Drop parliamentary prayer and adopt secular ways

By David Swanton

Published in Canberra Times 29 October 2008


It is an opportune time, now that the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, Harry Jenkins, has called for a public debate on the daily prayer in Parliament, to reflect on some religious matters that have slipped under the radar.

Parliamentary prayers, the Australian Constitution and the taxation system show inappropriate discrimination in favour of the Christian religion. This has manifested itself in an insidious fashion; affecting the ability of many to critically analyse issues, as evidenced by the readiness of some religious people to adopt an unthinking line against issues such as euthanasia, abortion and gay relationships. Debate and critical analysis, free of the shackles of religious constraint, is necessary if all Australians are to be regarded equally, rather than as part of a society with divisive pro-Christian elements. The Constitution requires a more secular approach because it effectively discriminates against non-Christians. Kevin Rudd's foreshadowing of a referendum on the recognition of Aboriginal people in the Constitution should catalyse a debate on the Constitution's preamble. It is subservient, irrelevant and demeaning that the preamble says we are humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God. It is undignified to humbly rely on anything if, as a nation, we are to forge our own identity and determine our destiny with pride. The words ''Almighty God'' may have some meaning for Christians and religious people, but it is gobbledegook to those who are not. Some may argue that the reference to God should reflect the historical nature of Australia's early white Christian-based society, but this constitutes a denial of Aboriginal belief systems and of the multicultural and largely secular nature of modern Australia. The Christian belief in God does not deserve a place in such a legal, and political, document. While many people choose to follow the Christian religion, it is wrong to include such religious perspectives in a document that belongs to all Australians.

The prayer at the beginning of each sitting day in Parliament is just as antiquated and discriminatory as the preamble. Parliament is not a church, and should not be imposing religious values on MPs. We would vehemently oppose the use of daily prayers in schools, universities and hospitals.

The perception of a separation of church and state seems a more spurious concept when daily prayers occur. It is unethical to impose Christian prayers on others when Christians would vehemently reject other religions' prayers. Do not politicians and prayer supporters recognise this inequity? Christian leaders (in religion and politics) would not want to be hypocritically doing unto others what they would not permit others to do unto them.

Regrettably, both major parties support daily prayers in Parliament.

The Constitution and Parliament are no more a place for a religious statement than the Bible is for noting our humble reliance on our Prime Minister. They should aim to be inclusive, rather than divisive.

Some fortitude from our political leaders would be welcome to scrap daily prayers, as would some recognition of, and action to eliminate, the inequitable taxation treatment given to religions.

A reasonable theory to explain why the Christian religion is favoured in some aspects of our society involves the religious indoctrination of children, though this happens in most religions. Religions are based on faith, divorced from reason and logic, and that is why a child born in Rome to Italian Catholic parents is more likely to be a Catholic, and a child born in Tehran to Iranian Muslim parents is more likely to be a Muslim. In these circumstances, the religion a child might adopt has nothing to do with what religion is right, and everything to do with how the child is raised, indoctrinated and educated.

Australian Christians who are not persuaded of their indoctrination should take the following simple test. They should ask themselves if they would still be Christian if they had instead been raised by Muslim parents in a Muslim country. If they say, ''No'', they should question why they follow the religion they do. If they say, ''Yes'', then perhaps they should try to explain objectively the geographical distribution of religions around the world. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and other religious groups should ask similar questions.

Christian influence still permeates Australian society, and it has affected government through inequities in the legal, political and taxation systems. This will continue to be the case while religious leaders have a hold over their members, maintain the indoctrination of children, and continue to push their religious values on others. An ethical society should not permit religious and political leaders to impose their own religious values on others or hypocritically ask of others that which they would not do themselves. If the pressure of rational debate ensures that these fundamental principles of ethical behaviour are upheld, then we can go some way to improving the lives, and respecting the rights, of all Australians.


David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.