Does Australia have a problem with God?
Last week’s debate on religious freedom tested the limits of tolerance, freedom, respect and rights. Many MPs were driven by deep convictions, but the tone of the debate was not helped by a heavy dose of political opportunism and partisanship in the aisles of parliament.
The political right senses an opportunity to expose the left as weak on faith, calculating this will hurt work in multicultural seats, particularly in Sydney’s west. They portray the left and progressive identity politics at its extreme as dismissive, even hostile, to religion.
Social progressives present the deeply held beliefs of conservative believers on abortion, LGBTIQ issues, and euthanasia as discrimination and intolerance rather than matters of faith and belief.
Conservatives, on the other hand, sometimes seem more eager to plant the flag of their faith in defense of intolerance or exclusion than the teachings of love, forgiveness, grace and humility.
The bold assertion of religious freedom has also been undermined in recent times by the moral failings of many religious groups on issues of sexual abuse.
As this week has shown, the politics of faith and secularism are divisive and seem unrelenting.
But Australia is not alone when it comes to questions about God.
The role of faith in the public square
Around the world, faith is a political fault line. Indeed, for liberal democracies, it is an existential challenge. This raises questions of who owns? Where does public and private begin and where does it end? What is the future of pluralism? Can democracy still effectively govern diversity?
From the hijab ban in some schools in India to the public ban on the full veil in France to the ban on minarets in mosques in Switzerland, the role of faith in the public square is incendiary.
Political leaders around the world are seizing on religion as a fundamental marker of national identity. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pursues a virulent Hindu nationalism that is eroding the country’s democracy. In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalism inspired the massacre and mass displacement of Rohingya Muslims.
The Chinese Communist Party bans all Christian churches that are not licensed, monitored and approved by the state. China has called Islam a mental illness to justify so-called genocide against Muslim Uyghurs.
Political populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has boasted of his illiberal democracy, was once an atheist but now presents himself as a defender of Christianity. He says that Western Europe has abandoned Christianity: instead, he says, it has chosen “a Godless cosmos, rainbow families, migrations and open societies”.
Vladimir Putin has positioned the Orthodox religion as the cornerstone of what it is to be Russian. He lectured the West on the dangers of identity politics.
Like Xi Jinping in China, Putin sees Western liberalism as inherently weak and, for Putin, the erosion of faith is symbolic of that weakness.
Is Europe still Christian?
This is particularly acute in Europe. French scholar Olivier Roy wondered if Europe is, in fact, still Christian. Roy says that “secularization has given way to large-scale dechristianization”.
There is now, he says, “a serious crisis around European identity and the place of religion in the public sphere”.
In a recent Atlantic magazine article, journalist Rachel Donadio asked: Why is France so afraid of God? In France, she says, the idea of secularism “defines the most fiercely contested battle lines in contemporary France.”
Secularism, she says, does not establish freedom of religion, but sometimes the absence of religion. Donadio writes, “The term came to express a uniquely French insistence that religion, along with religious symbols and dress, should be absent from the public sphere.”
Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s has been a defining struggle for liberalism.
In his landmark book, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor posed this fundamental question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, when in 2000 many between us find it not only easy, but even unavoidable?
For many people, he says, the answer is simple: “Modern civilization can only cause the death of God.
Modernity itself is built on the elevation of the individual, the breaking of tradition and the goal of human fulfilment.
As Taylor writes, secularism means that “for the first time in history, a purely self-sufficient humanism has become a widely available option.”
It is a humanism, he says, “accepting no end goal beyond human flourishing. This was not true in any previous society.”
The rise of secularism
The rise of secularism is seeded in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Giant figures like David Hume questioned the rationality of religion and wondered how the existence of God was compatible with human suffering.
Hume is often hailed as a philosophical hero by atheists. He is much more subtle than that, and argued for politeness in public debate, warning that “reason is the slave of the passions”. How true today.
The Enlightenment was framed by a debate about God versus society. From Thomas Hobbes’ idea of Leviathan – the all-powerful state that rules over religion – to John Locke, who sought to reconcile faith and reason.
Liberal democracies that emerged from the Enlightenment embraced the doctrine of separation of church and state. But the globalized, pluralistic and multicultural 21st century poses more difficult questions that the philosophy of the 18th century struggles to answer.
Charles Taylor called it a disenchanted age: “We can rationalize the world, squeeze the mystery out of it.”
The political utopia sought to fill the void.
Political philosopher Judith Shklar has traced the decline of political faith, identifying “the alienated soul” who has “lost faith in past beliefs, having been let down by skepticism, but unable to find a new home for his spiritual aspirations in the present or future”.
Liberalism, Shklar said, had become “uncertain of its moral basis”. It is a society based on rationalization and bureaucratization.
Inevitably, there is a void, filled today by identity politics seeking belonging around shared suffering and injustice, and believers for whom divine scripture cannot be withdrawn.
Both identity and faith are a response to a meaningless world. They each seek solace and assurance in a time of moral and political complexity and relativism.
Indeed, they share common points. Identity groups can be as doctrinaire and rigid as some conservative believers.
Religion as a weapon to win
For the philosopher and theologian John Milbank, we have exchanged hierocratic rule (the authority of the Church) for a contractual rule of conciliation.
Secularism itself, says Milbank, rests on an “ontology of violence”; it “assumes the priority of the force and tells us how that force is best managed and confined by the counterforce”.
So we have what we see in the world: a competition for power. In its most benign form, it is a peaceful and democratic contest of ideas. But at worst, it gives rise to real violence and extremism.
Both radical Islamists and white supremacists use religion as a weapon.
John Milbank argues that Christianity itself can reconcile virtue with difference in a way that involves “living together in agreement, rather than mutual tolerance”. He says it is a justice of “true peace, that is to say more than just a suspended war”.
In Australia, we have come to a position of suspended political warfare, but the issue of religious freedom versus secular freedom is far from peacefully resolved.
This requires a nuance and a depth that eludes our politics. Questions of faith are at the very heart of the modern secular liberal project.
All over the world it is at stake, hijacked by hatred and exploited by demagogues.
It is not, as has been presented here, a simple competition of rights. It is, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt said, the most existential question of the right to have rights.
Stan Grant is ABC’s International Affairs Analyst and presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel and is a co-anchor of Q&A.