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Religious discrimination bill: The devil is in the details

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Scott Morrison addressing the Australian Christian Churches conference in April (Screenshot via YouTube)

A report finds the not-so-secret agenda of conservative religious activists is unpopular among many Australians — including the religious mainstream, writes Meredith Doig.

THE INTRODUCTION of same-sex marriage was a momentous occasion in Australia’s history, heralding equal respect for all Australians. But in the eyes of some, it was a dark turn of events.

Since the 2017 plebiscite, conservative religious activists have stepped up their campaign for special protections through so-called “religious freedom” laws, playing on fear of religious persecution.

As states have progressively enacted widely supported reforms on the legalisation of abortion, safe access zones around abortion clinics, gay conversion bans and voluntary assisted dying, we have witnessed multiple attempts by conservative religious elements to stack political party branches.

Members of the Morrison Government – and some in Labor, too – have enthusiastically bought into the narrative that religious freedoms are under threat. With such religious activists currently pushing hard for a federal religious discrimination bill to provide positive rights for religious individuals and religious institutions to discriminate against the non-religious and the religiously apathetic, MPs would be wise to think again.

The first instalment of the 'Religiosity in Australia' report, written by social researcher Neil Francis and published by the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), earlier this year, revealed that the level of support for religion has been greatly overstated. Seven in ten Australians (71%) say religion is not personally important to them and 62% do not belong to any religious organisation. Only 23% say they do belong and only 15% are actively involved.

The trend lines show that Australians considered weakly or modestly religious have been abandoning religion in droves for many years — and the results of this year’s census are expected to confirm Christianity’s fall to below 50% for the first time. 

Most importantly, the report also revealed that the views of senior religious clerics on key policy issues, like abortion rights and voluntary assisted dying, are out of touch with the very people they claim to lead — those in their own pews.

The second in Francis’ 'Religiosity in Australia' series – published earlier this month – explores, among other things, Australians’ journey with religion from childhood to adulthood.

Francis confirms that significant numbers of Australians have abandoned their childhood religion – including 66% of those who were "notional" and 47% who were "occasional" religionists.

Analysing the push by religious activists for “religious freedom” laws, Francis argues that it’s the very decline of religion in Australia that is driving their political activism.

Writes Francis:

No longer would Christian conservatives be able to refer to a presumed Christian "moral majority": not that it has existed in reality for some time given the numbers of religious who never attend religious services and say they don’t belong to their religious organisation.


Therefore, it’s important to religious conservatives to achieve greater religious ‘protections’ now, in case the Coalition Government loses office at the next federal election…

However, Francis warns that efforts to increase the rights of the religious can trigger a counter effect, pointing to an international study of 166 countries that shows privileging Christianity leads to a reduction in the faith’s vitality. 

When religious conservatives embarked on their campaign for special privileges, they may not have counted on the pushback from pro-secular Australians. Where previously secular and non-religious groups were fragmented, now they are joining forces and coordinating on a whole new level.

In response to initial drafts of the religious discrimination bill, atheists, humanists, rationalists and secularists spearheaded the #DontDivideUs campaign, with former High Court Justice Michael Kirby the campaign’s public face. 

More recently, the same groups raised more than $50,000 for a campaign, which encouraged Australians to reflect honestly on their religious beliefs and practices, and urged them to mark "no religion" on the census if they were no longer religious. 

This effort was necessary to address the effect of the biased census question that, in assuming everyone has a religion, artificially overstates the importance of religion in Australians’ lives, skewing policymaking and public funding. 

I believe there is an even greater scope for people who care about secularism to work together to achieve common goals on other issues.

As Francis’ new report notes, the not-so-secret agenda of conservative religious activists is deeply unpopular among ordinary Australians — including the religious mainstream.

Politicians in Canberra and in state capitals would be wise to wake up to the tactics of conservative religious activists. The rest of the country already has. 

Meredith Doig is President of the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA).

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