The Australian Human Rights Commission is publishing a new report today on attitudes towards religion, and the results don’t seem to be very favorable for religious minorities in that country.
“Distrust of Muslims and hostility towards homosexuals and pagans remain widespread in Australia, a new Australian Human Rights Commission report to be published today says. [...] genuine religious differences have not become any easier to manage. Pagans (nature-based religions, such as Wicca) in particular claim to face prejudice and discrimination.”
The Pagan Awareness Network in Australia has issued a press release on the matter, noting the many challenges that adherents to modern Pagan faiths still face.
“This is something we have been saying for years,” Pagan Awareness Network President David Garland said today. “Imagine going to the Family Court during a bitter custody battle and having to explain under cross-examination that you practice Wicca, or Druidism, or another pagan spirituality. Imagine the stress, fearing you will lose custody of your children simply because you follow a minority religion. Or imagine being at school, and being ordered to take off the five-pointed star you wear around your neck because it is supposedly an “occult symbol”, while your Jewish classmates can continue to wear their six-pointed stars. Not to mention the Christian kids with their crosses, Muslim girls with their headscarves and all the other religious traditions out there. It is absurd that existing anti-discrimination laws don’t protect pagans in this kind of situation.“
There were rumblings about this uneasiness towards Pagans in Australia back in September of 2010 when the commission issued a draft of the survey results and gained attention for the stark animus some Australians had towards Witches and Pagans.
Hilda Simpson argues that Christian groups should not be forced to hire ”practising homosexuals, promiscuous heterosexuals or believers in witchcraft”. Witches, pornography supporters and homosexuals dismay Glen and Joy Vonhoff, while Gail Osmak identifies ”fortune telling, sorcery, witchcraft [as] of real concern”. C. L. Miller is more trenchant: ‘‘It would be an egregious mistake to treat the malignancy of witchcraft and its occult devil-worshipping practices as if it were a benevolent, benign and misunderstood belief system … The original anti-witchcraft laws were based on authentic reasons, not whims.”
While some tried to explain away the anti-Pagan remarks as a glitch in the data due to a surplus of “elderly church leaders who happen to be male and anti-Muslim and gays and pagans and witches,” it seems the concern was real enough to make an impression in the final report.
The 2006 Australian census found that there were around 30,000 Pagans in the country, making them a significant religious minority. Or as Pagan Awareness Network puts it: “Pagans outnumber the Sikh, Jain, Quaker and Taoist communities in Australia combined.” Pagans from and in Australia recently made a major impression at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in late 2009, but have also faced a seemingly regular barrage of scorn, hostility, and prejudice from politicians, religious leaders, and media pundits. We shouldn’t forget that despite the fact that Australia currently boasts an atheist Prime Minister, the country’s two dominant political parties participated in an 2010 election-season event that was closed to non-Christians and broadcasted only to Christian churches. So there’s clearly a lot of work to do before modern Pagans, and other religious minorities, are treated with the respect and dignity they are entitled to.
It remains to be seen what recommendations the Human Rights Commission might make to the government on its findings, if any. Once a copy of “Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia” is posted to the Australian Human Rights Commission web site, I’ll update with more information and a link.
ADDENDUM: You can download the commission’s report, here.
Here’s a brief excerpt from their section on Paganism in Australia.
“Paganism is an umbrella term that covers a number of nature-based spiritual traditions. The consultations and submissions revealed significant areas of concern regarding paganism and pagans’ ability to practice their faith in Australia. Pagans believe that the lack of information or understanding of their faith complicates issues; many in the wider community assume that Satanism is a part of paganism, when it is separate and distinct.Recognition was raised as the biggest issue that underlies other matters. According to the Pagan Awareness Network, there are approximately 30 000 people in Australia who follow a pagan or nature-based religion, andthis is confirmed by the 2006 Census, which also shows the significant, recent growth of paganism.”
The study also notes that improving attitudes towards indigenous religions may also benefit modern Pagan faiths.
“Indigenous people’s freedom of religion and belief need to be protected in the same way as those of other groups. At one time recognised as legitimate religions and spiritualities, Indigenous religions and spiritualitiesare now swept up in the blanket-dismissal of pagan religions and beliefs, and are officially disparaged anddiscriminated against by some religious groups in Australia. Coming to appreciate Indigenous religions and spiritualities may assist these groups to re-examine the basis for and practice of their dismissal of pagan spiritualities, which include most of the earth-based, nature, and Wiccan spiritualities current in Australia.“
These quotes are just from a cursory scan, I’ll no doubt have more to say on this later.