Strengthening the non-religious voice

By | 4 Sep 2014

Selective photo of Pawn piece on chess boardHumanists need to act in ways that will strengthen the voice of non-religious people. Currently we belong to a growing cohort of ‘non-religious’ Australians – over 4 million on the 2011 census – yet our public voice is weak and dispersed.

With our growing numbers and the signs that Australia is becoming increasingly secular – with falling church attendances and growth in civil celebrant marriages and funerals – we need to back this trend with a stronger advocacy for our views. We want a society that values secular education, social justice and science as a source of information for policy decisions. And one that allows individuals the freedom to make decisions over life and death matters, such as voluntary assisted dying (a newly preferred term for voluntary euthanasia) and abortion.

If we want to be able to alter public policies we need much more effective ways of influencing governments and the wider society. We need able spokespersons and professional secretariats that can articulate the non-religious point of view.

Sadly the history of the freethought groups across the world reveals two problems when such people try to organise themselves for effective action. First, most non-religious people prefer just to get on with their life. Few have a strong urge to form social groups based on their world-view. Second, atheist, humanist, rationalist etc. groups can readily become dominated by strong-minded individuals. This can lead to some members becoming less willing to stay involved, along with others hiving off to form alternate groups. For these and other reasons non-religious organisations have small memberships and little public profile.

An obvious way round these problems is to work cooperatively in loose alliances with other non-religious groups (and even religious groups on issues of shared concern). In recent years HSV and the Rationalist Society of Australia have jointly sponsored several successful events involving interstate and overseas speakers. HSV also collaborates with like-minded groups on issues that matter to Humanists.

After the first Global Atheist Congress was held in Melbourne in 2010, an attempt was made to form an Australia-wide alliance of non-religious groups, under the name Reason Australia. After a lot of ground work via E-mail, skype and telephone hook-ups, this attempt floundered. The participants are likely to offer a range of reasons for the failure of this idealistic undertaking.

More recently HSV has associated itself with a loose alliance called the Secular Coalition of Australia (SECOA). The June VH included a strong statement from SECOA opposing the federal government’s National School Chaplaincy Program.

While the arguments for the different freethought groups to work together to strengthening the non-religious voice, is overwhelming, how we go about this requires considerable good will and time. We need urgently to engage with others NOW! Progress is likely to be two steps forward and one step back, but the greater goal of increasing our influence in a growing secular Australia will make the effort worthwhile.

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