Some Thoughts on Religious Freedom

In the lead up to the same-sex marriage decision, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull acknowledged that some people with conventional religious beliefs believed that legislating for same-sex marriage would impinge on their ability to freely advocate and act on their religious convictions. Turnbull assured them that he would ensure that their rights to religious freedom would be protected. The government then appointed Philip Ruddock to conduct a review of the protection of religious freedoms and recommend to the government what might be necessary to safeguard those freedoms. Ruddock is a former Federal Member of the House of Representatives (1973-2016) and noted for his conservative views. Ruddock has delivered his report to the government, but it is unlikely to be released publicly until after the upcoming 28 July by-elections.

Now as readers of my blog would know, I am not conventionally religious, but I strongly support religious freedom. The reason I do so is that we humans have spiritual needs that are very important and for many (but not all) religion helps satisfy those needs.

In The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geetz concludes that:

The existence of bafflement, pain and moral paradox – the Problem of Meaning (author’s capitalisation) – is one of the things that drive men towards belief in gods, devils, spirits, totemic principles.

To understand the importance of our spiritual beliefs a little better let me quote from The Myth of Nine to Five, a little book that I co-authored with Dr Phil Harker. In discussing psychological development, we wrote:

As the child grows into adulthood there are three great sets of needs that dominate life, and satisfaction of these needs becomes the basis of the child’s sense of well-being.


The first set of needs is the physical needs, the needs we have in common with all living things. If we don’t supply our physical needs we die — physically. Fulfilment of our physical needs allows us to survive.


The second set of needs is the social needs, the needs we have in common with animals because, like animals, we have the capacity to be aware of our outer world and to respond to that world through the processes of thinking, feeling, and decision making. Like animals we are intimately connected through strong emotional bonds to our fellow creatures, particularly those of our own species. If we don’t find reasonable satisfaction for our social needs we die — emotionally (and sometimes even physically). Fulfilment of our social needs allows us to cope emotionally.


The third set of needs is the spiritual needs — needs for meaning, the uniquely human needs. We have these needs because, not only do we think and have an awareness of our social and physical world (just as animals do) but we also have a ‘witness’ (what is sometimes referred to as the ‘spirit of our being’) that gives us the capacity to ‘watch’ our own thinking and decision making processes at work; at least the conscious tip of these processes. Hence, we are self-aware and experience an inner psychological world as well as an outer material world. Because we can access and ‘look over’ our memory banks we are consciously aware of the passing of time and look for some continuity of purpose in what we do day by day. In other words, we have a need to understand the ‘meaning’ of our lives. If we don’t supply our spiritual needs and thereby fail to find meaning in our lives we can languish and die — spiritually (and sometimes socially and physically). This ‘spiritual sickness’ is sometimes referred to as mental illness, although this should not be understood in terms of something a person can ‘catch’, such as one catches the measles.


Fulfilment of our spiritual needs is necessary to a sense of personal worth. We must find meaning and purpose in our lives if we are to experience our full humanity. The meeting of these needs provides a sense of well-being that transcends the conditions of our immediate social and physical circumstances and thereby allows us to be better adjusted in our attitude towards such circumstances.


Spirituality is transcendent. It helps us to align with goals that are higher than our own selfish needs. I have written many essays on happiness and its causes, and there is consensus among the many psychologists who have studied the attainment of happiness, that one of the factors in attaining happiness is to have a cause which transcends the self. Even our mortality seems linked to this.

(I remember reading of a study by epidemiologist Ichiro Kawachi from the Harvard School of Public Health in the 1980’s. He looked at correlating male mortality with the number of church groups and groups set up to altruistically advance the welfare of others to which the individual was a member. This measure turned out to be a good predictor of deaths from all causes. The higher the group membership, the lower was the death rate.

On the other hand looking across societies, strength of religious belief seems to be inversely correlated with many measures of social health. In his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris instances a 2009 study by researcher Gregory Paul. Paul listed countries on two different scales viz the Successful Societies Scale and the Popular Religiosity Versus Secularism Scale. Paul believed he has found a link between religious conviction and social insecurity.)

It is worth revisiting the thoughts of Joseph Campbell, a scholar in the field of mythology and comparative religion. Campbell believed that the specifics of religious faith and practice are less significant than the general role they play in helping us understand the essence of humanity and the experience of living.

A cogent belief system helps us anchor our lives. Indeed, as I have elaborated many times before, our underlying beliefs determine how we view the world. As Anaïs Nin wrote:

We don’t see things the way they are. We see things the way we are.


Accordingly, as outlined above, meeting our spiritual needs is important. The fact that many rely on conventional religious beliefs to fill that gap means our society is enhanced by allowing free discourse on religious matters. Of course such discussions should not be allowed to incite violence or compel others to take up any particular belief. They should be free debates about competing ideas.

But the modern tendency is not to allow the debate at all! More conservative points of view are shouted down or indeed silenced by the progressives and the torchbearers of identity politics.

Former Prime Minister, John Howard, has warned of the rise of “minority fundamentalism”. He defines this threat as “the assumption that traditional beliefs and practices represent an attack on those who do not support them”.

We saw elements of this in play in the rejection by The Australian National University of a proposal to have it host the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. Affronted students and academic unions influenced the university administration to throw out the proposal.

Social Services Minister, Dan Teehan, in a recent speech in favour of religious freedom had this to say:

Australia has reached an unusual point where the tools of oppression –sowing the seeds of division, conquest, manipulation and cultural division – are being wielded by the minority against the majority.

We have not realised Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where you are judged by the content of your character, and not the colour of your skin. Instead we have woken up to a nightmare where the value of your contribution to a debate depends on what you claim to be a victim of.


