The Victorian Secular Lobby and Politics

What is secularism anyway?

We need to define this in order to address our concern appropriately, and to fine the points of difference between secularism and many groups which are often associated with it.

Is is not necessarily rationalism, as expressed by the Rationalist Society of Australia "Rationalists hold that all significant beliefs and actions should be based on reason and evidence, that the natural world is the only world there is, and that answers to the key questions of human existence are to be found only in that natural world."

It is not necessarily skepticism, as expressed by the Australian Skeptics. "... a loose confederation of groups across Australia that investigate paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims from a responsible scientific viewpoint."

It is not necessarily humanism, as defined by the IHEU, which the Australian Humanists subscribe to: "a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."

It is not necessarily atheism, as expressed by the Atheist Foundation of Australia : "The Atheist Foundation of Australia recognises scientific method as the only rational means toward understanding reality. To question and critically examine all ideas, testing them in the light of experiment, leads to the discovery of facts. As there is no scientific evidence for supernatural phenomena, atheists reject belief in 'God', gods and other supernatural beings. The universe, the world in which we live, and the evolution of life, are entirely natural occurrences."

Instead, the word 'secular' comes the Medieval Latin "secularis", meaning worldly or temporal in distinction to the eternal. It pertains to the world that we all live in and share, in space and time. In George Holyoake's coining of the term, he noted that secularism wasn't an argument against religious beliefs, but an argument independent of it. "Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life." The secular world is the world that we all exist in. Everyone is secular.

Secularism - distinct from secular - is a political principle that government institutions and persons are separate from religious institutions and religious persons. Secular governance is one which is "aggressively neutral" on all matters of metaphysical speculation. Secularism both protects and limits religious organisations as being equal to any other voluntary association deserving of neither fear nor favour. People can be deeply committed to their issues of faith and personal beliefs, but also deeply opposed to those very same beliefs being established as universal and enforceable law. I can speak of conservative Christians, for example, who are utterly sincere as an item of faith that they do not wish people to undertake voluntary euthanasia, but would not dream of seeing that prohibition introduced as public law.

What Is the Victorian Secular Lobby?

The Victorian Secular Lobby is an incorporated association in the state of Victoria. We started as an unincorporated association in 2010, and in 2011 decided to become an incorporated association. We are a lobby group, not a political party (secularism is a "broad tent", which includes a variety of perspectives on political economy, for example). We mainly organise meetings with politicians and political parties to discuss various items of policy, organise activities in cooperation with like-minded groups, engage in campaigns during elections, and provide a compiled resource of related news items. Our membership, and committee, represents a secular viewpoint with varying metaphysical perspectives being represented; atheist, christian, pantheist etc.

Our policy positions as decided from the 2014 Annual General Meeting (and updated at 2015) are found at the following URL (http://victoriansecular.org/policies). In the 2014 state election campaign, we identified the following as priority issues and consistent with our policies: (a) Special Religious Instruction, (b) Equal Opportunity Act Amendments, (c) Abortion Reform Act of 2008. and (d) Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2001. Specifically, we oppose the teaching of SRI and are in favour instead of a general religious education as part of an education curriculum and taught by qualified teachers. We oppose the changes to the Equal Opportunity Act which allow religious organisations the right to engage in prejudiced discrimination in matters of non-religious employment. Further, we opposed any attempt to medical professionals not to refer individuals seeking a reproductive procedure contrary to their faith. Finally, we think the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act is well-intended, but poorly implemented, as it concentrated on matters of 'offensiveness' rather than veracity and allowing for group defamation proceedings.

Our capacity is limited by a modest membership and finances. We certainly lack the resources and lobbying power of groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby, the Catholic Education Office, or the National Civic Council (to cite three powerful organisations with demonstrably anti-secular policies). Nevertheless we do "punch above our weight" with well-established and improving political contacts. We also have an advantage that the policies we hold are typically supported by the majority of Australians, and with good reason as well. We are also limited to being a Victorian association; most of our energy is directed to Victorian-specific issues, however we are members of the Secular Coalition of Australia.

The Importance of Political Involvement

It may be asked why secularism is a political priority; surely other issues such as political economy should have priority? The reason is that secularism is necessary for modernity; it is impossible to conduct open investigation and reflexive development in the sciences, arts, or laws, with a religious censor in the process. This is not to suggest that modernity does not have its own form of political censorship; it most certainly does, whether inspired a state atheism or majoritarian democracy. Secularism represents a necessary but not sufficient condition of civil rights and liberties.

Another issue that must be realised is that religious authorities did not give up their positions of power willingly. It was very much an result of the disaster of the European religious wars, the rise of liberalism, and the revolutions. Whilst many religious believers may be secularists today, there is still a very active group of fundamentalists who would delight in the opportunity to move towards a more theocratic society. This also gives recognition to a very important element of secularism; that the division in law is one of a continuum and a continually contested field.

In addition, it has been understood that secularism is a necessity for an increasingly multicultural society, borne of an near-inevitable globalisation due to technological drivers. A society that is increasingly a mixture of different cultures and creedal backgrounds must find a solution to this multiplicity and pluralism. For some, the answer is a domination of the majority over the minority. This form of authoritarianism, despite a high level of popularism, is hopelessly inadequate for international economic integration and development. An suggested alternative has been the institution of parallel legal systems, what some have called incorrectly "post-secularism", when it is really a society of multiple theocracies, a flawed experiment as the family law codes of Israel and Lebanon should make clear.

In the coming year, the Victorian Secular Lobby, Inc., will be concentrating on the issues of Special Religious Instruction and Equal Opportunity Amendments, along with voluntary euthanasia, as these have been identified as the major secular issues that will be confronting the Victorian parliament in the coming year. We will also be working hard to build the Australian-wide secular coalition to deal more effectively with Federal issues. Finally, we wish to encourage others to join us. Politicians by their nature are timid creatures, most easily swayed by threats of well-financed and well-organised conservative lobby groups. Whilst the majority of people support secular principles in our political system, as numerous opinion polls testify, our politicians are well out-of-step of what the public thinks.

Only through an organised secular lobby can we create a situation, as it always has been, where the people lead and the politicians follow.

Presentation by Lev Lafayette for the Victorian Secular Lobby to the University of Melbourne Secular Society, April 28, 2015