And if it isn’t, should it be?
Australian Constitution – Section 116 – Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. [Emphasis added]
Ninglun’s position is that while Australia may officially “neutral” with regard to religion, it cannot be described as “officially secular.” Mine is that Australia cannot possibly be neutral with regard to religion unless it is secular. If an Australian government takes a policy position that is based upon a religious doctrine–a policy position for which no secular, well-reasoned justification is offered–then it is effectively imposing observance of that particular religion. It is privileging one particular religious perspective over the perspectives of other religions as well as the non-religious, and would therefore be neither neutral with regard to religion, nor secular.
Why is it important that governments in liberal democracies, in pluralistic societies like ours, present to the electorate secular, well-reasoned justifications for their policy positions? Because they need to speak to us in a language that we all–not just the majority, but all of us–can understand and engage with. Barack Obama puts it much better than I ever could:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
Anything less is neither liberal nor democratic.
Another area where Ninglun and I seem to differ is over the meaning of the term “secularism.” I think the IHEU definition has it right: “A neutral attitude, especially of the State, local government and public services, in matters relating to religion; non-religious rather than anti-religious.” I have a hunch, and I am very happy to stand corrected, that Ninglun reads “secular” as “anti-religious.” There is probably a touch of the latter–what we might call “strong secularism” (by analogy with “strong atheism”)–in the French model, under which the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public institutions is banned. That kind of secularism is not the kind I favour–it is illiberal and it constitutes a breach of the separation of church and state–but it is important to remember that just as atheism is inclusive of but does not exclusively mean strong atheism, secularism does not exclusively imply strong secularism.
(P.S. Yes, I know the National Day of Reason is a U.S. thing, but I want this post to stand as an endorsement of it.)