Sacred & Profane: Faith and Belief in a Secular Society

By Peter Kurti (foreword by Henry Ergas)
Connor Court 2020
ISBN: 9781922449238
RRP: $32.95  (pb)

By Monica Doumit

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

These words appear at the beginning of the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, a treatise on the place of the Christian in a non-Christian world. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives,” the letter continues. “They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.”

The letter was written some time during the second century and described the experience of fledgling Christian communities living in a society that was still pre-Christian; these small communities of faith were intentionally living in a way that ran counter to the prevailing culture.  The letter illustrates a struggle of a form of internal displacement, that is, of living in a place where the foundation for your life is radically different from those around you.

In Sacred & Profane: Faith and Belief in a Secular Society, Peter Kurti provides a meaningful insight into the similar internal displacement felt by not only Christians, but all people of faith living in Western democracies like Australia that increasingly consider themselves to be not pre-Christian, but post-Christian.

As Kurti outlines, the ground appears to have shifted in recent years. The change has been simultaneously subtle and dramatic, so that – just as in the early years of Christianity – people of faith have realised once again that their way of life is radically different from the society in which they live.

It is easy to point to any number of reasons as instigators for this renewed sense of displacement, such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse detailing the horrific crimes committed against children by clergy and other church members, and the subsequent cover up by those in authority diminishing the moral authority of religious voices; social changes including the redefinition of marriage and the broader acceptance of gender fluidity; or the rejection of Christian ethics in matters such as abortion and euthanasia.

However, Kurti identifies the more basic reason for the divide being currently experienced as the disappearance of the shared understanding on which our society has, until recently, been based, at least in part.

In civil discourse, reason has given way to emotion.

In moral discourse, virtues have given way to values.

In rights discourse, the common good has been replaced by the prioritisation of individual autonomy.

In other words, religion is increasingly being displaced by the secular.

In discussing this shift, Kurti makes an important distinction between secularisation and secularism, and shows how both of them contribute to the situation in which believers find themselves today.

Secularisation, he explains, is what is seen when the attachment to religion within society is diminishing.

In quantitative terms, this diminishing attachment can be seen by the rising proportion of Australians who identify as having “no religion” (30.1 per cent in 2016, up from 25.3 per cent in 2011), as well as from the declining numbers of those who actively practise their religious faith with which they identify.  For example, half of those who identify as Christian do not attend church at all.

In qualitative terms, it can be seen most recently in the disparate treatment given to places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic: churches and other places of worship were amongst the first buildings forced to shut, closing to the public while spas and nail salons, tattoo parlours, massage parlours, strip clubs and hairdressers remained open.  The labelling of worship as a “non-essential service” throughout the pandemic stood as a stark reminder of how far Australian society had drifted from the centrality of church attendance.

The differential treatment continued as we came out of the pandemic as well; as restrictions eased, places of worship remained severely limited while entertainment venues and sporting facilities welcomed crowds in their thousands. This disparity left people of faith wondering whether governments were ignorant of, indifferent to, or hostile towards the practice of religious worship, or whether they were just reflecting the broader sentiment of a secularist society.

Secularism, on the other hand, is the deliberate attempt to push religion and religious considerations out of the public square.  It is a view that religion belongs only to the private sphere or, if it does enter the public square in the fields of education, health and welfare, it must do so in a way that does not rock the boat of secular values.

In Sacred & Profane, Kurti highlights a number of examples of the secularism with which people of faith in modern Australia now contend in what he describes as the “broader culture war against religion… being waged in Australia.”  These include the campaign to end the school chaplaincy program, the push to remove the “advancement of religion” as being a charitable purpose under charities legislation and the insistence on prohibiting the preaching of religious doctrine or the exchange of religious ideas in the name of‘ “inclusivity” and protection from hate speech.  Kurti does note the irony that the championing of diversity and inclusivity by those pushing a hard-line secularism makes no room for the inclusion or a diversity of religious belief.

