Leslie's Acceptance Speech for Humanist of the Year Award

The Age’s Michael Bachelard covers Leslie’s acceptance of Humanist of the Year Award.

Here’s the full Acceptance Speech:

Australia’s Fading Separation Between Church and State

Part 1 Australia’s Inclusive Approach to the Secular State

Now if Max Wallace were here I could hear him muttering under his breath that unlike the US, Australia doesn’t really have a separation of church and state. This is because – despite the wording of Sec 116 in the Oz constitution being more or less the same as that found in the US one – the Australian courts have interpreted the provision narrowly and so a clear line has never been drawn.

Now while some see this as a failure, others protest. They say that it’s not that Australia doesn’t do secularism, it’s just that we do it differently. Not worse, not better, just differently to how it’s done in the USA or in France.

These folks say that rather than bar religion from the public square, Australia has an inclusive approach that delivers religious freedom, religious fairness and state neutrality with regard to religion by allowing all faiths equal access to the public square. Those of no faith, as is usual with such things, are rarely mentioned.

My response to this is to say well, if that is true – if Australia does the secular state in a unique an inclusive manner – than this approach is fatally flawed and has proved to be a miserable failure. A miserable failure.

Principled Problem with Inclusive Secularism

An inclusive approach to the secular state is an inherently flawed approach, doomed to failure. Having examined this concept from every angle, held it up to the light, examined every possibility – sound like someone we know? – I struggle to see how it could ever work. Because whatever the denomination, a fundamentalist approach to religious texts and truths makes one intolerant and disrespectful of difference. There are always fundamentalists, and they are always intolerant and disrespectful of difference. Why? Because they believe they have sole access to the truth and, by virtue of this, that those who disagree with them are just plain wrong.

To give you a feel for what such intolerance looks like and leads to, here’s a quote from the recently released Australian Human Rights Commission’s look at Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia. The quote is from the Gospel Assembly of Melbourne. The Gospel Assembly told the study’s authors that:

“The Australian government is obligated to respect the Christian religion as its first and foremost responsibility. We object to the idea that other religions are equal to the worship of Almighty God "

This quote doesn’t just show us what intolerance looks like, it points to where it leads. Where it leads, as the Assembly makes clear, is to a view that because the Assembly’s Christian worldview is correct, this view and the policy prescriptions that fall out of it, should rightfully be privileged above all others in the community. Indeed, so right are they that they should be enshrined in laws that govern all of us, even those who are not members of the Christian flock, or any religious flock at all. Oops, there goes the secular state.

Now, having once been an undergraduate student of psychology, I am aware that those who are truly confident of their truths don’t necessarily feel compelled to put their views into forms that command others not compelled by them must obey. However, for those who lack such confidence, there is a compulsion to proselytize. This is because converting others provides external proof of the truth of one’s case, as in “look how many people agree with me, I must be right!” Thus, for the fundamentalist who, intolerant by brand is insecure by nature, the tolerant and inclusive multi-faith space is one they are compelled to colonise as a means to their own end and by so doing, of course, devour secularism in the process.

An example of this with which we are all familiar with is the misuse by Muslim jihadists of the freedom of speech and religious tolerance found in western democracies to spread their own violently intolerant ideologies. My point here is not to suggest that this modus operandi is not morally repugnant and a real cause for alarm – it is – but to point out that in Australia the risks it poses emanate primarily from evangelical Christian fundamentalists, not jihadist Muslims.

Part II: Practical Problems with Inclusive Secularism

So now that we’ve looked at the inherent problems with any sort of inclusive Oz approach to the secular state, I want to turn to the consequences of this approach. To ask, if what we’ve got is an inclusive secular state, how it’s working? To do this I want to look at two programs currently running in Australian government schools that the founding fathers intended to be, and indeed are still believed to be, free, compulsory and secular by nature. Those two programs are Special Religious Education or “Scripture” Classes and School Chaplaincy.


319,305 Victorian children attend scripture classes. The law requires these to be delivered by volunteers. 96% of whom are provided by ACCESS Ministries. ACCESS is an umbrella group representing 12 Christian denominations, including the Anglicans Church of Australia, Uniting Church, Lutheran Church of Australia and the Salvation Army. Parents of prep children are deliberately NOT informed that their school is compelled to allow access to their children to any scripture provider that demands it, nor are they even necessarily told scripture classes will be a regular part of their child’s school week and that they have the right to opt their children out.

Should the process fail to deliver these key understandings – a process that is an insult to informed consent and the zealously-guarded right of the religious to have choice and control over their own children’s education – their five year old will wind up on a Christian scripture class by default. This, as I said, is something they may not become aware of until Jenny arrives home swearing that God loves her more than mummy or, as a Twitter follower from Victoria reported, that it rains when God is angry.

