Secular Prejudice and Religious Freedom

religion noIn a recent speech on religious liberty delivered at the Law School of the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, explored a relatively neglected aspect of the culture war being waged between the forces of religion and secularism.

Since most of the skirmishes in this protracted conflict are in pursuit of control of the commanding heights of the notion of “the public good”, it is significant that Senator Brandis’s main argument offered a template for reconciliation between the warring factions. He called upon his audience to understand that the intellectual roots of Western concepts of liberty are, in fact, to be found in Christianity. But in a glancing reference, Brandis also presumed to suggest that religious liberty has been subject to frequent attack “from those who dominated much of our particular discourse, particularly in the national broadcaster and the Fairfax media”.

Jonathan Holmes, a Fairfax journalist and former ABC presenter, came to the defence of his current employer and the national broadcaster. Holmes might have thought it helpful to be reminded by the Attorney-General that the culture of freedom we enjoy in this country was shaped, in part, by the Christian faith. Instead, Holmes was clearly offended and demanded proof: “Did Brandis offer his listeners a single example of this onslaught against religious freedom? … No, he did not. Not one. Which prompts me to wonder what the hell he is talking about.”[1]

Holmes was clearly sensitive to any suggestion that Fairfax and the ABC may have an institutional bias in favour of progressive social and political values, and bias against conservative organisations such as the Catholic and other Christian churches. However, his cry of “Prove it!” is easily answered by his own test: when was the last time Fairfax and the ABC gave favourable coverage to a Catholic organisation calling for support for traditional marriage or opposition to euthanasia?

The terms in which Mr Holmes framed his response to Brandis only confirm the tendency of progressive commentators to view religion with great suspicion. For example, he noted that a number of senior Coalition ministers, including the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, are Catholics. Apparently, the problem is just as bad on the other side: “The Catholic Church still seems to wield enormous influence in the ALP and the wider labour movement.”[2]

Questions of religious freedom are frequently met with hostility by “progressive” commentators from the Left. Religion, particularly Christianity, is said to be oppressive and restrictive, to be discriminatory against women and non-heterosexual people, and to deny the empirical foundations of scientific knowledge. Far better to do without religion altogether, they say, and instead to embrace the fruits of secular reason.

In many ways, Holmes’s response to Brandis’s remarks is typical. If there is one thing that inflames progressive sensibilities even more than the pronouncements of prelates, it is the charge that they themselves are hostile to religion. Yet in focusing on what was only a very minor reference in the speech, Holmes inadvertently confirmed the very point that Senator Brandis was making: that critics neither take seriously the place of religion in our society nor understand that secular notions of liberty have their roots in Christianity. Rather, they maintain that secularism demands the exclusion of all religion from the common arena of life—the arena sometimes known as “the public square”. Small wonder that questions of religious faith and freedom are met with hostility.

Far from being hostile to religion, however, secularism, properly understood, actually has its roots in religion; and more specifically, in Christianity. As the intellectual historian Larry Siedentop has remarked, “Secularism identifies the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended.”[3] Far from feeling intimated by an aggressive hostility directed at religion, believers can draw confidence from knowing that freedoms such as freedom of religion actually have their roots in religious faith.

Religion and Human Flourishing

Many people hoped—and even predicted—that religious belief would wither in the heat of twenty-first-century scientific criticism, but this hope has proved to be unfounded. Of course, it is true that the development of science has demonstrated that much of what the churches had earlier claimed as “knowledge” turned out not to be knowledge at all. Some of those claims either turned out not to be true or to have been based on unreliable sources. But the rise of scientific method did give rise to a more pervasive mood of rejection. As the philosopher Dallas Willard remarked in his 2009 book Personal Religion, Public Reality?:

That mood became an intellectual and academic lifestyle and spread across the social landscape as an authority in its own right. It branded all … religious “knowledge” as mere illusion or superstition and all of the sources of such knowledge as unreliable or even delusory.[4]

And so it came to be that mathematics and the natural sciences were accorded the right to proclaim what was meaningful, reliable and true. The very idea of religious knowledge was almost a contradiction in terms.

Yet religion, with its concern for the primary questions of life and existence, has refused to go away. There are three factors, all quite closely linked, which help to account for the raised profile religion continues to enjoy.

First, we have seen the rapid spread of traditional, conservative expressions of religions, such as Christianity and Islam, in recent years that have claimed to be bastions of certainty in an uncertain world. Second, we are still seeing, and with a heightened awareness, the terrible consequences of religious zealotry. And finally, these developments have been accompanied by a third factor: a greater readiness on the part of religious believers to assert, often aggressively, their right to the free expression of their beliefs.

