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Atheist Support for Religious Freedom?

Presentation by Lev Lafayette to the Melbourne Atheist Society, October 13, 2009

The History of Religion and Religious Freedom

The history of religion - in addition to being a history of charity, of good deeds, of community, of attempting to provide an explanation to timeless questions of existence, of making significant contributions to the development of the human spirit - is also a history of discrimination and persecution both by those who are greatly devout and towards those who are greatly devout. We may keep this in mind as the question of atheist support for religious freedom is explored. Some of these religious persecutions, and persecutions of religion, lasted for centuries and in many less liberal and democratic regimes than our own they are ongoing. At times this persecution has been subtle such as in the form of cultural discrimination. In others it is systematically enforced in the restriction of property titles, or the requirement of payment of additional taxes. More seriously it involves widespread censorship, forced conversions, segregation and pogroms, terrorism and war.

The most famous examples of this radical denial of religious freedom - by other religions - is etched on the history of our species like a nightmare of our our collective madness. We think of the Roman pagans throwing Christians to starving lions for entertainment, we think of the imperialist Crusades into the Levant, we can think of the Muslim conquest and rule of Hindu India which led to eighty million deaths, the devastation and bloody destruction of the Mesomerican cultures by their Christian invaders and all the way up to the public and privately expressed religion of Adolf Hitler who, in his systematic persecution of the Jews, declared: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.."

In contrast to this there was a tradition, albeit often weak, of religious freedom. In ancient times this usually correlated with commercial regions that found themselves as centres of multiple cultural influences. It would simply be impractical to enforce a single religious code in such places, although when such centres were segregated into religious districts, clashes were common such as between the Greeks and Jewish sectors of Cyrene and Alexandria. Over two and half thousand years ago, Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire, was probably the first to institute laws that provided religious freedom. Some three hundred years later, the emperor of the Indian Murya Empire also provided such laws in the Edicts of Ashoka. It was through political and religious liberals, from the political philosophy of John Locke, and the practical application by Thomas Jefferson that the separation of church and state became a modern reality. Today freedom of religion is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It proclaims: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."

This situation is mostly satisfactory, most of the time, to most atheists. Freedom of religion, in its universal form, also implies freedom from religion. Atheists may make their empirical as well as metaphysical propositions along with any others and there is no compulsion in law one way or another whether these should be accepted. Likewise, with our more speculative brethren we can feel some justifiable anger when atheism is effectively declared a state religion, such as the People's Republic of China, and where those of heretical beliefs, such as the Fulun Gong, are subject to widespread persecution such as systematic imprisonment and organ harvesting. We may also mention the systematic persecution and discrimination against members of the Bahá'í faith in Iran, where they have had their property seized, have been banned from government jobs and have been imprisoned for holding religious study circles, and more recently, Egypt, where a modernisation of the identity documents which allowed only three faiths; Muslim, Christian or Jew - effectively denying them the right to basic identity documents. To a liberal and democratic atheist, such totalitarian evils are not entertained.

Conflicting Standards

Freedom of religious belief however, does not necessarily imply freedom of religious practise. All content-bound expressions of freedom are not absolute, and this is no exception. Freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to abuse others, under the claim of being a 'religious practise' and we indeed may be very grateful for this, for it means that in most cases we are not subject to religious courts and their laws. Those who are wives in our audience may be very pleased indeed that when the separation of church and state is exists it usually means that they can avoid enforced sati, the sometimes voluntary, sometimes coerced, immolation of a widow on her husbands funeral pyre. We can be reasonably sure that when the southern African traditional medicine practises of Muti includes human sacrifice that those who engage in it will be charged with murder. At the same time, self-regarding and consensual acts which has religious significance but are prohibited by secular law - such as polyamorous unions or the use of psychedelic drugs by earth-centered religions (for example the use of peyote by indigenous Americans) - these are often illegal.

It is my suspicion that the normal development of liberal democracies is towards universal pragmatics on such matters. Religious belief and expression will increasingly become one where self-regarding and consensual acts will be permitted and religious expressions which engage in coercive harm will be prohibited. Note that this is not necessarily an atheist position as such; under universal pragmatics, atheism only makes sense within the natural world. Within the social world the best description would probably be agnostic, treating legal norms and institutional structures as if religion didn't exist at all. Of course, the provision of religious freedom under the legal norms of universal pragmatics implies that there is a right which includes the possibility of the wrong choices being made. However it is through free choice, and the consequences that arise, that the ability to voluntarily change one's religion can develop consciously. Support of rational approach to religious belief can then be achieved whilst the legal mechanisms are in place allowing people to hold to non-coercive irrational beliefs. After all, the 'right decision' can never be imposed upon others with any possibility of long-term success. If we respect our own ability to make free religious choices - and obviously the ability to choose none at all, we should also accord that right to others.

