On being secular…

Climate change, the future of work and bog standard racism should be enough to be getting on with. But no, a political party for religious fundamentalists is about to torment us by adding its peculiar ecclesiastical code of conduct to the various tribes in parliament.

The Christian Party, whether a political ploy or not, is an unfortunate development in a secular country. That the last two failed is no reason for complacency; this one is well timed. How long before we have a Muslim Party? And why not, some would ask, in a democracy the views of the religious should be represented along with the views of atheists.

A reasonable assertion on the face of it, but I’ve never heard of sectarian violence between atheists. Mind you, there’s nothing stopping atheist from being rampantly violent nationalists. Still, religious and nationalist fanatics are always ready to jump on each other’s bandwagon when the opportunity arises.

Many years ago when sectarian violence in Belfast was at its height, I remember Brian Edwards, the Irish, New Zealand broadcaster, made a comment that stuck with me. He was asked how the hatred and violence could be stopped, as if being an Irishman gave him the wisdom of Solomon. He did not answer immediately, which was unusual for him, but when it did come his answer was shocking: “Take the children away from their mothers.”

It’s doubtful if he was serious but his pause and his answer illustrated the fact that it is nearly impossible to breach the inter-generational hatred that erupts in sectarian conflicts. By emphasising how ‘moderate’ and peace-loving most of the faithful are is to ignore the fact that  religion is a vehicle for intolerance. All the good that religious institutions perform in their communities goes for nothing against this fact.

Brian Tamaki’s disciples who stood opposite the Al Noor Mosque to declare there was only one true God, their own of course, is a chilling, if mild, example of the potential for sectarian feuding. The disgust expressed by the general public went over the heads of the zealots. They were fighting their corner.

I sometimes see the major religions as pugilists inhabiting the four corners of a boxing ring; just holding back  from once again battling each other.  And when the fight is over, society  is the loser while the combatants slink back into their own corners again  –  until the next time. Which is why we need to protect our secular status.

Although he was not completely successful, I think the current speaker of the house of representatives was right to try to remove religion from parliament’s opening prayer. New Zealand is not a religious country and nor is it, to the surprise of many overwhelmingly  Christian.     The breakdown of our beliefs is as follows:

Christianity 48%

Hinduism 2.9%

Islam        1.8%

Buddism 1.5%

Judaism ? Appears to be less than 1%

The rest of us are not bound by religious beliefs or dogma. We expect our parliament to be secular, democratic, just, and humane. That is the bulwark to prevent violence in the name of religious extremists.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.