What does it mean for Australia to be a ‘secular’ nation? There is increasing public debate arguing that ‘secular Australia’ requires a removal of religion from the public square.
To cite just one example of this debate, calls for the abolition of voluntary religious instruction from State schools have been grounded on the fact that education in NSW Public Schools in NSW should be ‘free, compulsory and secular’.
This argument is based on a flawed understanding of what it means for a nation to be secular. Australia is a secular democracy. So is America. So is France. So is Spain. But each is a different manifestation of the secular principle. Brian Kosmin, in his essay ‘Contemporary Secularity and Secularism’, describes a continuum between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ secularism. France is cited as an example of hard secularism, which he describes as ‘unreservedly antagonistic to religion’. Hard secularism leads to a complete separation of church and state and the removal of all religious influence and activity in the public square. In contrast, soft secularism, which arose out of liberal-protestant values, supports religious pluralism by requiring that no religion is privileged over another.
At the risk of over-simplifying the issues, the end-point of hard secularism is state freedom from religion, whereas the soft secularism leads to freedom of religion.
Australia has historically been a ‘soft secular’ democracy, which has served our national life exceedingly well, and allowed our nation to incorporate the religious diversity that immigration and multiculturalism have brought to our shores, giving ‘a fair go’ to people of all faiths and none.
Notwithstanding this, public debate in the last decade has been increasingly dominated by those ‘unreservedly antagonistic to religion’ (to pick up Kosmin’s phrase) who have argued the secular character of our nation means that there should be no government funding of (and no concessional tax treatment for) faith-based agencies; or if there is any funding, that such funding should be tied to strict compliance with government policy. Such suggestions, if implemented, would likely have significant implications for faith-based hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, welfare providers and educational institutions. The end-point of such a scenario would either be that these agencies cease to function, withdraw from receiving government funds with a concomitant reduction of services, or are forced to comply with policies contrary to their religious beliefs or doctrine—all in the name of ‘secular Australia’.
We need to have an informed conversation on what kind of secular nation we want to be, and must not allow a rhetorical redefinition of ‘secularism’ by the voices that have been allowed to dominate the media in recent years. In particular, if Australia is going to make a radical change and redefine itself in accordance with the ‘hard secular’ principle, we must be aware of the impact that this will have on freedom of religion and more broadly on inclusivity, tolerance and civil society generally. Soft secularism is tolerant of diversity and leads to the inclusion of the widest range of voices in the public square. Hard secularism is intolerant of diversity and leads to the silencing and exclusion of voices that differ from the currently defined state-sanctioned morality. Hard secularism seeks the complete separation of religion and state, which can only be achieved if all religious voices are barred from participating in the state, or are forced to compromise beliefs and practices fundamental to the exercise of their faith.
What kind of ‘secular Australia’ do we want for our future?
 B. Kosmin, ‘Contemporary Secularity and Secularism’. Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by B. Kosmin and A. Keysar (Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, 2007), p7.
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