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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bouma: Secularists are responsible for social division

According to an ABC News report, Professor Gary Bouma has used a conference at the University of Sydney to attack secularists and atheists as a source of social division.

"Conflict comes up when groups vilify, deny the right to build the mosques," he told the Studies of Religion in Focus conference in Sydney today.

"Or when the 'nones' - those who are anti-theist - [say] 'You're stupid', that religious voices should be driven out of the public policy area, that religion shouldn't be in schools, etc.

"That is conflict, and that is highly divisive in this society."

If this is reported correctly, where do I even start in correcting Bouma's misconceptions? I'll focus on the bit about "religious voices should be driven out of the public policy area". It seems to me bizarre to give a free pass to those who advocate the use of coercive power - the state's power to fine, stigmatise, imprison, etc. - to impose religious views, as when the Catholic Church seeks laws that give effect to its specifically religious morality. But when criticism of this is criticised as "highly divisive" we go beyond the merely bizarre to the territory of the astounding.

The truth is the exact opposite of what Bouma has apparently stated. Contrary to Bouma, attempts to use political power to impose religious views are highly divisive. If they are not controlled by constitutional provisions and/or norms of the political culture, they can spiral into open conflict (as in the 16th and 17th century religious wars in Europe) or totalitarian oppression (as in modern theocracies such as the Islamic Republic of Iran). Bouma should be thankful that secularists (some of whom are atheistic and some religious) are on hand to reinforce the liberal norm that religion has no right to assistance from the secular arm. Far from causing division, those of us who continually speak up to reinforce this political norm are maintaining the cultural understanding that is the strongest bulwark against real division. If Professor Bouma doesn't like living in a country with religious freedom - where religious views are not imposed by the police - he is welcome to find a country that still labours under a 16th-century set of political norms. There are plenty available.

Of course, none of us are trying to drive religious voices out, if that means looking to the secular arm to silence our opponents. They have freedom of speech and may say what they like without fear of reprisal from men and women with guns and uniforms. Generally speaking, it is not atheists or secularists who support laws that deny people freedom of speech, such as Victoria's oppressive religious vilification provisions. In fact, Gary Bouma has been a leading champion of these laws. If he wants to find an opponent of free speech, he doesn't need to look for secularists under his bed. He only needs to look in the mirror when he wakes up in the morning.

But freedom of speech does not entail freedom to have your ideas accepted by governments and incorporated into law and policy. Some arguments that might be heard by governments are better than others, and arguments that governments should act to enforce specifically religious moral norms are not among the stronger ones. Quite the opposite. Governments should do no such thing. Rather, they should concentrate on secular goals such as protecting us against harm from fellow citizens and others who might be tempted to resort to violence or fraud in their dealings with us; protecting us against external attacks from terrorists or foreign powers; maintaining a fair system of property and commerce; and providing a socio-economic safety net through the tax-transfer system. All of these government activities are necessary for life in modern, complex societies, but none of them involves enforcing specifically religious moral and other doctrines.

The state is an essentially secular, in the sense of worldly (not in the sense of anti-religious), institution. It must not allow itself to be captured by religious agendas. The religious may argue whatever they like - they have freedom of speech - but the rest of us should be busy persuading the state to stick with its secular tasks and not yield to the goals of religionists who don't scruple to impose their views by force ... or to ask others to do so. If we can create a culture in which little weight is placed on the views of the religious, and they are commonly scorned or laughed at, so much the better. That doesn't mean denying their freedom of speech, but it may entail rendering their speech somewhat marginal, in that it has little effect on the thinking of politicians. That's fine - there are many kinds of speech that should not be banned but should have only marginal social impact because they contain little that is of merit.

What is most disturbing about all this is that Bouma heads up the Commonwealth government's Freedom of Religion and Belief project. Somebody with the views attributed to him in the ABC News article does not understand the nature of freedom of religion and belief, which arises from the refusal of the state to impose any particular religious views or to persecute adherents of any religious views (unless it has some absolutely compelling secular reason - which would almost never be the case in practice). Freedom of religion consists in the state acting as a purely secular, religion-blind institution. But it at least looks as if Bouma holds that freedom of religion and belief is compatible with the state imposing particular religious beliefs on non-believers; at the least, he appears to oppose secularists' criticism of this.

If that is the case, he has no credibility in his role with the freedom of religion and belief project. I'm not going to call for him to step down. Let him continue if he likes, but let him first search his conscience to determine whether he can really play this role credibly when he is so clearly and strongly biased, not only against atheists and secularists but against the classical liberal conception of religious freedom that goes back to Locke.

In any event, assuming he continues, his group's report will now carry no weight for many of us. Its main author has (again, assuming that he has been quoted accurately) declared his hand. He is deeply biased against secularists and the classical model of religious freedom that has doubtless been put to him by many people in their submissions. Based on Bouma's reported words, we now have every reason to anticipate a report that redefines notions of religious freedom in an Orwellian style: war is peace, slavery is freedom, and "freedom of religion and belief" means the freedom to impose your religious views on others by force.

No, Professor Bouma, I'm not buying it.


Charles Sullivan said...

I'm glad you commented on this. I saw it at Ophelia's site, and I was just about to let you know.

Robin Henry said...