If we are to defend religion as a key component of human flourishing and well-being—in other words, as a public good—it will be helpful, at this point, to come to some understanding of what we mean by “religion”. It’s a vague and elusive term, but the Australian Human Rights Commission has offered the following very workable definition:

Religion can be taken to refer to an organised form of maintaining, promoting, celebrating and applying the consequences of engagement with what is taken to be ultimately defining, environing, totally beyond, totally other, and yet profoundly encountered within life. These activities are usually done by or in association with a group, an organisation and/or community.[5]

However, religion can also be said to have its roots in the awareness of a supreme being. Religion, then, can be characterised by a belief in supernatural, transcendent agents and powers that makes demands of its adherents by imposing a standard of moral behaviour which sets criteria for conduct. It is precisely because religion, as understood in this way, helps to give shape to the way we live our lives and pursue values and meaning that we can describe religion as a basic human good. As the natural law theorist Robert George remarked in his recent book Conscience and Its Enemies:

The existential raising of religious questions … are all parts of the human good of religion—a good whose pursuit is an indispensable feature of the comprehensive flourishing of a human being.[6]

In other words, religion is one of the many ingredients necessary for a good, fulfilling and meaningful life. Robert George goes on to argue that if we accept this understanding of religion, then respect for a person’s well-being:

demands respect for his or her flourishing as a seeker of religious truth and as a man or woman who lives in line with his or her best judgement of what is true in spiritual matters. And that, in turn, requires respect for his or her liberty in the religious quest—the quest to understand religious truth and order one’s life in line with it.[7]

Religious liberty is central to human flourishing because unlike politics or culture, religion alone is ultimately concerned with the search for the truth concerning the divine (including whether or not God exists) and the meaning of that truth for human action and choice.[8] It is fair to say that the assertive religiosity I referred to earlier, often dogmatic and uncompromising in its nature though it can be, does contribute, in part, to the hostile environment in which religious believers today try to live out their faith. At the same time, in the West, advocates of secularism are hostile to the public manifestation of religion because they believe that religion and secularism are irreconcilable opponents.

The term “secular” can bear many meanings but essentially describes a political outlook which is neutral as to the existence or even relevance of a religious dimension in public affairs, but recognises the importance of religion to citizens. However, a more aggressive form of secularism, to which I am referring, is hostile to any manifestation or expression of religious belief in the public sphere. As Rowan Williams put it in a lecture delivered at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome in 2006, this form of hostile secularism “assumes that the public expression of specific convictions is automatically offensive to people of other (or no) conviction”.[9] It’s not hard to find examples of this popular misconception of secularism here in Australia. The Secular Party of Australia, for instance, says this on the home page of its website:

As 21st century citizens, we want to challenge the power and privilege of religious institutions in Australia. As secular humanists, we want an end to religious interference in education, health, civil liberties and taxation. As champions of human rights, we want women, minorities and the LGBTI community to be free of discrimination and the dictates of archaic superstition.

Interference, superstition, discrimination—these are just a few of the charges commonly levelled at religious believers today. And they are charges coloured by an aggressive hostility to religion that seeks to establish unbelief as the norm for our society. And they go to show that the issue of freedom of religion is becoming increasingly pressing in our society.

But this is not just an issue for members of religious communities. These threats to religious freedom raise concerns for all Australians, regardless of whether or not they profess any religious belief themselves, because they go to the heart of the relationship between truth, faith and freedom.

Christianity and the Genius of Individual Moral Agency

What Senator Brandis was attempting in his lecture was to remind us that it is a mistake to hold that human rights and the liberal premises that underlie them are a product of the modern world alone. “The governing ethical principle which underlies our modern understanding of human rights,” he said, “that is, the moral equality of every human person and his or her right to liberty which flows from that, has its origins in the gospels.”[10] The Attorney-General cited an important new book by the political and intellectual historian Larry Siedentop called Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, in which Siedentop argues that liberal thought is the offspring not of the Enlightenment but of Christianity.[11]

The kernel of Siedentop’s argument is that the ancient, pre-Christian world had at its heart the assumption of natural inequality. The golden thread linking the Western liberal principles of truth, faith and freedom is the principle of individual moral agency and the assumption of the inherent equality of all human beings. Siedentop argues that this thread can be traced right back to the Gospels, to the writings of St Paul and his exposition of the “The Christ” to describe the presence of God in the world, and ultimately to the teachings of Jesus himself which proclaim the supreme moral fact about humans: we are all created in the image of God.

As Siedentop puts it:

Delving below all social divisions of labour, Paul finds, beneath the conventional terms that confer status and describe roles, a shared reality. That reality is the human capacity to think and choose, to will. That reality is our potential for understanding ourselves as autonomous agents, as truly the children of God.[12]

The genius of Christianity is that by investing every individual with the God-given capacity for individual moral agency, human beings are no longer to be defined by social location or status. Rather, life “in Christ” creates what Siedentop calls “a rightful domain for individual conscience and choice”.[13] In the course of the Middle Ages canon lawyers and philosophers began to work out the elements of rights which needed to protect the notion of individual identity and agency.

