianity depending on what is done within the education system. Rather the effectiveness of what Australia’s education system does ultimately depends on widespread Christian adherence in the community (because this allows the operation of social institutions in which rationality / understanding can be useful in decision making to the extent that they are);
  • There is partial validity in the ‘social constructivism’ that post-modern ideologies endorse (ie the view of a circular process whereby reality can be a product of ideas, and the resulting reality is then used to infer ‘truth’). Reasons for this partial validity are suggested in Confusion of knowledge. However this limitation seems usually to be taken too far – as the fact that there are limits to our ability to know ‘truth’ does not mean that what is seen to be ‘truth’ is not useful / reliable most of the time. 'Social' knowledge can reflect accumulated experience (ie what works and what leads to problems). Intellectual property is commercially valued. Information (ie understanding of real-world relationships) is realistically recognised by economists as the primary factor in driving economic growth. Western-style education is valued, and of benefit to individuals, because it provides an ability to understand various aspects of reality - understanding that would be irrelevant if 'truth' was always merely an arbitrary reflection of social / cultural preferences. Consideration of the parallel with the use of ‘fuzzy logic’ in control systems implies that the concepts which make up natural language (though an oversimplified view of reality) can also be the best available option. ‘Law’ as a reflection of what is believed to be good practice (though always over-simplified) is useful in freeing individuals from the need to take account of the reactions of the powerful when they make decisions. It is also worth recognising that the ‘constructivism’ which applies in human society arguably also applies in the natural world – and this points to a creative influence that goes well beyond human capabilities and understanding – see Problems in an Internally Deterministic Scientific Worldview;
  • I question your notion of a secular state. ‘Secular’ conventionally implies that the state plays no role in questions of religion – but deals with everything else. If the state is free of religious entanglements it can be vastly more effective (see Why the separation of Church and State Allowed Government to be More Effective and see also Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics). Secular does not imply that the state should get involved in religion to ensure that what is officially / politically regarded as a proper balance of religions / world views is promoted. If the state tries to influence the way religions / world views are presented, it would be involved in promoting an official (perhaps composite) ‘religion’. It would thus also need to ensure (somehow) that individuals behaved in accordance with the teachings of that composite religion – or behavioural standards would collapse. Putting ideals into practice could not be left to individual consciences responsible to God as Judeo-Christian teachings require. This would be fatal to the sort of liberal institutions that Australia has benefited from. When in the past kings sought to co-opt the influence of Christianity as a means for promoting allegiance to their regimes, the result was hardly liberal or particularly beneficial. There are many current examples of states seeking to influence religious adherence amongst their peoples. North Korea is a particularly brutal example but more moderate examples can also be considered. For example, it is understood that government in India tries to ensure a balance amongst all religions (and gets involved in enforcing the moral rules of each faith). This apparently leads to significant problems and to pressure for government to adopt a genuinely secular approach – see Secularism in India. And Sweden, as you noted, is one of the countries where government’s idea of a ‘secular’ state is to require education about all major religions in public schools. Some observations about Sweden’s predicament follow this email;
  • There is no doubt that churches have not done a particularly effective job in relation to religious education recently. This is partly because universities (which Christian churches established to spread advanced knowledge within society) have been pushing in different directions because they have suffered from both excessive and insufficient faith in human understanding. The need for a different approach was the point of my earlier email.

John Craig

Sweden: An Example of ‘Secular’ Education

Sweden is one of the countries where government requires education about all major religions in public schools (see also Religion in Sweden). The latter also notes that: (a) Sweden has a long history of state involvement in religion – as Lutheranism was the state religion until 2000; (b) about 67% of Swedish citizens are Church of Sweden members - down from 83% in 2000; (c) active involvement in church activities is very low (eg 4%); (d) religion is generally treated with ‘benign indifference’; and (e) Sweden’s constitution provides for freedom of religion – and government protects this right and does not tolerate abuse or religious discrimination.

Sweden was seen by one observer as the 'ultimate nanny state’ [1] – ie the state itself seeks to ensure right behaviour and that all citizens benefit from what society achieves. One critic suggested that the (welfare) state has morally corrupted Swedish youth – eliminating the sense of responsibility that their grandparents had had and replacing this with a sense of expectation that their rights would be ensured by the state [1].

However Sweden has also been seen as something of a social paradise. It ranks very high on criteria in the OECD’s Better Life Index (eg in terms of average incomes, paid employment, education, life expectancy, sense of community and positive perceptions of life). While more than 50% of children are born out of wedlock (which in the US would imply worse health, schooling and income in later life), in Sweden, it was believed that, this does not matter because everyone does well [1]. By OECD standards also: (a) Marriage rates are low (and domestic partnership rates are high); and (b) income inequality and poverty are low.

However poverty and inequality have been rising rapidly in recent years (op cit). Youth (ie under 25’s) unemployment is 24%. This, while not as bad as Spain’s 40%, is the highest in Europe relative to overall unemployment (8%). This is seen (by employers and unions) as a structural problem reflecting the education system’s failure to adequately prepare students – and difficulties getting the experience that is needed to be valued in the job market [1]

An article in a Swedish newspaper reportedly claimed that Sweden has a serious problem with crime (eg higher crime rates than in New York city; rampant drug abuse; the world’s highest incidence of rape; police being overloaded by burglary cases; a possible need to close ATMs because of frequent attacks on money transports; routine violent outdoor muggings; police inability to curb Stockholm’s gangsters; and Swedish courts being plagued by police perjury) [1]. Sweden has the world’s highest incidence of rape – a rate which is four times that of its neighbours and 20 times that in some southern and eastern European countries [1]. A study of child sexual abuse across Europe showed both that: (a) obtaining reliable and consistent data is difficult; and (b) Sweden ranked highest in terms of some abuse indicators, and was no better than average in others [1].

