27 Mar, 2018
Religion, human rights and dignity
The Australian crab spider exhibits some disturbing behaviour. Before going on, I should acknowledge two things:
The crab spider – Diaea Ergandros, as it’s knownto scientists and pedants – begins life in a nest with its mother and siblings. Shortly after the spider hatches, the mother produces an additional batch of eggs. Known as ‘trophic’ or ‘nurse’ eggs, they won’t hatch. Instead, they’re food for the recently-hatched infant spiders.
When the baby spiders have eaten this supply, the mother takes it up a notch. The hungry infants start chewing on a maternal leg. She doesn’t resist. Over the ensuing weeks, the mother actively makes herself ever more edible. The children pierce her skin, literally consuming their mother from the inside – the closest analogy I’ve found is that they suck the mother’s insides through a sort of straw. The mother spider dies just at the point her children are able to forage for food outside the nest.
As a representation of the purest altruism, I’ll wager the little Aussie crab spider has few peers. And yet while we may admire and sympathise with the mother spider, the more powerful feeling it induces is revulsion.
This stems partly from the gore. But it’s not just that. The phenomenon of maternal cannibalism is foreign to us as humans. While we find nobility in self-sacrifice in extreme circumstances, it’s not humanity’s organising principle. It’s not our reason for being.
We can easily agree that egocentricity, selfishness and avarice must all be rejected. But, if extreme altruism isn’t the answer, what do we embrace instead?
I’ve been reflecting on this question – especially as we approach Easter. For me, it would be a gross distortion to see Christ’s death as enjoining us to search out and embrace our own crucifixion.
Instead, the gift of humanity is to possess something as precious as life itself; something that, in its subtlety and complexity, is beyond the reach of other animals. That precious gift – dignity – is at the heart of this important book, Chalice of Liberty.
Each of the eminent authors emphasises the concept of ‘dignity’. The preservation of dignity in our fellow humans is the virtue – it’s the common project – that links the world’s great religions with human rights. If we were to distil the millions of pages of treaties, judicial decisions, learned writings and punishing speechifying on human rights to its essence, we would be left with the concept of dignity.
This link is no coincidence. Many of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were people of faith. Their religion influenced them, and in turn it influenced the intellectual foundation of human rights. If dignity is the single intellectual well-spring on which human rights, Christianity and many of the world’s great religions depend, how can this equip us to address the difficult social policy questions that arise in modern Australia?
There’s a notion that we were once a country whose citizens pulled in the same direction on all important matters. There are many reasons why this seems at least exaggerated. Australia’s imported, but once-fierce, strain of sectarianism (now confined to history), or the more shameful elements of white Australia’s relationship with the First Australians; to name just two examples.
In any event, decades of immigration from all corners of the world mean that the Australia of 2018 is irreversibly diverse and pluralistic. This diversity of culture, religion and ideology inevitably influences our public policy. Each group wants some measure of freedom and protection to live in accordance with their own guiding principles. Tension and disagreement over competing worldviews necessarily increase.
We have many choices in resolving such tension and disagreement. We could, for instance, privilege a dominant culture above all others, insisting that everyone else adapt to the norms of the dominant group. However, societies favouring this approach tend towards authoritarianism, if not outright totalitarianism.
At the other end of the spectrum is an anything-goes sort of relativism. But resolving difference cannot mean pretending that all views are of equal value. If a country doesn’t stoutly defend its founding principles – the rule of law, fairness and so on – adherence to those principles will decay and the country along with it.
This brings me back to the concept of dignity. An approach that emphasises individual dignity is neither self-denying nor all-conquering. It encourages us to accommodate one another’s differences – paying special attention to what is of greatest importance to each competing group. Needless to say, it won’t always satisfy all parties to a dispute. But it will more likely produce fair, principled and enduring solutions in the areas where we as a community are most likely to disagree.
After decades of relative obscurity in Australia, ‘religious freedom’ is now a much-examined topic. It was frequently invoked in the national debate on marriage reform; a federal parliamentary inquiry on freedom of religion and belief was launched in 2017; and the current Religious Freedom Review is heading into its final weeks – and I acknowledge the key role played by Father Frank Brennan in that process.
We should acknowledge the obvious. A significant portion of this debate has been difficult and bruising.
And yet this book reinforces that division isn’t inevitable. The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin religare—‘to bind’. At this juncture, we need to focus on what might bring together Australians of all faiths and none.
Chalice of Liberty draws from the wealth of Catholic teaching on human dignity and religious freedom. The authors repeatedly cite the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. Specifically:
‘The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.’
Of course, there will be differences in how this is understood in practice; but without a common starting point it’s hard to imagine reaching an agreed end-point. Human dignity is, I believe, the best starting point we have.
Chalice of Liberty describes, in an accessible way, the current international and domestic law on religious freedom. That Australian law contains only piecemeal protections for religious freedom is, at least, an anomaly. It’s almost certainly also a problem.
For two decades, the Australian Human Rights Commission has advocated for better protection of religious freedom in Australian law. Our submission to the current Ruddock Review called on the Australian Government to ‘undertake research and community consultation, with a view to developing new legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.’
