Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Tosca Lloyd, the executive officer of the Rationalist Society of Australia, titled: The message in the Census: End Australia's Christian bias.
In the article Tosca argues that there is a Christian bias in government policy and funding decisions and that this should be ended on the basis of the census results which show that 29.6% of Australians now identify as having 'no religion'.
Tosca gives as evidence that there is a Christian bias the fact that the parliaments around Australia open with the Lord's Prayer, that catholic schools receive government funding, and that the majority of chaplains employed under the schools chaplaincy program are Christian.
Of course what Tosca fails to note is that no-one is forced to say the Lord's prayer, Parents who send their children to religious schools are tax payers who are just as entitled to government support for their children's education as any other parent - and lets not even get started on the HUGE cost to Government if they stopped funding private schools and all of a sudden the 34.6% of students (over 1.3 million!) who currently attend non-government schools all needed a place in the public system - the infrastructure costs alone would see the budget destroyed,
Then we have the fact that the chaplaincy program is open for any faith group to provide chaplains to schools - and the fact that most are Christian simply reflects that the majority of Australians still identify as Christian. It also fails to understand that schools have to apply for the funding to hire chaplains, and that it is done in consultation with the school community so they get a chaplain that best matches the demographics represented,
Tosca also notes that issues such as same sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion have struggled to get through our parliaments, and dismisses the possibility that there is a secular justification for this. She declares that it is due to what she sees as the Christian influence on the parliaments, saying:
"It is clear that our federal and state governments make decisions based on the perception that Christians make up the core of our society, but they need only look at the latest census results, as well as the results of polling, to correct this perception."
Firstly, given that more than half of the population still identifies as Christian, I think it is fair to say that Christians do in fact make up a core group of our society. Secondly, surely Tosca isn't suggesting that there be a religious test (or lack of religion test) to hold office in this country? Surely she isn't suggesting that anyone who wishes to hold public office be required to renounce their religious beliefs, and/or ignore their conscience when voting in parliament?
It appears that only the complete removal of religion - and Christianity in particular - from any public discourse, and the removal of all government funding for religiously affiliated organisations will do, and that is a rather scary position to take - to identify one section of society - one group of citizens and say to them you are no longer allowed to have a voice, you are no longer allowed to exercise any influence because you have a religious faith.
Then of course comes the gem - the claim that this secular utopia which bans its religious citizens from receiving government support, and refuses to allow them a voice in public policy decisions is not about enforcing its view on others - but is in fact tolerant!
France is probably the most secular democratic nation on the planet at the moment - lets examine shall we how tolerant France is towards those who are religious. Surely in this tolerant secular society a person who is religious would have the freedom to wear symbols and clothing prescribed by or which identify their religion? Well no, Tolerant secularism in France says that all religious symbols and clothing are banned from schools, and Muslim women are forbidden from wearing their religious clothing - even to the point that they were banned from wearing a 'burkini' swim suit. Here is a woman in one:
Thank goodness secularism is saving the french from seeing children wearing cross necklaces and women in stylish swimwear! All joking aside though, the truth is enforced secularism is no better than enforced religion - forcing me to discard my religious views and beliefs in order to be eligible for government support, employment or funding is just as abhorrent as if someone was forced to adhere to a particular religious belief system.
What Australia actually needs is not secularism, but pluralism. Pluralism sees a nation recognise that it is diverse and that people have divergent views on religion, ethics and cultural expectations. Pluralism allows genuine religious freedom, including the right to not believe anything. Secularism by contrast demands that religion be completely removed from pubic discurse and disqualifies religious entities and people from receiving government funding - based only on the fact they have a religious affiliation, and not based on whether they are best suited to deliver the program or policy in question.
