Religion has no part to play in public policy, according to TV producer Andrew Denton — even when it comes to moral questions about the meaning and value of human life. In a widely reported speech calling for the introduction of assisted dying laws in Australia, Denton said religious people need to butt out of the debate and not impose their views on anyone else.
‘I urge you, step aside,’ Denton said, directing his remarks at those ‘whose beliefs instruct you that only God can decide how a human being should die.’ If you’ve got religion, in other words, sit down, shut up, and don’t be a pest.
This is the new sectarianism where all Christian traditions are equally unacceptable. When it comes to making medical decisions about who can die and when, the new sectarians apparently already know everything there is to know about human suffering. Those who agree with them are welcome to speak up; but any with opposing views must remain silent.
Assisted dying is not the only contentious social issue where the new sectarians think they know what’s best for us. The story is the same when it comes to same-sex marriage, gender diversity, and exploring sexuality in the classroom. Those of us deluded enough to believe in a God, or gods, must pack up and vacate the public square. Religion is dismissed as having nothing useful to say about any of these hot topics. And anyone who questions this hard line sectarian orthodoxy is condemned as a hateful, fanatical bigot.
But Denton levelled a more sinister charge. Frustrated that his own views have not yet carried the day in the federal Parliament, he accused politicians who oppose him for faith-based reasons of comprising a ‘theocracy hidden inside our democracy.’ It is a fantastic nonsense. Religious politicians aren’t hidden away in some secret congress; their views, openly expressed, may simply be more influential than Denton wants. And since a theocracy is a government run by clerics ruling in the name of a god, Denton’s remarks are an insult to every democratically elected politician who happens to have an active religious faith.
Opponents of religion insist God is on the way out. Statistics appear to back them up. Recent research indicates those identifying as Christians declined over two years by 8 per cent — from 61 per cent in 2011 to 53 per cent in 2013. Over the same period, the number of those declaring no religion rose from 29 per cent to 38 per cent. Whereas Christianity appears to be losing some ground, however, other religions are gaining prominence. The 2011 Census recorded that a little over 2 per cent of Australians identified as Muslim and about 2.5 per cent identify as Buddhists. Both numbers are expected to have increased.
Even though the statistics indicate the god-botherers are in apparent decline, the numbers show there is still a significant proportion of Australians who express some form of religious belief; and their values, cultures and customs are shaped by those beliefs. But Denton and his smart set are unlikely any time soon to accuse, say, Australian Muslims of forming a hidden theocracy and urge them to step aside from public debate. Frankly, he wouldn’t dare say such a thing.
Australian society has deep roots in religious values. But of course our country is not an autocratic theocracy (such as Iran) where politics serves religion. We are, thankfully, a parliamentary democracy where religion can inform politics without ever assuming precedence over it. Indeed, religion is a key part of the fabric of our society; and when absent, it cannot be manufactured at will. Given the importance of religion to the Aussie social fabric, why should the new sectarians expect to banish religion from public discourse? Questions about what it is to lead a good life – and what kind of society we wish to have – concern every Australian. In a free and open society, everyone is entitled to debate matters of common interest that go to the heart of our life together, such as: who should be able to get married; what children should be taught in our schools; and whether human life is ours to take or ours to nurture.
Religious citizens will have their own views and are as entitled as any other citizen to express them. The health of our society depends on affording every citizen the freedom to debate both the laws that govern us and the deeper values behind those laws. Religion is already involved in public policy. Many of our schools, hospitals and welfare organisations are religious foundations serving the needs of Australians – of any religion and none. And since many religions coexist, forming a rich part of our national life, religious citizens are likely to disagree at times about just what kind of society we should build.
And religion will, at times, come into conflict with the state. Imams, bishops and rabbis all have opinions about what the state is doing, wanting it to do less of some things and more of others. They criticise the state for moral shortcomings on policies ranging from immigration to social security to climate change. You won’t hear a peep from the rationalists and atheists when the churches weigh in on their side of the argument about, say, the plight of refugees or arts funding.
But when the issue is one going to the heart of how we live and die, such as fertility, family life, or palliative care – where religious agencies are also heavily involved in providing services – the voices of religious leaders (and leaders who are religious) count for nothing and are dismissed or ridiculed.
Democracy promotes the interests of all citizens, regardless of their beliefs, and binds them to act within the law. Freedom to strike an appropriate balance between the claims of modernity and tradition must be upheld for every citizen. But the new sectarianism is part of a general move to stifle dissident religious voices that speak out in public. It is a move to enforce intolerance. It must be called out and resisted.
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