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Human Rights Inquiry: Report on hearing

Posted by Secular on May 4, 2018

The Secular Party was invited to give evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief. This was conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The hearing was held in the Committee Room of Parliament House, Melbourne, on 30 April 2018. Representing the Secular Party as witnesses were John Perkins and Rosemary Sceats.

The Party was invited on the basis of our submission of 1 February 2017, compiled by Craig Glasby. See submission 157. That submission focused more on domestic concerns, so John decided to address some of the foreign affairs concerns in relation to Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, as cited in the Terms of Reference.

The Secular Party witnesses were preceded at the hearing (afternoon part) by Jamie Gardiner of Liberty Victoria (formerly Victorian Council for Civil Liberties), then by Mark Zirnsak of the Uniting Church. Rosemary was invited to fill out a witness form so that she could also speak to the Committee.

Sitting on the panel was Senator David Fawcett (Lib, SA), Senator Claire Moore (ALP, Qld), Maria Vamvakinou, (Lab, Vic), Kevin Andrews (Lib, Vic), chair, a Department Rep, and Senator Lisa Singh (ALP, Tas). At the start, witnesses state their full name and whom they represent. The hearings have parliamentary status and are recorded in Hansard. Witnesses are asked to make a five-minute opening statement, followed by questions from the panel.

John stated that he wished to focus on international human rights concerns, as domestic issues were covered in the earlier submission. He noted that the Secular Party adopts the three-part definition of secularism, as proposed by the International Humanist and Ethical Union: separation of religion from the institutions of state, impartiality between religions, and protection of human rights from religious abuses.

Turning to the terms of reference, and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, John stated that the provision of part 4 of Article 18, did not negate parts 1, 2 and 3 of Article 18. That is, that the provision of the rights of parents to educate their children in religion (which is not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), did not negate the child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to freedom of choice in religion, and right to freedom from coercion in religion. “Education” does not mean “indoctrination”, John said, and religious indoctrination was a violation of the rights of the child.

The terms of reference raised four points of concern, which John then addressed. Regarding freedom of religion or belief globally, John said that in many countries, Article 18 rights were systematically violated due to enforcement of religion. This occurs due to blasphemy laws, and sharia law implementation in Islamic countries in particular. Where sharia is constitutionally mandated, as in much of the Arab world, Article 18 rights are specifically prohibited. John said that what he was now saying to the Committee would be subject to prohibition and punishment in many countries, including our close neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.

In many countries, governments take no action to protect freedom of religion rights, but instead ignore or support violations. An example John cited is the case of targeted murders of atheist and humanist bloggers in Bangladesh, where for a long time no action was taken by the police to find the culprits. Another is the case of the former governor of Jakarta, known as Ahok, now in jail under blasphemy charges.

The right to freedom of religion under Article 18 should not limit any other human right, John said. Such limitations are already inherent in 18 (4). However, in many countries many other rights are suppressed in the name of religion, especially the rights of women, the right to free speech, and sometimes the right to life itself.

John said that Australia’s efforts to protect and promote religious freedom in our region lack effectiveness, or are lacking entirely. We should advocate for the abolition of all blasphemy laws, and for freedoms under Article 18, he said. This is particularly important given the resurgence, in recent decades, of belief in a strict version of Islam. This is evidenced by the fact that now, most women in Islamic countries wear headscarves, whereas before they did not. Because of a rise in fanaticism, we must do more to help defend religious freedoms.

Finally John said that he would like to put religious belief in context. Firstly, he said, the average person today has a better standard of living today than at any time in history. This is not due to religion, he said. It is due to science, technology and innovation. He noted that as a general observation, the more religious a country was, the lower the socio-economic welfare outcomes as measured by UN indices.

Secondly, John said that the basic tenets of all religions are not supported, or are discredited, by scientific and archaeological evidence. It is not just that Adam and Eve is a myth, which even Cardinal Pell accepts, John said. So is the Prophet Abraham. So is the Exodus from Egypt. Further, there is no contemporary historical evidence, dating from the time, which confirms the existence of either Jesus or Muhammad, John said.

