Advancing Secularism – last night’s panel at Macquarie University
Last night I took part with Sean Faircloth, Jane Caro, Max Wallace, John Kaye, and Stephen Mutch (convenor) in a public panel discussion on the topic of Advancing Secularism. The event took place at Macquarie University in Sydney.
I was especially delighted to meet Sean Faircloth, who spoke passionately, was pleasant to talk to, and wrote a lovely inscription in my copy of his book Attack of the Theocrats.
In my own contribution to the discussion, I emphasised that secularism is not a comprehensive worldview. It can, in fact, be embraced by people with many different comprehensive worldviews, and indeed many political viewpoints. All you need to agree to is the idea of secular government. That will not, for example, determine your views on matters of economic policy. In that sense, secularism is inclusive. Indeed, many religious people could embrace the arguments for secularism (the exceptions being those whose theology includes a doctrine that the state has a theocratic role).
However, if the secularist ideal is accepted it does transform many debates: perhaps not those on economic policy, where the arguments on both sides are usually worldly ones (e.g. relating to what is the correct economic theory), but certainly many others, such as on reproductive rights, drug policy, and on and on. Once you factor out religious considerations, many debates then take a very different form. Secularism might not automatically tell you the best policy, but it will alter the balance of the arguments and affect the outcomes.
So, secularism is not a comprehensive worldview. It is, however, both an inclusive idea and transformative of politics.
There was much useful discussion of educational policy in Australia, including the funding of religious schools; of feminism and women’s rights; and of the relationship between secularism and atheism. I emphasised that I am an atheist, and that I think it is healthy to live in a society in which religion is subjected to criticism (and atheism is explained and advocated). However, I also stressed that many religious people will be our allies if we press for secular government and for following Enlightenment and liberal principles. I particularly asked audience members to read and consider both the Rationalist Society of Australia’s Manifesto for a Secular Australia and the Dublin Declaration on Secularism.
The audience appeared to be engaged, the event seemed to go very well, and I hope that some of the thoughts expressed and connections made will lead to more secularist activity in Australia – and to more integration of Australian secularism with international developments.