Dr Meredith Doig OAM
President, Rationalist Socety of Australia
Is Australia secular? Many Australians assume Australia is a secular country. And, socially, perhaps we are – sort of. Unlike the UK and many European countries, we don’t have an official religion. The UK has the Church of England – and bishops sit by right in the UK’s equivalent of our Senate. In many Scandinavian countries, the Lutheran Church is the official state-supported church – and their governments levy a tax on citizens to pay for it.
But the most glaring evidence that Australia is NOT secular is our education system. It’s not just that we fund nearly three quarters of the Catholic school system; we also subsidise more than 250 evangelical Christian schools, many of which insist on their right to teach creationism as an alternative to evolution!
The National School Chaplaincy Program continues to discriminate against the non-religious by restricting funding to the religious only, despite section 116 in our constitution prohibiting a religious test for any public office. And evangelicals continue to insist on their right to proselytise to young kids on a weekly basis through special religious ‘education’.
We’re not like France, where very strict separation between church and state leads to silly policies like banning the burkini on French beaches. And, thankfully, we’re not like the US, where politicians are expected to wear their religiosity on their sleeve.
No, in Australia we have a laissez-faire approach. All religions are free to operate, there’s no formal state religion and there’s no stigma associated with being irreligious. And, yet, the religious are disproportionately represented among the ranks of our politicians, both in Labor and the Coalition. Financially, the churches are given a free pass, paying no tax even if they operate commercial businesses.
While most Australians are pretty relaxed about religion, behind the scenes religiously motivated people are shaping our country – via politics, education and the media. As Michael Kirby, Patron of the Rationalist Society of Australia, has warned: eternal vigilance is the price of our secular freedom.