Others, including some religious organisations, have increasingly come to share our view. In the most recent reviews, diverse groups express concern about gaps in current protections for freedom of religion at a federal level. Some also say that our current law should be amended to reformulate existing religious freedom protections so that they impinge less on others.
Getting the legal framework right matters. But it’s important to remember that human rights form—to borrow another Catholic expression—a ‘seamless garment’.1 Incorporating our human rights obligations in a piecemeal way can lead to ugly debates and special pleading.
As Father Brennan and Dr Casey observe (p12): ‘Because fundamental human rights protect all the things we need to make a full life possible, they have to go together.’
They go on to say that rights ‘should not be placed in opposition to each other or downgraded in importance because some rights—the right to be free from unjust discrimination, for example—are treated as over-riding others.’
That said, a religious school or hospital may decide to hire or fire an employee by reference to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of their religion, even if this contravenes the ordinary protections of our Sex Discrimination Act. Even if such religious institutions rarely decide to fire an employee because of their sexual orientation, to my mind, such exemptions mean that Australia isn’t a country where ‘the right to be free from unjust discrimination’ is paramount.
The Commission supports efforts to improve our law’s protection of religious freedom – in a way that responds to practical problems and carefully accommodates other human rights.
As the wounds of the marriage debate heal, it would be foolhardy to act immediately on the conflicting predictions that the newly-amended Marriage Act offers too little protection for religious freedom, or not enough protection for the equality of LGBTI people. Instead, we urge that the operation of our new marriage law be closely observed to determine which, if any, of these predictions are borne out in reality. This way, any policy or law reform response can be grounded in solid evidence.
But, more fundamentally, law reform is not the only way to protect human rights, including the right to freedom of religion. In recent debates we have sometimes been in danger of losing sight of three other factors: data, dialogue and education.
Good policy is based on good evidence. Some concerns we have heard expressed about religious freedom in Australia are vague and unspecified. Others are based on overseas examples, and not really relevant here. Others still are very real, but anecdotal in nature.
We often hear that ‘what gets measured, matters.’ This is untrue; any violation of religious freedom matters whether it is measured or not. But identifying the best response often depends on the availability of good data.
How many people in Australia suffer violence on the basis of their religion, and which religious traditions are most targeted? How prevalent is abuse, intimidation or discrimination on the basis of a person’s religion? When and where have religious leaders been prevented from teaching their religion? Are Australian parents able to bring up their children in their religious tradition, and if not, why not?
In our submission to the Ruddock Review, we recommended the Government engage an independent body to collect and analyse data on violence, abuse, harassment, discrimination and intimidation on the basis of religion. We think this would lead to better policy responses, one of which might be education.
Father Brennan and Dr Casey point out that ‘no-one has to like religion or even be interested in it, but placing it wishfully on the same level as a personal interest or superstition is not helpful to a full understanding of the world in which we live.’ Professor Craven adds: ‘The trivialisation of religion easily leads to a trivialisation of religious freedom.’
Education may be required on a number of fronts:
Father Brennan and Dr Casey rightly observe that ‘if we let our differences make us enemies, a life in common is cast into serious doubt.’
At the Commission, we believe that dialogue is better than conciliation, and conciliation is better than litigation.
Good dialogue begins with an attempt to understand what the other person holds deeply. Professor Craven identifies four attributes that many Australians identify as constitutive aspects of their being: things they believe they cannot change about themselves, that they would be willing to die or go to prison for. He identifies ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion among these ‘core attributes’.
When tensions arise at the intersections of human rights—such as that between religious freedom and the right not to be discriminated against—it’s important that the non-religious side of the debate attempts to grasp what religion can mean to a person or community of faith.
It’s equally important that people of faith make a serious effort to understand the depth of hurt that can be felt by, for example, persons whose sexuality or gender identity is denied or belittled. It’s important to understand the real harms—from mental illness to self-harm to suicide—that this can contribute to.
We must also find common ground where we can. Professor Craven observes that ‘profound disagreement’ on matters of sexuality and gender identity can be ‘born of a shared appreciation of the significance that love and its sexual expression has for human beings, and the need to make sense of this.’
This is a good example of how we might encourage the mutual effort to understand which is necessary if, as the book says, we are not to let our differences make us enemies.
The debate about religious freedom feels like it has gone on for a long time. My hope is that it can now go deeper. As Human Rights Commissioner, human dignity will always be at the centre of my own efforts to think through these questions. As this book shows, Catholic tradition has an important contribution to make to the discussion.
Of course, protecting dignity can take a number of forms. Sometimes, it means getting into the nitty gritty of law reform.
Often it means listening to people whose experiences are different to our own—and this listening task includes the rather prosaic job of data collection.
Sometimes protecting dignity means making an effort to increase mutual understanding, including through education.
And protecting dignity also means a willingness to enter into a genuine dialogue, including through reading and writing books like this one. And so it is a pleasure to launch Chalice of Liberty: Protecting Religious Freedom in Australia.
1 This is a term coined by the late American Cardinal Joseph Bernadin to capture the idea that if Catholics are going to care about certain ‘life’ issues such as abortion, they should also care about the other life issues such as the death penalty and treatment of the poor.
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