Last year’s same-sex marriage campaigns prompted Australians to think deeply about one of the principal institutions underpinning civil society. But many strong supporters of SSM nonetheless have concerns that the rapid secularisation of Australian society, and the marginalisation of Judeo-Christian principles, are pushing religion out to the sidelines where it can be ignored, ridiculed, and even attacked.
That helps explain recent polls indicating equally strong support for enacting clear protections for religious freedom. Clearly, there is a readiness to accept social change as long as it does not sever links to faith or infringe religious freedoms. With the Ruddock Inquiry (for which I prepared a submission) preparing to hand down its recommendations this week, there is renewed hope the government will belatedly take action to protect the true diversity of Australian society and firmly commit to balancing the rights, concerns, and freedoms of all Australians.
Fear that we are in danger of drifting far from the cultural and intellectual moorings of our secular society is one factor accounting for the growing interest in reconnecting with the roots of Western civilisation — whether at the baker’s shop, in the classroom, on campus, or in the art gallery. Widely seen by many on the Left as inherently racist, imperialist, and misogynistic, Western civilisation is condemned with increasing frequency by its critics as a principal explanation for what they regard as being wrong, at heart, with our society.
Their answer is to recast our history, downgrade our literature and art, and banish religion — especially Christianity — from the public square. And campaigns to accomplish all these things have long been waged in the name of ‘progress’.
Yet we are beginning to wake up to the dangers of dismantling our cultural heritage and, with it, our identity as citizens of a secular, liberal society. Intellectual soul-searching for the roots of Western civilisation is also fuelling renewed interest in the importance of rational enquiry. An essential part of our civic identity is a reasoned commitment to key freedoms of speech, conscience, and religion. But one of the unintended consequences of 50 years of official multicultural policy-making has been a weakening of those commitments.
That’s because where they see growing diversity, proponents of official multiculturalism also see increasing inequality. While cultural differences are emphasised in the name of promoting tolerance, individual freedoms are curtailed in the name of protecting diversity. This, in turn, poses a grave threat to the secular character of our society which affords to all individuals a private realm wherein they may freely exercise moral choice and assume moral obligation.
Liberal secularism protects this private sphere by constitutional arrangements that disperse and limit the power the state can exercise over the individual. But secularism did not spring fully formed from nowhere. It derives its character from the Judeo-Christian roots of the West. Familiarity with what Christianity teaches — and the extent to which that teaching draws upon its Jewish heritage — has almost certainly reached a low point in these early years of the 21st century. This, combined with a growing hostility to organised religion, means fewer seem prepared to grasp the fact that Christianity has given shape to our conception of the good life, and the good life of the soul — neither of which mean Australia is in danger of becoming a theocracy.
Western civilisation is not enslaved to the Bible or the pronouncements of bishops. Far from being constrained by religious ‘certainty’, the West has grown to be characterised by open discussion, trial and error, and the willingness to entertain doubt. Yet the religious heritage of the secular West is an essential component of its identity. And if we become indifferent to that heritage, we will soon discover that this identity will be weakened and, with it, the protections that secularism affords the individual.
It is important to recall and reinstate three of the principal ideas — or roots — that anchor secular, Western society to its religious foundation. The first of these roots is reason and the essential connection it has with faith. Reason is often equated with ‘science’ and is said to depend on verifiable evidence, or ‘proof’. But this not only reduces the concept of reason to that which is empirically falsifiable; it also shunts religion to the realm of the non-rational beyond the scope of reasonable discourse.
The exercise of reason fosters moral progress, and this, in turn, leads to the second anchoring root of Western civilisation: repentance. Founded on the exercise of reason, repentance presupposes remorse, contrition, and a changing of one’s ways. Repentance involves the whole human person. This capacity to reflect on the past and make amendment of life helps orientate the individual towards the future. Repentance, the seed of human hope and accountability, is often considered to be a quintessential part of the progressive development of the Western soul.
At the heart of this progress lies the third principal root of the West: the individual. The Christian conception of the individual is crucial because it underlies all propositions about rights, responsibilities, and liberties that inform Western conceptions of civil society. Whereas the ancient world assumed natural inequality between humans, Christianity spun a golden thread that came to link key Western liberal ideas of truth, faith, and freedom. That thread was the principle of individual moral agency and the assumption of the equality of all human beings.
Secularism, then, does not refer to a non-moral indifference to religion: it assumes a moral equality of individuals whereby an appropriate sphere of human autonomy is described. Within this sphere, religious belief can be freely expressed and defended. Secularism guarantees religious liberty.
Reason, repentance, and the individual are, then, three principal roots of Western civilisation. They are set firmly in the rich soil of our Judeo-Christian heritage. But if our commitment to that heritage weakens, so, too, will our ability to defend the foundation of our society. The religious context of Australia has changed. As we embark on changes to marriage, we must also strengthen the civilisation that has given us individual liberty and autonomy, and the rule of law. Attending to the health of our Judeo-Christian roots is a fine place to start.
Peter Kurti is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies