Negotiating the sacred in multicultural societies

Elizabeth Burns Coleman

Kevin White

Table of Contents

Secularisation and secularism
Understanding blasphemy
Sacrilege and the sacred
The state and tolerance
A tolerant society?
The future—openness and dogmatism

The social costs of increasing antagonism, fear and social dislocation on the basis of religious persuasion suggest that Australia, as well as other multicultural societies, needs to re-examine the place of religion in society, the causes of social discontent, as well as the various means by which religious differences may be negotiated peaceably. Such an examination requires information from a wide variety of perspectives, and discussion at all levels of society. The purpose of this volume is to make a contribution to this discussion by providing a rich, multifaceted exploration of the issue. It brings together religious and secular perspectives and the insights of scholarship from a wide variety of disciplines. It explores histories of religious conflicts, our assumptions about secularisation, and examples of ways in which people of religious persuasions have, and can, negotiate religious difference. These issues have enormous practical significance in a multicultural society with diverse religious beliefs and cultural practices.

This book offers a unique contribution to this discussion because it attempts to engage with belief, not merely between faiths that can find some area of commonality, but between secular and religious perspectives. Importantly, it introduces new conceptions of blasphemy and sacrilege that explore them as broader, cross-cultural concepts that cannot be defined in terms of religious dogma and sentiment. A second way in which the book brings a unique perspective to bear on the issue of religious conflict is in its focus on negotiation. In political and social philosophy, religious belief is usually examined as a ‘problem’ of tolerance in a liberal democratic society. This book of essays seeks to move away from these traditional ways of discussing the issue, as they assume that religious commitment is intolerant, and cannot, and should not, be negotiated. The book addresses the issue of the nature of the sacred as part of the cultural reality of individuals’ existences, and explores how the sacred has been contested, and negotiated between groups as part of a process in which agents make sense of the world, and seek to create order in it.

Blasphemy and sacrilege in modern societies cannot be considered as relics of the Middle Ages. Neither are they topics only of interest in relation to religious fundamentalism. In a society with a diverse religious and cultural make-up, such as contemporary Australia, there are inevitable clashes between conceptions of the sacred. What is held sacred by one group of people will not be sacred to another. In fact, what is sacred in one religion may be considered sacrilegious to another.

A society’s reaction to and management of blasphemy and sacrilege goes to its core, for it defines how it relates to its constituent groups, protecting difference or leaving the vulnerable to cope on their own. Yet we should be wary of assuming that this is an issue best addressed within the rubric of identity politics and the right to culture. For while we might agree that community is necessary for an individual’s well-being, claims about religion as a cultural right fail to make a necessary distinction. There is a difference between having an ethnic or cultural identity and having a religious affiliation. While cultural affiliation is not a matter of choice, religious affiliation may be. We can, and often do, change our religious affiliation. Paradoxically, while we may change and adapt our cultural practices reasonably easily, we tend to think of our religious practices, once adopted, as stands that cannot be negotiated.

In this volume we do not set out to construct our present as an enlightened transformation out of the dark ages, nor to construct ‘the other’—whether living in other countries or amongst us—as religious zealots and as totalitarian. A secular society risks limiting its understanding of itself if it reduces the terms of its discussion of these issues to the debates about free speech, or to the need to tolerate the irrational and incomprehensible beliefs of others. Neither paradigm provides a sufficiently rich vocabulary to address the content of the claims that are being made by believers. Debates over blasphemy law reduce blasphemy to ‘offence’. The debates about toleration that assume religious belief is immune to reason limit our understanding of and interaction with those people who hold religious beliefs. Rather, this volume represents a collection of papers exploring how ‘the sacred’ is encountered, and negotiated, or fails to be negotiated, in a multicultural society.

Secularisation and secularism

Australia prides itself on its secularism. This does not mean that people do not profess to hold religious views. A sizeable minority of the population, 15.3 per cent, described themselves as non-religious in the 2001 census, however, the majority of Australians are Christians. The census showed that 67.3 per cent of Australians are Christians, and that Buddhism is the second largest religion in Australia, with 1.9 per cent of the population identifying themselves as Buddhist. The third, fourth and fifth largest religious categories are Islam (with 1.5 per cent of the population), Hinduism (0.5 per cent), and Judaism (0.4 per cent). In addition, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples maintain their traditional religious practices, or consider their traditional sacred sites a significant part of their heritage.

Australia may be said to be a secular society in two, quite different, ways. It may be described as a secular society in terms of its embrace of political secularism, which is reflected in the separation of religion from the state in Section 116 in the Constitution[1]and in its embrace of the policy of multiculturalism. The Australian policy of multiculturalism appears to be the legacy of the political ideal of toleration. The basic tenet of toleration was a commitment to freedom of conscience.[2] The ideal of multiculturalism is the respect for different ethnic, cultural and religious groups in society. The state makes a distinction between the roles of public citizens and their private beliefs, and maintains a commitment to freedom of religion. The second way in which Australia may be said to be a secular society is as a result of a social process of secularisation. The process of secularisation involves religious institutions losing public influence, a drop in attendance at religious ceremonies, and the loss of respect for religious symbols and specialists, such as clergy. The world-view of people in a secular society is increasingly rationalised and ‘disenchanted’.[3] Australia was secular in this second sense before it adopted a political policy of multiculturalism, and it is this second sense of secularism that is celebrated in its foundation myths of self-sufficient pioneers and working-class larrikins.[4] One price of the process of secularisation is the confusion many people express about ‘the place’ of the sacred in our public lives. The sacred is held to be something of fundamental importance or value, and it has ‘a place’ in society to the extent that it is respected in our lives or has status within society. Blasphemy and sacrilege are both affronts to this value: they are acts of disrespect, irreverence, or destruction.

These two senses of secularism have become blurred in Australia’s ‘institutional norms’ in relation to religion: religion is considered ‘to be a “low-temperature” matter’, not something to get over-enthusiastic about, and certainly not a trumpeted certainty.[5] This institutional norm, or culture of secularism, tends to blind Australia’s policy development in relation to cultural and religious diversity. As one social scientist has commented, when social issues are viewed through this perspective, ‘religion cannot be a problem because it is, or should be, or shortly will be irrelevant’.[6] Unfortunately, such an attitude has become an unaffordable luxury. As Riaz Hassan demonstrates in this volume there is a complex relationship between modernity and religion, but the bottom line is that religion does not disappear, as social scientists through the 1950s, 60s and 70s predicted.

In contemporary Australia, blasphemy and sacrilege are on the rise as are deliberate assaults on other groups and their belief systems.[7] Suzanne Rutland argues in this volume (chapter 2) that what we are witnessing is a clash of religious extremists, and a resurgence of extreme right-wing movements in Europe, America and Australia that are against both Judaism and Islam. The impact on the Jewish community in Australia has been significant, with five synagogues set fire, a Jewish kindergarten attacked, and bomb threats made against Jewish buildings. As she also points out, the Muslim community has been attacked, mosques set on fire, women’s headdress has been pulled off in the street, as well as mosques being attacked and desecrated. The Jewish community’s response has been one of increased vigilance, with the impact that this will have on the younger generation who stands guard around synagogues and Jewish buildings—of fear, apprehension and social exclusion.