One particular orientation that could unravel this tenancy that has a degree of popularity among many secularists is the notion of 'capitalist democracy'; that is, the economic sphere of life is freed from public intervention and private profit is encouraged, whilst liberal rights are stripped away in the social sphere in favour of a 'tyranny of the majority' approach to norms. In the long run I believe that such a capitalist democracy would become a profit-orientated religious state and with all that implies. There is a particular importance then, for ensuring that the classical liberal rights are enshrined in our legal systems in a manner that protects from popularist vagaries - the only thing that really has saved the United States of America on so many occasions from sliding into totalitarianism is the first ten amendments to the constitution collectively called the Bill of Rights. Further, that modern, corrective, liberal rights are instituted in law for the time that they are necessary. For one of the lessons that has been learned through the experience of political-economy is that there are some areas of life (private ownership of natural resources being a particular case) which structural disadvantages occur and the classical model of liberalism is insufficient in these circumstances.

Two Contemporary Challenges

This brings the issue to two particular and very controversial topics of discussion regarding religious freedom. Firstly, the assumed right of religious education of children and secondly, the very strained relationship that religious organisations have with the principles and legislation of equal opportunity. A third possibility, the various exemptions according to religious organisations, is not discussed in this presentation because it is can be largely deemed as belonging to the same category as other non-profit organisations determined by the fact that any financial surplus is not distributed towards owners, whether private or public, but rather towards the socially-sanctioned goals. To be sure, there will be those who at the very least seek to provide themselves exceptional salaries in this regard, however this is identical to other tax-exempt not-for-profit organisations. Attention may also be drawn, in this context, to the tax-exemptions of humanist associations for educational and civil celebrant programs.

The issue concerning religious education of children is interesting because it involves so many claims; developmental psychologists have a particular opinion, parents often claim ownership of children with natal justifications, and the state, of course, expresses its interest in moulding the minds for the next generation. What is particularly interesting in much religious education is that it does not constitute the teaching of a civil ethics, for that can be surely conducted within a secular framework with comparative sources, or as a study even of religious literature in a comparative form, whereby the myths and legends are studied for their metaphorical connections to moral, aesthetic and factual lessons. Rather, religious education is typically only expressed as a single religious belief, through a religious school, and with young minds being solemnly told by authority figures that there is supernatural punishment for those who disobey the edicts of sacred texts and eternal supernatural rewards for those who follow them. This is more radical that the claims concerns of the Australian Council for the Defence of Government Schools, who famously argued that public funding of religious-schools breached section 116 of the Australian Constitution; a claim which they lost in the High Court 5-1, but where it is recognised that the public does not fund religious education components of such education. This is an express concern of whether children sought be taught supernatural speculations as fact whatsoever except in the context of engaging in comparative ethical systems and studies of mythic literature. The questions are posed: Is it not a form of abuse to teach such speculations to formative minds as if they were facts? Does it not damage their natural developing reasoning ability? Surely it is time that the questions are properly researched and, if it is shown that young minds are indeed damaged by such exposure, that public intervention is required?

The issue concerning the relationship between equal opportunity legislation and religious institutions has become particularly important with the government reviewing the relationship between equal opportunity and the current exemptions enjoyed by religious organisations from such legislation. In particular concern is asked why religious organisations are able to engage in lawful discrimination against people for what are activities of secular employment and so forth can and do face discrimination in employment by such religious institutions on the grounds of their faith, or lack thereof. A current government discussion paper raises the possibility of distinguishing between core religious activities, such as the appointing of people directly involved in ceremonial purposes and those who are engaged in more prosaic work. Many may rightly ask why such organisations are provided such extra-legal protection at all. If it is deemed that it would be thoroughly inappropriate for a local sports team to have a test of sexual preference before one is accorded the right to join, is to appropriate that a religion does the same to somebody whose employment is to mop the floors or trim the roses?

