Doctor and activist

Religious Freedom in Perspective

31 May 2019

Roosevelt in 1941 spoke of the 4 Freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This was before the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

I spent 10 years in boarding schools from the age of 8 where religion was most definitely in charge.  Many of the teachers seemed not quite as enthusiastic about God as might have been expected, but could not be drawn to say so.  Chapel was compulsory and in fairly large doses.  Had it not been, everyone knew that only a couple of percent of the congregation would have been there. Tolerance of dissent in any practical sense was nil.

At a more social and political level, no one criticised the Church, but the slightly awkward way it was handled suggested a lack of real commitment was widespread.  Census figures showed a decline in religion, but the religious bodies urged the public to put down the religion that they grew up with, rather than reflect their current beliefs.  More recently, despite these urgings, the percentage of the population who claimed to be atheists in the Census almost doubled from 16% in 2001 to 29% in 2016.

Small anecdotes also tell a story.  Young talkback radio hosts now ridicule religious callers.  This would not have happened in my youth.  ‘World Youth Day’, which was held in Sydney in 2008, was a gathering for Roman Catholic Youth.  The Pope visited and Randwick Racecourse was appropriated.  Two bills were passed, the World Youth Day Acts, a large subsidy (?$17 million) was given for facilities, transport and two new spires for St Mary’s cathedral.  Ridiculing people on religious grounds was criminalised and Police were quite forceful in keeping a minor demonstration organised by some pro-abortion feminists and atheists away from the consciousness of the visiting young pilgrims.  One European visitor was interviewed on ABC TV news as part of happy story about how welcoming Australia had been and stated that it was nice to be among friends and be able to talk about God ‘without people teasing you’.  I took this to mean that Western Europe also was changing also in its attitude to religion.

I had worked doing pre-placement medicals at Sydney Water in the early 1980s and the 1977 NSW Anti-Discrimination Act was very relevant.  Discrimination was illegal on the grounds of religion, race, gender, marital status, age, disability, sexual orientation/intersex and HIV/Aids status.  As some jobs were permanent and HIV/Aids had no treatment and was in effect a death sentence, the Act seemed radical indeed from a hirer’s perspective.  As far as race was concerned, there had been bad racial tension between Serbs and Croats, and they could not be put together in the same work gangs.  The assumption in essence was that the Act was to stop discrimination against minorities.  Some of the jobs were ‘affirmative action’ and targeted for disadvantaged groups such as long-term unemployed or ex-prisoners, so the fact that the employee mix was not ideal was accepted.

Meanwhile in the 1980s US some states were putting creationism in schools and taking out evolution and we reflected how lucky we were in Australia.  The tenuous position of abortions in public hospital operating lists was recognised only by those in the know, and the fights outside specialist abortion clinics continued as abortion remained technically illegal but tolerated.  The Church remained tax exempt and this was not challenged.  Fred Nile introduced the Lord’s Prayer to start the day in NSW Parliament, which continues to this day.

Migration seemed to have a big effect on religion, but this does not seem to have had much attention.  The post-war migrants from Italy, Greece and Turkey were generally Christian and more religious than native born Australians.  The English did not seem very religious, nor did the Vietnamese boat people or the Chinese.  More recently Muslims have come as refugees from the wars in the Middle East and Christians have come from Korea and the Pacific Islands.

For about the last 30 years, the religious right have been more active.  Fred Nile set up the Call to Australia in 1977 (later called the Christian Democratic Party) and was elected in 1981.  Others joined the two major political parties, and they seem to have gained power as membership of these parties has declined.  The fact that is claimed that religion won seats for the conservatives in 2019 suggests that they are more relevant as a small pressure group than they were as the major belief system of the country, but the maintenance of their tax exempt status, subsidies and exemptions from existing anti-discrimination laws is tribute to their continuing veiled power.

Now they are claiming to be discriminated against, under threat and needing the type of protection of the anti-discrimination act mentioned above.  The trigger for this seems to be the sacking of Israel Folau, the talented Pacific Island rugby winger who was unwise enough to state religious beliefs that are unfashionable.  Presumably these emanate either from the Old Testament or the Epistles of the relatively hardline St Paul and Folau was taught them in a missionary context.  More sophisticated religious proselytisers are more selective in their choice of texts.

I feel quite sorry for Folau.  If he were merely a fundamentalist Christian stating unfashionable beliefs, people would merely shrug or sneer.  He is being sacked because he is famous and some vulnerable people may be upset or have their self-worth undermined by his condemnations.  Rugby, being the source of his fame, do not want the consequences of utterances that some may call ‘free speech’.  I am well aware of the self-worth struggles having been brought up as an ‘original sinner’ who went on to compound my unworthiness despite having tried to comply with all the behaviours necessary because of my sins.  The vast majority of us who went through this are functional atheists, whatever lip service they pay to religion.  We got over it.  Should those who feel more personally targeted be protected at the cost of Israel Folau’s livelihood?  Presumably yes, as things stand, but No after the new legislation.

We ban hate speech on public policy grounds; similarly holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers and some misogynists are not given visas to visit Australia.  We do not want creationism in schools and while homosexuals going to hell is an unpleasant concept but not implemented, infidels being killed is a similar manifestation of religious fundamentalism that seems to have more dire practical consequences.

As science seems increasingly under threat with climate change being ignored, CSIRO, Australian Bureau of Statistics and the ABC having funding cuts, some of us are wary of giving non-scientific perspectives even more of a leg up than the subsidies and rates exemptions that religious bodies and their education arms already enjoy.

The religious bodies that once were the oppressors, now claim to be oppressed and ask for the tolerance that they once espoused but did not demonstrate.

I have come to the conclusion that liberal humanism has superseded religion as the moral force in our society and I want laws based on scientific evidence and human compassion.  People demanding exemptions from various laws exist in a social context.  As we said in the anti-tobacco campaign, ‘your right to smoke ends when it gets to my nose’.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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