Sweden’s perceptions of social equality was shattered in May 2013 by a week of violent riots in Stockholm – as a reflection of immigrant concerns about unjust treatment and the effect of Europe’s economic and financial crisis. Over 1/3 of youth in immigrant districts have no job. Government has been forced to implement austerity measures after 2008 (eg reducing unemployment benefits and health care subsidies). The problems are most apparent in affordable housing suburbs that were built in the 1960s and 1970s – that were initially occupied by poorer Swedes but now (because of Sweden’s liberal immigration policies) are mainly occupied by immigrants. The financially weaker segments of society have been badly hurt by necessary austerity measures [1].

A moral vacuum has been seen to have emerged in Sweden that will be hard to fill. The Social Democrats rejected God, while the neo-liberals rejected societal values. Political corruption has been exposed. Privatisation of old peoples’ homes has led to scandals (eg a refusal by one provider to replace incontinence pads until weighing showed them to be full). Conformism is rife in Sweden. Foreigners complain about this and assume that it comes from above – but it seems innate. Faith in God has been replaced by faith in the future. Social control worked because everyone was seen to be subject to the same authority (ie the law and the future). Sweden’s problem now is that it is easier to destroy structures of mutual obligation than it is to re-build them [1].

Friends of the present writer intend to bring their Swedish born children to Australia (the mother’s home) for schooling because Sweden’s system is seen to excessively promote rote learning, rather than teaching students to think independently [personal communication].

Sweden seems to be facing challenges similar in some ways to those in Australia (ie serious economic disruption and a community dependent to an increasingly unaffordable level of government welfare transfers). Arguably one of the keys to coping with these emerging challenges is a capable and responsible community (which was one of the points raised in Australia’s Competitiveness: Some Suggestions, 2013). The latter suggested why churches must play a major role in achieving this. Sweden’s problem is arguably more severe because of recent disregard of its Christian heritage. A good place to start would probably be with a review of whether public schools should teach about all major world religions without concern for their real-world impact.

Further Reply to Cathy Byrne - email sent 3/3/14

Thanks [for permission to add your comments to my website]. .... If at some stage you do have time to comment further, please do so.

Some feedback that I received from another source might be of interest.

“Can I just give you a couple of comments on the RI scene as it is incorrectly spoken about in that article? I comment on the highlighted bit in the article, and can only speak about Queensland I am afraid. In Queensland, there is a State Education Group which oversees RI (They are the ones who changed it back from RE to RI!!) School Class teachers are required (and in my 40 years of experience always have) to stay in the classroom for all RI classes. Most RI these days is becoming Ecumenical and thus a general Christian education syllabus is required of the teachers and overseen fairly rigorously by the relevant ministerial body; eg Kenmore District Churches Together type of thing. (I guess there are areas where a strong Pentecostal or fundamentalist type church could get into a school where the main stream churches have failed and "do their own thing" unfortunately!!- and this can do the whole Christian scene a huge damage). Parents who are dissatisfied can freely withdraw their children from RI classes.”

John Craig

Response from Cathy Byrne - email sent 3/3/14

Re your last commentator: parents who 'freely' withdraw their child from class are often left having to manage the feelings of exclusion that the child will feel and thus it is not such a free choice. The child is generally not permitted to undertake project work in the curriculum. thus, the 'opportunity cost' of RI is borne by those who opt out and who are barred from meaningful learning. In some instances the RI class is taken by the principal. How 'free' then is the parent's choice?

Detailed analyses of the problems with the RI policies in each state are available in my book. I do hope you can get a copy.

Reply to Cathy Byrne - email sent 3/3/14

Thanks. Some suggestions about what could be done to prevent those who opt out from being barred from meaningful learning were in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View. And while there are undoubtedly problems in current RI arrangements, finding a solution requires such a ‘bigger picture’ perspective.

John Craig

Response from Anne Tennock - 27/2/14 - Reproduced with Permission

Thanks indeed for this. It is also worth noting that Federal Government funding of private schools is enabling the funding of some very religiously extreme schools. It is quite probably the case that the bulk of the funding is going to fund religious schools.

We got a brief insight into the poor quality of religious education in our local state school when we had a close look at the curriculum materials. Rather than raising ethical, sacred or compassionate issues for genuine consideration, it was basically about 'colouring in pictures of "Jesus" on a donkey'. Even at this level, it seemed a gross misrepresentation of historical life at the time.

I'm just reviewing the programming for a radio station I volunteer with. I've also volunteered with another. It is worth noting that evangelism is highly active in this area too. Most community radio stations have now been bought up by religious bodies for religious programming. On those not owned by religious bodies, they may pay well to place religious programmes in substantial amounts of each day.

I was very distressed when 'my' university was (it certainly appears to me) "taken over" by Saudi funding pushing a strong Islamic line. Big amounts of money buys a lot of looking the other way and forgetting academic rigour. As a feminist who fought in the '70s for freedoms for women, words cannot express my feelings when my university's alumni magazine arrives with the front cover promoting women in Islamic headscarves.

We love the religious talks on the ABC by Rachel Conn (is that how you spell her name?) which are wide-ranging. We read widely on religion, and equally (or more) widely on science, history and philosophy. Naive evangelism and fundamentalism seem to be the heart of the problem. I'm quite certain that there are real battles going on to win territory in our nation's hearts and minds, and the battles are by different faiths (Christian and Islamic mainly) and target through multiple channels and through our children. Extreme rationalism unfortunately has also brought us great problems.

We're not very fond of people who label themselves 'skeptics', mainly because when we go along to talks they put on they seem to be missing whole levels of understanding of the human condition. This is something I am constantly confronted with. We mix with a very wide range of groups, and the one that ultimately impresses me most is a Catholic/interfaith group concerned with social justice. Quite remarkable people who arrive at places that sheer intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, or capitalism miss every time.

