Category Archives: politics

Australia and secularism

When I read or hear something, particularly someone’s opinions about a subject, I try and apply it to my own experience and see if it fits. When something doesn’t fit in within my experience its harder to understand the concept… maybe I’m simplifying things here, but having experience of something, positive or negative, or even just because its nearby and not something I’ve directly experienced, makes it easier to identify, positively or negatively with an opinion or experience of someone else.

I used to interview people seeking asylum in Australia and am used to having to understand situations far beyond my experience and knowledge. I have had to consider trauma, torture, gross discrimination and abuse in relation to people sitting in front of me that I barely know and who have gone through situations I can barely imagine. So, I do get that I have not lived a life full of everyone’s experiences, and nor would I want to.

But when I see a nation, that for all intents and purposes appears to be like my own country (Australia), specifically the US, I think that perhaps things should be relatively similar. Because they purport to be on TV and other media. With one HUGE exception… religion.

I spend quite a lot of time reading atheist blogs all of which are based in the US. I read about their desire for community, discussions about who is representing atheism and how, what atheism is, and how to make a stand for their beliefs (or lack of them depending on how you look at it) without losing family, friends or their jobs.

Big parts of these blogs don’t resonate with me, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and finally did when I stumbled across an article in the free newspaper that is available each weekday evening at train stations in Melbourne.

Before I announce my revelation (which is in the title anyway), I do want to state that I am by no means dismissing the experience of atheists in the US or any other devoutly religious country and the experiences they have to go through to hold their heartfelt beliefs. This post is about my experiences and how they differ from atheists in the US.

Anyway… back to my thoughts and revelation. Australia is an incredibly secular country. In fact we’ve voted in a Prime Minister who was atheist, as well as other politicans and we clearly didn’t mind. Sure we have religious whack jobs in Australia who attempt at various times to gain political power, but they tend not to gain an amount that threatens the secular nature of the country and often the next political party to gain power distances themselves from the religious whack jobs. I’m specifically thinking of the Exclusive Breathren an Pastor Danny Nalliah as the two biggest, and yet still very uninfluential, religious whack jobs that have attempted to gain some political leverage recently.

According to census data, thankfully provided in nice graphical form by Wikipedia (go on, click the link and read the article), Australia may be as much as 30% non-believers or atheists. In the 2006 census, 18.7% of people indicated that they had no religion and a further 11.9% of people did not answer the religious question (it was optional), which is where the 30% figure comes from. As “Australia the Confusing Country” written by Jeremy Lee attests, “Religion and politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don’t care too much about either) but sport is a minefield.”

The Wikipedia article previously cited also states:

  • Although many Australians identify themselves as religious, the majority consider religion the least important aspect of their lives when compared with family, partners, work and career, leisure time and politics. This is reflected in Australia’s church attendance rates, which are among the lowest in the world and in continuing decline
  • In a 2008 global Gallup poll, nearly 70% of Australians stated religion as having no importance, much higher than their American counterparts, and on par with similarly secular countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Finland, and France. Only a few Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) and post-Soviet states (Estonia) are markedly less religious.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian newspaper with a centrist viewpoint, asked its readers “Would the world be better off without religion?”. 81% responded in the affirmative (April 2009)
  • A 2006 study by Monash University, the Australian Catholic University and the Christian Research Association found that 52 per cent of Australians born between 1976 and 1990 have no belief in a God.
  • A 2008 Christian Science Monitor survey of 17 countries reported that youth from Australia and the United Kingdom were the least likely to observe religious practice or see any “spiritual dimension” to life.

So I get that Australia is far, far, far more secular than the United States. So much of the struggle that American atheists go through is not something that atheists in Australia even have to think about. There many be family issues for some atheists if they are coming from devoutly religious families, but generally the issues for American atheists are far different than those of Australian atheists. This is why I struggle to identify with issues raised by US atheists on blogs at times, because I’m living in a vastly more secular world.

Related Posts:

Exclusive clubs

Exclusion on any basis tends to annoy me. Always has. The exclusive nature of apartheid in South Africa was probably one of the things that taught me that exclusion was a bad thing. After all everyone was saying how bad it was, and South Africa was a pariah among “western” nations… so clearly excluding people on the basis of skin colour was a bad thing. This much I figured out.

I also wasn’t a fan of unfairness which wasn’t quite exclusion, but was almost. Someone being treated unfairly because of a real or perceived difference by someone else. A beautiful, intelligent and patient Aboriginal girl at my primary school was made to repeat Grade 3 (after finishing Grade 6) because the school did not know what to do with her. Suddenly an 11 year old girl was placed with the 8 year olds. When I spoke to her about it, she said that she would transfer to Yirarra and finish her education there as soon as she could. In a typical 8 year old fashion, I never chased it up nor do I remember if she eventually did.

