NSL Press Conference: NSW Parliament House, Sydney. 10.30am 29.4.19
Chris Schacht: NSL Ambassador, and former SA Senator
Welcome; and thank you Fiona (Patten) for explaining what is meant by a Soft Theocracy . . .
So let me say why it is that Australia falls within that definition.
But first, let us be clear: We do NOT suggest any direct comparison with the “theocratic” nations of Yemen, the Sudan, or Iran – where society, and all levels of government, the judiciary and media are determined by religious leaders.
And it is NOT widely understood that the Vatican calls itself a ‘theocratic monarchy’, with the Pope as 'absolute' ruler who exercises legislative, executive and judicial power through delegated bodies.
It is this Catholic state, with its cardinals and church hierarchy, which determines all laws and doctrines that Australian Catholics are charged to obey. Does this amount to “influence” from a foreign power?
Queen Elizabeth II is the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England – and every monarch must swear to “uphold the laws and traditions of the Church”. Australia remains a constitutional monarchy, with the queen designated as our Head of State.
Few could argue that in this country today, we continue to be heavily influenced by Catholic and Anglican doctrines that have dominated the lives of billions, in many countries around the world.
Our parliaments are heavily Christianised – at a rate far greater than the general public. Our judiciary engage each year in the “Red Mass”, asking for the guidance of God in their deliberations – and the media run endless programs and series which essentially promote religion.
And let us not forget that each sitting day, federal parliament begins with the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate, leading our national representatives in Christian prayers."
But the conundrum here – today – is that the overwhelming majority of the public are SECULAR.
In the 2016 Census, 30% of the population said they had “No Religion”. A point I shall return to.
A 2016 Ipsos poll showed 78% of people want “personal religious faith to be separate from the business of government.” We can’t be clearer than that! People want a “secular government” and secular social policy.
BUT WE REMAIN A “SOFT THEOCRACY” – still influenced by hierarchies and doctrines determined by Church Head Quarters – the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, and Vatican City in Rome.
So why does all this matter? . . . Because Australia is meant to be secular!
The National Secular Lobby has just launched our SOCIAL MEDIA campaign “Stand up for Secularism”. It focuses particularly on younger people to become involved in the federal election, and to be more “critically aware” of the influence of religion on contemporary social policy.
Australia has languished well behind the progressive secular democracies of Europe – nations which have removed religious dominance from the day-to-day business of government. I speak particularly of Scandinavian countries that prosper BECAUSE of their secular society.
Nordic nations are among the most non-religious in the world – with Sweden at 82%, Denmark at 80% and Norway 78%. And international indicators show they have better levels of health and wellbeing, less crime and division, and stronger cohesive economies.
In Australia, progressive policy has been consistently opposed and thwarted by traditional religious interests . . . all based on their competing interpretations of various religious texts from the Bible, the Koran, and from the original Hebrew Scriptures.
We came kicking and screaming to be one of last Western nations to legalise same-sex marriage – but only after the expense of a $122m plebiscite, and a costly ‘Review’ of religious freedom. Ironically, the review found there were NO limitations on such freedoms in this country.
But same-sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg. Key contemporary issues include:
- chaplains and religious instruction in public schools
- exemptions given to religious schools to expel students or fire staff on religious grounds
- laws still on the statute books that make abortion a criminal offence
- rejection of voluntary euthanasia
- refusal to report child abuse in the confessional
- the $13b of federal government funds to subsidise private religious schools
- and the generous tax concessions given to church-owned commercial enterprises.
The full list of social policies influenced by religion is formidable.
They are all listed on NSL’s website: https://www.nsl.org.au/about/the-secular-agenda/
It is time for secular Australians to demand change – to “stand up” for secular principles in government – and the full gamut of social issues that are supported by the public majority.
The media, too, might consider the need for wider public discussion of the secular perspective — on the social issues I have mentioned. These are the topics where religious dogma conflicts with majority public opinion – a prime example being the long battle to legalise same-sex marriage.
. . . And this is why the National Secular Lobby was formed, and has such a crucial role to play.
NSL is here to provide a strong secular voice and to break a long-standing religious taboo that has been in force for centuries . . . that religious power and authority must not be questioned!
Our challenge is to cut through the long history of Christian, Muslim, and other religious doctrines that have stifled the voice of "reason" – and to articulate a progressive "secular agenda".
We need all fair-minded Australians to “Stand Up for Secularism”.
*** At this federal election we call on all politicians and candidates, from every party, to stand with us for a more rational, progressive and egalitarian approach to social policy . . . all the contemporary issues that have been subverted and silenced by powerful institutionalised religions.
Here are just two examples of why Australia can be regarded as a “soft theocracy”. It is that symbiotic relationship — over many centuries — where governments and religion are joined at the hip!