Let me finish with a true story about a child I've had close contact with. This little girl had a brilliant mind, and by age six I was able to read her advanced science in correct scientific language (I did have to brush up my own scientific knowledge!) and she got the lot and synthesized it and extrapolated. Then she went to school, and had problems because she wasn't thinking the same way as other kids. Her psychologist (!) recommended she be given cosmetic catalogues and girlie magazines to read (which included comics with girls saying things like "Don't worry if you can't do tests. None of us can.") and sent to sleep each night with Christian radio playing very quietly in her room. Within a brief time she was "cured" and became brain-dead like the rest. She is enjoying indoctrination of a very poor quality every evening as she sleeps and her brain is truly receptive.

This is big stuff.


S: Stand Up, Reach Out

Stand Up, Reach Out - email sent 8/3/14

Rohan Salmond,
Cross-platform Editor, Journey

Re: ‘Stand up, Speak out’, Journey, March 2014 (p3)

Your article drew attention to the Uniting Church’s reputation for social justice advocacy. It then mentioned various concerns about infringement of the rights of vulnerable people (ie those associated with: (a) the Intervention in the Northern Territory; (b) Queensland’s amendments to the Youth Justice Act; and (c) the death of an asylum seeker at the Manus island detention centre).

I would like to suggest that the answer to your final question (‘How do we as Christians, let these injustices continue?’) is contained in your opening observation about the Uniting Church’s ‘reputation for social justice advocacy’. The Church’s emphasis on political advocacy (which involves reliance on the ‘Kingdoms of this World’) is much less effective in achieving social justice (or anything else) than an emphasis on spreading the Kingdom of God would be.

This can be illustrated by considering the very real problems of educational inequality in Australia that were the focus of the 2011 Gonski Review. The latter recommended a large increase in / redistribution of funding for schools and a reorganisation of schooling. However the educational inequality that was being targeted largely reflected social / family dysfunctions that could be corrected by spreading the Kingdom of God but not successfully addressed by the ‘Kingdoms of this World’ (see Gonski Review: An Example of the Limitations of Government Initiatives).

The inability of the ‘Kingdoms of this World’ to achieve social justice can be further illustrated by the predicament of Australians with indigenous ancestry. The ‘Kingdoms of this World’ can provide welfare support and enact laws declaring such people’s ‘rights’. But welfare can create dependency and people’s ability to be materially successful depends less on their ‘rights’ than on their ability to use information and to change – neither of which are characteristic of traditional indigenous cultures. The need for internal cultural changes to overcome these constraints was considered in The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement (2002) and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Perpetuating Disadvantage? (2007). The cultural changes needed for real social justice are well beyond the capacity of the ‘Kingdoms of this World’.

Jesus of Nazareth was not into ‘social justice advocacy’ to get the Kingdoms of this World to help the disadvantaged (ie He was not into a ‘they orta do something’ style of thinking). Rather he helped people directly and also motivated and empowered the potentially disadvantaged to help themselves and one another by creating the Kingdom of God (ie by implanting the spirit of God / love in their hearts) – see Comments on Church’s Mission.

The implications of following Jesus’ example in relation to the problems currently facing the world’s umpteen million asylum seekers are suggested in Refugees: What did Jesus Do? The latter also pointed to:

  • Earlier indications of the Uniting Church’s emphasis on ‘Kingdoms of this World’ solutions to problems that could probably be more effectively addressed by taking Jesus’ Great Commission more seriously;
  • The social dysfunctions (and consequent threats to the foundations of Australia’s liberal institutions) that have resulted from under-performance of the Great Commission by Australian churches generally;
  • The injustices and worsening of Queensland Government performance that had resulted because political initiatives (that apparently had had support from churches in the hope of thereby promoting ‘justice’) proved to be poorly advised as reformers’ understanding of the situation was not as reliable as they thought that it was; and
  • The benefits of keeping churches out of politics (and politics out of religion) if real progress in achieving social justice (or anything else) is to be achieved.

This does not imply that Christians should not be interested in, and involved in, politics. Good government requires the sort of emphasis on the welfare of all that Christianity imparts. But political engagement with any particular topic requires specialized knowledge and experience which the church as a whole should not claim to have. Moreover there are options for leadership of constructive change within society which are illustrated (with reference to strengthening the real economy) in A Case for Innovative Economic Leadership (2009). Similar methods could also be used by welfare-of-all-minded Christians to achieve other constructive real-world changes – but only if politics (with its emphasis only on what the ‘Kingdoms of this World’ can do) is kept at arm’s length.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

T: Religious Drivel

Religious Drivel - email sent 4/5/14

Tanya Chilcott
Sunday Mail

Re: Unholy School Row, Sunday Mail, 4/5/14

Your article suggested that there are problems with religious instruction (RI) in state schools because (for example): (a) many children show no religious affiliation on their enrolments; and (b) civil libertarians and secular organisations maintain that state schools should not teach RI.

However the real problem is that media discussions of religious instruction typically report only the naïve views of those who seem ignorant of the fact that Australia’s institutions (including respect for individual liberty and the existence of a secular state) primarily depend on widespread Christian adherence in the general community. This point and others were explored in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View (2013).

A balanced account of the issues involved in RI would be more constructive than the historically-ignorant drivel to which the public is now so often subjected.

John Craig

U: Supporting the Disadvantaged when Governments Can't Afford to Do So

Supporting the Disadvantaged when Governments Can't Afford to Do So - email sent 1/6/14

Hon Peter Garrett

Re: Chaplaincy under fire, Courier Mail, 31/5/14

I should like to submit for your consideration that circumstances seem likely to emerge in which it would be wise to reconsider the point that this article suggests that you made (ie that there is a problem with the school chaplaincy program because the line between converting and supporting children is ‘too easily crossed’).