My parents, well more my mother, was big on fairness, non-discriminatory behaviour and treating people equally regardless of who they were and where they were from. The missionary inspired teachers that taught me in Alice Springs were also big on social justice, and the nuns and brothers of the Sacred Heart in Alice Springs were also big on social justice.

One good thing about my Catholic upbringing, was generally the ability to discuss social justice issues and talk about fairness and justice in general. Certainly more useful in my primary school in Alice Springs versus my secondary schooling in Bendigo.

My mother, in Alice Springs, taught Aboriginal students in the Aboriginal Unit of my Catholic Primary School. She thought that it was exclusionary for those students who had good attendance and who did not need the extra support that the Aboriginal Unit was developed to provide to be kept away from the mainstream educational system. She fought for those students to be included in mainstream schooling and only for those who needed extra support and attention to be in her unit. She had the support of the Parish Priest, but outraged those social conservatives who thought they knew best about what these students needed, and lets face it who were probably consciously or unconsciously racist, to be kept in the Aboriginal Unit. So outraged were they, they started a smear campaign against my mother and the Catholic Priest, suggesting that they were having an affair and were horrible to me and my sisters. Thankfully we left town for unrelated reasons just as this started to get really nasty.

So why this blog post… well I’ve had some interesting conversations with people about exclusion recently, and read some interesting articles about exclusive clubs and the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission’s thoughts on exclusion for clubs. It has been suggested by the Government I believe that exclusions granted to clubs and institutions to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and the like may actually not be in line with Victoria’s Human Rights Charter.

Of course religious groups have complained that the state is interfering with their religious freedom by not letting them discriminate and exclude people whose lifestyles and/or beliefs are not in line with their religions, and Men’s clubs in Melbourne are also under attack. Both of these, of course break my heart and bring tears to my eyes… not.

You see… I’ve rethought exclusion. I have a problem when a powerful group excludes a powerless, or less powerful group…. though there are caveats here. So when white Afrikaans in South Africa excluded all black people… they were a powerful minority, the same goes for Sunnis in Bahrain excluding the Shia in Bahrain. Its not about the size of the group, just the power that they possess. So a Men’s club in Melbourne being under threat by a change of law? Yippee! Force them to live in the modern day and age… and deal with some diversity – because I’d suspect that they’re not only a male only club, but they also have “standards” as to who their members can be… so I’m guessing wealthy, mostly white business men.

The same goes for religious groups… and I’m looking mostly at Christian churches here, because that is where my experience is. A group that has spent time persecuting and excluding less powerful members of society or their own less powerful members… they’ll suddenly have to employ single mothers, queer folk, divorcees, etc. This cannot be a bad thing, as much as they may sook about it. I’m quite happy that Christian school children will actually have a wider world experience with people from different situations in society. It’d be really nice if there was a way to force the Catholic Church to accept women and married men as priests… but I don’t see that happening at this point.

The legislative change also goes for Women’s Clubs… which I have a bit more of a problem with, because traditionally women actually have less power, and need safe space to network and generally exercise. I suspect that Women’s Clubs will be able to successfully fight for their right to exclude men on the basis that far too many women are harassed and killed in gyms than men (just look at that recent massacre in the US for instance), and that women’s clubs are required until women really do have full equality with men .

But what happens when a persecuted minority group, who has their own private club on private land, begins to exclude others? I can understand a lesbian’s collective excluding men… and to an extent I can understand them excluding heterosexual women. But by what token can they exclude bisexual women or even trans-women? Apparently the argument for excluding trans-women is that they were born male and therefore have accessed the privilege that men have… but surely by transitioning to female, they’ve not only forgone any privilege they may have had (and since when was the queer looking boy at school granted any privilege?) they’ve also assigned themselves far into “other” territory and are far more discriminated against and excluded than lesbians. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

I guess bisexuals, by their argument, have the best of both worlds, spend time passing as heterosexual or something. This is not an issue which I have spoken to any radical lesbians about, I just participated in a conversation with someone who is bisexual who was aware of this conundrum.

An ideal world is one where people are recognised for the intrinsic value they possess and the unique gifts they bring into the world. A world where gender, sexuality, relationship status and skin colour aren’t even noticed.

Doctor Who – The Doctor Dances [2005]
Captain Jack Harkness: I’ve gotten to know Algy quite well since I’ve been in town. Trust me, you’re not his type. I’ll distract him. Don’t wait up.

The Doctor: Relax. He’s a fifty-first century guy. He’s just a bit more flexible when it comes to ‘dancing’.

