Over the past three months, Australian members of Atheist Nexus have been working on a major submission to Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last year, the Commission called for public submissions on a discussion paper entitled, "Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century". The last study of this kind was conducted in 1998 and attracted input from many of Australia's leading atheist, humanist and rationalist groups.
We have been pleased to add our atheist voices to this national discussion. Public submissions will be reviewed by a panel of academics and human rights experts. The end result will be a report intended to guide state and federal government policy in areas involving religion and faith-based services.
The key members of the submission team were:
Kristy Vensson (research & writing)
In consultation with:
The Irreverent Mr Black
Emeritus Professor Robert Gregson
Sean the Blogonaut
The submission document is quite large (about the length of a PhD thesis!), but, for your interest, we present the Introduction to the Submission which summarises our key arguments. If anyone would like a copy of the full submission, please contact Kristy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century
A Submission to the Human Rights and
Equal Opportunity Commission
on behalf of the
Australian Members of Atheist Nexus
We support the right of every Australian to either adopt or reject religious beliefs. We also support the right of theistic Australians to practice the religion of their choice. But, this support comes with certain provisions.
In this submission, we will argue that membership of a faith community should be the result of a voluntary decision, made without coercion or indoctrination, by individuals who have had the physical and intellectual freedom to consider a range of alternative views. Religious freedom does not exist when an individual has been provided with no other choice.
We support every Australian’s right to practice their chosen beliefs. But, we will argue that this freedom cannot be not be unbounded; it must be confined by the parameters of Australian law and our international human rights commitments. Further, religious beliefs should not be imposed, or impinge unduly, upon those with different beliefs and value systems.
In this submission, we argue that, in a multifaith but highly secular nation, freedom of religion and belief is best protected through the neutrality of a strictly secular government and judiciary. Accordingly, we recommend the revision of Section 116 of the Australian Constitution to provide a strong wall of separation between religion and state, and we advocate the adoption of an Australian charter of rights.
In concert with our commitment to freedom of religion, is a concern that Australians must also have freedom from religion. In the discussions which follow, we will contend that in a highly secular and non-religious country like Australia, it is discriminatory for religious institutions to receive financial and legal privileges not extended to non-religious Australians. Freedom of religion and belief does not exist, for example, when non-religious tax payers bear the cost of tax-exemptions afforded ‘as of right’ to religious institutions and their businesses.
In this submission, we will argue that the privileges extended to religious institutions are based on:
a) the false supposition that all religions are beneficial to society, and;
b) the discriminatory notion that religious institutions and individuals are more ethical and have better ‘values’ than secular organizations and non-religious people.
We will argue that the government does a disservice to all Australians by extending financial and legal privileges to religions – without regard for the ‘values’ they espouse, the credibility of their beliefs, the damage they cause, or their commitment to Australia’s core values.
Understanding that the current Constitution requires that all religions must be treated equally, we call on the government to equally remove from religious institutions, any financial privileges or legal exemptions which are not available to the secular community.
We do not advocate the withdrawal of government support for faith-based charities or schools, but we do call for the government to place certain conditions upon continued funding. Specifically, we believe that academic school curriculums must be strictly secular, that restrictive religious schooling must be discouraged, and that faith-based community services must conform to certain professional standards.
In regard to community services, we call for the establishment of a Community Health, Welfare, Counselling and Charities Commission to oversee all such services – whether faith-based or secular.
A recurring theme in this submission is that the meaning of religious doctrine is so subjective that it provides no rational basis for exempting religious institutions from anti-discrimination laws. We will argue that, although religious institutions are historically resistant to change, they do not suffer unduly when they submit to the pressure to conform to changing social attitudes. In fact, we present some compelling arguments that religions must change, or die.
Accordingly, we call on the government to support women and GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people in their fight for acceptance and equal rights within their faith communities. Further, we suggest that the government should provide funding and resources for colloquiums, at which women and GLBT members of Australia’s various faith communities can meet to develop strategies and recommend a timeline for the withdrawal of anti-discrimination exemptions.
This submission is highly critical of the harmful consequences of many religious beliefs and practices. However, we do recognize that few organizations are all good, or all bad. The fact that we have highlighted the worst behaviour of some religious institutions does not negate the fact that those same bodies may also make positive contributions to the community. Our criticisms of the worst aspects of religious practice in no way diminish our respect for the many people of faith who support social justice and human rights issues and work tirelessly for the benefit of the community. In fact, we have argued in this submission that moderate theists and atheists share many of the same interests and should find more ways to work together in common cause.
While this submission highlights many of the damaging consequences of religion, we freely acknowledge that secular organizations and nontheists are every bit as prone to anti-social beliefs and behaviour as their religious counterparts. But, there is an important difference between religious and secular ideas: Religious leaders profess an authority for their proclamations that the non-religious do not; that is, they claim to speak on behalf of a supernatural deity. For those who believe in such things, this gives added weight to those opinions, and discourages dissent. Compounding this, our society also tends to shy away from criticizing religious ideas, lest we be seen as intolerant, lacking in respect, or ‘vilifying’ those who espouse them. For these reasons, religious views are too often spared the high level of personal and public scrutiny and critiques to which secular ideologies are routinely subjected. This can be very dangerous if those religious views do not happen to be benign.
Preliminary to answering the questions provided in the HREOC discussion paper, our submission begins with a short explanation about the nature of our organization, Atheist Nexus (a more detailed account appears in Section 6.1-2.3). This is followed by a statistical summary, in which we argue that:
• Australia’s non-religious are far more numerous than the Census implies;
• religious leaders do not accurately reflect the views and ‘values’ of the majority of Australians, and;
• that while atheism is growing in Australia, religion is in decline – a trend that is likely to continue.
This is why we insist that the voice of the non-religious must be given equal weight in this important discussion on “Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century”.
After this preliminary essay, we move on to answer the questions from the HREOC Discussion Paper. As some questions are specifically targeted at faith communities, we have interpreted these broadly in order to provide our non-religious perspective on issues of importance to us.
It is important to note that this submission does not rely upon our personal opinions, or upon the polemics of leading American or British atheists. Instead, our arguments are supported by evidence and insights from leading academics, scientists, theologians, major research organizations, religious and political leaders, members of faith communities, secular counsellors, mental health experts, and representatives of various minority groups. All statistics, quotes and opinions are referenced to a detailed bibliography with internet hyperlinks.
We conclude this submission with an account of the dangerous practices of some of Australia’s religious institutions and denominations. In our concluding argument, we insist that there are far more subtle dangers inherent in religion than the obvious threat of terrorism. Accordingly, we submit that the government must: cease its indiscriminate support for religious institutions; redistribute funds to faith-based and secular organizations which demonstrably benefit our society; and insist that religious institutions operate within the parameters of Australian law and our international human rights commitments.