As you will be well aware there is now controversy about the ability of Australia’s federal government to support ‘entitlements’ and about state governments’ ability to finance major social services (ie health and education). The emerging difficulty in financing public services (and transfers to the disadvantaged) is unfortunately probably just the tip of an iceberg (see The Challenge and Potential Cost of Inequality and Insufficient Income). To oversimplify:

  • All developed economies are finding it difficult to finance the support that the relatively disadvantaged require. For example, international competition with increasingly capable low wage economies with low services / transfer expectations implies that: (a) tax revenues are constrained; and (b) those on the bottom margins of developed economies are increasing in number and relative disadvantage (because they compete in effect with low wage workers elsewhere). This problem will be further complicated by increasing ‘environmental’ costs which will both increase the needs of the relatively disadvantaged and reduce governments’ ability to meet them;
  • Though Australia has been relatively protected from these problems over the past decade (by a commodity boom) and though there are many possible future economic scenarios – the most probable current scenario is that the source of past economic luck (and rapidly growing tax revenues) will soon disappear, and Australians potentially face severe challenges in maintaining a high income economy with strong tax revenues in other ways;
  • There are already signs that the numbers of relatively-disadvantaged Australian’s will increase significantly, just at the time that that governments’ fiscal capacity to provide needed services and transfers declines (see What is Happening in Australia);
  • There will thus be a need for much stronger community-based support to the relatively disadvantaged. High levels of Christian adherence in the community can arguably make it possible for such community-based support to emerge in ways that are compatible with Australia’s traditionally liberal / egalitarian social, economic and political institutions (see The Need for a Community-Based Solution).

While school chaplaincy programs are not part of religious education, they are (as your comments indicate) not unrelated. And, because of the emerging need for community-based support for the relatively disadvantaged (and for other reasons suggested in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View), there is now a pressing need for the community (but not for secular state institutions) to reconsider everything related to religious education.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

V: Why Tolerate Tolerance?

Why Tolerate Tolerance? - email sent 19/6/14

Ralph Seccombe
c/- Australian Skeptics

Re: Why tolerate religion, Online Opinion, 19/6/14

Your article raises questions about whether it is appropriate to tolerate religion – eg to allow believers in a particular faith to be subject to special requirements merely because of their faith.

However the issue is a lot more complex than this, because notions such as tolerance, universal human rights, freedom, a rule of law, etc are largely a product of the Christian world-view that prevailed in Europe as those notions emerged. They would not exist or be sustainable otherwise. A preliminary attempt to explore this point was in Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions (2010). The real issue is not whether the state tolerates religion, but rather whether the community’s religion enables the state to be tolerant. And the world of intolerance seems to be on the march again (eg see Is the Barbarity of ISIS Another Attempt to Ensnare the US in the Middle East? ).

One can’t gain an understanding of all this by developing arguments in terms of tolerance / universal human rights (ie by looking ‘inside the box’) but only by looking ‘outside the box’ at the practical consequences of different world-views (ie religions) in terms of whether (say) ‘tolerance’ is likely to emerge. My attempt to look at the practical consequences of different world-views is in Competing Civilizations (2001). The latter was developed in the context of the clash that has been emerging between the liberal (tolerant) institutions that have emerged in Europe on the basis of its Judeo-Christian and classical Greek heritage and the illiberal (intolerant) traditions that have prevailed in other major civilizations (ie in East Asia and the Muslim world). And where major civilizations have not emerged (ie in tribal societies) strict individual conformity to the tribe is inevitably required.

Competing Civilizations notes that the Judeo-Christian expectation (ie that individuals are responsible to God for the morality of their actions) is both the basis for ‘tolerance’ and unique. Islam by contrast appears to reflect the Arabic tribal context in which it emerged in that appropriate individual behaviour is expected to be enforced by family / community / state pressure. This resulting lack of freedom for individuals is arguably the main reason for the backwardness of Muslim societies in recent centuries – because it translated into a lack of the initiative / innovation that is needed for social, economic and political progress (see Even Moderate Islam Seems Damagingly Rigid).

An attempt to look from an Indian perspective at the role that the Bible had in the emergence of modern liberal institutions, both in India and elsewhere, is in The Book that Made Your World by Vishal Mangalwadi. He pointed out, for example, that there is a major difference between the ‘rule of law’ in ancient Rome and that in a Christian context. In the former case a ‘rule of law’ is merely the ‘rule of the rulers’ – because there is no acknowledged authority beyond those rulers. Similarly in East Asia the ‘rule of law’ does not involve ‘law’ being a guide to rational decisions by independent individuals. Rather it is a means for disciplining those who don’t conform with the consensus about what an ethnic community should be doing that has been reached by its social elites. This is not about tolerance of anything.

Some general thoughts on the importance of separating church and state (and the critical dependence on widespread Christian adherence in the community for such separation to be feasible) are in Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics (2009+). The need for Atheists to progress from their naively simplistic understandings of the world was suggested in Celebrating a New Evangelical Religion: Atheism (2010).

I would be interested in your response to my speculations.

John Craig

Seeking Enlightenment - A Note Added Later

In response to a copy of the above email, a leading light in the Australian Skeptics (XXX) suggested that the present author had overlooked "the fact that while the enlightenment broke out in Christian societies it did so because the Christian churches gradually lost their ability to inflict their will on clear thinkers among the population"

The present writer's response was along the following lines:

"Some speculations about the dependence of the Enlightenment on the existence of the responsible individualism that widespread Christian adherence imparts are in A Confident Secularist Society. Without an ethical foundation for individual liberty ‘clear thinking’ does not work in solving practical problems. And a belief that nature would be lawful because of creation by a lawful God led to much of the early development of modern science being the work of committed Christians. A major feature of the Buddha’s ‘Enlightenment’ was recognition of the immense complexity of causes and effects. This resulted in a conclusion that attempts to understand would not work and a Buddhist emphasis on internally-focused contemplation which largely eliminated the possibility of significant progress in Buddhist societies (see also More on: Its Time to Expel Religious Naivety from Universities). There is nothing in New Testament Christianity that says anything about churches attempting to control the state (see Church’s Mission). The link between church and state had arisen under the late Roman empire because churches had been immensely successful in mobilizing grass-roots support because of their ‘good news’ and concern for those on the margins of society. Kings and Emperors wanted a piece of that action – by seeking a church mandate. From early in the 16th century the Reformation re-emphasised the New Testament and thus laid the groundwork for the European ‘Age of Enlightenment’ which started in the late 17th century.