So, it seems apparent to me that religious freedom is an important underlying right in a liberal democracy. But I also suggest that we need to take care how we protect such freedom. We would do well to remember that religious freedom is but one aspect of freedom. The concerns we have about religious freedom sit under a superordinate architecture of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Consequently we need to be careful that in our desire to cement our religious freedoms we don’t accidently diminish this overarching architecture. At a practical level we need to think long and hard before we add more legislation which could have these unintended consequences. And we should also acknowledge that one aspect of religious freedom is the tolerance of those who have no religious beliefs whatsoever!


In essence what we are seeking from all participants in such debates is tolerance and humility. In order to be as well informed as possible on such matters we must be prepared to listen to the ideas of others and not just dismiss them out of hand. This is why we need to cultivate humility. There is a great arrogance in suppressing the ideas of others. If we are so certain in our beliefs we should have no difficulty in mounting an intellectual defence of our position in the face of contra points of view. It always seems to me that those who don’t allow contrary points of view to be voiced are inherently insecure in their own beliefs and therefore can’t afford to have them challenged. This is particularly true when such beliefs underpin their particular chosen identity.


My stance on such matters has been greatly influenced by the good Dr Phil who told me many years ago that “there are no bad people only people with bad ideas”. It took me some years and the maturation of experience to come to agree with him. So instead of engaging in personal vilification we need to debate the ideas.


It is for these reasons that I believe that we need to enhance our freedom of speech by curtailing our ability to debate by removing the easy get out of “taking offence”.  This too easily allows those who are insecure in their beliefs to avoid the confrontation of ideas. Most of human advancement has been initiated by such confrontation, why would it not benefit us today in considerations of spirituality and philosophy?


But I want now to move the debate to a more universal and philosophical level.


The schisms that militate against religious freedom are three fold.


  1. The tensions between religious belief and atheism. This has been highlighted in recent times by the popular writings of people such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.


This schism highlights the tensions between science and faith. It is exacerbated by the fact that some tenets scientists believe ‘religiously’ are in fact underpinned by gigantic leaps of faith themselves. Such fundamental notions as ‘big bang theory’, ‘string theory’, CO2 driven climate change and so on are just theories dependant on unproven assumptions.


It is widely accepted that the criticisms of traditional religions by Dawkins et al have largely been true of the most fundamentalist believers and do not acknowledge that there are more sophisticated believers who are able to accommodate basic science.


  1. The tensions between the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.


It is paradoxical that some of the most virulent religious conflicts occur between those who believe fundamentally in the same God.


  1. The tensions that occur within the Abrahamic religions.


Some of the bloodiest conflicts resulting from religious difference have occurred in Christianity between Catholics and Protestant and in Islam between Sunni and Shia Muslims.


In his fabulous book, The Evolution of God, Robert Wright asks the question:


Can the religions in the modern world reconcile themselves to one another, and can they reconcile themselves to science.


Wright believes that such reconciliation is indeed possible. Of course his philosophy is outlined in one of his other books, Non-Zero. To Wright the solution lies in not seeing the conflicts outlined above as zero-sum gains. When zero-sum games occur, protagonists believe they cannot achieve their ends unless their opponent loses. Win-win outcomes seem beyond the parlance of such people.


Wright explains:


The scriptures of (the three Abrahamic religions) are, beneath the surface, maps of the landscapes of religious tolerance and intolerance, maps that amount to a kind of code for the salvation of the world. The core of the code should now be clear. When people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with other – see their fortunes as inversely correlated to the fortunes of other people, see the dynamic as win-lose – they tend to find scriptural basis for intolerance or belligerence.


When they see the relationship as non-zero-sum – see their fortunes as positively correlated, see the potential for a win-win outcome – they’re more likely to find the tolerant and understanding side of their scriptures.


And yet all three of the Abrahamic religions profess to believe in the reciprocal rule (what Christians commonly call “The Golden Rule”). That surely should commit their adherents to win-win outcomes. But of course many of the adherents to these religions aren’t so enlightened.


As I mentioned above, I believe we should be very careful if we are to legislate for religious freedoms. I concede there may be some areas where we have no choice, but generally legislation inevitably impinges on other freedoms. Not only that but reluctant compliance to legislation does little to heal the divisions between the protagonists. After all what we are seeking is tolerance, and that can’t be compelled. Christians in particular must remember to “turn the other cheek”!


Let us look at two areas of contention regarding religious freedom that have found frequent expression in the press.


The archetypical (but more trivial) argument seems to be about wedding cakes. If a person from an LBTIQ background approaches a baker with conservative Christian values and requests that the baker make a wedding cake to celebrate a gay wedding what is the appropriate response?


I believe in the spirit of tolerance the baker should make the cake.


Should he be compelled to do so? I don’t think so.


If the baker refuses to bake the cake, should his potential customer take offence? Not at all. There is likely to be another baker who will willingly bake such a cake. As I pointed out earlier none of us should be motivated to change our behaviour as a result of someone’s taking offence. But I don’t believe we should intentionally provoke people either.


A second more substantive issue is whether religious organisations should be able to discriminate in favour of those who share their beliefs for employment in such organisations. Well I believe they should.


If the purpose of the organisation is to advance the cause of a particular religion, then being supportive of that religion would seem a reasonable credential to ask for in a prospective employee. I don’t see much difference from when the local branch of the ALP calls for nominations for treasurer – they expect the nominees to members of the ALP.


So in summary my position on religious freedom is that it must be preserved. But we need to ensure that any actions we take do not curtail other freedoms such as freedom of speech.


Additionally, and for similar reasons, any legislative response to bolster our religious freedoms should be minimal.


Finally, if religious freedom is to endure, above all else we should nurture tolerance and as Robert Wright has pointed out, foster the pursuit of win-win outcomes.

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