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Learning from the lessons of the past, Dr Simon Longstaff AO addresses the need for our politicians to become champions for the secular state.
There are times, in history, when it becomes absolutely necessary that we champion the ideal of a secular state. We have entered such times – ushered in by the Prime Minister’s near apocalyptic pronouncement that “They’re coming for us”.
In saying so, Mr Abbott summoned up the image of a demonic horde, the Da’esh “Death Cult”, ready to descend on the nation. The fear index wound up a few notches – which is probably good politics, if bad leadership.
The language and sentiment is eerily similar to that which might have been heard in Europe when the Ottomans were at the gates of Vienna. Or when His Catholic Majesty, King Phillip II of Spain, launched his Armada against the realm of the Protestant “Bastard”, Elizabeth. Or when the protestant forces of Northern Europe bested their Catholic opponents in battle after battle during the religious wars that raged for more than one hundred years in the wake of the Reformation. One common refrain rang out across the religious divide: “They’re coming to get us.”
So, here we are again, with the demonic (rather than angelic) forces of religion let loose. For there is no denying the underlying religious character of the most recent terrorist threat. Da’esh (ISIS, ISIL, call them what you will) are embarked upon an Islamic crusade to create a new caliphate, inspired by the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who brought Islam to Arabia at the point of a sword – much as Christians have done since the time of Constantine. It does not matter that most Muslims are appalled by the terrorists or that they are mostly their victims. Muftis may denounce the terrorists as “un-Islamic” but none of that detracts from the fact that religion is the driving, legitimising force in this struggle.
Religious wars have always been especially nasty for they are all or nothing affairs. Their proponents feel justified – and often excused of the need for ethical restraint – by God, the ultimate, universal authority. Each side lays claim to an exclusive and absolute truth that transcends time and place.
According to the canons of religion, there can be no compromise. Sticking with the three great monotheisms: either the Jews are God’s chosen people, destined to inherit Zion, or they are not. Either Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, or he is not. Either Mohammed is the “Seal of the Prophets” (God’s last and greatest) or he is not. All three claims cannot be true. The Rabbis, Priests and Mullahs will tell you this, if you ask. In this sense, religions provide the foundation for all totalitarian states – even those that reject all religion.
The absolutism of religion, combined with the diversity of religious belief and the passion with which its believers will torture, kill (and be killed) in its name, almost destroyed Europe. The only solution was to banish religion to the private realm and organise the state along secular lines. The secular state is not hostile to religion – and secular does not mean ‘atheist’. Rather, the secular state neither condemns nor promotes religion. Ideally, it is entirely indifferent to private, religious belief. The secular state seeks to promote a form of ‘civic virtue’ derived from secular, philosophical foundations. Such a framework will often have elements found within most religious moralities. However, it will not (and must not) be derived from them.
So, a secular state will afford a safe and respectful place for people of all faiths – and of none. Indeed, it is only a secular state that can offer a coherent response to the problem of extremism, especially the kind grounded in religious belief. Any response that draws explicitly, to any degree, on a religious foundation will be taken as anathema by those to whom it is directed. That is why it is entirely counter-productive when politicians and pundits bang on about how Western Liberal Democracy is rooted in its Judaeo-Christian heritage (somewhat overlooking the contribution of pagan Greeks and Romans, let alone the great thinkers from the Islamic world).
If Australia is to counter the allure of the radicals, then it needs an open, coherent and secular ethical framework with which young people can engage. In doing so, those at risk of radicalisation might avoid the nihilism and disaffection that fundamentalists (religious, political, etc.) so easily exploit with their siren songs of simple certainty, surrender and obedience – and do so without disturbing less destructive religious sensibilities.
There are some people who rail against the Enlightenment and its enthronement of reason over belief. They trace all that is bad in society back to the loss of religious authority. They are wrong – as are their assertions that ethics are impossible without a religious foundation. This is simply not true. It is quite possible to derive a fully functional ethical system, in support of liberal democracy, from entirely uncontroversial “this worldly” foundations. Such a system need not be hostile to religious belief. It simply does not depend on them and is, like the secular state itself, open to people of all faiths or none.
Our political leaders say that they wish to defeat extremism and lessen its attraction to young Australians. If that is so, then let their actions match their words. Let them become models of moderation. Let them now reserve, for entirely private moments, whatever religious beliefs they might hold. Let them embody and become champions for the secular state and promote its ideals, ahead of any religious conviction, for the sake of all.
Dr Simon Longstaff is the Executive Director of the Ethics Centre, an independent, not-for-profit organisation focused on the promotion and exploration of ethical questions.