Re-cast the Debate - No Such Thing as a Non-Believer

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
18 May 2012

Professor Iain Benson, international
legal philosopher, constitutional lawyer
and Professor of Law

Every citizen has faith and belief in something and contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as an unbeliever, says Professor Iain Benson, internationally renowned legal philosopher, writer, professor and practicing legal consultant.

The Canadian-based constitutional and human rights lawyer has recently been in Australia as a guest of the Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty.  One of the main focuses of Professor Benson's speaking tour of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra has been to correct the misuse of the word "secular" and publicly challenge the popular idea and recast the debate that anyone who is non-religious is a "non-believer."

"Atheists, agnostics and religious of all forms are believers and all have faith. The question is not whether they are believers but rather, what they believe in," he says and insists the "new atheists" such as the late Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, who pride themselves on "not having any beliefs," are wrong.

"Atheists are men and women of faith. Their faiths are different but they are still faiths and their beliefs still beliefs, no matter how much Dawkins and those like him wish it was different. Humans are stuck being believers, and that's all there is to it," he says.

A stickler for the precise and accurate use of language, Professor Benson explains that while the dogma of atheists maybe very different from religious dogma does not mean they are any less dogmatic -  their beliefs emerge from the first principles of their faith.

Although "dogmatic" doesn't necessarily mean being rude, common usage helps prevent any real understanding of what dogma is. "Which is why so many atheists and men and women in the street think, like Dawkins and Hitchens, they don't believe in anything. But they do."

But a lack of understanding has enabled contemporary atheists to present their belief system as the only one that should have public recognition, forcing their own so called "non beliefs" on others.
An example of this within the Sydney Archdiocese is the ongoing battle by various lobby groups to replace religious education in public schools with ethics classes, insisting religion should have no role in public education in a "secular" society.

Today's secular world is characterised not by an absence of religion but an on-going multip0lication of new options - perhaps religious or anti-religious. People seize upon these options to make sense of their lives.

Professor Benson also offers the historical perspective.

"We need to reclaim the true meaning of the 'secular,'" Professor Benson says, pointing out that the word is misunderstood in today's world and taken to mean "non-religious" when its real meaning, and legal definition is derived from the Latin word "saeculum" meaning "world."

Professor Benson is a founding director
of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa

"Secular was used historically to distinguish between those things that were deemed to be 'in the world' and those that were expressly and technically 'religious,'" he explains using the Catholic tradition to distinguish "secular priests" or those who work "in the world" from "religious" for those men and women who have taken specific religious vows and may live a cloistered life.

While many might see an argument over the word, "secular" as little more than semantics, Professor Benson cites the 2002 precedent-setting decision by Canada's Supreme Court. In a case brought by a Canadian school board, a majority of judges overturned a lower court decision and determined the common usage of "secular" to indicate "non-religious" was erroneous. The Supreme Court also held that the secular sphere must not be deemed to exclude religion and must allow scope for consciences animated by religious conviction as well as those that are not.

"We need to start by speaking of 'public' when we are tempted to use 'secular' and we need to stop speaking of 'non-believers' when we should address those who believe other than what we do," he says.  "The public sphere has a variety of competing belief systems that are religious and non religious and the only way atheism and agnosticism can be understood is as participants in the public sphere, but not as the dominant participants."

According to Professor Benson, religious believers have as much right as anyone else to function in society according to these beliefs.

"Likewise religious institutions have as much right as non-religious institutions. Everyone has a belief system of some sort and those who draw on religious sources should not be put at a disadvantage," he insists.

While the "Separation of Church and State" is an argument against religion frequently advanced by atheists, Professor Benson insists this is merely a red herring that distracts from the proper examination of the nature of the secular and the role of religion in society.

the late Christopher
Hitchens did not recognise
himself as a believer
and follower of the dogma
of aethism

"The separation of Church and State refers to jurisdictional competence and says nothing about the separation of religion from culture, and it is important the separation of Church and State not be confused with the separation of religion and culture."

Today's struggle is not between belief and unbelief, nor between those with faith and those who do not recognise faith, but rather a set of public struggles for recognition and fair treatment between competing belief systems, he says.

Professor Benson was one of the principal drafters of South Africa's Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms and was a significant and important contributor to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Two years ago, he became one of the founding directors of the Ottawa-based Global Centre for Pluralism. Also on the Board of the Centre is former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan and Canada's Governor General from 1999 to 2005, Adrienne Clarkson. 

Established by His Highness the Aga Khan IV who is also chairman of the board, the Centre fosters  international research, education and the exchange of values and policies to further tolerance, openness and understanding between cultures, social structures and faiths in today's pluralist societies.

According to Professor Benson and members of the Global Centre for Pluralism, for the success of any pluralist society there must be recognition by all citizens that even though they may not always agree, they need to find a way to live together in mutual respect and tolerance.

Australia's Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty, which brought Professor Benson to Australia, was founded in 2009 by well known Sydney lawyer, Rocco Mimmo. Among the Centre's Board of Advisors are the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, Senior Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Jeremy Lawrence, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen and member of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Haset Sali.