National Day of Reason: Is Australia a secular liberal democracy?

1 05 2008

And if it isn’t, should it be?

I’ve been engaged in discussion with Ninglun over these very questions, and it seems to me that the answer lies in how Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is interpreted. The section reads:

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. Read the rest of this entry »