The Importance of A Secular Political System

It is appropriate, given a recent interest in the affairs of the United States of America to refer to some writings of early political leaders of that country, and compare them with words from some of their contemporary leaders. For the latter are very well known. They have been raised to prominence in the world media in the most recent weeks. For it is in the political system that the distinction between the secular and theocratic have the greatest practical importance. The state, and all its subsystems, are what makes up so much of our lives in a direct and visceral manner, and highly influences our environment and habits. Many atheists obvious enjoy picking on what they consider to be the comically irrational among metaphysical theists of all shades - "Fundies Say The Darnest Things" certainly makes for entertaining reading. Sometimes however there is anger; Richard Dawkins, for example, argued that we should take astrology seriously as "a wicked fraud". To be sure, there are an unfortunate few who take it seriously, but through perception, expectation, and motivation these can even have a positive placebo effect - the same can be said about various forms of ritual and prayer, psychoanalysis, and so forth. Likewise we can also find a great deal of value in the inquiry of metaphysics where it is intellectually challenging; the debate between the atheist, the gnostic, the pantheist, the panentheist, the deist, various forms of personal theism, the antitheist, the questions of immanence and effability, and so forth. Sometimes however people become very angry at these discussions - at which point a dose of apatheism, a practical lack of pathology on theological issues question, is suggested. When Denis Diderot was accused of being an atheist, he responded with indifference: "It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God."

During her presidential nominations, Minnesota member of congress Michele Bachmann, remarked "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'" The Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, clearly not in a mood to be outdone remarked on evolution, "It's a theory that's out there. It's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution." Note the difference here; Bachmann is presenting an opinion, albeit without much backing evidence. Perry is referring to an imposition in the education system. When failed Senate candidate Todd Akin made his outrageous remark that pregnancy would not result from "legitimate rape", that wasn't just a foolish comment. It is a part of an religious ideological package, by which Akin refers to "terrorists in our own culture called abortionists", and by which he expresses opposition to stem-cell research. Akin is the also the author the Protect the Pledge act, protecting the phrase "under God" (absent from Bellamy's original). Akin said, "at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God". With similar inspiration this year a Michigan anti-abortion bill was introduced that would force women to give birth to dead babies. In Arizona, pregnancy now begins two weeks before conception, according to the law. Texas requires women who want an abortion to have an ultrasound, hear the fetus' heartbeat, view images, etc. before continuing to the procedure. Georgia, after banning abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy, had a representative draft a bill outlawing most vasectomies because they leave "thousands of children ... deprived of birth." In Virginia, Senator Janet Howell proposed mandating rectal exams and cardiac stress tests for men seeking erectile dysfunction medications; the amendment failed by just two votes. North Dakota member of congress Rick Berg supported voted for a bill that would have made any woman who obtained an abortion guilty of a homicide crime. Senator Rick Santorum has argued to repeal every legal gay marriage already performed.

Compare this to those involved in the early days of the U.S. Whilst the Declaration of Independence does mention "Nature's God" and the "Creator", there is no explicit reference to a supernatural being and certainly no suggestion that a particular creed be used as the source of law. There is absolutely no doubt that they were, as a group, religious people, most deeply so. They considered with great wonder the marvels of the universe, the fate and narrative of history, and their internal world. But the use of religious edict as a source of law? That they were opposed to. Thomas Jefferson famously remarked: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their "legislature" should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties". James Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, pointed out: "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?"

The idea of a separation of church and state would eventually be coined as 'secularism' by George Holyoake in 1851, notably the the last person convicted and jailed for blasphemy from a public lecture in the UK. The word derives from the Latin "secularis" meaning an interest in the worldly and temporal, in distinction to the eternal. It involves the use of "public reason" to use the phrase as used by Rousseau, Kant, and more recently by Rawls. Madison, Jefferson, and Holyoake were quite explicit in their idea that the notion meant for the provision and protection of religious freedom, but the freedom from such speculations in government institutions where, by necessity, speculation must become dogma. By this manner we can distinguish between secular governments, and states which impose a particular theocratic brand, or even state atheism. The twentieth century in particular saw certain regimes engage in the wholesale seizure of religious property, contrary to the desires of the relevant community, the prohibition of religious practise and publication, the persecution, torture, and execution of clergy. The most extreme was Albania under Enver Hoxha which enjoys the special reputation of totally banning religion; even possession of religious objects led to prison sentences. With experiences such as these it is little wonder that many made a distinction between fundamentalism as an orientation in contrast with a more liberal and pluralistic approaches.