Religions enjoy a highly privileged status. Australia indulges religions to a greater extent than other OECD countries. Their charitable status is exempted from providing a public benefit. If someone were to claim special entitlements on the basis of their sex or ethnicity, this would be labelled as sexist or racist. However, when people claim special entitlement on the basis of religion, this is allowed, supported and government-funded. This is not right, John said.

Following this presentation, the panel asked questions of the witnesses. The first question was from Kevin Andrews, who took issue with the contention that children should not be indoctrinated. He asked John how was it possible to distinguish between education and indoctrination. John answered that education is about the religion, rather than instruction in it.

Mr Andrews responded that a normal part of religious belief is that children should be instructed, and that therefore this should be allowed as a right of people to express their religion. John responded that this should not be done in such away as to remove the child’s free choice, and that instruction to the effect that “you must believe this, or else”, amounts to coercion in religion and is contrary to the provisions of Article 18.

At this point Rosemary, who has a Catholic background, made a strong response to Mr Andrews, in opposition to his contention that the indoctrination of children under the age of reason should be permissible. She said that she had a similar upbringing to Mr Andrews. When at school she trusted her teachers and believed what they said literally.

Rosemary said that as a child she was very frightened by the notions of hell and purgatory. She took seriously the prospect of afterlife punishment in searing fire for even minor transgressions (eg time in purgatory for talking to a classmate during a lesson – a sin of disobedience, because it was forbidden – or eternity in hell for eating meat on Friday or attending a service such as a wedding in a non-Catholic church). She can still remember having her first nightmare at age seven, caused by these fears after a catechism lesson on purgatory. She was particularly worried about having to cross three busy roads when walking to school, because if she was to be killed by a car, bus or tram before having confessed these “sins” to a priest, it would be straight to hell or purgatory! Such indoctrination is child abuse, she said, and she vowed that she would never inflict it on her own children. It is based on the Jesuits’ maxim: Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will show you the man. In other words, go early, go hard with indoctrination, and the church has got them for life.

Rosemary explained to the panel (in case they didn’t know) that some years ago, a Vatican think tank decided that there is no biblical basis for purgatory, and subsequently this piece of dogma has been quietly dropped. She questioned what this now means for the basis of the Protestant Reformation, which was based largely on the sale of indulgences (reduced time in purgatory for performing particular devotional acts, saying specified prayers or making payments to the church), and that St Peter’s basilica in Rome was built with money raised by the sale of indulgences.

Rosemary stated that young children are particularly susceptible and vulnerable to religious indoctrination, because they do not have the intellectual wherewithal to know what to believe, or even to know what is believable at all. She said that there are laws to determine the age at which young people can drink alcohol responsibly, drive a car, vote, have consensual sex and get married, and that a similar law should apply to when a child can decide to accept and live by any particular religious belief, especially one that places so many restrictions on their life, with its many prescriptions and proscriptions.

Rosemary said that if she were in charge of the education system, she would require that all children be educated in comparative religion, critical thinking, logic and secular ethics. Then when they have attained sufficient maturity, they should be in a position to decide what, if any, religion they would follow.

Following Rosemary’s highly relevant and passionate contribution, John said that wherever one may choose to draw the line between education and indoctrination, causing harm to children is a line that should not be crossed. Following this, Mr Andrews had no further questions.

After that there was a question from Senator David Fawcett. He asked whether we accepted that atheism/secularism was one worldview, and that the various religious viewpoints were other worldviews, and a harmonious world would be one in which all such views could be accepted. John replied that certainly, everyone had a right to their views and a right to express them. However not all views had equal merit, John said. For example, a flat earth view would have less merit than a round earth view, John said. Not all views were entitled to special privileges.

Following this the session concluded, and the Secular Party witnesses thanked the panel for allowing them to make their contribution. Rosemary and John left the hearing feeling confident that they had presented the panel and the Committee with views that they might not otherwise have heard.


John Perkins and Rosemary Sceats

May 2018

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