The New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanists (“NZARH”) has a statement of aspirational ideals for the New Zealand state on their website. Entitled “The Tolerant Secular State” it is anything but.
The first two sentences of the document exhibit a confusion which is inherent throughout (and commonly found in discussions of church and state):
“The NZARH strongly believes that government should be secular; that is dealing with the issues of this world rather than following a religious agenda. Our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another and the state should treat religious organisations the same as any other organisation.”
An equivocation on the meaning of the word “secular” in the very first sentence is immediately apparent.
Stephen Smith notes that the word secular has two distinct meanings. Etymologically, “secular” refers to things pertaining to this world and life as opposed to the next. In this sense of the word “secular” is not opposed to religion; many religious beliefs and values pertain to life in this world, beliefs about: marriage, sex, human life, killing, justice for the poor, what one’s duties are in this life, what God’s purposes are in this life and so on are all secular beliefs in this sense. The second and more common meaning of “secular” is to say it excludes, is in opposition to beliefs and values that are religious in nature; this is usually the first definition one will find in a dictionary.
The NZARH use both meanings in the first sentence of their “Tolerant Secular State” document. They start by defining secular in the first of these senses, in terms of “dealing with the issues of this world.” The switch to the second definition occurs immediately in the claim that a secular state must not follow a “religious agenda.” From what the NZARH subsequently argues it is clear that this second sense is what it really has in mind as much of what it says simply does not follow from the first sense.
It is important to note here what the NZARH mean by “privilege” in ”our law should not give one set of beliefs privilege over another.” The NZARH specifically mean that the viewpoint of religion must not be a source of law or public policy and by implication, cannot be a motivation or a justification for a source of law or public policy. If this is not what they mean by privilege then their argument makes no sense; the claim that the government must not follow “a religious agenda” and must “be secular” is supported by the contention that religious beliefs should not be privileged. If basing a law on a religious agenda is not privileging it then the argument does not follow.
That clarified, the NZARH’s argument is essentially:
1) The government should be secular, not religious;
This means the state should make a clear distinction between secular views and non-secular views and it should treat them differently. It should base its policies on the former type of view and not the latter. As such, on the understanding of “privilege” outlined above, the State should privilege secular beliefs over religious ones.
The basis for this is that,
2) Our laws should not privilege any one view over another, the state should treat religion the same as any other view.
So let us get this straight. Secularism is a type of viewpoint that 1) the NZARH seeks to privilege over religion but then 2) states that viewpoints must not be privileged.
Of course, if one assumes from the outset that secularism is not a specific view and is somehow some kind of neutral position that everyone can subscribe to then the statements read together might make sense but that is an erroneous assumption.
Secularism is a Viewpoint under New Zealand Law
The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (1990), which the NZARH’s “Tolerant Secular State” document holds out as “key legislation that upholds the principles of the fair and tolerant society” identifies and treats secularism as a view or a set of beliefs. The Bill of Rights has three relevant sections:
13 Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.
14 Freedom of expression
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.
15 Manifestation of religion and belief
Every person has the right to manifest that person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.
The gist of these three sections is that in New Zealand anyone can form and identify with whatever belief, viewpoint or idea they please, find out more about it, discuss and share it with others and act in accord with it, in public as well as private, as long as they do so with regard to the other rights present in the Bill of Rights. What a lot of people miss however is how the Bill of Rights treats viewpoints.
Section 13 is typically thought of as the Freedom of Religion section. But read it closely you’ll see that “thought”, “conscience”, “religion” and “belief” are listed – all described as “opinions” not religious views. Had the drafters wished to make s13 solely a religion section then they would have kept the language that of religious terminology only.
Sections 14′s “information and opinions of any kind and in any form” and s15′s “religion and belief” tell us that under New Zealand law non-religious beliefs are intended to be treated and dealt with by the state in precisely the same way as religious beliefs.
This is backed up in the various commentaries and government documents that have been published on these sections of the Bill of Rights – here are a couple from New Zealand Human Rights Commission Documents. (I note that the NZARH’s Tolerant Secular State document also praises the Human Rights Act 1993 which was the source of law which created the Human Rights Commission). The first is speaking of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990;
“What religions or beliefs are covered?