Rose Tyler: How flexible?

The Doctor: Well, by his time, you lot are spread out across half the galaxy.

Rose Tyler: Meaning?

The Doctor: So many species, so little time.

Rose Tyler: What, that’s what we do when we get out there? That’s our mission? We seek new life and…

[weakly]

Rose Tyler: and…

The Doctor: [nodding] Dance.

Related Posts:

PETA annoy me

I’m not against the ethical treatment of animals, I think that PETA has done some sterling work in relation to having people think about the ways animals react to things and considering them as beings versus objects and this isn’t a bad thing. However, I do object to PETA’s demand that Australian farmers stop mulesing their sheep and their critique of Sam Neil and his support of the meat industry.

Lets start with mulesing. PETA state that it’s “cruel and painful and that more humane alternatives exist” (wikipedia), without actually stating what “more humane” alternatives there are… you know being useful instead of just condemning. It would be nice if they decided to research said humane alternatives and provide a response instead of getting businesses to boycott Australian wool for our alleged cruel practices.

The Wikipedia article linked to above has a good summary of the debate and what is being done where. If you want more education on the whole debate, that’s not a bad place to start.

I don’t know if PETA have actually seen a sheep with flystrike, but my mother cared for one a couple of years ago, and what she described sounds far worse than mulesing. She told me that the sheep looked like it was walking mince meat… it was in obvious pain and midway through the infestation was unable to walk and barely able to feed itself. It eventually healed thanks to both my parents care and is now a healthy sheep… but is it crueller to provide short-term pain (much like a vaccination) or let an animal (or person) suffer the consequences of an infestation/disease because the short-term pain is considered cruel?

Now Sam Neil. You can see his long term involvement with the meat industry here, here, here, and here. Some of them are funny, go and see…. this post can wait. He also did, though barely recognisable, an ad for vegetarian food, suggesting that vegetarianism is the next step in human evolution. Clearly Sam Neil also has bills to pay.

Anyway… What annoyed me about PETA’s commentary on Sam Neil’s personal decision to be, or not to be, involved in an ad campaign was their language and assumptions. Firstly they banter around the word “Jurassic” because he was in the movies… failing completely to realise that the Jurassic period had no ape like ancestors around at the time, and that all the mammals at that time were small rat-racoon like things (evolution of mammals here and human evolution here). The first primates, our ancestors, appeared about the same time that dinosaurs died out.

Of course PETA could be suggesting that meat eating is a dinosaur thing… but really most of the mammals around at that time would have been insectivores. And Sam Neil is right, well the script writer for the ads that Sam appeared in, is right. Without eating meat, it is unlikely that we’d be the species we are today. Whether we consume too much meat or not is another issue… and one I’ll address shortly.

The whole “Meat: It’s What’s Rotting in Your Colon” myth that PETA continue to push, without any medical citations also annoys me. Snopes have a good commentary on that here, but lets just think about the whole claim logically. I eat meat… I have various digestive issues that relate to fructose malabsorption and the fact that I have had my gall bladder removed recently, so I also have what is called an enzyme dump, which will rectify itself in time. On that basis, my colon is often spasming due the laxative effect of the fructose and enzymes… on the days that it is not, I certainly don’t notice the horrible effects of meat rotting in my colon. I live with two other people, and I don’t notice any horrible effects of meat rotting in their colon… and given what road kill smells like, surely my house would smell the same if meat was rotting in anyone’s colon here.

Oddly enough its actually very hard to dig up enough information about the veracity of the claim that red meat (or any meat) rots in your colon. The internet is full of people with opinions and agendas to push (hello there) and so there are doctors who are devoutly religious who have vegetarian agendas to push, PETA with their agenda to push, misinformation and other stuff… This site suggests that meat can take some days to digest, depending on your individual circumstances.

Wikipedia (and here) doesn’t suggest that meat sits in the digestive system for days, and as its the most reliable source of information I can find at the moment, I’m going with them.

Now, if PETA had gone down a sensible path… suggesting, for example, that farming animals is bad for the environment, uses too much water and produces large amounts of Greenhouse gas, as the WhyVeg.com people have leaned towards, then they’d be more credible about the whole thing. If they’d run with, “abattoirs are horrible places and animals suffer terribly in them AND meat eating is terribly bad for the environment” I probably wouldn’t be so annoyed with them.

In the end, I personally recommend eating less meat… don’t eat it every day, exist on less, eat more vegetables and fruit than meat, etc. The current editorial thing on WhyVeg.com advocates that, and that is a far more successful message… tap into the growing green consciousness and welfare of animals versus scoring cheap political points.

Related Posts: