Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Think tank researcher explores the question of religious freedom

Reverend Peter Kurti giving his talk after formal dinner

Expert on freedom of religion, the Reverend Peter Kurti, declared “God is back” when he spoke to students to Warrane College’s special guest at formal dinner on Wednesday 29 April 2015.

An ordained minister in the Anglican Church, Reverend Kurti is a Research Fellow co-ordinating the Religion and Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS).

Responding to the view that “God is dead”, Reverend Kurti took his assertion of the return of divine influence in the secular world from the title of the book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge: God is back!

He said his main message to the students he was addressing was to encourage them in the life of faith, if they had faith, and to “urge them to reflect on important questions of meaning and value – whether sacred or secular – and to engage critically and thoughtfully with those around and beyond you who do not share your beliefs or world view”.

“Our Australian values of tolerance, inclusiveness and fairness – the values on which our society has been built – require of us that we attend thoughtfully to all people of faith, and to those who have none,” he said..

Reverend Kurti, who was an outspoken atheist in his youth, said that believers needed to be encouraged to think about the public impact that their religious faith makes.

“And non-believers need to be encouraged to see religion as more than a series of doctrinal propositions but as something which has a broader social and cultural impact,” he said.

“As the historian Edward Gibbon once observed: ‘For the man who can raise himself above the prejudices of party and sect, the history of religions is the most interesting part of the history of the human spirit.”

During his talk, Reverend Kurti emphasised three topics concerning religious life and identity in Australia. The first was what he believed was the growth of a form of anti-Semitism in Australia.

He said: “Jeremy Jones who prepares an annual report on anti-Semitism on behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry has remarked that, ‘Australia does not have a past to which anti-Semites can look comfortably with nostalgia, which distinguishes it from many other countries.’

“But he has been concerned for a number of years that Australia has a culture of tolerating anti-Semitism and that this has been exacerbated by a new form of anti-Semitism which purports to represent left-wing, anti-racist opinion. And this ‘new’ anti-Semitism is on the rise.

“It’s rather different from the kind of bigotry often associated with what writers such as Melanie Phillips call ‘Jew hatred’. But it has a lasting and debilitating impact on the Australian Jewish community – and ultimately on us all – nonetheless. And I think it still amounts to Jew hatred.

“This new form of anti-Semitism takes the form of criticism which is ostensibly levelled only at Israel and not at Jewish people themselves…

“Whatever form it takes today, whether physical attack or economic strangulation or political de-legitimisation, there is an old name for this bigotry: anti-Semitism – the hatred of Jews.

“And this hatred is alive once more, and particularly so in Australia where leaders of the Jewish community tell me anti-Semitic attacks and abuse are at a 30-year high. The devil that is anti-Semitism has not died.  Israel’s policy in Gaza is just an excuse and not the cause.”

The second issue Reverend Kurti raised was the right to freedom of religion. Noting that in 1966 Time magazine carried on its cover the stark question “Is God Dead?”, he said that at the time, global trends in religion seemed to support “the prophets of decline who maintained that nationalism, socialism and even modernisation were supplanting religion as the source of people’s loyalties”.

“This was the so-called ‘secularisation thesis’,” he said, “ the prediction that religion would wilt before the juggernauts of the modern world. But in the last 50 years global trends have confounded this thesis and we have seen a tremendous rise in the influence of religion in political and social life.”

A good example of a group exerting this kind of influence in Australia at the moment was the Australian Christian Lobby which was now very active across the country, lobbying politicians, parliamentarians and other leaders.

The advance of religion into the public space had shown the importance of defending the fundamental human right to religious liberty.

“In some work I did last year, I argued that the debate around the contentious issue of same-sex marriage is highlighting the emergence of new limits to religious liberty,” Reverend Kurti said.

“In the event, say, that the search for the ultimate meaning and truth leads religious believers to the conviction that homosexuality and, by extension, same-sex marriage, is immoral, I suggested that they are now more likely to find themselves in conflict with the values of a secular society and facing accusations of equality denial and homophobia.

“Yet are not these the very circumstances in which believers may demand the freedom to express their religiously inspired views about human sexuality? I took no position on the matter of same-sex marriage itself, but simply took the issue as an example of the way in which some religious believers feel their freedom is being curtailed, and to argue for a renewed commitment to the fundamental right to religious liberty.

“As the distinguished natural law scholar Robert George has remarked: ‘Respect for the good of religion requires that civil authority respect…conditions or circumstances in which people can engage in the sincere religious quest and live lives of authenticity reflecting their best judgements as to the truth of spiritual matters.’”

The third area Reverend Kurti raised was the danger that a fault line was opening up in Australian society with Australian Muslims…

“The young men arrested by Victorian police a week before the Anzac Day weekend are all alleged to be Islamic State recruits who were devising a series attacks on Anzac Day itself. They had all embraced the ideology of Islamic State that wants to restore the caliphate — a form of Islamic government — and establish the pre-eminence of Islam.

“Some commentators like to explain away Islamic assertiveness by talking about the grievances and alienation allegedly experienced by young Muslim men. But that kind of discourse turns Australian Muslims into passive victims whereas they are, in fact, actors who believe there is a better system of religion, politics and law that needs to be imposed here.

“We should not be shy about rebutting this project to make Australia an Islamic country. Indeed, we should be proud to assert our strong commitment to multiculturalism.

“Muslims comprise around 2% of the population, a little under 500,000 people. And of course, for the most part, that 2% is very content to live in this country and enjoy its many freedoms and opportunities. And, as I say, Australians are very accepting of them.”

But Reverend Kurti said the relationship between Australian Muslims and non-Muslims was likely to be strained for some time which meant that Australians must be particularly attentive to the friction that was occurring in parts of Australian society.

“But I am not pessimistic about this,” he said. “In fact, I am very optimistic about the capacity of people in our society to get along well and to be tolerant and respectful in the dealings with one another. As we know, and as I believe to be true, one of the great strengths of Australian society is its capacity for tolerance and respect.”

Reverend Kurti said in this context he believed that Islam and the West were “certainly not destined to be in a state of perpetual confrontation”.

“The historian David Cannadine surveys the history of Christian-Muslim relations and roundly rejects the Manichean view that divides the world into the Good Ones and the Evil Ones: ‘The evidence is clear that Christians and Muslims have often lived together constructively and amicable, that they have taught one another much about how to live, and they have learned a great deal from each other. When looked at as a whole, the ‘Islamo-Christian world’ has much more in common and binding it together than it has forcing it apart.’

“The second thing we can do is to pursue dialogue with, and conciliation between, all Australian communities. Religious and community leaders are already setting a good example. There needs to be more of it.

“And thirdly, we need always to be respectful of those who do not share our views. All Australians need to accept that they will not always agree. The way to resolve difference and to build understanding is always through dialogue and engagement, and certainly not through violence.”

Summing up, Reverend Kurti said he believed that a person did not have to be religious to be a good citizen, but that as a religious person himself, he believed it helps. He said he believed that Australia was suffused with “spiritual and even religious values” even though they were not necessarily those of institutional religion.

[Warrane College offers a lot more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about some of our other guest speakers.]