Samuel Webster

September 18, 2012 Remove Religion from Public Debate Posted In: Writing

The appearance of Archbishop Peter Jensen and Catherine Deveny on the ABC’s Q&A last week revealed a number of character traits about both, and those on either side of the issues have been quick to jump in with their support. What is odd is the way that this support has been voiced: not purely as an engagement along intellectual lines of argument but as character witnesses.

Deveny is seen as ‘mouthy’, despite working with facts, not because she is considered impolite but because she’s a woman (critics argue that a man would be merely ‘outspoken’). Jensen is seen as a misogynist, while adhering to principles those within his religion agree with, women included.

Now, it is inevitable that this piece will be written with some view of bias, but I promise you, I’m trying to deal with both sides equally in order to engage with a bigger issue. That is, that the waters are muddied every time the media chooses commentators who consistently parse their views through religion. The religion debate, when it is directly about religious practices, needs to happen, but for issues of ethics or legality, the debate needs to occur in the spheres of human rights and legislative process.

The problem with the public debate which follows such a media spectacle is that it goes along two specific lines, and each side believes that it must be just one thing. The Jensen supporters claimed he was being unfairly targeted for his beliefs, and disallowed from polite discussion on account of them. They call Deveny rude, inconsiderate and bigoted towards people of faith. The Deveny supporters argued that she was not only right, but dismissed because of the religious tradition of restricting female outspokenness and even going so far as to call the disagreement an example of gaslighting.

Those with religion, and secular supporters of Jensen’s position of authority, refuse to engage with Deveny on account of her brash, insensitive statements, seen as examples of atheistic arrogance.

Those without faith, and the more liberal among the church flock, believe that Deveny is representing a modern truth, and that the career status of a man shouldn’t stand in the way of that opinion being voiced in opposition. Many go so far as to say that Jensen is let off the hook because of an inherent sexism in our culture, and that he addresses issues from a purely misogynistic and archaic standpoint.

Obviously, the removal of religion from all discussion is detrimental to the discourse of a democratic nation, and so this is not an answer. Nor is the removal of discussions around a lack of faith (either by birth or through careful consideration) as this is a valid way to come to ethical ideas and responsibility also. However, attempting to find some meaningful discussion amongst a church leader, and a well known atheist speaker (a leader in different robes) is like gene splicing glue with a leather jacket to get a donkey. The oppositions are so heavily defined (and equally closed for negotiation) that it results in a monumental butting of heads, a divisive public response and no real change. The ethical debate becomes reliant upon the religious one, and is not dealt with for what it is because the religious debate is a stomping ground never fully claimed by either side.The problem is that all of this furore does very little for the issues at hand. Amongst this dazzling array, we abandoned the frightening mortality statistics of both refugee arrivals and the queer minority as the media circus spun its bright lights and we emerged dizzy, driven toward one side or the other by a position we had already formulated. No positions changed, no considerations were truly felt and engaged with. We were feminists, sexists, bigots, bleeding hearts, gaslighters, prejudiced and stubborn religious atheists. It is a confusion which stripped the debate of all content but preexisting conditions, and therefore strips the concept of democratic engagement of all value.

At a more basic level, there is the general way the Australian state should operate: mindful of its foundation yet making decisions which benefit contemporary progressions toward equality and peace. When Tony Jones asked Jensen if he agreed with Tony Abbott that coming by boat was the “Christian thing” to do, similar questions were left unsaid: “Was it a Buddhist thing to do?”, “Should we also consider whether Muhammad would have come by boat?”

These are questions which even seem ridiculous to write down, because they have such tenuous links to the nature of the journey. The real questions are: is it safe? Why do they think it necessary to risk their lives? Can we make it safer? Can we remove the threat so they don’t feel the need to risk their lives? Why do Christian values so directly influence Australian policy?

And these are all before we get to the ethical issues around how to process these people who risk their lives for freedom. These are issues of ethics, rights and humanity, not religion. To argue that Christianity has a monopoly on ethics, in ANY society, is offensive to those who have come before and after Christianity. To argue that faith is required for people to treat each other humanely is too dim a view to even qualify with a response. Religious belief and Atheism are polar opposites and as such, the debate sees followers of each elevate their own ethics as being a byproduct of their faith or lack thereof. Christ said to look after the disenfranchised, say the Christian leaders. We don’t need religion as a moral compass, say atheists. Once again, butting heads on a side issue despite being in possible agreement.

