Respect and Division: How Australians view religion

Monica Wilkie

06 December 2019 | ideas@theCentre

Australians’ famously tolerant attitude toward religion endures. But this view has a clear blind spot — religious organisations.

Our research indicates Australians are viewing religion as mostly a personal belief, and they are happy for their neighbours to enjoy certain religious liberties, such as freedom of speech.    

Recent polling has found most (54 per cent) believe religious people should be free to publicly express their views – even if others find them offensive. And most (56 per cent) do not think the religious views of others should be ridiculed.  

This tolerance towards religious individuals explains why most Australians (64 per cent) do not think people should be refused employment because of their religion. In other words, Australians do not think religion should be a basis for exclusion. 

While this is positive, it does limit religion to simply belief and fundamentally misunderstands not only religious freedom but religion.  

Historically, religion has focussed on sacred rites, behaviours, and rituals — what someone believed was often secondary.

Freedom of religion cannot exist without freedom of speech and association. As Attorney-General Christian Porter said in his recent speech at the National Press Club: “For religion to exist at all; religious bodies must be able to maintain a chosen level of exclusivity.” 

This is why it is concerning that only 30 per cent of respondents thought faith-based organisations — such as schools — should be able to employ people who adhere to their faith.

For some religious bodies, staffing is not simply a matter of preference, but a vital aspect of them being able to maintain their ethos and identity.

In a secular, liberal democracy, religious organisations should be free to make these important decisions for themselves.   

This disconnect between religious individuals and organisations is a problem, but not an insurmountable one.

A significant majority (78 per cent) of Australians, regardless of religious affiliation, believe that respecting religion is important in a multicultural society. 

Interestingly, they believe this despite most (52 per cent) also thinking religion divides society more than it unites us. 

Australians are, therefore, happy for a certain amount of division to exist so people are free to follow their religion.

The relaxed Australian attitude is under strain, but it mostly endures. There is good will in the community toward religious individuals. Australians should extend this tolerance to include religious bodies.   

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