That’s great, it starts with an earthquake… Adam Brereton and the unexamined secularism

In my previous post, I outlined the problems which arise when you just assume slogans such as ‘Separation of Church and State’ and ‘We should have a secular nation’.  These problems multiply exponentially when the target of your attack is unclear.

Take, for example, Adam Brereton’s piece in New Matilda:

One of the more controversial policies announced by the Treasurer in the recent budget was the decision to pledge $222 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program. The scheme has been dogged byclaims chaplains have been proselytising to students, and critics argue the money could be better spent on trained counsellors if pastoral care is at stake. [Source: Brereton, ‘Keep the Proselytisers Where They Belong’, New Matilda]

Just an aside: until there’s some actual evidence rather than fourth- and fifth-hand stories, ignore the ‘claims’.  It smells a bit fishy that the ‘claims’ are all coming from the usual group of attention-seeking fringe-dwellers — and I’ll write something up about Leslie Cannold’s recent atrocity in the name of reason soon.

So the question at play is whether public funding should go to supporting chaplains in schools.  It’s a complex question about the role governments have in supporting communities, about the role of religion in society, and about whether we agree with the policy goals (if there are any).

[B]ut, distasteful as it is, the last 50 years of state sponsored religion in schools should indicate it’s not an aberration. We have no constitutionally entrenched separation of church and state, and outsourcing state functions to religious institutions has been, for the last half-century, a stronger tradition than secularism.

In 1962, Goulburn, a town in NSW notable only for its giant, betesticled concrete merino, was the site of a general Catholic school strike that led to the first state compromises with the religious establishment over education. [Ibid.]

Wait… what?  Did I turn over two pages at once?  Are the chaplains going to be performing some educational role?

Despite the debate not being about religious education, Brereton outlines the history of public funding for religious schools.  We even get an irrelevant history lesson about Constitutional Law:

Secondly, the court played its traditional role, reading the constitution narrowly to find that section 116 did not amount to a separation of church and state provision, and was a mere “denial of legislative power to the Commonwealth” — meaning the Commonwealth could not legislate for a state religion, but otherwise had no distinct “wall of separation”. This precedent does not bode well for the current High Court challenge on essentially the same issue. [Ibid.]

Right… so back to chaplains, I guess?  Nope.

Current commentary on the Gillard government’s decision to continue funding school chaplaincy has missed the historical point that Australians are loath to draw bold lines between secular and religious education, because secularism as a value is not enshrined in our constitution, and there have always been more votes from travelling with religion than fighting against it. [Ibid.]

And this is where a bit of a stocktake would have been good.  The article began as a criticism of the proposal to fund chaplains in school.  Ideally, we would understand why the government has decided to fund chaplains in schools (let’s face it, we’re not going to be shocked when the funding was motivated for cynical, poll-driven reasons).  We could then question whether or not chaplains in schools meets those policy objectives.

Instead, we seem to be caught in a discussion about the history of public-funding for religious schools.  But that’s not what’s at play here: 3,500 chaplains for state schools.

We get further confusion when Brereton leaps from this debate into:

Bob Carr, former NSW Premier-turned ALP revisionist, has recently slammed the $222 million pumped into the scheme, which is delivered almost exclusively by sole operators like ACCESS Ministries and Scripture Union. He says it’s “resulted in breaches of what should be a very thick wall between church and state” and that it’s naive to expect chaplains not to proselytise. [Ibid.]

The article to which he links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  The article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  The blog to which the article to which the article links makes no mention of ACCESS Ministries or Scripture Union.  What’s going on?

We’ve had a slide from chaplains in state schools to public-funding of religious schools and now we’re sliding to religious volunteers teaching in state schools.  And we’re not done there…

In the pompous, nebbish style for which he has become famous, Carr doesn’t take another step and dare to consider that religious vilification laws, school chaplaincy issues, and any number of other teacup-localised storms might be solved by levering church and state further apart — the whole point of secularism to begin with. Might the debate be reinvigorated by a well-regarded and purportedly secular ex-premier? Yeah, and we have an atheist PM — pull the other one. [Ibid.]

‘Religious vilification laws’?  Where the devil did that come from?  What could he possibly even mean?  Also note the use of the word ‘purportedly’: whenever one atheist says something which goes against the collective atheist groupthink, it’s important to question whether they’re actually an atheist, or an evil Christian in disguise.

Brereton seems incapable of distinguishing between the issues at play.  Instead of seeing a list of separate issues, Brereton sees only religion.  And any religion is bad religion.  Check out the final paragraph:

This is why secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church. [Ibid.]

What kind of rubbish?  ‘Tolerant society smeared’?  Le whut?  What’s tolerant about: ‘Get out of my public debates and back into your churches, where you belong‘?  We will tolerate you so long as you’re suppressed in public.

As noted in my last post, the confusion arises because ‘secular’ isn’t well understood.  Should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) over pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in public debates and public policy), for example?  Brereton seems to want the former.

And because he wants religion suppressed/invisible, he can’t distinguish between issues.  All religion-in-public instances are reprehensible and should be denounced.

Despite being an atheist, I’ve made the case that religious education is important (especially for atheists).  In that piece, I also showed that keeping religion in the public sphere was important to reduce extremism.  Australia funds ‘moderate Islam’ schools in Indonesia for good reason.  As they are incompatible with Brereton’s position, either preventing extremism in this way is abominable or Brereton is incorrect.  It’s not looking good for Brereton’s case.

And then we can add all the other issues relating to the ‘separation of church and state’ that I mentioned.  Do we want to live in a country where religious groups have several immunities from legislation?  Do we want churches to be a safe-haven for extremist views (SoCS works both ways, after all)?

Atheists like Brereton need to sharpen their analysis beyond ‘religion bad/secularism good’.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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