In this way Siedentop builds his compelling argument that the foundation of modern Europe lay “in the long, difficult process of converting a moral claim [about the individual] into a social status [concerning individual agency and with rights to protect the free exercise of that identity]”. This conversion was made possible by the development of the notion of the equality of souls from which a commitment to individual liberty sprang. “Combining the two values gave rise to the principle which more than any other has defined modern liberal thinking, the principle of ‘equal liberty’.”[14]

While never side-stepping the church’s shortcomings in upholding the ideal of individual liberty and freedom of conscience, Siedentop makes the bold and, I think, truthful claim that because of its central egalitarian moral insight about individual liberty, Christianity played such a decisive part in the development of the individual and the concept of individual liberty that it can be said to have changed the ground of human identity.[15]

This central insight is, in turn, the crux of “secularism”, in the more neutral sense to which I referred at the outset: that is, the recognition of, and commitment to a sphere of conscience or belief in which each individual is free to make his or her own decisions. In Siedentop’s words, “It rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions … It joins rights with duties to others.”[16] In this sense, secularism identifies the appropriate ways in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended. The aggressive, hostile secularism of our age has scrambled the proper relationship between liberty and faith, and in doing so has also distorted what should be a healthy relation between secularism and religion.

The Tyranny of Tolerance?

At one time, the mark of the good citizen in the liberal state used to be the free and unselfconscious display of personal conviction about ideas and beliefs and morals. That kind of open manifestation of conviction has, however, given way to what can best be described as an ostentatious display of “open-mindedness” that attempts to appeal to the culturally fashionable values of tolerance and diversity. This enthusiasm for managing diversity has its historical roots in the sincere desire to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity which gave rise to the Racial Discrimination Act, enacted by the Whitlam government in 1975. The Act was intended as a means of eradicating racism; however, its values have since set the tone for subsequent debates about equality, social inclusion and tolerance.

Too often, this “tolerance” is actually intolerant of traditional religious beliefs that are often ruled to be incompatible with the values of the secular state. The Australian scholar Samuel Gregg, who is based at the Acton Institute in the USA, has remarked:

Tolerance is no longer about creating the space for us to express our views about the nature of good and evil and its implications for law and public morality, or to live our lives in accordance with our religious beliefs. Instead, tolerance serves to banish the truth as the reference point against which all of us must test our ideas and beliefs.[17]

Although it is a pressing matter, the issue of religious freedom doesn’t seem to generate much excitement these days. Controversy surrounding institutional responses to the sexual abuse of children, as well as a marked lack of sympathy for some points of view propounded by religious leaders on issues such as human sexuality and voluntary euthanasia, have helped push religion to the margins of public life.

Indeed, it is no longer widely considered appropriate at all for religion to be practised in the full glare of the social and cultural realm. For there, expressions of religious conviction and belief might jar with one another and conflict. Far better, many people now say, for religion to be confined to the private realm of the mind where it can be considered almost a hobby or a taste preference with as little capacity to cause offence as an enthusiasm for astrology. And indeed, just as formal participation in religious institutions in Australia is declining, so believers are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that religious faith is a positive rather than a negative feature of a liberal society.

The ethicist Oliver O’Donovan has observed: “Civil societies are necessarily tolerant to a degree, and intolerant to a degree; they punish what they cannot afford to tolerate [and] tolerate what they cannot afford to punish.”[18] Efforts to redefine the boundary between the necessary power of the state to coerce and the right of religious freedom are frequently in the news.

For example, when the High Court recently struck down the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare program as unconstitutional, it did so because the program was not authorised by a specific head of power under the Constitution. However, the challenge was motivated not by a concern to protect states’ rights but by secular objections to the open involvement of religious groups in public schools. No surprises then that when the High Court handed down its decision it was widely celebrated as a victory for secularism.

Yet all citizens of a free society, whether or not they are Christians and whether or not they are religious believers, should have a strong commitment to upholding and defending religious liberty. “Religious freedom doesn’t just concern our role as citizens in the public square,” says Samuel Gregg. “Religious liberty also concerns our freedom to choose in numerous non-political aspects of our lives, ranging from whether we attend church on a given day of the week, to what we choose to purchase.”[19]

What this also makes clear is that in any discussion of religious liberty, belief and practice must be understood as being inseparable: freedom to believe must surely be accompanied by the freedom to speak, to associate, and to order one’s life in accordance with one’s beliefs. The right to religious liberty, therefore, is a fundamental right that confers upon the citizens of the liberal state the freedom to pursue their conception of the good life. If one accepts that religion is about the human pursuit of ultimate meaning and value, it is not hard to see that the erosion of religious liberty hinders the pursuit of a higher purpose that can contribute significantly to deep human fulfilment and satisfaction.


