The Australian Human Rights Commission has now released its 'Research Report' on freedom of religion in Australia. This report is effectively a summary of consultations with religious groups as an input to the process of proposals to amend and 'update' Australia's anti-discrimination legislation.
No case for action
It is perhaps better than might have been expected: in the wake of failed laws in Victoria, the UK and Canada, it finds 'little enthusiasm' for legislation in this area from religious groups.
And its main recommendations - to increase the amount of education on religious matters and create a new bureaucratic body to regulate issues relating to religious practice within the education system - will surely easily be defeated.
But the truly disturbing thing about the report is its apparent naivety.
Attitudes to Islam
Take for example the reports conclusions on the "deep-seated concern" over Islam revealed in the research.
The authors accept unquestioningly the assurances from Islamic representatives that Muslims have no desire to see sharia law in Australia. History suggests that groups with agendas that they know will be vigorously opposed by some are rarely upfront about their real objectives. And in the case of Islam, we have the evidence not only of the stated position of the Koran on this subject, but also of countries where Islam has become a significant minority such as the UK, where sharia law courts have already been introduced for some purposes.
Similarly, concern over Islamic extremism is dismissed as "a current of anti-Muslim discourse that suggests an entrenched hostility often related to overseas events" as if those 'overseas' events had nothing to do with Australia; indeed, as if Australia did not have its own Islamic extremists!
And apparently all our misconceptions about gender in Islam and other issues would be solved if only we were all better educated about each other's beliefs....!
The anti-discrimination mentality
But the most disturbing aspect of the report is the assumption that any form of disquiet whatsoever about another group in society is a 'problem' that needs to be solved, whether it is Australia's 0.02% of pagans who are aggrieved at the 'lack of recognition of their beliefs', or a refusal to employ homosexuals in faith-based schools (p89)!
Bishop Julian Porteous recently wrote a useful analysis of this problem for The Record, arguing that we need to shift the thinking from an 'anti-discrimination' mentality, to a focus on 'unjust discrimination'.
He makes the point that some discrimination can be entirely appropriate in some cases - society after all 'discriminates' against criminals of various kinds all the time, to take but one obvious example. Yet when legislation is cast in terms of anti-discrimination, perfectly legitimate forms of discrimination are suddenly case as exemptions and exceptions rather than what they really are, the recognition of right and wrong.
It is a good argument.
But don't hold your breath when it comes to the shape of any new legislation, because the anti-discrimination lobby is entrenched and well organised.
How do we fight it?
One of the (few) more penetrating observations in the Report is that where one goes on these issues essentially depends on how one views Australia: are we, or do we want to be, at root a Christian nation, a secular nation, or a 'multi-faith plural' nation?
Those who argued for the Christian position pointed out that though we have always had religious minorities in Australia, they have had little influence on the shape of our nation's institutions, which overwhelmingly reflect our Western Judaeo-Christian heritage.
Unfortunately, unless the New Evangelization suddenly becomes immensely more effective, I suspect that this debate is essentially already lost. The numbers tell the story: according to the Report, in 1947 88% of Australians identified as Christian. In 2006 the figure had fallen drastically to 63.9%. The number of people claiming to be catholic, it is true, has actually risen - but we know that in terms of actual practice this figure is meaningless. And it has been more than counterbalanced by rapid growth in the proportion of others religions, and none.
Unless that starts to reverse, expect to see first the end of some of the practices seen as 'discriminatory' by both secularists and minority religions in the report: things like the prayers at the start of the parliamentary day; bibles in hotel rooms; Christian-based public holidays and more.
For phase two, just look to the United Kingdom for a guide as to what is to come when the 1.7% of Muslims becomes closer to 10%, as it already is in some Sydney electorates.
The virtue of intolerance
Bishop Porteous points to the importance of recovering a sense that there are moral absolutes, and rejecting the idea that tolerance is always a virtue; that making judgments about a situation is always bad.
His comments are worth reflecting on:
“Discrimination is an important quality to have as a mature human being. We discriminate every day in making choices. It is a compliment to be called a discriminating person. Or, at least, it used to be. To be discriminating was regarded as a virtue. It was viewed as a reflection of wisdom and prudence. Making considered judgements about all sorts of things has traditionally been considered the task of a responsible person. Yet now it seems that its meaning has been changed. In our society at the present time, discrimination has come to be seen only in a negative light. Today, a new definition of discrimination is taking hold. Anyone who projects judgements on situations is viewed as being judgemental. Rather than being discriminating, the person is considered discriminatory…In the past, it was considered a natural process to make decisions, judgements and distinctions on the basis of distinguishing between objective good and evil, between right and wrong…. discrimination may be either a virtue or a vice. It depends on whether the discrimination is just or unjust. It is right and good to discriminate between good and bad in order to make healthy and wise choices."
When religious feed the flames of anti-catholicism
And on where more discrimination is needed, there is a particularly outrageous anti-catholic attack amongst the commissioned papers for the Report, penned by a Sister Trish Madigan OP.
The paper is cast as a 'catholic' exploration of feminist perspectives within the Church.
In fact however, it contains a sustained attack on the structure of the Church and its teachings, working from the misconception that the stance of the Pope and the Vatican on issues including contraception and abortion, as well as the hierarchical constitution of the Church, are underpinned by a 'traditionalist/fundamentalist ideology', and can be changed.
One can hardly blame the Commission for not understanding why the Church insists that women cannot be priests, why it will fight for conscientious objection clauses for medical workers and so forth however - Sister, after all, works for the Broken Bay Diocese according to their website...
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