I look forward to your response to my earlier email. I noted with interest that the goals of Australian Skeptics have only involved sceptical inquiry from ‘inside the box’ (ie from the view that reason and science have all the answers). A sceptical analysis of the limits of the ‘box’ itself might be in order as this seems to be the foundation of what some have seen as a possible Asian Century."

The reaction by XXX to suggestions to the need for a sceptical analysis of whether reason and science have all the answers was: (a) to outline XXX's Atheistic religious views; and (b) refuse to engage in further communication.




Secular Religious Education: A Contradiction in Terms?

Secular Religious Education: A Contradiction in Terms? - email sent 6/8/14

Anna Halafoff (Deakin University) and Cathy Byrne (Southern Cross University)

Re: Religion should be taught secularly in our schools, The Conversation, 6/8/14

Your article suggested that religion should be taught ‘secularly’ in Australia’s schools. This seems extremely challenging – as my understanding is that ‘secular’ refers to all aspects of society other than religion. Thus if the state takes it upon itself to teach about religion it would presumably no longer be ‘secular’. And religion has a massive effect on a community in many practical ways – so it seems irresponsible to suggest that it should be taught without encouraging acceptance of world views that have constructive rather than restrictive implications.

My Interpretation of your article: Religion in schools is again controversial in relation to Review of National Curriculum. Can it be taught in a secular context? Some groups have difficulty adapting to the fact that Australia is increasingly diverse religiously and non-religiously secular. Secular is usually taken to imply separation of church and state. This could mean either complete separation, or not giving preference to any particular faith. Secularists, rationalists and humanists favour teaching about diverse religious and non-religious cultures. Perhaps an inclusive and critical study of religion and ethics should be in the national curriculum. This is done elsewhere. Critical education about religion can be taught as long as no one view is presented as correct or better than any other. The aim should be understanding, not belief. A critical education about religion would study its role in conflict – and thereby promote social inclusion and intercultural awareness. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians emphasizes this. The significant role that Christianity has played should be taught – but this should not be at the expense of Indigenous culture and spirituality.

The issue is far more complex than your article suggests because ‘religion’ incorporates broad world-views which affect societies’ overall culture in many practical ways. For example culture affects: people's goals and aspirations; the way they understand reality (and thus how they go about solving problems, and whether they can develop technologies); their ability to learn, to cope with risk and to change; the way people relate; the scope for initiative; and the institutions their society maintains (see Competing Civilizations, 2001+).

Cultures that do not provide a foundation for learning and change (for example) put affected societies on a path to relative disadvantage (eg consider The Challenge of Aboriginal Advancement, 2002 and Saving Muslims from Themselves, 2012). Moreover, where a societies’ ability to learn and change depends on the existence of an elite-dominated social hierarchy, the welfare and capabilities of individuals can be seen to be of little importance (eg see East Asia: The Realm of the Autocratic, Hierarchical and Intuitive Ethnic Group?, 2001 and The Resurgence of Ancient Authoritarianism in China, 2014).

The emergence of ‘liberal’ social environments in Western societies enabled the rationality that had been emphasised by classical Greek philosophers to become an effective means of practical social, economic and political problem solving at all levels in society - and thereby accelerate practical progress (see Cultural Foundations of Western Progress). Without such ‘liberal’ (ie focused-on-individuals) social environments rationality tends to fail (eg if there is no rule of law, individual rationality fails because it is both necessary and impossible to second-guess the reactions of social elites). Such ‘liberal’ social environments could emerge because of the uniquely Judeo-Christian expectation that individuals would act responsibly primarily on the basis of individual consciences responsible directly to God. Moreover reasonably successful if limited understanding of the natural world in terms of scientific laws could be possible first in Christian societies because of Christianity’s recognition that the universe would be lawful because of its creation by a lawful God. By contrast the 'enlightenment' of Siddhartha Gautama, who founded Buddhism, involved recognition of what can be called 'dependent causation' (ie recognition of the interconnection / complexity of things). The Buddha’s ‘enlightenment’ was valid in some ways (especially in societies that lack ‘liberal’ social environments that make rationality reasonably effective), but it was not a formula for scientific achievements by affected societies.

There is certainly a case for close study of different religions with particular emphasis on their practical consequences for affected societies – for the same reason that the practical consequences of different cultures as a whole need attention (rather than presuming that all are equally valid and useful) – see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism, 2010). Ignorance of the practical consequences of religion and culture poses much more risk of generating violence that religious differences themselves do (see Cultural Ignorance as a Source of Conflict , 2001 and Do Religions Foster Violence?, 2009). For example, a major component of WWII (ie the War in the Pacific) was largely a by-product of cultural ignorance – and this arguably continues to pose a threat to the present day (see Broader resistance to Western Influence?).

There is a need for a much more serious approach to religious education (eg for reasons suggested It's Time to Expel Religious Naivety from Universities, 2014; in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View, 2013; and Philosophy and Religion: The Case for a Bigger Picture View, 2010). There is also a need for a secular approach to religious education. But if the state takes a role in providing education about religion it would hardly remain ‘secular’ (see also Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics, 2009).

John Craig

A Risky View of Secularism?

