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Gillard's atheism belongs in the closet

43 Comments
Michael Mullins |  02 August 2010

Archbishop Barry HickeyPerth's Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey (pictured) recently drew attention to Julia Gillard's atheism and its potential to harm the interests of the Church. He said that her atheism might influence Christian voters not to vote Labor at this month's federal election. Some took his statement to mean that a vote for Gillard is a vote for atheism, and that therefore Christians should choose non-Labor candidates with Christian beliefs.

This position of intolerance ascribed to Archbishop Hickey is not far removed from that of David Barker, the disendorsed Liberal candidate for the Western Sydney seat of Chifley whose ALP opponent happened to be a Muslim. Barker said: 'I don't know if we want at this stage in Australian politics a Muslim in the parliament and an atheist running the government.'

This sectarian view assumes that leaders should govern with particular sectional interests in mind that are distinct from the common good. Hickey's atheist critics make an important point when they argue that religious beliefs should have no bearing on the political process:

'[Hickey] represents the polar opposite of making an educated, informed and balanced choice on Election Day. Private and personal philosophy about the existence of a god should not affect a person's ability to govern a country effectively, especially one made up of people with many faiths and none.'

Hickey later said that the reporting of his comments had been misleading. He made a further statement acknowledging that Gillard appears set to give churches a fair go. 'She's honest, she said she would respect religious beliefs and I think that's all good.'

While such faint praise provides little comfort to Australians who cherish the separation of church and state that helps to define our culture and nationhood, his further remarks reveal a real and legitimate concern. Hickey went on to address the growing influence of a robust and quasi-doctrinal secularism in European politics that is evidenced in the successful lobbying to keep God out of the European Constitutional and Lisbon treaties.

Clearly Hickey sees Gillard's 'out and proud' atheism as a sign that her leadership could be conducive to the flourishing of organised hostility towards churches and religious belief.

Indeed it could have been a mistake for Gillard to 'declare' her atheism, almost as if she was giving witness to a firmly held religious belief. Atheism signifies a lack of belief. There is not a lot that can be said about it without running the risk of it becoming a belief and its believers adopting the religious posturing many atheists abhor.

In hindsight, Gillard would probably agree that her opponent Tony Abbott got his lines right and did better by declaring candidates' religious views a private matter that should not distract from voters' judgment of their competence and policies.


Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

 



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I am much more worried by Abbott's constipated religious beliefs than Gillard's atheism

GAJ 02 August 2010

I don't recall Gillard using the word "atheist". I think she answered a question with a statement that she does not believe in God. It doesn't put her in the same basket as Richard Dawkins.

Michael Grounds 02 August 2010

Michael, there is much in your column with wich I would disagree. Perhaps this statement of yours is the cause of the problem: "While such faint praise provides little comfort to Australians who cherish the separation of church and state that helps to define our culture and nationhood, his further remarks reveal a real and legitimate concern." The doctrine of separation of Church and State does not define Australia. It defines the US. And it is about the protection of freedom of religion from the incursions of the State given the experience of many of the Founding Fathers of the US with England where the King had nationalised religion and treated other religious believers (ie non-members of the C of E) as beyond the pale. As Michael Horgan, Research Associate in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, what the Australian Constitution provides is for the cooperation between church and state. And this is exactly what Ms Gillard has said. She understands the Australian Constitution. Religion is not relegated to the 'private', but has its proper place in the public square. A candidate's personal opinions are not irrelevant and people are entitled to take those matters into consideration. I do not believe Ms Gillard's atheism will be a problem because she understands the the essence of the Constitution which is that we have had, and will always have, a mature relationship between Chruch and State.

Fr John Fleming 02 August 2010

Owning up that you have no religious belief has its perils when you are a public figure.

But claiming no belief while being respectful of believers is playing it straight.

How one treats others is a good test.

One's personal ethical stance should not need to be hedged around. It should be ok to say I believe; it should also be ok to say I do not believe.

RFI Smith 02 August 2010

To dismiss God from our governmenatal process is to ignore our best friend...only God can save us from the grave and worse.

fr.Theodore Gillian ofm 02 August 2010

While I admire, perhaps envy, many of those I have known who are blessed with firm convictions - religious or atheistic, those who honestly and courageously acknowledge their uncertainty or lack of belief, as Julia Gillard does, rather than stooping to hypocrisy, also deserve our admiration - and our trust.

Bob Corcoran 02 August 2010

People, even Julia Gillard, do NOT need to respect religions based on supernatural mumbo jumbo, but what we DO respect, is a person's right to believe whatever they want as long as it doesn't affect the rest of us. Atheists respect others' right to believe anything.

Dark Horse 02 August 2010

Julia Gillard is for abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.

Gillard became the second woman to lead the then socialist Australian Union of Students. She was also formerly the secretary of the left-wing organisation, Socialist Forum.

