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Religious Liberty Legislation and the Problem of Moral and Theological Poverty

Friday, 11 March 2022  | Paul Tyson

I was strangely relieved about the recent Religious Discrimination Bill failing to pass the Senate. The idea that judges would be required to do theology and define what a legally acceptable religion is sends shivers up my spine. This worries me because I am seriously concerned about the prevailing community standards of moral logic and theological sophistication that will define any successful piece of legislation. That is, I am worried that the criteria for qualifying for the ‘religious liberty’ that this Bill’s next iteration might enact would likely require heresy, apostasy and an ironically absolutist commitment to moral relativism from any religious organisation wishing to avail itself of ‘religious liberty’. This strikes me as a serious step back from the system we have been working within since the mid-1980s.

The legislative system set up by the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) included carefully qualified exclusions from the Act, on religious grounds. This was a clunky and difficult system, but it was reasonably legislatively clear, and allowed a good degree of legal safety for the LGBTQI+ community at the same time as allowing religious organisations to uphold teachings and practices that were in conflict with the 1984 SDA. That functionally workable but deliberately incoherent system (a system broken from the start) seems to me far superior to any properly ‘fixed’ system on sexual discrimination without any exclusions, somehow made acceptable to religious organisations by legislated ‘religious liberties’ that need to be fully harmonised with an SDA with no exclusions. Keeping the old broken system seems better to me than trying (impossibly) to fix it.

As indicated already, I fear that moral and theological poverty will define any legislation on religious liberty that is compatible with SDA legislation with no exclusions. This, of course, is my own moral and theological take on the situation. But from the perspective of the prevailing moral and ‘theological’ consciousness of the majority of Australians, my stance is morally backward and theologically out of date. This needs to be clearly understood. So let us look firstly at how a progressive secularist view on moral and theological commitments might view people like me. How does progressive secularism view someone who is religiously conservative and who does not wish the State to tell them what theological and moral commitments they can legally have, and who does not wish the State to define in what moral and theological commitments the children of religiously conservative people should be formed?

Since the late nineteenth century, a new way of thinking about moral and theological truth has become increasingly normalised in our academies, and, since the 1960s, in our broader culture. This new way of thinking is what I shall call reductive naturalism. Following pioneers like Ludwig Feuerbach in the 1840s, these thinkers rejected the idea that there was any spiritual reality at all and believed that the real is entirely defined by the natural world. Religion, then, is a fantasy projection of our own consciousness used by the ruling class to control the masses (and men to control women etc.). The nineteenth century also pioneered an entirely new (to Western Christendom embedded culture) way of thinking about morality. Eternal categories of ‘The Good’ – along with God and religion – became roadkill, splattered by reductive naturalism. Here, pleasure alone defines good and pain alone defines bad, and there is no frame of essential qualitative reality.

For about a century – from the 1860s to the 1960s – the new secular and reductively naturalistic understandings of religion and morality wrestled with traditional understandings of religion and morality, until the new way largely overcame the old way. This is the same period in Western cultural history when the idea of progress becomes a major ideology justifying overturning all the traditional customs, norms and beliefs of the West’s religious past as so much oppressive codswallop. By now, it is commonly assumed that people with serious religious commitments are delusional, and that morality – and particularly sexual morality – is an imaginative value and identity construct pasted over biological needs and desires that are not, in themselves, either right or wrong. And so, to the ‘moral’ and ‘theological’ norms of our day – the norms that will define any successful piece of legislation our parliament passes – there is only one moral absolute and only one basic understanding of religion. The one moral absolute is that there are no moral absolutes. There is no right and wrong about anyone’s moral commitments, for all moral commitments are made up. So, make up whatever morals you like, provided you are not hurting anyone (pain equals bad) and provided all sexual arrangements are fully consenting. The unforgivable sin to today’s moral consciousness is to say or imply that one’s own personally constructed moral commitments are true (and hence, moral commitments constructed differently are false). This is the only moral sin that can now be committed. And as secular modernity assumes there is no God, if someone says that God has revealed moral truths, particularly as they pertain to sexual ethics, then their religion has violated the proper boundaries of private belief and become morally offensive. God is not real, or at least not real in the secular public domain, and should be kept entirely out of morality (which is everyone’s private choice, provided it is legal).

So, as a conservative Christian, who believes in God (as real) and who does not think that I make up morality to suit myself (but God reveals moral truths), I am outside of the moral and ‘theological’ categories that will define any legislation on God and morality. From where I sit, the moral and theological poverty of my larger culture will legislate inherently oppressive ‘protections’ for my faith and for the type of moral formation I desire for my children.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe God is entirely made up and there are no moral truths. Maybe progressive secular reductive naturalism is true. After all, my commitments are faith commitments, they are not scientific proofs or mathematical necessities. With John Stuart Mill, I am prepared to let secular naturalists have the benefit of the doubt in differing with me in their understanding of (no) God and (personally constructed) morality, and I am happy for them to pursue the values and spiritualties that are consistent with their primary commitments. But are they prepared to let me hold to moral and theological commitments that are not defined by reductive naturalism? I have no confidence that they are.

I sincerely hope that there will be no legislation written that legally defines religious liberty and sets these matters in stone. I sincerely hope that the existing system of sexual discrimination legislation with religious exemptions is allowed to continue. Any attempt to fix a broken but quite functional system is, I submit, a disaster for people of sincere traditional faith.


Paul Tyson Paul Tyson is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.

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