As with most matters in a complex system, there is a continuum between the secular and non-secular political systems, which may have an overwhelming majority of secular institutions and rules, but a handful which are not. There is, of course, the swathe of countries across the Middle-East and North Africa which have, quite explicitly, Islamic state religions and who derive their laws from Islamic sources. There are countries which conflate religion with nationality, such as in the case with the Jewish state. Other ambiguities includes those European countries for whom the Protestant reformation saw the establishment of State Churches, such as the Church of England in the U.K., or the Church of Iceland, places which we think are mainly secular in the governance and culture. This may come with state-collected church taxes, which exist in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Italy. Indeed, the very church in which we meet tonight, the Unitarian Church of Melbourne, was funded for some decades in the nineteenth century with such a tax. Previous discussion involved the United States, a country which is secular in terms of its constitution, but where many laws, especially in state jurisdictions, have been implemented with non-secular reasoning. Of course, there are traditional effects as well; public holidays in Australia betray a Christian religious heritage, except for those days where some states seem to engage in horse-worship instead [Melbourne Cup Day].

Despite these holidays, Australians largely consider their society as secular. There is a nominal Christianity among the majority, mainly a name to attach to some general principles of ethical behaviour, and perhaps bi-annual attendance to a place of worship (Easter and Christmas). There is a sizeable "no religion" contingent, probably about a quarter of the population, which is thoughtfully irreverent on religious matters. There is the oft-quoted section 116 of the Australian constitution which 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." Note that this does not preclude the state governments from engaging in such actions; on at two occasions (1944 and 1988) attempts have been made to ensure the same rights and requirements are extended to the state governments; it has been defeated on both occasions. This has been of particular importance recently with an appeal to that particular section of the constitution with regards to the national school chaplaincy program which funds over 2500, almost entirely religious, chaplains. More locally, one can raise the issue of the imposition of "Special Religious Instruction" in Victorian schools, which allows for the doctrinal myths to be propagated to young minds in a classroom setting by staff without teaching qualifications. There was also the issue of the amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act, which now allow for religious groups to discriminate in employment even in areas not related to the practise of religion. Finally, in the wake of yesterday's announcement for a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse, recognition is given not only to the behaviour of institutions in protecting such abusers, but - from a secular perspective - the lack of disclosure for theological reasons for the sacrament of the confessional.

There are of course, a great number of organisations and associations who are active in their interest in these matters. The Rationalist Society of Australia has as one of its objectives, "to promote a secular and ethical system of education". The Humanist Society of Victoria is, of course, quite active with several dot-point items specifically stated in their 1961 founding constitution for "evolutionary advancement by initiating changes in the legislation" for a variety of issues based around the principles of human beings solving problems without reference to supernatural forces. The Victorian Skeptics of course cast their critical eye upon all things that suggest of the paranormal and supernatural with their penchant towards reproducible results and that, of course, includes legislation. There is the Progressive Atheists, a group which recognises the need to combine the evidence-based with a liberal and progressive outlook. There is of course, the Secular Party of Australia, established on the need for a political separation of church and state. Of the myriad groups, the Victorian Secular Lobby is the newest and smallest organisation and perhaps - deliberately so - with the most narrow focus. Obviously we consider the aforementioned groups to be our very close allies in the secular agenda. Our focus is specifically on lobbying politicians on matters of legislation to promote secular outcomes. We do so in political parties, in their policy forums, and directly with politicians themselves.

From this perspective, it is not atheism (to refer to tonight's gathering), or rationalism, or humanism, or the election of party political candidates that is the priority, but rather to return to the title of the presentation, "the importance of a secular political system". For it is not individual beliefs, or speculations, or cultic practises, or the lack thereof, that is necessarily the issue. A person can believe or disbelieve in a God, without the need for the State to make such a judgement for them. They can believe or disbelieve in whether same-sex marriages are right - without having to impose that belief on others from theological principles. An atheist can smile at the strange rituals and speculations of their theist colleague - without wishing to suppress those espousals. A person can considers themselves rational, insightful, and intelligent when the majority are apparently not, can still take comfort and happiness in their own status. But rather, the issue is how they are affected by the forces of public law and the State which are imposed from principles that irrational, superstitious, and simple-minded. Because in such cases, there is no appeal to public reason, there is only the adherence to dogma and, in the final analysis, the use of violence. As John F. Kennedy reminded us, religious oppression can be expressed in a myriad of ways - and if you're on the receiving end, it's not just a question of principle.

"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you"

The opportunity is presented here - and our moderator will excuse the blatant advertisement - to invite, each and every one of you, to attend on Saturday, December 15th, the Annual General Meeting of the Victorian Secular Lobby, held in this building. Secularism has achieved a lot in this country; we need to protect those gains, and achieve more. I invite you to join us.

Presentation to the Melbourne Atheist Society, November 14, 2012 by Lev Lafayette on behalf of the Victorian Secular Lobby