She was responsible for drafting the affirmative action rules within the Labor Party in Victoria that set the target of preselecting women for 35 per cent of 'winnable seats.' She also played a role in the foundation of EMILY's List, the pro-abortion fund-raising and support network for Labor women.

She has had several previous "defacto" relationships and is currently in a new one.

Her political hero is the Welsh Marxist,and virulently Anti-Catholic, Aneurin Bevan.

And she is an atheist, denying God.

As a Catholic, I could not vote for her.

Trent 02 August 2010

I cringed when I first heard Archbishop Hickey's comments on Julia Gillard's alleged atheism. I cringed even more when he expatiated on the spread of sectarianism in Western Europe.

When will Catholic church leaders ever learn that what they might say over coffee with their likeminded brethern regarding political trends in Australia ought not to be said in public except with the greatest circumspection?

Don't underestimate the media. It has many talented intelligent reporters/journalists who can turn a loosely expressed opinion - an aside even - into a declaration of war. The media thrives on conflict and controversy. I would expect every archbishop/bishop to weigh his words carefully in the scales of The Beatitudes, especially Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.

Uncle Pat 02 August 2010

"..., his further remarks reveal a real and legitimate concern. Hickey went on to address the growing influence of a robust and quasi-doctrinal secularism in European politics that is evidenced in the successful lobbying to keep God out of the European Constitutional and Lisbon treaties."

Keeping gods out is the only sensible path; if a god is to be included, whose god(s) get preference?

Brian Westley 02 August 2010

I think Hickey and all the religious people who cant accept someone who doesn't believe in there faith to get in there closet. I am so sick of these so called religions bagging out others for believing in things different to them. So much for love thy neighbour. All religion is, is an excuse to make money, start wars and control the masses. Go look after your own flock and leave us non sheep be!!

Trevor Frost 02 August 2010

@Michael Grounds. Atheism is defined by not believing in the existence God, so Julia does have something in common with Richard Dawkins. Is that a bad thing? because I don't see how being an atheist is a bad thing in itself.

Janet 02 August 2010

"There is not a lot that can be said about it without running the risk of it becoming a belief and its believers adopting the religious posturing many atheists abhor."

I don't suppose you could explain exactly how this might happen? No, I didn't think you would.

Pluto Animus 02 August 2010

Mullins is a good guy, but, try as he may to be disinterested, he has the same problem as most of us that he can't quite shake off his prejudices. The give-away line is "atheism signifies a lack of belief". No. What it signifies is lack of superstition.

Peter Shaw 02 August 2010

I don’t think that Julia’s religious orientation is relevant. The human person is constituted to be in relationship (if not with God then with fellow humans). Why not focus on Julia’s inability to form long lasting relationships? As pointed out by Trent: Julia has had several previous ‘defacto relationships (reportedly with a fellow politician who is married) and is currently in a new defacto relationship. Plus the fact that she betrayed her leader - Kevin Rudd - does her behavior not indicate a deeper problem? I get a sense that perhaps its Julia’s ambition that is the driving force rather than her capacity for mature personal integrity?

Trish Martin 02 August 2010

It is interesting that in comparison to the interest in Julia Gillard's Atheism (something she certainly has not promoted but simply addressed in a forthright way as the issue has arisen) the media seems to be happy to gloss over Tony Abbott's beliefs.

This is despite the fact that his faith certainly influences his decision-making as an elected representative, evidenced most accutely in his management of Australian women's access to RU468.

However, it seems to only influence Mr Abbott when it suits. Scripture is often open to interpretation. The story of the Good Samaritan is not. I am reasonably certain that turning the boats around was not what Jesus has in mind.

Any attempt to separate Church and State will always be limited to process and procedure. In this way it is a bit of a furphy and it is important to recognise this.

Better then that our politicians are up front about their beliefs and what influences their decision making on our behalf.

If our politicians do promote themselves as Christians in the course of electioneering, then we can expect that this will be applied consistently.

Mr Abbott knows this. And is clearly not prepared to be limited by it. By refusing to be drawn on Ms Gillard's beliefs, I can only imagine that his ultimate aim is not to be drawn on his own.

JEG 02 August 2010

Archbishop Hickey is not responsible for how people miscontrue his comments.He said that her atheism might influence Christian voters not to vote Labor at this month's federal election.

However Labors National Platform 2009 document shows that abortion on demand is part of their platform. Julia Gillard is a member of Emily' List which supports women having the right to access abortion as part of its platform. I would choose to vote for a pro life candidate, if Julia was prolife I might vote for her, atheist or not. However as member of Emily's List it is clear she is pro choice.