In the short time since the book was written, there have been increasingly extreme examples of this secularist push.

The Victorian Labor government has introduced legislation to ban so-called “conversion therapy”.  Unlike the more modest – but still dangerous – forms of these bans passed in Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, the Victorian bill specifically targets prayer as one of the practices subject to the ban.  In Victoria, attempts to support those who want to live in accordance with their religious beliefs on sexual morality, or to attempt to induce someone to do so, will be prohibited and those who breach these bans could risk 10 years imprisonment.  The bill as written is so broad that it would extend even to sermons preached on the Christian doctrine on marriage, exhorting a congregation to behave in accordance with that doctrine, and to parents who do not affirm the sexual choices or their children.

Meanwhile, the South Australian Liberal government released a bill that will repeal existing religious exemptions under anti-discrimination laws, removing the only protections for people of faith in that state, which does not even include “religious belief or activity” as a protected attribute under anti-discrimination laws.

Religious belief and believers are being squeezed from either side of the political spectrum.

It can seem that this move towards secularisation has come solely from progressive governments or those who lobby them, but Kurti also alludes to the contribution of the religious groups themselves to the advancement of secularism.

Most obvious are those faith groups that have responded to modern challenges to faith by changing their stance to meet those of the world around it, condoning or even celebrating abortion and euthanasia, same-sex marriage and gender ideology, and championing “progressive” causes like climate alarmism.  In doing so, these groups have expressly conceded that beliefs should change in accordance with the mood of the times, the contrary position to Chesterton’s church that moves the world, rather than moves with the world.

Slightly less obvious are those groups that maintained their position on these matters, but reframed their arguments to remove any reference to faith or the supernatural and, instead, limiting their engagement to “accepted” secular terms.  Even if unintentionally, such an insistence on recasting religious arguments as secular ones has implicitly conceded that religious discourse has no place in the public square.

A small minority maintained their orthodoxy and continued to assert the place of a religious voice in the public square. These voices, however, were portrayed as religious extremism when compared to so many others that have explicitly or implicitly agreed that religious reasoning has no place in the public square.

Notwithstanding the seeming bleakness of this picture, Kurti does not represent religion in Australia as moribund, nor does he leave readers with a sense of despair about its future in the public square.

Kurti reminds the reader that the West has religious roots, and its existence is built on a Judaeo-Christian ethos that cannot be dismissed as no longer relevant or necessary without serious consequences for Western civilisation.  He makes it clear that Christianity is the foundation of the same secular society that now seeks to dispense with all religious belief.

He also reminds us that Australia’s history since the early years of European settlement was marked by an intentional pluralism that sought not to repeat the religious tensions that existed in the countries from which the colonists came, and instead forge a peace that was based on the religious freedom of all.  Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is testament to a commitment to religious diversity in Australia.

Kurti reasserts the importance of this freedom of religion to the fabric of Australian culture, in both the private and public sphere.  With respect to the former, he notes that religion is still a formative influence on the lives of many Australians, including those from other parts of the world who have made Australia their home, and how it continues to shape their interactions with their family, their community and the society at large.

With respect to the latter, Kurti points to the extraordinary contribution made by religious organisations and people of faith to education, health and welfare, and also to the influence religious belief has on law and public policy.  Removing religion’s public presence in Australia would leave all Australians impoverished, he argues.  He remains confident about the continued presence of religion in Australia, and the benefit that it will provide if adherents are permitted to maintain their freedoms.

Ultimately, Sacred & Profane expresses a hope that Australians will rediscover shared virtues and moral norms that transcend claims to individual autonomy as the highest good.  It will challenge all readers, irrespective of their religious beliefs and practice, or lack thereof, to a respect for and commitment to diversity that includes and protects diversity of belief as well.

Monica Doumit is the Director of Public Affairs and Engagement for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia and a columnist for the Catholic Weekly.