Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that while we’re a secular democracy, that does not mean Australians are “godless people”. Picture: AAP/Kelly Barnes
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that while we’re a secular democracy, that does not mean Australians are “godless people”. Picture: AAP/Kelly Barnes

ScoMo should tread very carefully with religion laws

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's announcement he will introduce a Religious Discrimination Act to take to the next election pitches directly to his conservative base.

As an evangelical, Morrison no doubt has a genuine passion for the protection of his faith, but he clearly sees votes in it as well saying, "Australia is a secular democracy but that does not mean that Australians are a godless people."

Perhaps not, but we are hardly a religious people either. The numbers show it.

In April 2012, the results of a poll of an audience attending a debate on religion on the ABC's Q&A program raised eyebrows - 75 per cent did not think religion made the world a better place.

Even given the likely bias of the Q&A audience, this was a fairly striking result, but one which should not really have come as a surprise. As revealed by the last census data, Australians don't really do religion.

In fact, it is likely the census overstated our national religiosity due to the nature of the question asked. The census simply asked people what religion they were, not whether or not they were actively religious.

Clearly, there is a good chance that many people simply nominated the religion into which they were born-even if they hadn't been to church in years, or had no faith whatsoever.

In addition, parents filled out this question for their children, meaning the figures for each religion were inflated by the bias of the parent (as was the "no religion" option, for that matter). Without any follow-up detail on religious observance or active celebration of the religion nominated, the census tells us little about how religious we actually are (or are not).

But surveys conducted by various religions reveal that monthly or better attendance at a religious service in Australia sits-at best-at around 17 per cent, or fewer than one in five. Those figures back up what most people have already deduced - Australia is not a religious country and has not been for quite some time. Indeed, it can be validly argued Australia is the most overtly secular country on the planet.

This is no bad thing. Our lack of religion has allowed us to avoid many of the pitfalls that have blighted other countries.

Australia's largely egalitarian society generally abhors discrimination so, as a nation, we have to tread very carefully here.

Almost by definition religions are bundles of prejudices and rules clearly identifying "us" and "them", and pretty strongly condemn "them".

Unlike other protections against discrimination - which look to limit the ability to discriminate - a Religious Discrimination Act would embed the right to do exactly that. Many religions espouse misogyny and racism. Is it really a good idea to enshrine those concepts in legislation?

Freedom of religion inherently involves freedom from religion. For example, Catholics are free to ignore the tenets of every other faith but theirs.

History tells us that when faith informs policy, bad things happen. Morrison needs to be careful that in his effort to shore up his conservative base, he doesn't damage the much broader egalitarian base on which our country is founded.

Shane Budden is a lawyer and freelance writer.