Patricia Joseph 02 August 2010

I naively expect to get a well-informed Catholic opinion when I read Eureka Street; frequently I find myself getting an opinion that may or may not be well-informed, but is certainly not identifiably Catholic. Apart from the less than respectful references to the Archbishop as "Hickey", Mr Mullins finds more to agree with in the pronouncements of atheists; which is not to say that thru common grace atheists aren't often right; but unless one IS an atheist, they can't be said to be right on religious subjects. Is Mr Mullins (a catholic, I presume?) saying that "private and personal philosophy" should not affect one's values about real-world issues? Well, that's certainly rather odd. Is Mr Mullins saying that the Christian faith is (merely) "private and personal"? Sorry, that sort of apolitical pietism would suggest that Eureka Street shouldn't exist.

That being said, there seem to be quite a number of readers -- P. Shaw, P. Animus, T. Frost, D. Horse -- who don't know that Eureka Street is a Jesuit publication, or perhaps what Jesuits are!

If a politician has some articulated or thought-through position on matters pertaining to the meaning of human persons, relationships, and society, I think we are entitled to know what they are. There are no doubt some politicians who lack philosophical curiosity or religious impulses -- but any who do have such are no doubt motivated by them, and for electors to understand them is to be better-informed.

Paul Tankard 02 August 2010

Dear Michael,

"He said that her atheism might influence Christian voters not to vote Labor at this month's federal election." Is a far from saying that he is asking people not to vote for her. While I personally would have no qualms voting for an atheist, I believe he is right. Some people won't vote for her on that basis. "Some took his statement to mean..." Let’s be honest you took that statement to mean he is taking a "position of intolerance". So I ask you, could you provide a more in depth quote that shows his intolerance during that speech to the extent that he could be compared to the xenophobic statements made by David Barker. I think you have responsibility to do so.

Hickey even went through the trouble of clarifying that it was not his intention to vilify Ms Gillard. Still, you stand by your inference. This type of reporting is not “progressive”, it’s polemic.

Just to let any reader know, I am not a Liberal supporter or consider myself conservative. Nor would I consider myself a defender of the Churches top brass. Though I do value honesty.

Matthew 02 August 2010

Didn't Bob Hawke former Labor PM declare Australia not to be a Christian country but to be non-sectarian. By 2075 religion as we know will no longer exist.

Dana 02 August 2010

Aye, you can't have bigots without religion.

bill 02 August 2010

FR JON FLEMING SAYS:
"The doctrine of separation of Church and State does not define Australia. It defines the US."

In practice though I suspect you are wrong and that Michael Mullins is correct. I have heard Philip Adams and others assert that, in the USA, religious affiliation is essential in political campaigns. Don't forget we already had one agnostic prime minister recently in Bob Hawke (see transcript of interview with Andrew Denton) whereas the USA (according to the Huffington Post) has only ever had Thomas Jefferson. That was over 200 years ago so you may want to brush up on contemporary culture.

DJ Squiggle 02 August 2010

Yes of course a better stance for politicians is to claim belief in a Supreme Being but not attachment to any of the Organised Religions-but why should they be deceptive. I would rather have an honest Atheist than a dishonest Christian. Many people no longer believe that the Organised Religions hold the moral high ground because much of the doctrine dose not seem moral or ethical and there is no doubt that terrorism and child abuse has turned millions way from the Organised religions. Religion can be used for good and evil and because someone claims to embrace a religion does not mean that they are good and kind any more than lack of religion means non believers are not good and kind.

Keith 02 August 2010

To accuse Archbishop Barry Hickey of intolerance is highly unfair. Archbishop Hickey speaks the truth. As Father John Fleming explain the Australian Constitution provides is for the cooperation between church and state without having an official denomination e.g., of C of E or Catholic.Australia is a Christian nation. Ms Julia Gillard is a member of the Emily's List. Catholics in conscience can not support or vote for pro-abortion polititians. Eureka Street should inform Catholics that the Emily's List is a network and support for pro-abortion Labor woomen candidates to enter State and Federal parliaments

Ron Cini 02 August 2010

Actions speak louder than words, She made it very clear that she IS not & does not answer to anybody or anything, not even her own boss ruddy, I for one am glad she announced her atheism because the way she stabbed Rudd in the back is by no means a Christian virtue.

Gillard is only in it for herself kinda reminds me of a female version of Nero.

Pat 03 August 2010

Julia Gillard said she didn't believe in God. She did NOT say that she belonged to Richard Dawkins's fast growing Atheist Church.

She would never have my vote for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I am not in her Electorate. However much I abhorr her stand on abortion, she is no more radically feminist than Joan Kirner or Carmen Lawrence whose positions on abortion and gay marriage are well known and neither of whom had much success as Labor leaders. I detect no anti religiosity in her political stance and remember she is still surrounded by right wing labor Catholics. Julia Gillard has not announced any decision to legitimise Gay Marriage

Nevertheless Archbishop Hickey is right,there will be Christians influenced to vote against her because of her views; that's unfortunate, but it's also her problem not his.