It’s where there is a mutual benefit . . . in politics, education and in society generally.
The 2021 Census:
Our 5-yearly Census determines to a great extent how and where taxpayer dollars are spent . . . For decades, Question 19 – on “Religious Affiliation” – has skewed the data. What that does is to lend credibility to the myth that Australia is a “religious nation.”
Question 19 has always asked, “What is the person’s religion?” . . . think about that . . .!
This is a “closed” question – a “loaded” question – it assumes every citizen has a personal faith.
They do not...! In the 2016 Census, 30% of people said they had “No Religion”. But we know from anecdotal evidence – over many decades – that up to 20% of respondents will mark the religion of their childhood. That faith, “given” by their parents, has already been abandoned.
They do so by sheer force of habit – and encouraged by the “misleading” Census question.
In July this year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will submit to parliament a series of proposals to amend various questions for the 2021 Census.
Among those submissions is one that is crucial for secular progress. NSL, together with other groups, proposed that Question 19 be made an “open” question – to remove the confusion caused, over many decades. It will bring Australia into line with other Western countries.
We need a direct question; “Does the person practise a specific religion?”. It should be followed by a straight “Yes or No”. If Yes, tick your religion – but if No, move on to the next question. It is due to this type of question that European and Scandinavian nations score between 50% and 80%.
NSL calls on the incoming government to amend this Question 19 on “Religious Affiliation.”
The effect of Australia’s artificially low result on ‘No Religion’ — just 30% — simply allows Catholics and Anglicans to perpetuate the mantra of a “Christian nation” – and to maintain their privileged status to receive extremely generous levels of taxpayer grants and funding.
The census figures are meant to ensure “equitable” funding – but with consistently misleading results for “No Religion”, religious institutions gain an undeserved ‘lions share’ of benefits.
Around $13 billion of federal funding is channelled annually to private religious schools, in addition to the high fees paid by parents –and that doesn’t include state government funding.
Churches that run commercial businesses pay no tax; and religious charities are believed to lodge no financial reports that allow the Charities Commission to see where all the money goes!
Religions capitalise in many ways on the soft 30% census figure on “No Religion”. They claim Christian supremacy – with a “moral demand” to increase Special Religious Instruction in public schools, to further expand private religious schools, and to extend the Chaplaincy Program.
It also serves to embolden religious parliamentarians – both state and federal – to override the broad public demand for progressive change on a raft of popular secular policies.
The Chaplaincy Program:
The scheme has been a disaster since John Howard introduced it, in 2007. Australia has wasted close to $1 billion on a program that has no merit and is opposed on numerous grounds by all the peak bodies in education, psychology and professional counselling.
More than 3,000 schools are given grants to hire chaplains – all of whom must be sanctioned by a church, and hired on strict religious grounds.
The service providers in each state are almost exclusively evangelical Christian organisations that see public schools as having a captive audience to bring Jesus to the nation’s schoolchildren.
So, what are the problems with this Chaplaincy Program . . .? Let me count the ways . . . !
- NSCP is the National School Chaplaincy Program. 3,000 schools. Total cost is $1b to 2020.
- there is no credible independent evaluation to show any benefit to school students.
- the mere presence of chaplains reinforces an invasive one-denominational Christian ethos.
- public education is meant to be secular – if parents want religious instruction, do it at home!
- chaplains are unqualified to deal with LGBTI issues, and various stress/psychological problems.
- chaplains do seek to make converts, but it’s against regulations, and unmonitored.
- children are asked to attend lunchtime “activities”, or go on Christian camps.
- there are no systems in place, in each state, to record complaints against chaplains.
- the High Court has twice ruled that federal funding is unconstitutional.
- twice, the federal government has sought ways to fund the state ‘directly’.
- NSCP is political gift to an unelected Christian lobby.
- public schools are willing to accept any federal grants that are thrown at them.
- untrained chaplains are seen as a spare ‘pair of hands’ to help with low staffing levels.
- some Christian principals and/or governing councils see NSCP as ‘one of God's many gifts’.
- *** But the ACT has now banned chaplains, and Victoria will provide ‘secular’ alternatives.
As the peak body on all these important issues, NSL is working with pro-secular groups around the country to advance the full “secular agenda”.
A fully secular Australia is essential for our nation’s future. First, we need to adopt the full secular agenda reflected in most parts of Europe and Scandinavia – and to remove religious influence from politics, education, and the legislative process.
Only “reason” and “critical thinking” will break the cycle of inherent religious influence – to move us away from being a “soft theocracy” and to finally become a formidable “secular democracy”.
Thank you . . .
Chris Schacht is an NSL Ambassador, and former SA Senator.
National Secular Lobby