ACCESS Ministries is the only Victoria “scripture provider” that receives government funding. Indeed, only a few weeks ago the Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon lobbed an additional $200,000 of taxpayer funds at ACCESS to improve volunteer training. This was on top of the more than $516,000 they already get from taxpayers, and a funding decision about which a Buddhist community leader, interviewed by The Age’s Michael Bachelard complained bitterly. The Buddhists provide scripture teachers to just 14 Victorian schools. Because they don’t get government funding, they simply cannot afford to do more. Said Dr Sue Smith, “'There is definitely a funding bias. Ours is funded by volunteers and donations.‘’

Children whose parents opt them out either because they have no faith, are of a minority faith not able to be catered for or who are appalled at the ACCESS curricula, experience discrimination. Separated from their classmates to endure enforced idleness – the education department guidelines forbid any secular instruction to be offered when SRE classes are on – young children can understand the sorting process as punishment. This is particularly the case when they are placed outside of the principal’s office, by the photocopying machine or in a broom closet for what we are told are supervisory purposes and no, about the broom closet, I’m not kidding.

Now one defence to those prosecuting the “Australia-does-secularism-differently” argument might be that while kids are admittedly being corralled into Christian scripture classes delivered by ACCESS Ministries volunteers, that’s OK. Why? Because the ACCESS curriculum is inclusive and tolerant. It teaches about all the world’s religions and that’s something important for kids to understand so they can develop tolerance. Yep, I couldn’t agree more. General Religious Education is a terrific thing, but sadly General Religious Education is something entirely different to what ACCESS and other volunteers are delivering in the Special Religious Education spot. What ACCESS is doing is instructing kids in the beliefs and practices of a particular religion. In fact, the ACCESS curriculum is very much in line with their mission statement, which reads as follows:

“Our vision is to reach every student in Victoria with the Gospel. Join the vision and help us transform this nation for God.”

This mission statement is similar to that of the other major scripture teacher provider, Scripture Union, which describes itself as, “Christ’s ambassadors on the front line of ministry.”

On the score card for inclusive secularism in action, Australia’s record on Scripture suggests we deserve a big fat goose egg.

School Chaplains

Does School Chaplaincy do any better?

School chaplaincy has been generously funded by the Federal government since the days of John Howard. Rudd and then Gillard have since fallen over themselves – the latter even pre-empting the findings of a much-needed review of the program – to shower Chaplaincy Service Providers with funds. By rough estimates, some 437 million of taxpayer dollars.

On might argue that the National School Chaplaincy Program shows all is well with Australia’s special brand of inclusive secularism because theoretically religious folk of all persuasions, not just Christians, can serve in the role. However, the notion of inclusiveness becomes problematic when you realise that – in what appears to be a clear violation of the prohibitions on religious tests for jobs found in sec 116 of the constitution – a person of no faith cannot serve as a school chaplain. As well, the reality of the chaplaincy program – how it’s administered, funded and the facts on the ground – conclusively demonstrate its failure to deliver any of the key promises of the secular state. No religious freedom. No religious fairness. No state neutrality with regard to religion

Why is this so? Because possibility aside, the reality is that 98 per cent of Australian chaplains are Christians – a figure that matches up poorly with the 62 per cent of Australians who identify as such. And, as we saw with scripture, these not your garden-variety Christians, but the crusading fundamentalist sort provided by – you guessed it – ACCESS Ministries and Scripture Union. Both ACCESS and Scripture Union are clear that they see chaplaincy as a means by which they can fulfil their mission to – and here I’m quoting Scripture Union – “make God’s Good News known to children [and] young people” so “they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…and become…committed church members.” That chaplains are all about bringing lost Christian and non-Christian lambs into the evangelical flock is also suggested by the fact that three-quarters of the NSCP funds are spent in secular state schools.

Indeed, while chaplains are officially prohibited from proselytising or counselling children, a damning report on the program and a RN Background Briefing provide clear evidence that some of them do. They also show that despite having no qualifications to counsel anyone – little less children with eating disorders, substance abuse problems, suffering physical or mental abuse, caring for a parent with disabilities or at risk of suicide – some get stuck-in anyway. As well, most fail to refer when – as is nearly always the case – they are out of their depth. Such problems are not teething ones, nor those that can be overcome by better guidelines or training, but are a reflection of the inherent contraction resulting from the placement of individuals into pastoral care roles who have no qualification in anything other than evangelical Christianity. For if it is true, as the program’s vested interest defenders claim, that chaplains provide a much-needed listening ear, knee bandaging and sausage sizzling services, why must one be a person of religious faith to qualify for the role?

With chaplains, opt-out is impossible, rather than simply complex and convoluted as is the case with Scripture. This is because a school chaplain is free to roam an entire school, and to interact with children of whatever age whenever, wherever and however s/he wants. This places parents who know about the chaplain – and many don’t – and wish to restrict his/her access to their child – and some do – in an invidious position. Invidious because to achieve this would require banning their children from participating in crazy hair day where the gold coin goes to Scripture Union, from attending morning assembly where the chaplain does a rap about how much more trustworthy he is compared to the student’s teachers, from the schoolyard at lunchtime and recess where the chaplain organizes games or a sausage sizzle and from school camps on which the chaplain tags along.

