Thursday, September 10, 2015

Today by Michael Lucy

A question of creation
Andrew Hastie should be clear about what he believes

Andrew Hastie is the Liberal candidate for the WA seat of Canning in the byelection to be held in just over a week. He is 32 and a former SAS captain who was deployed several times to Afghanistan. Last week it came out that Hastie’s father, Peter, a pastor and theologian, has written against evolution for a publication that believes the world was created by God some 6000 years ago.

When asked whether he shared his father’s views, Hastie declared that questions about his family were “totally unacceptable” and “completely irrelevant to this campaign”. The issue came up again today, when Hastie was asked whether he personally believed in creationism. He refused, repeatedly, to answer directly, though he said there was “plenty of disagreement within Christianity itself about the specifics of creation, of theistic evolution”. His views weren’t important, he argued, because “There’s no religious test in this country for public office.”

Are Hastie’s personal views here important? There’s a fair argument that they are.

We sometimes say that religion should stay out of politics, which only makes sense if you think of religion as something like a hobby: people do it on the weekend, and it is somehow cordoned off from the rest of their lives. But there’s no clean distinction between religious and secular in the life of an individual, or in the life of a society. Do we have laws against theft because property rights are vital to capitalism, or because the Bible tells us not to steal?

There are two broad arguments for secularism in government: one is that people in our society follow many religions, and none should be privileged over another; the other is that religious claims about the world are untrue. A secular society, the argument goes, has room to be pluralistic and tolerant, and make decisions based on reason. (This is a pretty optimistic view – I’m an atheist, but I’m not so self-serving as to think that makes me any more rational than anyone else.)

We are all variously irrational people with our own ideological commitments and idiosyncratic biases; religious people, like the non-religious, sit at all points on any political spectrum you can think up. We do have some more or less shared values and beliefs that help things work: that our system of government is better than others, for one.

And Hastie does seem to be committed to a secular approach to government: he says he is proud to have fought for Australia’s freedom of religion, and that while he is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, for instance, he believes the question should be put to a popular vote. While Australian politicians are not usually as overtly religious as Americans, say, faith is certainly no bar to holding high office here.

So if Hastie does believe that the Earth was created 6000 years ago, he’s entitled to his belief. But the voters of Canning are likewise entitled to know about it, because it’s a belief that many of them may find a bit troubling. It’s not like simply believing that a God exists, or that some behaviours are good and others bad: it’s about material facts, which are what we hope we can all agree on, and it goes against reason and evidence and popular consensus.

What’s more, it’s the kind of belief that could have strange consequences. How does it fit with the rest of the world? How would it affect Hastie’s views of the Indigenous people who have lived in Australia for 40,000 years or more? What would he make of geological evidence about climate change?

Religious freedom is vitally important, but it’s not a shield against uncomfortable questions.


Today’s links

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.



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