Religion, work and a multi

Conrad Gershevitch
Director, Education & Partnerships
Australian Human Rights
July 2009
Religion, work
and a multi-faith society
Presentation for the Diversity Council of Australia
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
What I wish to discuss:
• what IS ‘religion’ and spirituality?
• why is it important in a liberal secular society
such as Australia (are we such a society?)
• are there any laws that protect people on the
grounds of religion and belief?
• what are the human rights issues associated
with religion and belief for employers?
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
What IS ‘religion’ & spirituality and
why is it important?
– what it means to be human
– humans are curious creatures. We are (generally) highly social
and intelligent; we also function in hierarchies
– humans have an innate urge for order, to understand the world
around them; this includes the social world, but also the natural
– this desire for ordering, finding meaning and controlling have
two (fundamental/elemental) effects:
• firstly, it results in the construction of culture/s
• secondly, it results in attempts to describe (and therefore
understand) the transcendental.
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
What comes first or is more
important: culture or religion (broadly
defined)? This is impossible to say
anthropologically or sociologically, and it
probably doesn’t matter.
What does matter, is how important both are as defining
aspects of humanness. Firstly, lets consider culture.
“perhaps the most famous (definition of culture, is): ‘That
complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals,
law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by
man (sic) as a member of society’. (and, that culture comprises)
‘systems of shared ideas, systems of concepts and rules and
meanings that underlie and are expressed in ways that human
beings live.’ (quoted by Helman, C. Culture, Health and Illness)
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
Culture also needs to be understood as
having layers of meaning and significance
(Helman argues three levels of culture) as well
as being dynamic, relative, contextually based, and as
categorising (ie: helps define social & intellectual
categories for humans).
Culture, therefore is critically important. It provides glue
that holds communities together (inter alia for survival),
transfers knowledge, provides social life-meaning,
communications and interprets the world in which
humans find themselves.
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
Religion, on the other hand, has different functions and, while it
shares qualities with culture, is different.
Disclaimer: my views are secular liberal and anthropological;
many, particularly many religious people will contest these (eg:
by saying that Truth is only to be found through prophetic
Religions are attempts to explain the unexplainable. They deal
with transcendental knowledge, or those things that are
unexplainable, such as what happens after humans die.
Religions are also, however, critical tools for social functioning &
the ethical conduct that helps societies to hold together.
Religions are, by their nature, institutional. People are
categorised within the faith, and faith specialists (usually) have
the responsibility for interpreting holy texts, explaining morality
and enforcing norms of religious conduct.
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
A particular benefit of religion is that it makes the
moral and intellectual life of individuals and communities easier.
If these did not exist then, to avoid an existence of social and
ethical anarchy or purposelessness they would have to be
invented (remember Nietzsche’s ‘madman’ searching for God!)
Religions, and religions’ servants make social life far ‘easier’ by
laying down the rules (the ‘ethical leadership) of how to live, and
how to interpret reality.
This is an important function, however, in the modern world
religion may have less critical roles because of the State and its
institutions (such as laws or ideology) and science (such as
evolutionary theory) and alternative ethics (such as human rights)
can be feasible substitutes for the moral frameworks outlined by
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
Given this last point, is faith still important?
Absolutely! In the context of global security and freedom of speech:
“…it is very apparent, certainly for the several decades ahead, that religion and
faith are not going to drift away into a privatised world as many atheists and
agnostics had predicted. In fact, one of the major features of twentieth century
history was the enduring stability of religion and its institutions..” (Cahill, D. et al
Religion, Cultural Diversity and Safeguarding Australia, 2004)
This view was recently restated by Micklethwait & Wooldridge (God
is Back, 2009) which explores the global rise in faith and contests
the claims of, particularly European, secularists:
“… the American model… is spreading around the world: religion and
modernity are going hand in hand, not just in China but throughout much of
Asia, African, Arabia and Latin America. It is not just that religion is thriving in
many modernizing countries; it is also that religion is succeeding in harnessing
the tools of modernity to propagate its message. The very things that were
supposed to destroy religion – democracy and markets, technology and reason
– are combining it make it stronger.”
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is often
cited as the reason why Australia is considered a secular state. It states
the Commonwealth cannot pass legislation:
“…establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for
prohibiting the free exercise of any religion and no religious test shall be
required as a qualification for any office or public trust...”
This has been interpreted as meaning the government cannot pass laws:
that creates a religion
endorses one specific ‘state religion’
requires particular religious observances, or
prohibits the doing of an act done in the practice of religion.
