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.

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4 thoughts on “Australia and secularism”

  1. You seem to be using the word ‘secular’ as a synonym for ‘atheist’, when in modern usage the word ‘secular’ has specific connotations associated with the State. A State can be completely secular but its citizens can be completely religious. While Australia is more atheist than the USA, the USA is arguably more secular than Australia.

  2. I have to agree with George, there is a misunderstanding here of the term “secular”. A country can be hugely religious, and still be hugely secular (this nicely describes the US).

    The US have almost absolute separation of church and state. State schools can not even display prayers on their walls without being called on it.

    Australia on the other hand is perhaps somewhere in the middle. We have have a “state religion” like malaysia or other countries, but we have evangelical christians allowed in to our state schools to preach about the bible.

  3. I have to disagree with George above. The are two aspects to consider whether a country is secular. The first is whether the constitution and laws of the country are built around a concept of secular democracy which essentially states 1, that there is church -state separation 2. that the civil laws have priority over any religious laws 3. that the country is governed without being (unduely) influenced by religious considerations. The spirit of secular democracy is that all people have as much individual freedom as possible such as allowing people to have a faith belief or not if they wish and shae decision amking democratically. The second aspect is whether the people living in the country believe in and adhere to those principles.
    In the case of the USA the constitution has clear church-state separation and looks like the model of a secular democracy. In Australia we have a constitutional monarch who is the head of the Christian church in the UK consequently we have inherited no church state separation.
    However, when it comes to whether the people living in the country believe and accept in the concepts and spirit of secular democracy then we have the opposite situation. More than half of the people in the US are quite religious and continually refusing to accept the basic concepts of secular democracy. Individual states frame laws with positive bias towards religion every day. There is a continual war between those who want the US to be a theocracy and those that don’t. The Republicans are basically a pro theocracy party well funded by oligarchic wealthy conservatives.
    In Australia the people are happy living with a secular democracy and religion largely is ignored when considering political choices as stated by the author. Typically religion has had little say in the affairs of either the Labor or Liberal Party. Australians have an atheist Prime Minister and openly gay politicians. Both parties have in the past been relatively social progressive parties.
    However, that is changing as Australia leans more towards the US. The conservative Republican theocratic confrontational philosophy has been adopted by the Liberals and the Democratic philosophy by Labor. The US evangelical churches have been establishes in Australia and are pushing religious agendas such as getting creational science into previously secular public schools.
    I believe that the spirit of Australia is largely secular even though our constitution doesn’t spell it out while the opposite occurs in the USA. If it wasn’t for the forethought of US forefathers who drafted the US constitution forcing secular ideals it might well be a Christian theocracy today.

  4. Some of the greatest supporters of the seperation of church and state have been theists. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are more likely if no one particular religion holds sway with government.

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