RATIONALIST SOCIETY OF AUSTRALIA
A secular, pluralistic and democratic Australia
Clear separation between religion and the State
'One law for all', with no recognition of parallel legal systems
Religious organisations subject to the same laws as other organisations
Children not to suffer because of the religious views of their parents
Education to be strictly secular, not promoting any particular religion
No discrimination on the basis of a person's sex, sexuality or gender identity
Freedom of reproductive choice, with no religious interference
Healthcare available to all regardless of the religious views of the provider
Guaranteed control over one's own body, free from religious interference, when facing end of life.
The RSA was delighted during the year that Professor the Hon. Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University and former head of the International Crisis Group, agreed to become a Patron of the Society -- the "Rasho's", as he fondly calls us.
He joined the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, international jurist and former High Court judge, our first Patron, and they were later joined by Dr Rodney Syme, Vice President of Dying with Dignity Victoria. Rodney Syme’s valiant efforts over more than 30 years in support of the rights of the terminally ill to die with dignity finally bore fruit in November 2017 with the passing of the Victorian Voluntary Assisted Dying Act.
ten point plan
for a secular Australia
RSA patrons and fellows
We also welcomed our first RSA Fellow, Associate Professor Luke Beck, a constitutional lawyer from Monash University. Luke's encyclopedic knowledge of section 116 of the constitution is fully encapsulated in his "Religious Freedom and the Australian Constitution", released during the year.
Freedom of Religion and Belief
Australia finally legalised same sex marriage in December 2017. But not until Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had to ‘buy off’ the conservatives in his party room by promising an inquiry to look at the supposed undermining of ‘religious freedom’.
This Inquiry, chaired by veteran Liberal Philip Ruddock, took submissions and conducted consultations during the first few months of 2018. The RSA made a major submission and, on 20 February, had over an hour with Ruddock and co-panellists Frank Brennan (prominent Catholic), Annabelle Bennett (reportedly a secular Jew), and Nicholas Aroney (an elder of the Presbyterian Church) to present our case.
Our submission made the following points:
Freedom of religion must include freedom from religion
We reject the current exemptions afforded religious organisations, as they are simply based on prejudice
We propose a general human rights instrument be legislated at federal level.
Following the Liberal Party’s leadership coup in August 2018, new Prime Minister Scott Morrison, an avowed practising Christian, has stated publicly that he is intent on bringing in new legislation to protect ‘religious freedom’. However, the Federal Government is yet to make public its official response to the Ruddock Inquiry.
This project will remain a major focus for us over 2019, in collaboration with the NSW Rationalists and the Queensland Humanists.
Between 1919 and 1938 John Langley became a renowned advocate of rationalism in Australia, backed financially by businessman Walter Cookes,
Langley was a charismatic, almost heroic, lecturer and indefatigable debater. In 1926 he formed the Rationalist Society of Australia as the campaigning arm of the Rationalist Association of Australia, formally registered as a company limited by guarantee.
In the first year alone, Langley organised 73 lectures, five debates with religionists, and published 10 leaflets with 30,000 copies distributed.
about the rsa
"Steven Pinker's latest book Enlightenment Now could be thought of as a Rationalist's bible."
John Langley was ousted from the Society in 1938 after years of increasingly idiosyncratic behaviour, due, as it turned out, to syphilis.
His role was soon assumed by the young Bill Cook, who turned the society into a reputable and credible source of intellectualism, without the taint of partisanship of the Langley years.
Cook built the organisation's systems and policies, expanded public relations via regular radio programs and edited the RSA journal. He eventually retired in the 1970s after years of ill health.
The first meeting of the rationalist movement in Australia was held in Ormond College at the University of Melbourne in 1906. Tutors John Latham and Kerr Grant met with four students, all enthusiastic promoters of the London-based Rationalist Press Association.
They adopted a definition of rationalism which endured to 2014: "The mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions and authority."
Latham went on to become Attorney General, Deputy PM and then a High Court judge. Kerr Grant become a much loved professor of physics at the University of Adelaide, and respected public commentator.
The RSA has long argued against the overt discrimination inherent in the National Schools Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). With the assistance of Associate Professor Luke Beck of Monash University (now an RSA Fellow), we submitted a legal challenge to the NSCP at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), on the basis that it discriminates on religious grounds, which is unlawful in Victoria.