Freedom of and from Religion

Atheists have great opportunity in the matter of religious freedom. Typically there is a concern of ridiculing the articles of faith, and of course there is certainly something to be said for that. For many of us, it is somewhat difficult to believe the various sacred texts, or catechisms like the Apostle's Creed as being literally true. But it would seem that there is more mileage in debating the actual religious practises. Here atheists can simultaneously argue for freedom of and freedom from religious belief and the same for religious practise limited by universal rights. With this approach atheists can take something which religious thinkers often seem to believe is automatically conferred to them - the moral high ground. Atheists have the opportunity to argue that is not they who engage in terrorist activities and imperialist invasions with God on their side. Atheists will have the opportunity to argue "It is not us who tell falsehoods to children, presenting fantastic speculations to them as if they were fact". Atheists will be able say "It is not us that engage in prejudice and bigotry on the grounds of sexuality, gender, gender-identity, marital or parental status". By taking a strategy of winning the moral argument in the public debate, the stage is set to win the practical task in political reality - and if a few religious organisations along the way change their attitude on such matters (and some, like the one in who's hall we meet already have) - then that will count as a victory too. Changing social relations and social conditions is a far more important task than debates concerning the supernatural.


Prejudice, not faith

Date: September 28 2009

ROB Hulls' decision to allow exemptions for religious organisations such as church-run schools and hospitals to discriminate in employment or services on the basis of sexuality, gender, gender-identity, marital or parental status is at best misguided and confused - and at worst a despicable act of crawling for votes (''Government bows to religious right'', The Sunday Age, 27/9).

''Limited'' discrimination is still discrimination. The idea is as preposterous as ''partially'' equal opportunity. Access to health, education and employment are fundamental human rights and should not be denied to anyone. The fact that church organisations will not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, disability, age or political beliefs underscores the double standard.

Sexism and homophobia are endemic prejudices, not religious beliefs. They are founded on fear and hatred, not faith, and I invite the members of any church, including its leaders, to argue otherwise. It is the role of an equal opportunities act to legislate against such prejudices. To legislate in their favour or encourage their practice in the name of belief or for political gain is fascism, pure and simple. I am ashamed to live in a state where this is the case, especially one that calls itself ''Victoria - the place to be''.

Humphrey Bower, South Yarra
Insecurity and intolerance

IT IS extremely disappointing that ''Rob Hulls will allow church groups to continue discriminating on the grounds of sex, sexuality, marital and parental status and gender identity''.

Surely church groups, even of the fundamentalist variety, are supposed to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ who, if I can remember from my Sunday school days, preached in support of tolerance and against the arbitrary judgment of others.

Are these groups so insecure in their doctrines that they cannot tolerate people with different belief and value systems? If they want to be exempted from laws that promote a tolerant and accepting society, they should be excluded from government financial support, and should be subjected to punitive taxation treatment.

Paul Fullerton, Camberwell
A denial of human rights

WHAT hypocrisy. While John Brumby is in India touting Victoria as a safe, egalitarian destination for Indian students, his Government has announced that it will pass laws that will allow major employer, education and welfare bodies to legally vilify citizens on the basis of who they love, who they worship, if they are married or not, how many children they have, or whether they were born with a penis or a vagina. Many enlightened countries threw out such misogynistic and homophobic laws decades ago and, in fact, legislated the other way, making these acts of discrimination illegal, and a denial of basic human rights.

Benjamin John Doherty, North Caulfield
Even-handed? Hmmm

PEOPLE without an invisible friend or printed set of instructions (other than law) are (quite rightly) required by law to respect other people's rights, sexual preferences, etc. Those with an invisible friend and book of instructions (other than the law) are given permission to disrespect other people's rights, sexual preferences, etc. Rational law-making at its secular and even-handed best.

Andrew Dixon, Glen Waverley

Just common sense

WHAT a ridiculous intellectual impasse we create with our confused use of the word discrimination - defined as ''the quality or power of finely distinguishing'' - to automatically mean prejudice. A spokesperson for the gay and lesbian hotline asserts on ABC radio (28/9) that any wish to employ people with appropriate beliefs in religious schools is not only bigotry but a sickness.

Can we therefore assume that the help line will now welcome counsellors to its (presumably government-funded) services who hold religious, intellectual, or social views counter to its core message? After all, their personal views and lifestyles could not possibly impact on their suitability. Or does the help line in fact support ''discrimination'', when it comes to its own beliefs?

Should the law also enforce that Labor Party members not be excluded from seeking Liberal pre-selection on the grounds of their political beliefs? That duck-hunters be employed by the RSPCA? That flat earth believers be employed as chief scientists, or militant atheists as Catholic priests?