A Risky View of Secularism? - email sent 30/8/14

Audrey Statham,
School of Social Sciences,
Monash University

Re: ‘School chaplaincy debate ignores what ‘secular’ actually is”, The Conversation, 29/8/14

Your article implied that it is important to be clear about what ‘secular’ means in relation to government funding of school chaplaincy programs. Yet your apparently preferred view of what ‘secularism’ means (ie that religion should be included amongst governments’ ‘secular’ concerns) would break the separation of church and state which has been critical to the development of Australia’s institutions.

My Interpretation of your article: The Abbott Government will continue funding school chaplaincy by directing funding to states. However the debate about this suffers from a deficient understanding of what ‘secular’ is. In 2006 the chaplaincy program for ‘secular’ schools was established for only religious chaplains. This was expanded to include funding for non-religious social workers in 2011 – but then restricted again in 2014. In 2011 Labor’s expansion of the scheme had used ‘secular’ in the sense of non-religious – and non-religious counselors had been referred to as secular welfare officers. The common understanding of ‘secular’ involves separation of church and state. This view has been challenged in recent years to suggest that religious faith is merely on human possibility, so that both religious and non-religious world views co-exist within the secular. This is how secularism has always been interpreted in Australia. Australia’s secularism includes the freedom of citizens to be religious or non-religious. Neither those with religious faith or those who don’t should be excluded. A school chaplaincy program that doesn’t fund welfare officers because they are non-religious is not a ‘secular’ approach. A program that would fund both religious chaplains and non-religious counselors is needed.

Your conclusion about government funding of both religious chaplains and ‘non-religious counselors’ seems reasonable in a practical sense. While there is a superficial distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ world views, this distinction can disappear on closer examination. For example, contrary to the claims of believers, Atheism is a ‘religion’ in that it involves assumptions that cannot be objectively proven (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism, 2010). And though many in Western societies would regard Christian-style theism as a core characteristic of a ‘religion’, in East Asia major recognised religions are non-theistic. It is artificial to insist on any absolute distinction between religious and ‘non-religious’ worldviews.

However there is a significant problem in that your apparently-preferred view that ‘secular’ should include both religious and ‘non-religious’ world views. This would be incompatible with maintaining a ‘secular’ state in the sense that this involves a state that deals with everything but ‘religion’. The separation of church and state is important because the success of Australia’s liberal social, economic and political institutions (and freedom of religion for citizens) depend critically on widespread Christian adherence in the community and on the fact that the church which maintains that adherence is separate from the state (see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions, 2010). Liberal institutions depend on a presumption of responsible behaviour by citizens primarily because of their responsibility to God - rather than as the result of communal or state pressure. And responsible individualism seems to be a unique feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Where the state (or families / community leaders) claim to be the source of moral authority (or to enhance their power over others through alignment with a religion), the practical advantages that derive from liberal institutions cannot be achieved. There have been many recent efforts to get governments into the business of ‘religion’ (eg see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions, 2003+ and Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics, 2009+), and as the latter suggested undesirable side-effects would arise from doing so.

Australia now suffers serious difficulties as a result of inadequate education about religion (eg because even those who do not subscribe to narrowly defined ‘religion’ need to know why ‘religion’ matters) and there has been a temptation for governments to try to ‘help’. However, unless the lead in overcoming those problems is successfully taken by Christian churches, Australia’s liberal institutions (and religious freedoms) are unlikely to be sustainable (see also Religion Should be Taught Better, 2013 and Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View, 2013).

I would be interested in your response to my speculations

John Craig

Truckers are not the Foundation of Australia's Liberal Institutions

Truckers are not the Foundation of Australia's Liberal Institutions - email sent 17/9/14

Professor Gary Bouma
Monash University

RE: Principles of accountability apply to churches and truckers alike, The Conversation, 17/9/14

I should like to suggest for your consideration that the question of who Churches are accountable to, and how they should be accountable, is a bit more complex than your article suggested. It is a bit naïve to equate Churches with truckers.

Australians have been able to enjoy liberty and ‘liberal’ institutions because of the dominant role that Christianity played in Western history. Whilst the ‘state’ in various forms has sought to base its power in whole or part on the Church (and Church leaders have at times been more than willing to accept the ‘benefits’ this provided them) if one looks at the New Testament (renewed interest in was the focus of the Reformation and much subsequent development in Western societies) one finds no basis for saying (as state leaders tend to do and your article implied churches do) “Trust me, I am a ……” or “Obey me, I am a ……”. The message was rather that ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23) and ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged’ (Luke 6:37). The Church was certainly charged with spreading Jesus’ good news and teachings. But compliance with what God requires was left to individual consciences because of individuals’ ultimate accountability to God.

And this presumption of a reasonable degree of moral self-disciple has been vital to the creation (and now the ongoing viability) of the sorts of institutions from which Australians have gained many benefits (eg see Christian Foundations of Liberal Western Institutions and Cultural Foundations of Western Progress: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual).

Moral self-disciple maybe be a unique consequence of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Its absence seems to have been a key factor in the difficulties that (say) Muslim dominated societies have experienced in recent centuries and the tensions that arise in their relations with others (eg see Politicians are Wrong: Terrorism by Islamist Extremists Does Involve Islam). In fact communal enforcement of expected behaviours by individuals (rather than self-discipline) is characteristic of tribal societies generally and also of East Asian traditions. The ‘individual self-discipline’ that is needed for the sorts of liberal social, economic and political institutions that Australians have been able to benefit from in many ways can’t exist in just any religious environment.