I would be more worried about Simon Crean's statement not guaranteeing to maintain real increased funding for private schools. The Catholic school sector needs to keep a close watch on that one.

Peter Stokes 03 August 2010

a very balanced article.

Emmanuel Sant 03 August 2010

There is a double standard here. A politician who makes a claim of being Christian is never asked to "remain in the closet."

It is part of the larger trend for critics to say that it is ok that atheists exist but why do they have to speak up?

Gillard made a very mild statement regarding her beliefs, one that should not trouble a secular society as Australia.

Shaun 03 August 2010

Thank you Trent for providing some plain facts.

michael 03 August 2010

Should Catholic candidates similarly keep their beliefs private?

Ray Ingles 04 August 2010

Atheism is not a lack of belief; it is a positive belief that there are no gods, and that in consequence religions are delusory. "lack of belief" is what agnostics claim to have, but they are really just polite or fearful atheists mostly.
I agree with the thrust of your article however.

edwin coleman 06 August 2010

In fact Julia Gillard said in the same breath, I don't believe in God, I believe in people...

If there is God, or whatever name you wish to give a creator, that spirit is alive and well within all people. Like it or not.

Linda Rees 06 August 2010

Atheism is not a lack of belief; it is a positive belief that there are no gods, and that in consequence religions are delusory. "lack of belief" is what agnostics claim to have, but they are really just polite or fearful atheists mostly.
I agree with the thrust of your article however.

edwin coleman 06 August 2010

Long awaited clarification that allows the reader to distill the collapsing of religious and political beliefs in the election campaign. Mullins however should note atheism is a firm belief that there is no God; rather than a lack of belief per se.

Lack of belief signifies agnosticism, and that's harder to countenance. At least self described atheists tend to hang their argument off religious ones, albeit adopting an opposing view point. The conversation is still around God.

Paul Brockhoff 06 August 2010

As a christian minister I am much less troubled by Julia Gillard's 'atheism' than the ignorance by so many Christians about what 'atheism' means! It is an entirely respectable conviction that the the 'theistic' God of Judeo-Christian tradition (ie God the person)is not where life's meaning is to be found, thus 'a-theism'. It may be a surprise to find that there are people within Christian circles who share this belief, and who are more likely to name 'G.O.D. as a symbol of a deeper mystery. For me the phrase "Love is God" is equally important as "God is love", and this is my motivation for trying to live with respect with the people who don't share my world-view. I fairly constantly find myself in conversations saying 'tell me about the God you don't believe in, chances are I don't believe in that God either'.
So credit to the PM for honesty!

Rod 06 August 2010

We are not worried whether she goes to church, whether early religious instruction has been a non-event or that possibly her belief might be that God is a patriarchal construct. We only want to know if she can run the country! YAY! our first female Prime Minister.

Helen of Perth 06 August 2010

I think this overlooks the likelihood that her atheism would have been made an issue by some religious groups. I think her "coming out" was so she could state her views on her own terms, and to preempt what could have (and could still) become a dog-whistle issue.

And these comments flirt with the perennial claim of believers that atheism is just another "belief". No, she was just being straightforward about how she sees the world. Why can't it be left as simple as that?

Geoff Davies 06 August 2010

DJ Sqiggle says: "In practice though I suspect you are wrong and that Michael Mullins is correct." Well, I am talking about the Constitution and I am in fact right. That many people behave as if we were the US is regrettable. But people have to adjust their practice to the law as itself. I am really glad we live in a country where religious observance is just accepted as part of our life together, an observance in which people are free to participate or not as takes their fancy. The State knows full well that where social welfare, health, and education are concerned, the cooperation between Church and State is crucial. Neither could do the work alone. But there is a great strength in cooperation. The separation of church and state is a foreign doctrine, in any case often misunderstood, but fortunately not applied in this country thanks to the Constitution.

Father John Fleming 06 August 2010

I just cannot for the life of me understand in today's modern world, how anyone with a rational mind can believe in the fairty tale world of a God.

Jim Lee 07 August 2010

" the flourishing of organised hostility towards churches and religious belief."

Could you please elaborate on this statement because I am not sure what these organised hostilities are. Thanking you kindly and God bless you!

Georgina Zuvela 08 August 2010

Religion has never played a part in my voting decisions in the past, however I hold serious reservations about Tony Abbott's fundamentalist Christian ideals. Personally, I would feel better if someone who does not believe in magic, or the supernatural, held the highest office in this country.

Mark 15 August 2010

Isn't it true that Atheists think as much about God as others who believe?

Michael 16 August 2010

lol what are you going to do, believers? Pray?

Elment Koronel 23 November 2010

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