Religious voices must be respected

December 11, 2007

Tom Frame is director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra and head of the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. He delivered the annual Acton Lecture on religion and freedom at the Centre for Independent Studies last night, which has been reworked in the Australian as an opinion piece entitled “Religious voices must be repected”. Must they indeed?

DESPITE their well-known indifference to ideology and apathy towards philosophy, Australians have become surprisingly animated when it comes to religion. In the minds of many, its presence or absence will decide the fate of the nation. The proponents of theistic religion claim it explains the origins of mortal life and reveals the destiny of human beings; provides the foundations for moral reasoning and ethical deliberation; and gives insights into how communities can peacefully coexist.
Theistic religion’s opponents argue that belief in a transcendent being or life beyond death lacks any evidentiary basis, defies the dictates of reason, impedes scientific advance, encourages discriminatory attitudes, further divides an already fractured humanity and leads to violence.

Hoo boy. I think someone just rolled up a straw man and smacked me over the head with it.

The whole speech is worth a read, but the conclusion is quite sufficient to see where this is all coming from:

Secularism does not occupy a sanctified or privileged place from which bias, prejudice or ignorance are banished simply because it dismisses belief in God.

True enough.

Nor can the state assume wisdom, insight and understanding on the basis it feels no obligation to embody divine laws.

Equally true, but it is not a dichotomy. Reaching the conclusion that a secular society/government does not embody perfect fairness, mercy and understanding does not mean that an “obligation to embody divine laws” and “belief in god” automatically provides a better solution.

Secularism does not exist in a vacuum: it is a product of fallible reason and faltering experience. It has philosophical origins and a historical pedigree. Its tenets are far from self-evident to everyone.

You could say the same about any one of the conflicting* religious belief structures that flourish in this country today.

Because the state is not competent to involve itself in every sphere of human life and public discourse, it must leave sufficient room within the public square, and indeed within itself, for religious matters to be discussed, and for potentially divergent views to flourish. This is the kind of society Australia has been and needs to remain if we want to deny extremists any pretext for abandoning dialogue in favour of violence.

And here we have it. The same old straw man, wrapped in a false dichotomy and smothered in secret sauce.

You can’t argue with logic like that. Literally.


* And we really shouldn’t forget that this is not just a case of religion versus secularism. Many denominations of the same religion do not agree on a scriptural and moral basis, let alone different religions. When we talk about religion offering an alternative, which one are we talking about?
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One Response to “Religious voices must be respected”

  1. Kieran Says:

    I find your assessment in regards to Frame “setting up a straw man” to be an unfair assertion. Frame has proposed that certain groups/people are publicly seeking to remove any traces of “religion” from Australian government policy/society’s thinking. Lyn Allison’s statements in regards to Church and state highlights this gross misunderstanding, in regards to allowing ones ideology to guide ones decisions; simply because the ideology is influenced by a “religion”. Now you have commented in other blog posts that you have no problem with a politician acting our of their moral beliefs; regardless if they are motivated by “religious” motives. And I would agree (coming from a Theistic perspective). However you are perhaps the exception to the rule. Richards Dawkins works (even though he is not Australian) do promote ideas that “… that belief in a transcendent being or life beyond death lacks any evidentiary basis, defies the dictates of reason, impedes scientific advance, encourages discriminatory attitudes, further divides an already fractured humanity and leads to violence.”

    Therefore if Frame is looking at certain predominantly anti-religious groups/individuals and coming to that conclusion – how is it setting up a straw man. It is merely journalism.


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