That all this is happening in a compulsory school system in which non-religious alternatives in the private sector are as scarce as hen’s teeth – even if they could be afforded by those currently sending their kids to public school – means that again, on the score card for inclusive secularism in action, Australia gets a zero.

We’re not doing secularism differently; we’re doing it badly. What we are doing – as the Scripture and Chaplaincy examples show – is allowing the already grey line between church and state to be overrun time and time again by a rapacious, crusading, intolerant majority and to do this to the detriment of those we love the most and to whom we owe the most sacred duty of care – our children.

Part III: Fighting Back

So how are we going to fight back?

Already fights on several fronts are up and running. Ron Williams is leading the charge, with great minds including Max Wallace behind him, in the High Court Challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program. There is also a case before the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission by three parents claiming special religious education is discriminatory.

These are great initiatives, but they are not enough. We need to inform the community and get them involved via the web in the lobbying of our political leaders for change.

To do this, my observation of those advocating for secularism is not that they need to work harder, but that they need to work smarter. To work smarter not just when it comes to technology but when working with one another, and building coalitions with those who are different, but share an interest in defending a secular state.

Wanting to Win

The most important thing to make that happen is to want to win. Humanist, atheist and secular organizations can exist for a number of reasons, birds of feather liking to socialize together, to ensure visibility, etc. However, only groups that have a clear, discrete and realistic political agenda that they want to achieve more than anything have any chance of prevailing.

I say this from experience. I was part of coalition of many groups and individuals that managed to change Victoria’s law on abortion. Around since the late 1800s, it had been defining the reproductive choices of Victorian women as crimes worthy of jail for more than one hundred years and was beloved by many.

But we did it and the way we did it was to work in coalition. When I say coalition, I mean thousands of individuals, dozens of groups that sometimes had history with one another and often disagreed. Many of us knew each other and as is the way with such things, didn’t always get along. But that abortion needed to be removed from the Crimes Act – now – was the one thing we were all passionate about, and agreed should be the focus of our activism.

Former Vic Premier Joan Kirner told us that in all her years of observing and being part of community campaigns she had never seen one work as effectively or as collaboratively as the one to decriminalize abortion. This was because everyone involved – everyone – put their egos, their grievances, their personal dislikes, their pursuit of their organisation’s interests, including being named and noted for their role in the effort, to one side. Instead, we were generous with one another, worked together productively come hell or high water – at times stepping in, at others shutting up and getting out of the way – to achieve our shared goal of making the lives of Victorian women better by changing the law.

Australian secularists can do this, and must do this, in order to change things on the SRE and Chaplaincy front for our children, and for all the young people in this state.

Atheism, Humanism and Rationalism are not Secularism

Many of the founders of secularism were religious. Indeed, back in the days when unbelief almost certainly existed but was not mentioned in polite company, it was often religious minorities afraid of being overrun by the majority who fought for a secular system of government that would give them religious freedom and protect them religious discrimination. When I was growing up, it was the Jews in my town who fought the yearly attempt by Christians to erect a nativity scene in the town square at Christmas time.

We need to remember this and to understand that we cannot win and will not win until we stop saying or insinuating that atheists, humanists or are the only ones who came up with the secular concept. Or that atheists, humanists or rationalist are the only ones able or willing to defend it. Atheism is a personal belief system. Humanism is a philosophy. Rationalism is an epistemology or theory. Secularism is a form of governance designed to ensure that Australians of every and of no faith are free to live their lives and to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs, and to not miss out on life’s opportunities because of their personal faith. Who can, does and should support a secular state? Fair-minded Australians of all faiths and of none, that’s who.

I want to end with a quote from an editorial in The Age about what the secular agenda when it comes to children is all about which – in a nutshell – is about getting trained professional educators to provide our kids with general religious education:

“The solution is not to abandon education about religion; events of the past decade illustrate the dangers of religious ignorance and intolerance. However, the government should not rely on faith-driven volunteers instead of trained educators who teach to the same professional standards as in any other subject. The goal must not be to convert children but to ensure they have the general religious literacy they need to make sense of the past, present and future.”

In Closing…

We all owe where we arrive to where we have come from. When the Abortion Law Reform Bill passed through the Senate in October 2009 and became law, we were ecstatic. Rightly we gave thanks to the cross-party band of MPs who had made the bill’s passage, with not a single amendment, possible.

I will never forget what Liberal Senator Andrea Coote said to me when I thanked her.

She said, “Leslie, this has been a marathon. You women in the community have been running this race for a long time. We just took the baton and ran the final lap.”

Most of the people in this room have been striving to secure a secular state for a long time. I have little doubt that eventually we will prevail in this struggle. And when we do it won’t matter who is actually gripping the baton in their fist. The victory will be a collective one, in part owed to the hard work and persistence of all of you.