Later in the week, a group claiming to be representatives of the Muslim faith (in reality, an angry, fundamentalist representation at best) protested in Sydney and major cities around the world. A protest is an extremely valid means of making a public statement, but these placards preached for death (specifically, by beheading, a particularly cruel method) in response to someone exercising his democratic right to free speech and insulting the prophet. I understand why they are outraged, hurt and offended. I do not understand why the debate has become the merits of Islam. Whether they are Australian citizens by birth or migration is not important – we should not allow such threats under the guise of free speech. This is an ethical, moral and legal issue, first and foremost. Any person calling for the beheading of another, in Australia, should be dealt with to the full extent of the law for hate speech and threats on a specific individual (an Australian citizen or otherwise).

Following actions framed within a religious context can get in the way of actual insight into the event at hand. Generalising is too easy. In this case, it is hateful and, specifically, xenophobic. Such an approach would bar insights as luminescent as Waleed Aly’s: “This is the behaviour of a drunkenly humiliated people: swinging wildly with the hope of landing a blow, any blow, somewhere, anywhere. There’s nothing strategic or calculated about this. It doesn’t matter that they are the film’s most effective publicists. It doesn’t matter that they protest using offensive slogans and signs, while protesting against people’s right to offend. It doesn’t matter that they object to insulting people on the basis of their religion, while declaring that Christians have no morals. This is baffling only until you realise these protesters are not truly protesting to make a point. The protest is the point.”

If the day must end with retribution, it should be with arrests for manipulating the right to protest to encourage and propagate hate speech. The day should have ended with the Prime Minister denouncing ANYONE who calls for another’s death (including some of her own radio personality detractors). The day should have ended in respect for the many Muslims who do not condone this barbaric and torturous method of punishment, by refusing to acknowledge their action as representative of religion. The debate needs to be directed toward acceptance, democracy, and respect for your fellow man. If religion comes up in the process, engage with it for what it is and no more: why tar others with the same brush just because it’s easy to categorise people that way? Nothing will get solved that way. We will continue to butt heads.

We will not see cultural integration or tolerance as long as we give fuel to the fire of otherness. We will not grant the rights to marriage equality until we begin to deal with it as an issue of rights and not of preserving religious tradition. This is not to say that those who believe in a higher power have mislaid their faith. Instead, it is a call to establish ethical debate removed from such personal oaths so that it might preserve the rights of ALL, while promoting the safety and acceptance of our fellow man. We have already fought for a secular state to stop such lobbying from governing legislation, let’s stop shirking our ethical responsibility by engaging with religion as the catalyst for all thought.

1 Comment

  1. AF • October 10, 2012

    We will not see cultural integration or tolerance as long as we give fuel to the fire of otherness.

    The underlying problem is that 'tolerance' has actually been redefined in common parlance. It no longer means allowing other viewpoints with which one disagrees, but now seems to imply affirmation, so that if someone disagrees with me, they're a bigot (highly ironic). Contemporary tolerance has become intolerant (as I recall Deveny actually being proud of.. go figure) You can't actually have tolerance unless you recognise 'otherness'.

    We will not grant the rights to marriage equality until we begin to deal with it as an issue of rights and not of preserving religious tradition.

    But who is actually arguing against gender-neutral marriage on the basis of preserving a religious tradition? In that sense, I agree, we do need to stop seeing it as that, and actually engage (rather than dismiss with name-calling - something which applies to us all, actually) with the sociological, and indeed, ontological arguments & consequences people are making against defining away the conjugal nature of the union.

    This is not to say that those who believe in a higher power have mislaid their faith. Instead, it is a call to establish ethical debate removed from such personal oaths so that it might preserve the rights of ALL, while promoting the safety and acceptance of our fellow man.

    By what right do you have to say that a certain ideology or belief is barred from informing public debate, but allow your own? Our ethical views are all informed by our various beliefs, assumptions and worldviews, and it's simply begging the question to disallow one particular view because you don't share it. Allowing diverse views, informed by diverse influences is what real tolerance looks like. To allow someone to put forward their ethical views influenced by their religious persuasion is not to say that religion (a false plural) has a monopoly on ethics, it simply acknowledges the fact that we all are products of our beliefs, religious or not, and have a right to try and persuade (not the same as lobbying, I'd argue) others of our view.

    The real problem with the QandA encounter is the facile soundbite nature of the programme.. which, if nothing else, Jensen exposed rather well, I thought.

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