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.