Australia’s supposed secular heritage: busted

(quoting Helen Irving)

Australia has a ‘secular heritage’. Throughout the nineteenth century, colonial governments took pains not to encourage sectarianism and refused to give official recognition to one church over others.

But it didn’t take much research to show that’s untrue. To quote from the State Library of New South Wales:

The Church Act of 1836 provided Government subsidies for clerical salaries and for new church construction. Church communities that raised a minimum of £300 pounds were subsidised on a ‘pound for pound’ basis up to a maximum of £1000. Additional land grants were also made available for churches and schools. Originally intended for Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian denominations [Governor Richard] Bourke later extended the provisions of the Act to other denominations including the Jewish, Wesleyan and Baptist communities. By supporting the development of a diverse number of religious communities the Church Act diminished the power of the Anglican church in the colony and provided the impetus for a number of building projects across the colony.

My two cents

New South Wales Waratah
New South Wales Waratah (Photo credit: philipbouchard)

The first quote’s conclusion (its second sentence) does not follow from its premise (its first sentence).

If colonial governments were as secular as Irving claims, they would not have supported any Christian denominations! They would never have started by favouring a handful of denominations (with others missing out), and they would not have continued to support additional denominations (along with Jewish institutions). These acts were not religiously neutral or secular, but clearly designed to benefit citizens who liked reading the Old Testament—not the works of Baron d’Holbach.

We need to be careful of people who use inverted quotes for terms like secular heritage when arguing for its existence. The quotation marks come across as a pretend concept which needed a term to be concocted for it, and for the sake of a humanistic article.

Zooming out to the big picture, the question of whether a given country has a Christian, deistic, secular, or syncretistic heritage has some proximate value, but it’s ultimately irrelevant—it would be an appeal to (nationalist) tradition. If that were pushed to its logical conclusion, Christianity would never have taken off, and the exchanges between missionaries and citizens would have gone:

Missionary: Our Lord commanded us to preach the Gospel and to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; Jesus is King of Kings.

Citizen: But this is a country with a pre-Christian and/or anti-Christian heritage!

Missionary: Oh, OK, we’ll go home then. Sorry about that.

Quote sources

  1. Irving, H. (2004). Australia’s foundations were definitely and deliberately not Christian. Available: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=2272. Last accessed 24th Nov 2012.
  2. State Library of New South Wales. (2010). The Church Act, 1836. Available: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/history_nation/religion/places/act.html. Last accessed 24th Nov 2012.
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