Thank you for responding on behalf of fellow secularists and atheists. A person of Bouma's supposed calibre should have known better.

RC Henry

Mike said...

When I made my submission to "Freedom of Religion and Belief project", the first two things I held up were the affiliations of those running the project, and the template for responses which assumed all respondents had religious beliefs.

In that context he does not even acknowledge the existence of those with secular values.

Lisa said...

It's interesting that nobody has seen fit to mention the little fact that he's also an "Associate Priest in the Anglican Parishes of St John's Toorak, St Andrews Brighton and St Martin's Hawksburn, St Dunstan's Camberwell and St John’s East Malvern in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne." (from his own faculty profile at Monash University)

Chrys Stevenson said...

Wild applause. Thank you so much for responding on our behalf, Russell.

Michael Murray said...

Thansk Scot. Excellent as usual. The upside is this guy has inspired me to pay up and join the AFA. Some discussion over there that he has taken money in the past from the Exclusive Brethren.

Next time my alma mater (Monash) sends me a request for money they are getting a rocket about villification of atheists.


Jon Jermey said...

It's quite simple really. Just establish a theocracy, lay down the official rules of belief, and execute or jail anyone who disagrees with them. Hey presto, no more divisiveness!

Well, it works for Saudi Arabia...

Unknown said...


I would like for things to be such as you describe them. I don't think they are. To some extent, I think you're misreading the perspective from which Bouma makes his comments. See


Lisa said...

Wow, Taner Edis, that was nothing if not a thoroughly depressing blog entry. I'm reminded of India's "secular" government, which nevertheless permits Muslims their own family law code (defined by rather traditionalist mullahs), subsidizes the Hajj and other religious pilgrimages, and bans "offensive" things like The Satanic Verses. If that's the kind of "secularism" we can look forward to in a postmodern multicultural society, I'm not sure I want it!

One point leapt out at me -- the part about the government interacting with "communities" through "community leaders." Who decides who these leaders are and how is it decided which groups are "legitimate" representatives of the community as a whole? I'm thinking of the case in Britain where the MCB claims to represent Muslims in Britain but are very conservative and apparently most Muslims do NOT consider them representative of their views, yet the British government gives it a lot of legitimacy by dealing with them as if they did represent most British Muslims.

I suppose there's also the Turkish model of secularism, though it's anything but liberal in the traditional sense!

Unknown said...

Lisa asked about who determines "community leaders."

I don't think there's a general rule. People will put themselves forth. Governments will find it convenient to deal with some and not others, or even to produce institutional frameworks for community representation. It comes down to messy communitarian politics, most likely with a conservative bias to the process.

mace said...

If any atheist wanted to satirise religious beliefs,Prof Bouma's reported comments are just perfect,there's no need to change a word.

Ramases said...

Reading the original ABC article, it is clear that Professor Bouma has a profound misunderstanding of what secularism is.

Secularists do NOT want to “deny the right to build the mosques” – that would go against one of the basic tenants of secularism, that the state should not interfere in any way in people’s individual beliefs. I would not deny the right of anyone to build any temple, mosque, chanting house or spirit chapel they want – although I would reserve the right to let my opinions on such rubbish known. Respecting the RIGHT of people to hold and practice a religion is fundamental to secularism, although this does not imply respect for the religion itself.

I doubt very much that the opposition to the construction of mosques that has occurred in parts of Australia in recent years has been led by secularists – more often it is the old bigots and racists as always, who more than often are religious.

As for the growth of religious diversity creating problems for Australian schools, as I was a teacher in a very diverse school until a few years ago I can certainly say this is something to be grappled with, although I would not say the problems are as great as Professor Bouma believes they are. The answer, of course, is secularism – letting all students know they are welcome in the school regardless of whatever religious or ethnic background they come from, that they will be treated equally, and that is was the responsibility of all to respect this. Generally it worked pretty well, and the in public education system there are students from every religious and ethnic background one can imagine studying and working together, learning the skills of mutual respect and tolerance that will be so important after school in wider society.

This should be contrasted with the sectarian religious schools which unfortunately are gaining more and more ground in Australia. These are based on division on religious grounds. They are allowed exemptions from anti-discrimination acts in regard to both students and teachers, and they are built on discrimination and the building of religious barriers.

It is these schools, which I rather suspect that Anglican Professor Bouma supports, that are sowing the seeds of division in Australian society. If he is serious about “encouraging respectful engagement between students and teachers of various religions” then he should be advocating for them to close, or at the very least lose their exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation. Somehow I do not think we will be hearing him doing so.

Anonymous said...


the blood and bodies of the atheist movement...

you mofos killed MICKEY MOUSE!!!!

this has more TRUTH then what Dawkins, Randi, Harris, Myers, and Shermer

combined have said in their entire lives...


they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION...

they LOST THE WAR......

you have FORFEIT YOUR SOUL, shermer... you have become an object in the

material world, as you WISHED...



we're gonna smash that TV...

you pushed too much and *CROSSED THE LINE*

degenerates (PZ) or children (HEMANT) - ATHEISTS!


do you have anything to say, you STUPID LITTLE F*CKER?

how about I tell you, Mr. Shermer, EVERYTHING YOU THINK ABOUT THE WORLD is