In 2009, the Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Melbourne, Australia. Over 6,000 people, including American and Australian Pagans, attended. The theme was “Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the earth.” That same weekend, in Sydney, the National Conference for all Concerned Christians was held. Its theme was “Australia’s Future and Global Jihad”.
Australia is a secular country. Australia is a Christian nation. Which is true?
In his book A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identified three different forms of secularism.The first is a political secularism – a strict removal of religion from the public sphere through exercise of legitimate state power. The second is social, when there is a decline in the level of religiosity of the population. In this second sense of secularism, religious communities generally cease to influence politics, education, and public life. In Taylor’s third notion of secularism, belief in God is one option of many, and religion is just one voice in the public sphere.
Whether you consider Australia to be secular depends on the definition of secularism that you use.
Section 116 of the Australian Constitution states:
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
Secularism in Australia means no state church. It means people have a choice between belief and no belief, and parliament can’t discriminate against people because of their religion. Another basis for describing Australia as a secular nation is the relaxed attitude and even scepticism toward institutional religion. Although 64% of Australians check the Christianity box, attendance at religious services is declining, and people often describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.
However, it should not be assumed that religion takes a marginal place in Australia’s public and intellectual culture.
In the U.S., religious freedom means rigorously protecting the boundary between Church and State. Not so in Australia. The law prevents establishment of religion. It doesn’t prevent interaction with it. There are small ways in which this happens, such as prayer in the parliament. And then there are big ways. For example, in the state of Victoria, special religious instruction (SRI) is given in public schools.
SRI is “instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs.” Scheduled during normal class time, SRI is not compulsory, and parental consent should be obtained.
The most common form of SRI is Christian religious education (CRE) delivered by ACCESS Ministries. Between 2009 and 2012, ACCESS Ministries received almost $20 million in government grants. The parent-run, grassroots organisation Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) claims that alternate forms of SRI are less common and receive no government support.
ACCESS Ministries also provides chaplains for the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). In the 2014 federal budget, the government provided $243.8 million over a four-year period to continue this program, which funds chaplains in Australian primary and secondary schools. The 2015 budget added $60.6 million every year for four years.
In a 2008 address to the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion National Conference, Dr. Rev. Evonne Paddison, CEO of ACCESS Ministries said:
In Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples.
SRI has its critics and there are allegations of proselytizing and bias. In an article in The Age, Melbourne priest and academic Professor Gary Bouma called the curriculum “appalling” and “crap” delivered by “bullies.” Mostly, it goes on unnoticed and unchallenged.
Some Pagans don’t see a problem with SRI or the Christian chaplains in public schools. The connection isn’t missed by academic and former High Court judge Michael Kirby, an Anglican. In the article mentioned above, he said:
One just has to look around at the ignorance and prejudice concerning homosexuals and women to see what damage can be done by some narrow religious instructions. There have to be viable alternatives which parents and students can consider and opt for.
Marriage equality is currently a hot topic. Australians rejoiced with Ireland and the U.S. when both countries legalised same-sex marriage. Many Australians think it’s time for it to happen here. Polls consistently show that a majority of Australians support legalising same-sex marriage.
Australians rightly point to conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott as a major force against marriage equality. However, a big undermining effort comes from the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).
The ACL is a powerful, political organisation headquartered in Australia’s capital, Canberra. Its vision is to see Christian principles influencing government and business.The ACL successfully sways votes and controls outcomes. During the 2010 election, the ACL struck a bargain with both sides of politics not to support the introduction of same-sex marriage. The ACL is a potent political force not just because it can mobilise its supporters, but also because of its direct influence on politicians.
It is a paradox that Australians are increasingly identifying as non-religious, but don’t object to huge amounts of Government dollars being poured into Christian organisations that teach Christianity in public schools while climate change funding, foreign aid, university funding, and health care are all cut. It is a paradox that the ACL opposes same-sex marriage on behalf of Christians while most Christians actually support marriage equality.
Australia is home to many beliefs, including those of 30k Pagans, according to the 2011 census. Is Australia a secular country?
Yes, but it is one that privileges the members of one faith over others. Australian Pagans don’t need to be dismayed, however. A close examination of the Christian Right reveals a small network of prominent figures who use smoke and mirrors to create a narrative that suggests that they have widespread public support. This doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax; we should continue to engage in causes that are important to us. And, we can feel hopeful about the increasing secular ideals and values, which will bring balance and diversity to the intersectionality of religion and politics.