Extract from speech by the late John Kaye (1955 – 2016)

Originally published in New Matilda, March, 2016. Edited for length.

Extract from speech

by the late John Kaye (1955 – 2016)

Greens MLC, John Kaye PhD, recently died unexpectedly from cancer. He was aged 61. John was one of the main supporters of the Rationalist Association of NSW. In 2008 he wrote a speech for a conference he helped sponsor in the New South Wales Parliament. The conference was held just before the arrival of the Pope in Sydney for World Youth Day. As a tribute, we reproduce an extract from his speech, which is as relevant today as it was then.

Thank you all for being here today, to not only sound the alarm on the intrusion of church into state, but to also celebrate the achievements of separation of the two and the magnificent public institutions it has protected and fostered.

And sound the alarm we must. This weekend the people of Sydney will be witness, unwillingly in most cases, to the opening acts in a gross violation of that separation.

Public money is pouring into a religious festival conducted largely on public open space. There is little hope of recovering any of it, either by the state itself, or by the city’s small businesses. The fulsome subsidy stands as testament to the breakdown of the idea that the state should give favour to no one religion.

Unlike the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which is so tiresomely used by Catholic World Youth Day boosters as a supposed precedent, it will be almost impossible for any Sydney dweller to escape next week’s triumphalist display of religious fervour.

And yet Catholic World Youth Day is small beer compared to the billions of dollars gifted to religious schools each year by state and federal governments, money that goes directly to the advancing of one religion or another.

A robust separation of church and State provides essential protections of the liberty of all members of society. Not only does it ensure that no one religion dominates and imposes itself on persons of other faiths or none, it also ensures that the State can operate in a rational and accountable fashion. It is thus alarming to see attempts to undermine this separation and to compromise the essentially secular nature of Australia’s public life.

From public funding of faith-based schools and events such as World Youth Day, to attempts by religious minorities to restrict the basic human rights of others who do not conform to their narrowly defined constraints, Australia, like the rest of the world, is now in the midst of a debate to determine appropriate limits on the interference of organised religion in the decisions of the state.

This is not a debate, as it so often mischievously portrayed, about restricting the rights of people to live their lives according to their faith. There is no attempt to constrain or limit the ability of any individual or community to adhere to a religion and to derive personal comfort, life direction and spiritual enrichment from their beliefs and from the rituals and community of their faith.

It is not the secularists who proselytise or seek to change the views of others.

Nor is it a debate about muzzling or devaluing the valuable contributions to public life made by many people motivated by religious belief.

We do not seek to denigrate the role played in public debates by some church spokespeople who provide valuable evidence and arguments that contribute to the public policy debate. Tim Costello on gambling, Ann Wansbrough on the late — but too slow to pass on — Work Choices, and Bill Crews on services for the homeless, are fine examples of church people making valuable policy contributions, based on the evidence and experience of their work with vulnerable members of society.

The interface between organised religion and the State becomes problematic when a particular faith or religion seeks what Tim Costello calls “privileged access to power”, when representatives of religious institutions enter into a debate by asserting that their faith holds a superior position to the faith or reasoned opinion of others.

Rather than arguing from the commonly held concepts and publicly shared language of social justice and human rights, such interventions rely on the absoluteness of their special received wisdom. Examples of this include the expectation of exemptions from anti-discrimination and vilification laws, the assumption of moral superiority in debates about sexual and biological ethics, and the defence of scripture classes in public schools.

And what adds sting to the behaviour of these church people is the inability of politicians and the political process to resist their advances.

The extent of that failure is writ large in the success of churches in ensuring that the vast majority of public school students of no religious affiliation cannot use productively the time set aside for religious instruction. Organised religion has achieved a stranglehold on one hour a week within the very heart of secular Australia, public education. Their message to the heathen kids is: be religious or be bored. I think they might need some marketing advice there.

There is hope here. The P&C*, the St James Ethics Centre and the Greens are pushing to end this silliness and return that hour to public instruction where it belongs.

In 2005, the Reverend Danny Nalliah of Catch the Fire Ministries most offensively asserted the inherently violent nature of Islam and suggested that Muslim places of worship were “Satan’s strongholds”, which should be “pulled down”.

Evangelical Christians throughout Australia demanded that he be exempted from existing Victorian law preventing vilification of people of other religious beliefs. When he was found guilty, their first response was to demand the law be repealed rather than to question whether Mr Nalliah might have some soul-searching to do.

In doing so, they were seeking to give privilege to their religious beliefs and their practitioners.

During the debate over recent legislation to grant equality of parenting rights to same sex couples, members of parliament received materials from the Fatherhood Foundation, which suggested that gay and lesbian people are mentally disordered, promiscuous, and much more likely to be paedophiles, despite overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary.

These statements would probably be illegal if the documents were not published by a religious organisation.

This Parliament is regularly subjected to claims that Australia is a Christian nation, with the consequence that all laws passed here should be compatible with Christian ethics.

We still face the anachronism of opening each sitting day with an explicitly Christian prayer, although the group of us who stand around outside, waiting for prayers to finish before entering the chamber, does make an interesting cross-party fellowship.

Perhaps the greatest cause for concern for the future of a state that survives on diversity is the growth of faith-based schools. These are the relatively new but rapidly growing cohort of schools that are based on muscular and fundamentalist Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

They take the religiosity of traditional Catholic and Protestant schools to new dimensions of fundamentalism, by deliberately confusing their students over the difference between evidence and belief.

It is appalling that state and federal governments not only permit but also heavily fund schools that teach so-called intelligent design and creationism in science classes in some Christian, Muslim and Jewish schools.

The idea that some people’s religious views about the role of a divine being in creating the universe should be allowed to undermine the teaching of the basis of the scientific method in Australian schools is one that takes society down a dangerous path. When scientific truths are hidden from students in this way, the capacity of tomorrow’s society to solve critical social and scientific problems is undermined.

Every organised group within society is at least tempted at some stage or other to flex their political muscles and seek to exert influence beyond their own range.

We should resist, but not vilify, religions when they seek to do this.

Contempt should be reserved for the politicians who so easily succumb to the pressure and grant privileged space to organised religion.

This conference comes at a crucial time for Australia and New Zealand. The political leverage of churches is growing, in part because they are getting better at the business of politics, and in part because of the growth of concentrations of fundamentalist groups in urban fringe marginal seats. The power of the secular community is to be challenged in new ways over the next decade.

Part of a speech from the New Liberator (Sydney), Winter [October] 2016.