3 December 2023
I attended the Secularism Australia Conference on 2/12/23 at the NSW Teachers Federation in Sydney.
There were some interesting features:
There were a number of sponsoring groups, which cooperated to put it on. They were the NSW Teachers’ Federation, the Secular Assoc of NSW. Humanists Victoria, National Secular Lobby, Rationalist Society of Aust, Plain Reason and Humanists Australia. This seems a new level of cooperation, which is encouraging to see.
The Big Picture
Ex-Senator Chris Schacht drew attention to the 2021 Census which had 93% answer the religion question and a very large rise in the ‘No Religion’ percentage:
No Religion 38.9%
Christian 43.9% (Catholic 20%, Anglican 9.8%)
Not Stated 6.9%
It is also noteworthy that younger age groups are less religious with the 15-24 age group at 45.6% and 25-34 at 48.4%. Chris said that the political system and its patronage had in no way responded to this change and that it was necessary that they be forced to do so by more effective advocacy.
He said that a key problem was the reluctance of both Federal and State governments to reveal the true cost of the subsidies to religions. They get huge grants, pay no tax from their activities, not all of which may be charitable, and also have huge tax exemptions from State land taxes and Council rates. It would take quite an effort to get the full total of this, but it seems that neither Federal nor State gover\nemtns of both major parties do not want to draw attention to the issue. That is without considering aspects like private school funding, which is subsidised inequity. One politician when challenged said, ‘I have a 4% margin in my seat, and if I upset the Churches, it might be enough to change that’. Chris points out that if the ‘no religion’ votes were mobilised, it would certainly counter that fear, but most politicians have not considered the matter. And the ‘no religion’ voters have not demanded the end to these subsidies and unquantified tax lurks.
Senator David Shoebridge (whose speech is on his Facebook page) pointed out that there are 15,000 charities who receive government funding of $24 billion in addition to any tax-deductible donations. This is mostly for contracts for hospital or aged care services, but under legislation by Gillard they do not have to produce reports of how the money is spent!
In terms of the Federal Government’s response to funding schools, Whitlam wanted a needs based formula and Gonski in his original report was similar, but the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) formula under Turnbull was that 80% of Federal money went to private schools and only 20% to public. Chris hoped to change the formula. The slogan should be ‘Excellence through Equity’ not through ‘choice and competition’, which has manifestly failed as Australia tumbles down the OECD Education rankings. Sadly the current Federal Minister of Education, Jason Clare, was photographed with the Parliamentary Friends of School Chaplaincy.
Religion and the Constitution
There was quite a lot of interest in the legal history, with Michael KIrby ex-Justice of the High Court and Prof Luke Beck an academic. The question was whether the government could support religion as the Constitution specifically forbids the government from having an official religion as discriminating on the grounds of it. There had been a prosecution of a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) in 1894 for illegally working on a Sunday, and he had unsuccessfully argued that their Sabbath was on Saturday and he needed to work on Sunday. The guilty man was fined two shillings and sixpence (=25c) or two hours in the stocks. He chose two hours in the stocks, but it turned out that there were no stocks available and there was a bit of a fuss that the government declined to make any. SDA lobbying may have been the reason that the prohibition on the government sponsoring a religion was included in the Constitution. The precedent of course was the “Church of England’ set up by Henry VIII so he could divorce his first wife. Henry Parkes, the father of Federation did not want any mention of religion in the constitution, but the mainstream churches insisted, so it is mentioned, but not given any practical grounds to empower religious institutions.
When state money was first given to Church schools the Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) took a case to the High Court that it was unconstitutional to favour a religion. The High Court, whose members mostly came from private schools, ruled against the DOGS, Kirby himself writing a dissenting judgement. He wondered what would happen if the DOGS case were re-litigated today.
Religion and the Radical Right
Chrys Stevenson, a freelance researcher spoke on Christian Dominionism. These folk want a theological world where the second coming of Christ will be when there is a (Christian) God on the top of every mountain on every continent. I was inclined to think that this was crazy stuff, but it seems that huge amounts of money from the Right of US politics links to very conservative Christianity through the Atlas network, the Tea Party Movement and Charles Koch (22nd richest man in the world at $US 60 billion), There are quite a lot of ‘Think Tanks’ funded by these groups. It seems that a preoccupation with letting God fix things aligns quite well with unfettered market capitalism. There have been very successful efforts to put more religious people in political parties, particularly the Right wing evangelicals into the Liberals. The links between the religious Right and the US Republicans are well known. The Labor Party has a lot of Catholics. Chrys wonders if the religious nutters are ‘useful idiots’ for the Right. It may be crazy stuff, but I am less sure that it is irrelevant stuff.
