Secular morality versus religious morality

Sir Ivor Lloyd Morgan Richardson, an eminent New Zealand and Commonwealth jurist, legal writer and Privy Council Judge, noted with approval in 1959 that New Zealand law favours religion in general and Christianity in particular ‘respecting the religious interests of the people generally.’ He gave two reasons for this.

Firstly, he said, ‘our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being, we are basically a religious people’, and the State is ‘simply recognising the religious nature and needs of the New Zealand people’. Secondly, ‘it is generally accepted that a sound morality among the people is essential to the preservation of individual liberties and the maintenance of democratic institutions.

These words have been applied to the constitutional monarchy that is Australia as much as they have in New Zealand. But, I argue, they fail to account for two things. Firstly, the number of people who are religious is declining significantly, and secondly, the Australian Constitution forbids the government from making laws establishing any religion, imposing any religious observance, or prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and that no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any federal government position.

However, both federal and state governments require the recitation of prayers in government proceedings, promote religious doctrine in political debate, and grant financial assistance for church activities such as schools and ‘charitable’ activities.

This disregards the rise of the UN with its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was specifically implemented to create a universal ‘sound [public] morality’ regardless of one’s religion or other worldview.

The UN and political morality

This statement about public morality based on human rights was seen as essential for the maintenance of equality, individual liberties and democracy for all, after the religious, ethnic and racial carnage of World War II. There is worldwide adoption by nations (Including Australia) of the UDHR and associated Conventions establishes an extensive list of human rights, including the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CROC).

The UDHR, is the foundational document in formulating what was to set forth the standards for a ‘sound morality’, for everyone, with government detached from religion, concerned with maintaining a peaceful, fair and harmonious society, regardless of religion, promoting the exercise of fairness and liberty limiting personal activity only where it infringes upon the individual rights of others or the ‘public interest’ i.e. individual or general human rights (i.e. ‘public morality’) with parameters that would create an internationally recognised model of democracy for all peoples, regardless of their religion or other belief, ethnicity, or worldview.

Australia has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Similar to Article 9 of the UDHR, Article 8 ICCPR states that:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

The term ‘thought, conscience and religion’ refers to any worldview (perception of the meaning and purpose of life and a set of rules to govern its expression):

It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it, be it ‘atheist, religious or unconcerned’.

Conventions, Declarations and Bills of Rights around the world contain similar language. Importantly, there are limits to Article 18. In line with Article 18.2, the right to an independent worldview is:

…limited in the public interest; that is, for example, limitations that are ‘prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Seeking Privilege

However, religious groups in Australia have ignored the UN documents to which Australia is a party, as well as the Ruddock Committee’s finding that there is no substantial restriction of religion in Australia. They demand government rise to their expectations, using the mantra ‘religious freedom’ to claim special privileges for their beliefs and practices.

Although Australia is a signatory to the UN documents, there are few cases of a secular citizen succeeding in opposing religious privilege awarded by government despite the alleged equal rights to practise both religious and non-religious beliefs.

This is not surprising, as the principle of separation of religious values and secular government values is hard to untangle in constitutional monarchies like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. This entanglement is entrenched through the ‘framing’ of the idea of freedom of ‘thought conscience and religion’ by naming it ‘freedom of religion or belief’, giving support to the idea that it prioritises religion.


Laws should not be made according to what some call ‘sin’

Our freedoms should be used responsibly and should be legitimately restricted only in the public interest. In statements of rights, the ‘public interest’ is expressed in general terms, e.g., public order, safety, health, or morals (public morals being informed by UN-created human rights). ‘Sin’ is a personal matter, and, in the interest of ensuring the right to personal ‘thought, conscience or belief’, society should be run according to the moral welfare of the people in general, notwithstanding individual beliefs.

The UDHR, the foundational document in formulating what was to set the standards for a ‘sound morality’ for both individuals and society in general, thus established the interests of the individual, as well as the ‘public interest’, as noted, with parameters that would establish an internationally recognised model of democracy for all peoples, regardless of their ethnicity, or worldview. Other Conventions set out further rights pertaining to children, politics, race. This means that arguments for policy or law should be genuinely based on the public good, as established by principles of social welfare and human rights. Individuals have the right to make their own way to the afterlife, without the state dictating behaviour according to whether some believe it is ‘sinful’ or ‘immoral’ according to their personal beliefs.

The UDHR and related UN documents need to be recovered in this debate to set these questions of so-called ‘religious freedom’ in their proper, broader context.

This article first published 2 November 2023 at On Line Opinion