Moreover, the Australian government cannot require that a prospective
holder of a public office be affiliated with any particular religious views.
However, this view of the ‘secular’ nature of the Australian Constitution
and the religion/government divide has been contested by religious
organisations (eg: Christian Democrats argue that s116 was established
for religious, not a secular purpose).
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
The international treaties and their application in
– International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms
of Racial Discrimination, 1966 (ICERD)
– International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
– Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of
Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (Religion Declaration)
Australia ratified ICERD in 1975, its obligations were met under the
Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act. The central prohibition against
racial discrimination is contained in section 9(1) of this Act:
“…any act involving a distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference
based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has
the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition,
enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of any human right or
fundamental freedom in the political, economic, social, cultural or any
other field of public life.”
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
RDA applies to businesses, schools, all tiers
of government, agencies and individuals. It
makes racial discrimination unlawful in employment,
accommodation, education and provision of goods and services,
access to facilities meant for use by the public, advertising, and
trade union membership. The RDA also prohibits both direct and
indirect discrimination
S18D provides exemption for acts done ‘reasonably and in good
faith’, eg:
in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work
for any statement made for genuine (inter alia) academic, artistic or scientific
purpose in the public interest
making/publishing an accurate report of an event or matter of public interest
Religious discrimination is not unlawful under the RDA although it
prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ‘ethnic origin’ (eg:
includes religious groups such as Jewish and Sikh people).
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
Under the HREOC Act (1986) discrimination
or vilification of people on the basis of religion
may be dealt with in two ways. Under the Act
the Commission can inquire into, and attempt to
conciliate allegations that an act of the Commonwealth (including
things done ‘on behalf of the Commonwealth’) is inconsistent
with any human right (meaning the rights and freedoms
recognised in the international instruments, in the case of
freedom of religion these are ICCPR & Religion Declaration).
The Commission may also investigate/attempt to conciliate
complaints of discrimination in employment on a number of
specified grounds including religion. This part of the Act is based
on the International Labour Organisation Discrimination
(Employment and Occupation) Convention (1958) (ILO
Convention 111) which defines discrimination to mean any
distinction, exclusion or preference made on the basis of
(amongst others) religion, that nullifies or impairs equality of
opportunity or treatment in employment.
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
The HREOC Act definition, however, recognises
that a distinction, exclusion or preference will
not amount to discrimination when it is:
– based on the inherent requirements of a particular job, or
– in connection with employment as a member of the staff of an
institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines,
tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, and
– is a distinction, exclusion or preference made in good faith in
order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents
of that religion or that creed.
In addition to these various protections, the Workplace Relations
Act (1996) prohibits discrimination in the area of federally
regulated workplace agreements and terminations, the Public
Service Act (1999) and the Equal Employment Opportunity
(Commonwealth Authorities) Act (1987) also impose some
obligations on Commonwealth authorities and public service
agencies to combat race discrimination.
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
The freedom to hold religious & other beliefs
is guaranteed by article 18 of the ICCPR (and
so brings it under the ambit of enquiry of the
Australian Human Rights Commission). The
Convention also provides that:
– advocacy of religious hatred which amounts to incitement to
discrimination, hostility or violence must be prohibited by law (art
– everyone is entitled to equality before the law and equal protection
of the law without discrimination on the ground of religion among
other grounds (art 26), and
– minority groups are entitled to profess & practice their own religion
(art 27)
Note: state/territory governments have their own laws, some cover
issues such as religious vilification (eg: in Victoria) so recommend
that employers determine their state-law obligations as well.
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
In this brief presentation have tried to argue why
religion matters, and some of the federal laws
relating to it.
Fundamentally, the protections (from vilification and
discrimination etc) are weak and resistance to
strengthening these laws passionate.
Time constraints have prevented me from discussing
some of the reasons for these views, eg: public vs
private responsibility, exemptions, freedom of
speech, defamation of religions etc.
Religion, work and
a multi-faith society
In conclusion:
- religion matters
- productive & respectful workplaces understand this and try to
establish environments of mutual respect & accommodation
- this may involve thinking outside cultural norms but, for those
with diverse workplace or conduct business that function in
plural contexts, staff will respect such accommodation
- the globalised 21st century is one of ever-increasing
movements - of ideas, capital, people
- transnational diasporas and workplace diversity is the future
- in this context we ignore or avoid the persistence, indeed the
resurgence, of faith and its meaning to people at our peril.