Religious Education in State Schools
There was quite a lot of discussion of religious education in State schools. The National School Chaplaincy program was an idea of Peter Eawlings, taken up via Greg Hunt, Julie Bishop and John Howard. It had been previously called CHIPS (Christians Helping in Schools), but with the new funded program the new name for Chaplains became ‘Student Wellbeing Officers.’ Maurie Mulheron the ex-President of the NSW Teachers Federation noted the lack of qualifications of those delivering religious education in schools, which had increasingly been done by volunteers with a trend towards evangelicals as the only people willing to do it. They see it as an opportunity for recruitment. Bill Browne of The Australia Institute surveyed Chaplains on their knowledge of the National Student Wellbeing Program, which replaced the National School Chaplaincy Program. He asked 50 questions. 71% of Chaplains had not heard of the program, 10% were unsure, and 20% had heard of it.
Most schools had struggled to find alternatives to the Chaplains, and kids who stayed away for a free ‘do nothing’ period tended to be hard to get back to a school focus.
Prof Anna Halafoff had surveyed children 13-18 and found that 52% had no religion, as opposed to 45% in the 2021 census of 15-24 year olds.
A Western Australian teacher said that there was a preoccupation with Christianity, but she was concerned that girls in Muslim schools have to have their menstrual periods recorded as they cannot go to the mosque, which is a significant infringement of their privacy and human rights. She tweets under infidelnoodle.
Ron Williams had challenged religious education in schools under Section 51.23a of the Constitution, pointing out that $1.47 billion was spent on it since Howard initiated it, and that funding of $61 million a year was locked in until 2027. Albanese increased it to $307 million! Williams had run out of money so ran the case himself and lost in the High Court.
There is a group called FIRIS, (Fairness In Religion In Schools) run by Steven Cowgill and Craig McLachlan. The slogan is ‘Teaching not Preaching’. There is a similar group, ‘Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools’. It was felt that the teaching of religions should be by qualified teachers who would explain that there were diverse views with the object of increasing understanding and tolerance as well as ethical values.
Chaplains in the Military
Collin Acton was the former Director of Chaplaincy in the Royal Australian Navy. He pointed out that there needs to be reform of the Aust Defence Force (ADF) Chaplaincy service as the only training that the Chaplains have is a theology degree and there are a lot of problems in the ADF, PTSD being a major one. He wanted secular Chaplains, but the Religious Advisory Committee of the ADF targeted him and he was forced out. (There is a story about this on the Rationalist website). There are 150 full time Chaplains and 150 part-time ones, and all of them were Christian. The Navy changed this in 2017 and now has 2 Buddhists, 2 Islam and a Hindu. The British Ministry of Defence has its first 3 non-religious pastors! Acton points out that the major social divide in the ADF is between the military and the civilians. The Chaplains are embedded within the ADF so can be visited easily and without attracting attention. Seeing a counsellor or psychologist outside the military is likely to be noticed and may impact adversely on promotion prospects, so the existing chaplaincy service has an immense advantage.
Religion in Parliamentary and Council Governance Rules
There was quite a lot of discussion about the extent to which religion had embedded itself in society. Some politicians found it offensive that the Lord’s Prayer was said at the opening of Parliament every day, and absented themselves as I had while it was read. It is an opinion that since the Constitution forbids Parliament to make laws that favour any religion, the reading of the Lord’s Prayer is unconstitutional, but it has never been challenged, so the practice stays.
A local councillor from Boroondara in Victoria, Victor Franco, had challenged reading the prayer in his Council, which was in their ‘Governance Rules’. He pointed out that in the census 47% of his community were non-religious, 40% were Christians and 10% were the rest. He wrote to other councillors who still did not want to change. He said that he was going to mount a legal challenge with Prof Luke Beck and Morris Blackburn lawyers. A call for public submissions had 86% anti-prayer, and the Council caved in.
He had compiled some interesting figures of how many councils have prayers:
NSW 72/129 56%
Victoria 42/79 53%
Qld 35/78 45%
WA 11/137 8%
SA 23/70 28%
He commented that because his Council caved in there was no test case that clarified the matter, and that it might have affected State and Federal Parliaments also.
The conference was felt to have been very successful in that a number of groups had come together to organise it.
It was intended to hold more conferences, regularly and in different States to draw attention to Secular issues and the anomaly of funding religions.
The huge rise in ‘no religion’ was felt to have been ignored and there was a large need to educate the politicians that the religious subsidies, tax exemptions and lack of financial reporting were no longer acceptable.
There was pressure on the politicians present to get the figures as to the extent of subsidies, which they conceded was necessary. All three present, Chris Schacht (retired Labor Senator), Senator David Shoebridge (Greens- NSW) and Abigail Boyd MLC (NSW Greens) said that they had tried without huge success, but would try again.
At an individual level, we need to get our voices heard!