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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The State, religion and the need for rational scrutiny

This piece was originally published on the ABC's "The Drum" site on 24 December (updated 27 December) 2010. Since cancellation of "The Drum" has been announced today, I am republishing it here to make sure it is not lost.

Religious teachings promise us a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives, morally superior conduct, and such benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being or liberation from earthly attachments. One way or another, the world's religions offer spiritual salvation, or something very like it. If any of their teachings are rationally warranted, it would be good to know which ones.

At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can't deliver on what they promise, it would be just as well to know that. I take it, then, that there's a strong case for rational scrutiny of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, it would be good to explore just how far.

But just how urgent a task is the rational scrutiny of religion? Is it really needed in a modern, and apparently secular, liberal democracy such as Australia? Isn’t Australian religiosity rather unobtrusive and undemanding? In that case, is there any need to engage in strong, publicly prominent criticism of religious teachings, the organisations that promote them, or the leaders of those organisations? Perhaps rational critiques of religion should be available in peer-reviewed philosophy journals - but no great effort should be made to debunk religion in popular books, magazine or newspaper articles, or media appearances.

I disagree. All too often, religious organisations and their representatives seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including how we die. At various times, the religious have opposed a vast range of activities and innovations: anaesthesia; abortion; contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; the teaching of robust scientific findings, such as those of evolutionary biology; and a wide range of essentially harmless sexual conduct involving consenting adults. Even in Australia, churches and sects frequently lobby for laws that restrict our freedoms.

As in other Western democracies, religious organisations in Australia are not always politically liberal or even moderate. On the contrary, recent years have seen the increasing influence of very large Pentecostal organisations, such as Hillsong and Catch the Fire Ministries, which pursue a political agenda little different from that of the Christian Right in America. Conservative Catholics, such as Cardinal George Pell, actively seek to influence political affairs. We have seen considerable activism from Australia’s religious lobbies, and successive governments have pandered blatantly to Christian moral concerns.

It's not surprising that so many contributors to The Australian Book of Atheism (Scribe Publications; ed. Warren Bonnet) are appalled by the promotion of religion by the Howard and Rudd governments, with Julia Gillard now following suit.

Public scrutiny and criticism of religion’s truth-claims and moral authority would be less urgent if the various churches and sects agreed unequivocally to a wall of separation between themselves and the state. Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons, judged by their own lights, to oppose such a strict secularism. Some churches and sects do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power.

They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. They may be sceptical about the danger that liberal-minded people see when adherents of competing worldviews jostle to impose them by means of political power. Some religious groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a day when their views will prevail over others.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising and totally justifiable that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be heeded, let alone translated into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power?

These questions are being asked more often, and so they should be. When they're asked publicly, even with a touch of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

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