Pluralism says the religious affiliation or lack thereof of an organisation or individual is not relevant. What matters is who is best suited to provide the service, program or implement the policy. Secularism demands that religious individuals give up their faith and ignore their conscience if they wish to serve in public office. Pluralism recognises that all citizens of our nation are guided by their own beliefs and morals - whether based on religion or not, and allows freedom to politicians and other public servants to exercise their judgement based on their conscience - confident that if they behave in a way that society opposes, they will not be re-elected,
I agree with Tosca that our nations demographics are changing, and are likely over the short term to continue toward an increasing number of people who identify as non-religious. However the solution is not to impose secularism, but rather to embrace a pluralism that sees everyone free to live and believe as they wish (within the bounds of the law), and doesn't exclude people, and organisations from public service, and government funding and support arbitrarily based only on religious affiliation, but instead judges all funding and policy decisions on their merits, recognising the increasingly diverse society we live in,
Today I read an article published on the Brisbane Times' website which tells of the 'Horrifying' lessons that children are being taught in Brisbane schools. The example the author Hugh Harris gives is of children being asked to act out the story of David and Goliath which includes the fight in which David defeats Goliath with his sling and then cuts off his head ( see 1 Samuel 17:48-51)
This, Mr Harris claims, is horrifying - I assume because in his view it is glorifying violence given his statement:
'Many would question the relevance of such a message today, and whether 10-year-old children benefit from acting out scenes of horrifying violence.
This is despite including references from the curriculum in question which reminds SRE teachers to keep children focused and sensible and notes that the main purpose of the lesson is to show that "through Jesus, David's descendant, God would save his people forever from their greatest enemies - sin, death and Satan". There is no glorification of violence it is simply using drama to help children to learn and remember the lesson.
Of course if asking children to act out violent scenes in the context of a wider lesson is 'horrifying' as Mr Harris asserts then we have some major changes to make to the broader education curriculum! We will need to start with removing traditional songs and skits from the pre-school environment - I am thinking first of all of course of the incredibly violent song 'Three Blind mice' where the horrible farmers wife cuts off their tails... then of course there is that primary school staple 'To Market To Market Went My Brother Jim' where poor Jim ends up dead due to being violently killed with a can of tomatoes... and the frightful 'Flying Purple People Eater' - no further comment required there surely! Then don't even get me started on Shakespeare! Suicidal teenagers, murderous royals... Of course none of these are a problem for Mr Harris though, all of that violence isn't horrifying at all - after all they aren't relevant to his personal agenda.
Mr Harris then goes on to note that:
Connect's syllabus uses a fundamentalist "sin and salvation" theme, which was developed by the evangelical Sydney Anglicans.'
Of course the curriculum may well have been created by the 'Sydney Anglicans' however the idea that 'sin and salvation' is a fundamentalist theme - or indeed that Sydney Anglicans are 'Fundamentalists' is a bit ridiculous.
The whole message of Christianity is and has been for the past two thousand years that all of humanity are sinners - that sin is what separates us from God and that the only way for that sin to be forgiven and for us to be reconciled to our creator is through the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross.
That is not fundamentalism - it is the basic message of scripture and I would honestly struggle to see how anyone who objects to it could be called a Christian.
Of course the biggest problem that is exposed through articles like this one is the incredible religious illiteracy in the media - Mr Harris says for example that many parents may find it disturbing for their children be asked 'who is a sinner here in this classroom' . Of course the answer is everyone!
The question then is whether that is a horrible fundamentalist thing to be teaching children. Is it wrong to teach them that everyone is in the same boat? That everyone does the wrong thing, that everyone offends against God. Is it wrong to point out to them that because Jesus came even though they are all sinners everyone can be forgiven? That if they trust in Jesus, no matter what they have done - no matter how bad they think it is - they can be forgiven? That is the Christian message - the Gospel - that Jesus died on the cross to take the consequence for sin on himself so that we don't have to. That he rose again and conquered death enabling us to enter eternal life. That is not fundamentalism, it is Christianity 101.
Of course perhaps most importantly all of this sensationalist propaganda from Mr Harris overlooks one important thing - SRE is not compulsory! If parents don't want their children to attend scripture, all they need do is say so!
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest living in regional New South Wales Australia.