Religion is not Dead – and Neither is Secularism

Buddhist Temple surrounded by trees on a suburban road.

This Buddhist Temple in suburban Sydney was first opened in 1992 and rebuilt in 2000.

At the start of each meeting of the Bideford Council in England a guest minister of religion led the council members in saying prayers.  This practice had occurred for many years but in January 2008 Mr Bone, a newly elected councillor, objected to it.  Mr Bone was not Christian and he did not want to be involved with this religious practice.  After various unsuccessful attempts to amend the Council’s practice, the issue came before the courts.  Last week the High Court of England and Wales rejected the claim that the practice contravened the Mr Bone’s human rights or discriminated against him under the relevant laws of the United Kingdom and Europe.  However, the judge ruled that the saying of prayers as part of the formal proceedings at council meetings could not continue.  This decision may be appealed.

For most of the twentieth century it was widely accepted by western scholars that modernisation would lead to the disappearance of religion.  The ‘secularisation thesis’ became a fact in the academic world.  Most scholars accepted it unquestioningly and it became a largely unacknowledged assumption underlying research in the humanities.  However, towards the end of the twentieth century researchers noticed that religion had not disappeared.

Surely if the secularisation thesis was correct religion would have faded away by this time?  Yet young Catholics flock to World Youth Day, evangelical movements continue to thrive and churches are still crowded at important times for Christianity such as Easter and Christmas.  Christianity is not the only religion of influence in the west.  Islam is a growing presence in many western countries as is Buddhism and ‘New Age’ beliefs.  Having said this, it is also important to recognise the influence of those who do not believe in God or are ambivalent as well as the fact that many western nations are clearly more secular than they were two hundred years ago.  Clearly the historic processes that have been at play are more complex than the secularisation thesis suggests.

I am interested in cases such as the saying of prayers at Bideford Council as much of my research has focussed on the interaction between people of different beliefs in Australian history and the growing secularisation of public life.  While Australia has been predominately Christian since the years after the British first settled here, there have always been believers from different religions who call Australia home.  Aborigines continued to live on this continent, Jews, Muslims and Chinese brought their religious beliefs to these shores, and some Australians did not subscribe to any religious belief at all.  Even among the Christian believers there were a variety of religious perspectives represented in the population. Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other churches were represented in the Australian colonies.  The religious differences between the Christian churches were regarded as important for much of Australia’s history after European settlement.

Currently I am examining Victoria’s Royal Readers of the late 1870s and 1880s.  As I explained in an earlier blog post, these readers were edited, in part, to make Victorian schools places where Catholics and Jews would feel comfortable to send their children.  For my honours thesis I researched Queensland’s ‘Bible in State Schools’ Referendum of 1910.  This referendum was held and passed as a result of a protracted campaign by church leaders and Christians who were concerned that religious education had been removed from the curriculum in the wake of Queensland’s  education act of 1874.  Both the editing of the Victorian school books and the referendum in Queensland stemmed from the adoption of ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education acts in those states during the 1870s.  Politicians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faced a delicate task to create an education system that included all children, irrespective of their beliefs, but one that was also acceptable to the majority of the voters.

Education was not the only issue relating to religion and the emergence of the secular state that concerned colonial political leaders during the nineteenth century.  When the Australian constitution was drafted at the end of the nineteenth century the following section was included:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

s. 116, Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act.

Currently this section is being examined by the High Court of Australia in a case about whether the Federal Government funding of the school chaplaincy program contravenes the constitution.  Some states have also joined this case, arguing that the Federal Government does not have the power to directly fund an education program.  Rather, they argue, the Federal Government can only fund such programs if they give the funding to the state governments who can then fund it.  Thus two significant issues are being examined in this case – ‘separation of religion and state’ in Australia and ‘state rights’.  This ABC World Today program gives an overview of the issues.  Submissions and hearings before the High Court can be read here.

In my research I am not interested in determining whose point of view is correct.  What interests me is how Australians of different beliefs interacted with one another.  While I realise that those who do not believe in God or don’t know God exists may object to their views being described as a belief, I include their views in the category ‘belief’ for want of a better word. It is important that their position is included in a discussion of the role of religion in society.  Through this research I hope to gain a more nuanced perspective on the process of secularisation.

What I have learned thus far is that belief has impacted many aspects of our public life.  In many cases the effect is subtle and we don’t notice it, in other cases it becomes the subject of controversy.  These issues need concerted effort by everyone to negotiate and seek to achieve what is not only fair to ourselves but also fair to others in our society.  The difficulty is in determining what is fair and recognising that was fair at one point in history may not be fair now.

Further Reading

  • The UK Human Rights Blog gives a good summary of the English case about prayers at council meetings.  The judgement is available for download on the same page.
  • In her article, Secularism is not the same as modernity, Lois Lee argues that a simplistic approach to secularisation has obscured the nature of religion in modernity.
  • Richard Ely has written an interesting account about the religious matters addressed in the Australian constitution in his book, Unto God and Caesar:  Religious Issues in the Emerging Commonwealth 1891-1906, (Carlton, Melbourne:  Melbourne University Press, 1976).
  • If you want to immerse yourself in the intellectual debate about secularism, religion and the public sphere, read the articles written by scholars on The Immanent Frame.

4 thoughts on “Religion is not Dead – and Neither is Secularism

  1. Yvonne, there are some letters in the SMH in 1866 from ‘A Roman Catholic Parent’ that might interest you, if you spread your wings to NSW. The writer was Charles St Julian (as he told Henry Parkes in a letter). I’ve just checked, and they come up easily on a Trove search (unlike when I did the original work for my thesis in 1980!)


    • Thankyou for this. I have done some research of this issue in New South Wales. There was a short investigation of the Catholic concerns about the school books by the Legislative Council in 1867. Throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s this remained a sensitive political issue. What I find interesting is that New South Wales contintued to allow religious education provided by the churches in their schools after the passing of their free, compulsory and secular education act in 1880 unlike Victoria, South Australia and Queensland.


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