It is part of the state’s job to establish a framework through which (say) ‘truckers’ are held accountable. But, if the Christian Churches provide the social foundation needed for Australia’s liberal legal and state systems, it is a bit difficult to see how Churches could safely be accountable to those institutions. Certainly there is a need for probity in the way Church resources are used – and there may well have been problems in some cases. However if Australia’s secular institution (ie those that deal with everything but religion) try to make Churches accountable to them to sort out any difficulties then it is likely that the all-important separation of Church and state (and Churches’ ability to provide the social foundations for a liberal state) would be in deep trouble. Many Church institutions have become accountable to the state in many ways in recent decades (eg because they receive large amounts of public funding for the provision of various social services). The result has often been that affected components of Australia’s Churches have been diverted from their vital core mission by the need to appeal to state expectations in order to gain funding. This seems to be one, but not the only, reason that Christian adherence has been declining to the point that it is possible to see a future in which Australia’s liberal institutions will no longer be viable (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions). This distortion of Churches’ mission needs to be reduced, not increased.

A former Treasurer argued today that Australians probably face widespread hardship because the ‘luck is running out’ (‘Luck running out: Peter Costello warns of hard days ahead’, Brisbane Times, 17/9/14). I suspect unfortunately that his grim prognosis is not grim enough, and that the contributions that Churches are making needs to be dramatically enhanced to cope with what is (probably) coming (see The Probable Need for a Community-Based Solution in Restoring the Viability of Democratic Capitalism).

Arguing that Churches should be treated like truckers is not really a constructive contribution in this context.

John Craig

Increasing Understanding of Secularism and Freedom

Increasing Understanding of Secularism and Freedom - email sent 13/10/14

Margaret Wenham
Courier Mail,

RE: Free and equal society founded on secularism, Courier Mail, 9/10/14

Your article warned that ‘religious’ rhetoric in relation to conflicts with the so-called ‘Islamic state’ risked creating a war between religions. You also re-emphasised the separation of church and state, and suggested increasing understanding of this through (say) state schools and in the broader community. I should like to try to add value to your basic suggestions, while also highlighting the complexities of the issues involved.

My Interpretation of your article: Now that Australia is in a so-called ‘just’ war against Islamic-linked murderers in Syria and Iraq, no politicians should engage in ‘gates of hell’ rhetoric like a US vice-president did. Doing so risks charges that the Christian west is engaging in a crusade against Islam by invoking ‘our’ vengeful God. This leaves people like me cold. As a non-believer I find it hard to lend moral / philosophical support to those who condemn ISIS (whose actions allegedly have a religious foundation) while brandishing their own ‘good’ religion. ISIS’s diaboloc activities are an opportunity to extol the virtues of the separation of church and state – and the virtues of a fully secular state rooted in the political philosophy of liberal democracy and the rule of law that takes its mandate from a secular civil society (which is the furthest thing from an ISIS-style caliphate) . Tony Abbott recently endorsed wider acceptance of the ‘golden rule’ (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) and separation of church and state (in the sense of rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s etc). He also warned that those with ISIS sympathies would be acting ‘against God’ (presumably his Western / Christian’ version). There is no shortage of Christian god-fearing politicians who want to stick their interpretations of the Bible into policy ponds – and thus create troubled waters. In Australia there is a large government funded school chaplaincy program whereby non-secular councilors are paid to work in supposedly secular state schools. Tony Abbott has a long way to go in his own ‘major cultural shift’ given that church tentacles reach into the supposedly secular state. As a non-secular state evolves before our eyes, everyone should keep their religious beliefs (in homes and places of worship) and out of broader society / government. The French concept of laicite (secularism) could perhaps be considered. French journalist, Agnes Poirer, argues that: (a) France does not recognise any religion, but protects them all; (b) only reason should prevail; (c) there should be a clear distinction between private and public spaces. President Sarkozy banned face coverings in 2010, and this was upheld by the European Court of Human rights. Prior to that France had banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in government-funded schools. It has now ordered a charter of secularism to be displayed in government funded schools. Should Australia consider this? And could this be taken further in government-funded schools (and in the wider society later) by putting citizenship first and personal religious beliefs second?

It is undoubtedly important, particularly at the moment, that the whole community is aware of the benefits that flow from a secular state (ie one that deals with everything but religion) - eg see Why the separation of Church and State Allowed Government to be More Effective). The basic point is that governments have to deal with issues that are vastly more complex than can be determined solely on the basis of the simpler rules that religions identify as appropriate for individuals.

And treating religious obligations as a private matter for individuals not only has benefits in terms of government effectiveness. This also enables non-governmental functions to be more effective (eg see The Emergence and Advantages of Responsible Liberty ). The basic point is that rationality tends to fail in dealing in complex situations. Societies can create institutions that allow ‘rational’ decisions to be relatively effective (eg when individuals are: guided by a rule of law; engage in democratic political debate; or undertake economic activities on the basis of ‘profit’ by independent enterprises). However such institutions can not work unless individuals are free from supervision by others on the basis of religious criteria.

The fact that a legalistic and coercive approach seems to have been taken to the enforcement of Islamic religious principles within Muslim communities seems to be a (the?) major factor in the difficulties those societies have suffered in recent centuries (see Even Moderate Islam Seems Damagingly Rigid, Politicians are Wrong: Terrorism by Islamist Extremists Does Involve Islam and Blame Religious Legalism for the Middle East's Problems). Needless to say Muslims’ difficulties would be even worse if a legalistic and coercive approach to the enforcement of Islamic religious principles were extended by the creation of a caliphate (see Challenging the Idea of an Islamic State). These problems could probably be significantly reduced (while also depriving Islamist extremists of their Islamic ‘oxygen’) simply by a change in the way the religion of Islam is enforced (see Bringing Freedom to Muslims Would Bring Peace to the Middle East ).

Your article was useful in pointing to the the importance of avoiding any perception of a conflict between a Christian and an Islamic ‘God’ in discussing conflicts with the so-called ‘Islamic State’. However it is not only Christians and Islamists who have difficulties in keeping religion out of politics. Political activism against ‘religion’ also breaks down the secularism of the state (eg see Can Political Activism Separate Church and State?). It can be noted, for example, that the Atheistic perspectives that were the foundations of your article are anything but a ‘secular’ viewpoint (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism). Moreover the ‘ideal’ your article endorsed was that a secular state should take its mandate from a ‘secular civil society’. However it is not all clear that there is such a thing as a civil society that is not affected by a religion of one sort or another.