Discrimination does not necessarily equate to prejudice. It as likely equates to common sense.

Peter Kenyon, Gisborne,

Freedom for some, but not others

Date: September 29 2009

IN ALLOWING church-based organisations to continue to discriminate on the basis of sex, sexuality, marital and parental status and gender identity, Attorney-General Rob Hulls says the policy strikes the right balance between religious freedoms and being free of discrimination.

In effect, the religious freedom of organisations is to be allowed to trump the religious freedom of individuals, many of whom are among the most vulnerable in our society because of entrenched ignorance and bigotry. But the allowable discrimination will go far further than restricting an individual's freedom of religion - it still condones discrimination on the basis of biology.

As someone who fought long and hard against my sexuality, and reluctantly chose to be gay because I didn't have the guts to go through with suicide, it is massive slap in the face to see my political beliefs protected but not my sexuality.

Ironically, my sexuality and concepts of equality constitute the core of my political and religious beliefs. Clearly some Victorians under Hulls' new policy will be more equal than others. Instead, equality could be maximised and discrimination minimised if freedom of religion and freedom from religion were maximised. That would be a fair balance.

Eric Glare, Elwood

Learn from history

APPARENTLY it is not OK for individuals and organisations to make decisions about the enterprises that they have control over, but it is OK for others with the ''right'' ideas to have control over everybody in ever increasing ways. It's for ''human rights'', your correspondents yelp (Letters, 28/9). It's against homophobia. It's for tolerance. It's against fascism.

With so much freedom available for us, it is nonsense to claim that discrimination is a major problem when, in all likelihood, it probably won't affect most people more than a handful of times (and then only in minor ways.) This is in contrast to the proposed alternative of the nanny state, which would be in all of our faces all of the time.

It seems that there are still people who would repackage fundamental aspects of real fascism and totalitarianism, and call it enlightened or, even worse, freedom. I called my German-born mum and asked her about this stuff. She was 16 when World War II ended and remembers how people were pressured and some even disappeared because they didn't hold lockstep to the approved government agenda. She made the connection quickly between now and then. But some people have learned nothing from history.

Mark Rabich, Heathmont

Jesus said to repent

PAUL Fullerton's Sunday-school remembrance of Jesus needs a refresher-course (Letters, 28/9). Jesus' headline was repentance, not tolerance (Matt 4:17).

To force Christian organisations to employ the unrepentant is to force them against Jesus' teaching, which condemned not just sexual immorality, but violence, theft, lying, and slander (Matt 15:19). It is akin to forcing the AFL to employ rugby-league referees, and would produce comparable turmoil and confusion.

Reverend Jon Guyer, Croydon, NSW

Thankful for the tolerance

A FEW years back, my two aunts resided at an older person's lodge, owned by the Anglican Church. The manager was a transsexual whom I will call Melinda. On St Patrick's Day Melinda invited Irish dancers in, and food of Irish origin was served. On St Andrew's Day, Scottish dancers danced and food of Scottish origin was served. On St David's Day a Welsh choir came, and food that originated in Wales was served. Always there seemed to be something exciting to look forward to, and the lodge, with its friendly ambience, was sparkling clean. When one aunt was in danger of being taken down by a dodgy accountant, Melinda called on the right people to sort out the problem.

What if the Anglicans had been precious about people who had had problems with gender? I know how much I, on my own and my aunts' behalf, am indebted to Melinda and the Anglican Church.

Jean Menere, Albury, NSW

Wrong-headed efforts will misfire

Date: September 30 2009

BISHOP John McIntyre (Comment, 29/9) speaks for many more Christians than Rob Hulls realises.

Once again, the well-organised religious right lobby has presumed to speak for all of us, when in truth it does not. It is shameful that Christians should argue for the right to discriminate in what, in most cases, is nothing more than the blatant protection of their own interests and, as Bishop McIntyre has demonstrated, flies in the face of the message of Jesus Christ.

Even church leaders who are usually inclusive in their stance have allowed themselves to be persuaded that not being able to discriminate will endanger the church's position in society, given the ferocity of recent attacks on faith by prominent atheists. Sadly, continuing the church's permission to discriminate will have the reverse effect, encouraging the very opposition it fears.

