God save us from secular intolerance

Rationalist Society Australia

Image: Rationalist Society Australia/Facebook

Friday Forum


A significant number of anti-religious atheist commentators have seized the opportunity to cite the recent census results to push their agenda. I distinguish these people from the vast majority of atheists who, like the vast majority of people who hold religious views, value our multicultural society and have a ‘live and let live’ attitude. This is evidenced by the fact that parties that run on anti-religious platforms, like the Sex Party or the Secular Party of Australia, attract such a tiny proportion of the vote. The same of course applies to parties that run on overtly religious platforms, such as the Christian Democratic Party or the Rise Up Australia Party.

Most of us can smell intolerance and divisiveness a mile off and we clearly don’t like it.

What I find most concerning about anti-religious atheists is their position on democracy. My religious beliefs impact on how I see the world and my vision for the kind of society and kind of world I want to live in.

My work with the Uniting Church – to persuade Australian governments to take more action to end slavery, human trafficking and forced labour – flow from my Christian belief that God sees value and dignity in every person. I make no apologies, I want my religious beliefs against slavery imposed on those that would carry out slavery.

However, many of the anti-religious atheists seem to be saying that religious people should have no right to call for action against slavery because it flows from our religious beliefs. They seem to be saying that people who hold religious views should not be allowed to vote or be members of Parliament.

The Secular Party of Australia’s position is that “Religion should not impact on the public sphere”. The Rationalist Society of Australia states: “Everyone should be free to choose and hold their own religious or non-religious worldviews, provided they do not impose such views on others.”

With that position, it is hard to see how the Rationalist Society can support any government at all, as law is about imposing a set of values on those who would transgress the law. Laws against murder, rape, assault, fraud and slavery are about imposing the values and beliefs of the majority – that these things are wrong and harmful – on the small minority who would carry them out.

A good democracy allows all members to have their say, but it also seeks the wellbeing of the whole of society. A good society respects and includes minority groups, but may restrict harmful practices and actions. There is a balance to be struck.

Another disturbing aspect about some of the anti-religious atheists is their claim to speak for all atheists. Atheists in Australia are no more a single voting block than religious believers are. The Rationalist Society of Australia is no more the voice of all atheists than the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is the voice of all Christians. To their credit, the ACL does not claim to play such a role and publicly gives figures for their membership on their website.

Finally, many of the anti-religious atheists display double standards. If I make a donation to the Sex Party or the Liberal Democrats I get a tax deduction, but my donations to the Uniting Church are not tax deductable. These political parties that seek to get their views imposed on society seem happy to have tax deductible status, while at the same time proclaiming that churches should be taxed more than they are already. Why should the fringe views of the Sex Party and the Liberal Democrats be subsidised by valuable government revenue?

With their attacks on churches over exemptions from anti-discrimination laws (so we can do things like choose our own spiritual leaders who share our religious beliefs), you would assume anti-religious groups would be a model of diversity. Not so.

To become a member of the Rationalist Society you are required to share their beliefs and your application for membership needs to be approved by their Committee of Management, discriminating against those that do not share their views.

Of the seven members of the Committee of Management of the Rationalist Society of Australia, only one is a woman. This gender imbalance, along with a lack of ethnic diversity, would be completely unacceptable for the national governance committee of the Uniting Church in Australia, our national Standing Committee. In fact, most of corporate Australia would cringe at such a lack of gender diversity on a board.

Thankfully, I remain confident that most of us will overwhelmingly continue to shun intolerance and those pushing divisive agendas.

Dr Mark Zirnsak, Social Justice Spokesperson, Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania

On this week’s Friday Forum: Is aggressive atheism another form of intolerance?

Image: Michael Coghlan/Flickr

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