The French notion of ‘secularism’ that your article mentioned is also not free of a religious dimension. Endorsing ‘rationality’ above ‘religion’ is debatable (eg see How solid are 'science, reason and critical thinking'?) and is not universally endorsed even by non-theistic religions (eg see East Asia: The Realm of the Autocratic, Hierarchical and Intuitive Ethnic Group?, 2001 and Competing Thought Cultures, 2012). Also if the French state protects all religions, it is hardly being truly ‘secular’ (ie dealing with everything but religion). Australia has had a similar approach in relation to multiculturalism. However, cultures (including religions) are arguably the main determinant of a societies’ ability to be materially successful and to live in relative peace and harmony. It has been unwise to allow the public to remain ignorant in the name of tolerance of the consequences that different cultures / religions have for affected communities (eg see Moving Australia Beyond Traditional Multiculturalism, 2010).

Other suggestions about the need for for more serious awareness of the practical consequences of religion were in Religious Education: The Need for a Bigger Picture View (2013). This argued that: (a) widespread Christian adherence is needed if liberal institutions and a secular state are to be viable in a society - because it makes individuals accountable to God (rather than to man) for the morality of their actions; and (b) students who don’t engage in religious education should be taught why religion matters (rather than just ‘fiddling about’ as they now seem to do during religious education classes).

The basic thrust of your article about maintaining and strengthening the separation of church and state was extremely valuable. But that the issues involved in doing this are complicated.

I would be interested in your response to my speculations

John Craig

Muslims have Similar Moral Goals and Damagingly Different Methods of Achieving Them

Muslims have Similar Moral Goals and Damagingly Different Methods of Achieving Them - email sent 14/10/14

William Kilpatrich
c/- Editor, Crisis Magazine

Re: Are Muslims Our Natural Allies? Crisis Magazine, Feb 20, 2014

My attention was drawn to your observations about some Catholics, concerned about faring badly in the fight against ‘militant secularism’, have come to see Muslims as natural allies because they share similar values.

I should like to reinforce your criticism of the latter viewpoint, and also suggest options to start putting ‘militant secularism’ into its proper place.

There is a critical difference between the approach taken to the achievement of the fairly similar moral goals of Christianity and Islam. Your article referred to this in relations to the wearing of the hijab.

“She makes the case that wearing the hijab is a matter of personal choice. Sometimes, it is, of course, but there is compelling evidence that the majority of Muslim women wear the hijab because they have to. In Iran, for instance, the wearing of the hijab in public is a legal requirement—as it is even in Aceh Province in supposedly moderate Indonesia. Where the hijab is not legally required it is often socially mandated. By “socially mandated,” I don’t mean that it is worn out of fear that one’s maiden aunt will cluck her tongue, but out of fear of physical harm. For example, this from The New Yorker magazine:

More often those girls were under orders from their fathers and uncles and brothers, and even their male classmates…. Girls who did not conform were excoriated, or chased, or beaten by fanatical young men meting out Islamic justice. Sometimes girls were gang-raped.

That’s not a description of some tribal village in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. It’s an account of conditions in the Muslim suburbs surrounding Paris. According to Serge Trifkovic, “Many French-born Arab girls in the ghetto resort to wearing hijab as the only protection against face-slashing and gang-rapes” (p. 69). Is wearing the hijab a matter of personal choice? In some places, yes. But according to a survey conducted in 2003, 77 percent of French girls who wore the hijab said they did so because of physical threats (Global Post, March 2, 2010).”

Islam seems often to involve the coercive enforcement of religious laws – whereas Jesus freed Christians from religious legalism.

And the coercive enforcement of religious law (which is by no means limited to clothing) has devastating consequences for affected communities. It arguable accounts for centuries of backwardness by Muslim societies in the Middle East that have led the region to turmoil and violence in recent decades (see Blame Religious Legalism for the Middle East's Problems). Coercive enforcement of religious law by families communities creates an environment in which the initiative and innovation required for economic prosperity and even for keeping up with a constantly changing world can’t emerge (see also Even Moderate Islam Seems Damagingly Rigid). My comments on this point are based on a study over many years of the radically different paths to development by Western and East Asian societies – and examination of Muslim societies from those perspectives.

In my opinion getting widespread recognition of the adverse consequences of the legalistic and coercive way compliance with Islamic law has been sought is the key to discrediting the ideology of Islamist extremists such as the so-called ‘Islamic State’. This point is developed further in many contexts in Discouraging Pointless Extremism (2002+).

I suspect that ‘militant secularism’ can also be put in its place by pursuing the implications of the fact that Jesus freed his followers from religious legalism. Christians are to love God and others. They are individually responsible directly to God for the morality of their actions. Christians are not to impose religious discipline as agents of God. A truly Christian community can therefore be treated as likely to act responsibly on the basis of individual consciences – without coercive supervision by social / political elites. This creates massive practical advantages for reasons outlined in Increasing Understanding of Secularism and Freedom and Cultural Foundations of Western Progress: The Realm of the Rational / Responsible Individual.

The point is that ‘liberal’ institutions in a society (ie those that presume individuals will act reasonably-morally-responsibly without supervision) have massive practical benefits, but those benefits (including the notion of a secular state) can only be achieved and sustained in a Christian environment (because it is only in a Judeo-Christian framework that individual accountability directly to God exists). The erosion of moral behaviour in Western societies is making ‘liberal‘ institutions increasingly risky (see Erosion of the Moral Foundations of Liberal Institutions). Examples of how a case can be made that freedom and a secular state are unsustainable without widespread Christian adherences are in Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics – and thus that those who favour liberty and a secular state had better encourage Christian adherence.

John Craig