Dr Muriel Porter, Camberwell

No place for judgment

THE churches must teach morality by their own example, not by judging the lives of others with whom they may disagree. If they do not, they will lose their role as moral guides by denying the ''inherent dignity, equality and inalienable rights of all members of the human family … the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world'' (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Gays, single mothers, those divorced and remarried and those in de facto relationships are all good people and members of our human family. There is no evidence that anyone whom they teach, care for or counsel is led down a path not of their own choosing. Indeed, there is evidence that those who have endured some of life's outrageous misfortunes may be better equipped to provide such services. I would have thought that the churches might have learned that damage is the result of deprivation of human rights and the inflicting of emotional trauma upon others.

Peter Evans, Hawthorn

Samaritan tale is for sinners

BISHOP McIntyre is right when he says that the good Samaritan was a story about loving other people, but unfortunately misses the point when he relates it to a bill or charter of rights or an equal opportunity act because today they are not about people but about people's choices.

The good Samaritan story does not tell us to love the sin, but the sinner. It does not tell us to employ the sexually immoral or the liar or the gossip - the Equal Opportunity Act does.

The EOA and a bill of rights are, first, about removing freedom of choice, a Christian principle, and, second, about forcing people to accept lifestyle choices that are contrary to healthy living and God's moral laws. I fear the good Reverend does not sufficiently understand either the good Samaritan story or the Equal Opportunity Act.

Peter Stokes, Forest Hill

Someone to look up to

AT LAST a principled church leader who actually emulates the teachings of Jesus, stands up for the marginalised and voiceless and speaks out against discrimination and the privileged position of the church. I hope Bishop John McIntyre doesn't end up suffering the same fate as his church's founder.

Tim Corney, Kew East

Church should pay

Date: October 11 2009

DENIS Hart tells us that the Catholic community is a major contributor to the tax pool. No doubt. Most Catholics, like the rest of us, pay tax. The Catholic Church itself doesn't. It's about time it did.

Dangerous prejudices

MARGARET Thornton and the editorial (''Balancing religion and rights'', 4/10) expose deep prejudices towards Christianity. They perpetuate popular myths that misrepresent the church's beliefs and practices. Individual beliefs cannot be separated from the communities in which they are shared. Personal faith and its secular expression in education, welfare, health, etc go together in the church's vocation to humanise the world in the image of Christ.

The attempt to separate private and public is a convenient fiction designed to obscure the fact that, without debate, the personal beliefs of anti-Christian secularists are now held to be synonymous with ''community values''.

''Discrimination'' is used pejoratively to describe religious extremists - but not irreligious fanatics. In view of atrocities committed by anti-Christian ideologies, such as communism, Nazism and fascism, this one-sided criticism could open the way for nihilistic forces to undermine religious freedom and human dignity in Australia.

It is unhelpful and dangerous to misrepresent the debate as a clash of faiths between inhuman Christians and humane secularists. It is a clash between two accounts about what it means to humanise the secular world. It is vital that we identify the presuppositions underlying these world views and test their adequacy.


Mount Waverley
What of those not protected?

THE Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart's defence of selective discrimination in church organisations is striking for its lack of reference to the specific groups that will continue not to be protected under Hull's equal opportunity bill: unmarried heterosexual people and gay men and lesbians. The article is full of abstract moral posturing about Catholics having ''deeply held views on the dignity and identity of the human person'' and ''codes of ethical standards''.

The Archbishop argues that the Catholic values that underpin continued discrimination ''are not exclusively Catholic or even religious''. Could these values then be unrelated to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who himself had nothing to say about de facto couples or gay men and lesbians?

Those of us who will continue to live in the shadow of discrimination under Hulls' bill may quite justifiably feel that the state, under pressure from politically powerful religious minority groups, is happy to continue to undermine the dignity and integrity of the lives we lead.

A crucial balance

APPROPRIATE law reform is all about getting the balance right.

It is crucial that we balance an individual's right to be free from discrimination against the freedom to practice one's religious beliefs.

The changes to equal opportunity laws proposed by the Government will limit the current ability of religious groups to discriminate at whim.

No longer will religious bodies be able to discriminate on the basis of race, disability, political belief or activity, breastfeeding, carer status, industrial activity or age.

Discrimination by religious organisations and schools in the area of employment will be subject to a higher threshold. A religious organisation will only be able to discriminate against a worker if they can prove it is a fundamental requirement of the job that it is filled by someone who conforms to their faith.

It does not automatically follow that a religious school could refuse to employ a cleaner or a gardener on the basis of their sexuality or marital status.

If a gardener's job description consists of pruning rose bushes and mowing lawns then it is difficult to see how identifying as gay or being a single parent would affect their ability to meet the inherent requirements of the role.

ROB HULLS, Attorney-General