Of course, this pursuit will not necessarily be consensual. Those whose ways of life are guided by the search for ultimate meaning and a solemn obligation to live dutifully are highly likely to clash with the values of the secular state—whichever of the meanings we assign to the word secular. And in any diverse, modern Western society, wrangling about questions of ultimate meaning among adherents of different religions is bound to cause offence to someone.

So when we talk about religious freedom, what we are essentially talking about is the extent to which the state should permit both the free expression of religious belief and the attendant wrangling about ultimate meaning and purpose. In the pithy words of Australian philosopher Russell Blackford, “Religious freedom is essentially a freedom from state persecution, not a guarantee of a religion’s ongoing credibility or its success in the contest of rival ideas.”[20] Blackford has got it about right in this formulation, but the language he uses, which draws upon the idea of the state and of the overcoming of inequalities of social status, does make it sound as though religious liberty is essentially a modern notion, the creation, perhaps, of the era of intellectual development we call the Enlightenment. Yet as I have argued, drawing upon the work of Larry Siedentop, secularism and equality have their roots not, as many suppose, in the Enlightenment, but rather in Christianity itself.

Critics of Christianity, or rather of the churches, remain unconvinced by this. Writing in the Guardian recently, David Marr distilled his scepticism about what he described as the “argument being pushed energetically by the conservative think tanks of the nation”:

That the churches are owed a great debt for the liberty of the modern world. And the quid pro quo being demanded is fresh respect for what churches call religious liberty … But when the churches talk about religious liberty in peril these days they have only a couple of things on their minds: the freedom of the faiths to define marriage for everyone, and their freedom not to have homosexuals on the payroll.[21]

I admire David Marr but I don’t think he is correct about this. Whilst the churches certainly have views about marriage, these views can be very different and do not coincide precisely. For instance, opinions in the Anglican Church, to which I belong, are divided, with people both opposed to and supportive of changes to the Marriage Act. Nor are these views which the churches seek to impose on, as Marr puts it, “everyone”.

Rather, the principle of religious liberty is being urged to protect the churches from having a new, secular meaning of marriage imposed upon them by the state. As for the punishment of homosexuals, if there is a threat to homosexual people in Australia it is now far more likely to come from Islam than from Christianity, although I think this is a point David Marr has yet to develop. Religious liberty is important because when religion operates in a world of free choice, it will either flourish or fail. As such, freedom of religion needs to be protected not just for the benefit of religious believers but for the benefit of every member of society.

However, if religion is to flourish in a world of free choice, thereby allowing people to pursue lives reflecting their authentic judgments about the truth of spiritual matters, then an important challenge confronts the secular liberal state. The challenge is “to construct a constitutional regime that makes room for religion without sacrificing the fundamental principles of liberal pluralism”.[22]

Questions of religious value and fulfilment are important. We must strive to ensure that religious voices are neither silenced nor confined to the realm of the mind. And we must be vigilant in holding the state accountable for its responsibility to enshrine and uphold the right to religious liberty as fundamental human right.

Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow in the Religion and the Free Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies.

[1] Jonathan Holmes, ‘No evidence of media prejudice against Catholicism’, (The Age, 7 September 2014)

[2] Jonathan Holmes, ibid.

[3] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, (Penguin: London, 2014), 361

[4] Dallas Willard, Personal Religion, Public Reality? Towards a Knowledge of Faith, (Hodder: London, 2009), 25

[5] AHRCH (Australian Human Rights Commission), Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia (2011), 4

[6] Robert P. George, Conscience and its Enemies, (Delaware: ISI Books, 2013), 119

[7] Robert P. George, ibid., 119

[8] Samuel Gregg, Tea Party Catholic, (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 2013), 146

[9] Rowan Williams, ‘Secularism, Faith and Freedom,’ Lecture delivered at the Pontifical Acadamy of Social Sciences, Rome (23 November 2006)

[10] George Brandis, Annual Lecture on Religious Liberty, (University of Notre Dame Australia, 20 August 2014)

[11] Larry Siedentop, ibid., 332

[12] Larry Siedentop, ibid., 65

[13] Larry Siedentop, ibid., 305

[14] Larry Siedentop, ibid., 339

[15] Larry Siedentop, ibid., 352

[16] Larry Siedentop, ibid., 361

[17] Samuel Gregg, Tea Party Catholic, (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 2013), 140

[18] Oliver O’Donovan, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2008), 36

[19] Samuel Gregg, ‘Religious Freedom and Economic Liberty: Truly Indivisible’, The American Spectator (5 August 2014)

[20] Russell Blackford, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 191

[21] David Marr, ‘George Brandis’s religious liberty is really about the right to define marriage’, (The Guardian, 1 September 2014)

[22] John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009), 367

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