• Sophie Perissinotto

Is Australia actually secular?

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

There are two main subsets of secularism. Both have evolved from the movement of Enlightenment.

Enlightenment was a large societal change, where people began to break away from the class systems of the church, the nobles and the normal people. Early philosophers started to spread the word about knowledge being the greatest power, and that free thought was our biggest asset as humans. These philosophers viewed religion as the biggest threat to personal freedom and criticisms of how religious doctrines aren’t shaped over time by human thought.

The two main subsets of secularism are hard and soft. Hard secularism is a complete separation of religion and the public realm. An example of this is France, where religious artifacts are banned in all public areas, including schools. Soft secularism is in contrast to this and is seen as more liberal. It is the idea of separation for the purpose of not giving one religion privilege over another.

Generally, hard secularism is freedom from religion, and soft secularism is freedom of religion.

Australia has generally been a soft secularist country, allowing for multiculturalism and religious freedom. Section 116 of the Constitution states

“ The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

But . . . are we really a secular country?

The Federal House and Senate start every sitting day with a Christian prayer. The final line of the prayer in Parliament is “Direct and prosper our deliberations to the advancement of Thy glory, and the true welfare of the people of Australia.” So apparently our politicians are appointed by divine right.

Every State Parliament in Australia, apart from the ACT, say a Christian prayer at the start of the sitting day.

So why do the leaders of our country seem to contravene the Constitutional requirement of not imposing any religious observance on people? Green Senator Lee Rhiannon made a motion in 2018 to abolish the prayer in Senate sitting, but an inquiry found there was “no need” for the change. LNP Senator Matt Canavan stated in party convention,

“Whether or not you come from a Christian heritage or not, I think the sentiments that are included in the prayer is something that is a shared heritage and insight for a western civilisation like ours . . .
“The idea that we should replace what is something that has lasted thousands of years, passed down by generation to generation, with some ... unlinked statement of spiritualism I think would be a retrograde step in our culture”

The Guardian, 2018

In 2019, Attorney General Christian Porter proposed the Religious Discrimination Bill which exempts statements of religious beliefs from other discrimination laws. For example, a teacher could tell a single mother that she is sinful for not raising her child with a father. A child with disability can be told by their daycare worker that their disability is a trial from God. A pharmacist can refuse to provide the contraceptive pill to women. Religious hospitals can discriminate against prospective staff on the basis of religion when hiring.

In the 2016 Census, over 30% of people in Australia said they aren’t religious. ‘No religion’ is the most popular religion among Australians.

So why are our laws still so influenced by the Christian faith?