Religion or belief includes mainstream religions, minority or atheistic beliefs and the right not to have a belief.”
This one is a reference to the International Bill of Rights of which New Zealand has bound itself by and which is widely acknowledged to form part of the source of the wording and meaning of our Bill of Rights:
“What is the right to freedom of religion and belief?
The right to freedom of religion and belief includes the right to hold a belief, the right to change one’s religion or belief, the right to express one’s religion or belief, and the right not to hold a belief. The right to believe is not limited to religion. It also includes atheistic beliefs, as well as matters of conscience such as pacifism and conscientious objection to military service.”
Evidence that these sections of the Bill of Rights Act were intended to include non-religious beliefs such as atheism, agnosticism, humanism, secularism, etc and place them on par can be found in this document put out by the Ministry of Justice, “The Guidelines on the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990: A Guide to the Rights and Freedoms in the Bill of Rights Act for the Public Sector:”
Further discussion on the meaning of section 13
The protection in section 13 is far-reaching. The section is likely to include “freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief“. The freedom extends to thoughts and beliefs of any kind including theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs.
How should I interpret the term ‘religion or belief’?
The United Nations Human Rights Committee states the terms “religion” and “belief” should be interpreted broadly to include theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs. The protection in section 15 extends beyond obligatory doctrine and applies to all religions and beliefs, even those without the established doctrines and customs of traditional religions.
Now given the NZARH’s principle 2) that no one view should be privileged over another, all views should be treated equally, this is all perfectly compatible but this reading of the Bill of Rights Act (and the International Bill of Rights) conflicts radically with the NZARH principle 1). It also radically conflicts with the vision for New Zealand that the NZARH have clearly held out as aspirational in the six examples they identify in their document as areas of public life which need improving on. Their proposed solutions for the examples they have set out clearly demonstrate a call for one view (theirs) to be significantly privileged over another.
The most telling is their section on education which I will now briefly fisk:
“The New Zealand public education system was set up to be secular and still is in most cases.”
The education system must inculcate one type of viewpoint alone: secular views and not non-secular views.
“There are however too many cases where those running a school try to force their own beliefs on their students through religious observance.”
But it is ok for secular beliefs to be forced on students through the inculcation of unchallenged secular viewpoints in the classroom.
“The Education Act (1964) has incorporated a loophole to allow primary schools to “close” sections of the school for religious instruction where outside volunteers indoctrinate the children whose parents haven’t opted them out.”
“The NZARH strongly believes that public education should be free, secular and available equally to all children.”
The teaching of secular viewpoints are to be taught at all times, to all children – teachers can teach no other viewpoint. Religion can only figure if the school is willing to close and volunteers are available and parents choose to not opt students out. This is an extremely asymmetrical treatment of two types of viewpoints, secular viewpoints and religious viewpoints but even this asymmetry is not good enough for the NZARH, they want to tip the weight even further towards the bias of secularism, they strongly believe that all state funded education should be secular. Any citizen who wishes for an alternative to their view must pay more than citizens who do not.
As Paul Rishworth, Professor and outgoing Dean of Law at the University of Auckland, an expert in New Zealand’s Rights and Freedoms law, stated to the Human Rights Commission’s Diversity Forum on Religion in Schools:
Though I am perhaps the only person in the world who has not read Harry Potter, the point is well made in an extract from the seventh and last volume (p. 210):
“What’s Voldemort planning for Hogwarts?” she [Hermione] asked Lupin. “Attendance is now compulsory for every young witch and wizard,” he replied. “That was announced yesterday. It’s a change, because it was never obligatory before. Of course, nearly every witch and wizard in Britain has been educated at Hogwarts, but their parents had the right to teach them at home or send them abroad if they preferred. This way, Voldemort will have the whole Wizarding population under his eye from a young age.”
Tags: Doctrine of Religious Restraint · Free Exercise · Freedom of Religion · Harry Potter · Jurisprudence · Lord Voldemort · NZARH · Paul Rishworth · Religion in Public Life · Rights and Freedoms · Secularism · Steven Smith189 Comments