Appearing at VCAT necessitated finding a suitable plaintiff, and fortunately we found one willing to work with us to challenge not only ACCESS Ministries (the main provider of chaplains in Victoria), but also the Victorian Education Department.
The Department openly admits on their website that, to “not breach anti-discrimination laws, schools are required to engage third party chaplaincy service providers”, such as ACCESS Ministries, rather than employ chaplains directly.
We will argue that the Department cannot “outsource” such an unlawful activity. The case went to a Directions Hearing in September 2018 and is scheduled for a Compulsory Conference on 29 October.
voluntary assisted dying
The successful passing of Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act in November 2017 has provided a benchmark of good process when dealing with highly controversial law reform in areas of ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’ (births, marriages and deaths).
Western Australia has now proposed its own Bill and Queensland has announced an inquiry into end-of-life care, drawing lessons from the Victorian process but also experience from Oregon which negates the ‘slippery slope’ argument.
During August 2018, we urged RSA Members to support the attempt by Senator David Leyonhjelm to restore the rights of the ACT and the Northern Territory to debate voluntary assisted dying laws, notoriously squashed by Catholics Kevin Andrews and Labor’s Tony Burke in 1995. Unfortunately this was not successful, demonstrating yet again the importance of such actions having support of the government in power rather than coming from a private member.
The Victorian legislation is to be implemented from July 2019. There is some risk of it being repealed – or its regulations frustrated – should a conservative government be elected at the Victorian election in November 2018.
Not all conservatives oppose VAD but Members should keep this risk in mind when assessing their support for candidates in their electorates.
"Religious apologists complain bitterly that atheists and secularists are aggressive and hostile in their criticism of them. I always say: look, when you guys were in charge, you didn't argue with us, you just burnt us at the stake. Now what we're doing is presenting you with some arguments and some challenging questions, and you complain."
"I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play God."
Modern version of the Hippocratic Oath
Prompted by a recommendation by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon to replace the exclusively Christian prayer read at the beginning of each parliamentary sitting with a more general statement of reflection, the RSA added its voice of approval. We argued :
Australians are no longer a universally Christian people
the parliament should be representative of the people
an overtly religious ritual is no longer appropriate
religious observance is low even among believers
privileging one faith is unfair to other faiths and no faith
symbolism is important
Standing Order 50 (reciting the Lord's Prayer) falsely describes the purpose of parliament and may be unconstitutional.
Our submission and our own Alternative to Prayers Before Parliament can be read on our website.
Prayers before parliament
The RSA board meets once a month to decide on activities designed to further our mission in the public realm.
An updated strategic plan, adopted in December 2017, focuses on action to:
grow & engage our supporter base by utilising new digital tools
maintain the prudent management of our financial reserves
raise & consolidate our public profile by developing relations with selected media and expert advisors as messengers
judiciously choose campaigns that exemplify our mission, avoiding appealing but distracting activity.
The RSA's financial reserves continue to be managed by a Financial Advisory Committee and the Editorial Board continues to advise our editor on journal themes.
The RSA's full-time Executive Officer Tosca Lloyd resigned in May 2018 to pursue her passion for international humanitarian work. We now utilise the services of a freelance journalist and an administrative support person.
We continue to publish our flagship quarterly journal, the Australian Rationalist, under the editorship of professional journalist David James.
The last year featured cover stories on the battle between progressives and conservatives; living in a fake news world; conspiracy theories; and origins of the universe.
Our curated bulletin RSA Daily continues to attract subscribers, up 17% over last year.
The RSA maintains a moderately active presence on Facebook and Twitter. We also send direct email updates to Members, though not too many - approximately one a month.
Our public meetings are held on the second Monday of each month (in Melbourne). Unlike many other group meetings, we deliberately don’t have guest speakers; rather, Treasurer Len Buller prepares a topic with three or four open questions to consider and we divide into small groups to discuss. The idea is to make rationalism and critical thinking real, not theoretical.
The year’s topics have ranged from chaplains, to China, to the Communist Manifesto, sport, false witness, religious freedoms for the non-religious, and the value of an Australian President.
Members and their friends based in Melbourne are warmly encouraged to try out one of these meetings!
Income and expenditure statement
Assets and Liabilities statement
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PROMOTING REASON SINCE 1906
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RATIONALIST SOCIETY OF AUSTRALIA