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Gillard's atheism belongs in the closet

  • 02 August 2010

Perth'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