religious freedom
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Tim Wilson is now the Liberal member for Goldstein, but when he was appointed human rights commissioner in 2014 he launched a program that now seems out of control. There was considerable doubt about why Wilson pushed so hard for his religious freedom roundtable — primarily for church leaders. It was founded on dubious evidence, and his motivation remains unclear.

Since then, “freedom of religion” has morphed into a mantra across all media — and, more recently, has become weaponised by militant Christians. One clear example is the Israel Folau imbroglio that now seems destined for the High Court. Some even suggest there’s an interesting confluence of events.

At face value, “religious freedom” is a mere motherhood statement — an innocuous cliché that no one cares to malign. But the temperature has risen markedly since same-sex marriage was legalised. That led to Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom review which incited more frequent rants by angry Christians who demanded even greater sacred privileges — and was further inflamed by Folau’s sacking.

With the Coalition’s re-election — and bolstered by Scott Morrison’s much vaunted Pentecostal credentials — the religious right are in full cry. Of course, it remains to be seen what Morrison’s signature legislation — a religious discrimination act — will actually deliver. But the PM has made it clear he is on a crusade for more protection of Christians, to codify exemptions, and push the LNP agenda of more religion in schools.  

What’s missing here

Alarmingly, an opposing voice is the crucial element that’s missing from this one-sided campaign for religious freedom. Media outlets are mute and seem oblivious to the 78% of citizens who have stated — in a 2016 Ipsos poll — that they want “religion to be removed from the business of government”. Where — during the five years of ramping up this religious freedom mantra — have we heard clear and articulate atheist voices calling into question the excesses of Christian doctrine?

Mainstream print and digital media are indeed culpable. They seem to be phased into acquiescence when Christians claim “persecution” by imaginary detractors from the left. The age-old taboo of not questioning religion has been reasserted. There seems to be a predominant view that “being more tolerant of religion” means avoiding even the most basic questions of current Christian motives.

Who can name one media outlet where an identifiable atheist or secular voice has been consistently heard — whether through radio, TV or print? The media know who all the pro-secular groups are, but never call. Media releases are ignored, and worryingly, journalists unsubscribe from circulation lists.   

Why is that? Do we now have a media problem — similar to that of religiously influenced parliamentarians? Do newspaper editors — or radio and TV producers and presenters — feel it is much safer simply to avoid a possible backlash from Christian militants in their audience?

Why it matters

No one is trying to take away the personal and private faith of those who remain religious — but there is a serious problem here. With arcane dogma, religion holds political sway to block a raft of social issues including abortion and assisted dying, and religious groups push for legalised discrimination and tax breaks that are beyond all reason.

Religious schools can freely discriminate against teachers and staff who are divorced, de facto or gay. Alone, Catholic education run 1750 schools with more than 96,000 teachers and staff — all of whom must subscribe to the school’s faith and ethos. Since when are there such disciplines as Catholic maths, science or technology? Why are secular teachers denied employment, on the basis of religious ethos? 

Why are we still teaching kids they’re “sinners”, only redeemed by Jesus Christ? Growing up to believe all life’s answers are in one book is divisive. It breeds intractable views that place faith over facts, denies science, and inhibits social progress.

Religion has been given far too much latitude by politicians and media executives too — many of whom are devoutly religious, or influenced by their religious education. It is this grounding in faith that perpetuates the centuries-old taboo not to question religion — to maintain a tradition that seeks to malign and condemn those who challenge these fabricated “biblical truths”.   

In this era of fake news and political spin it is increasingly relevant to examine all religious doctrines that mislead and harm so many, and which continue to divide societies. Where, one may ask, are the clear secular voices to temper these religious excesses? We need rationalists to convey evidence from academics, scientists and historians and atheists to publicly debate and question the foundational myths of Christianity.

This is an urgent call — in a supposedly enlightened era — for equal media access to articulate the case of freedom from religion.

Brian Morris is director of secular organisation Plain Reason. He is also a former journalist and media relations professional, and author of Sacred to Secular. This piece is partially in response to an article we published last week from Greg Bondar, NSW state director of FamilyVoice Australia.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey