I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Religion and Multiculturalism

I just read a couple of articles on the Canberra Times, Canberra's major daily newspaper, that made me reflect on some issues connected with religion and multiculturalism.

First of all, I discovered that in the Australian Federal Parliament, before each sitting day, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate request God's blessing and read the Lord's prayer.

Apparently, the political leaders agree that this 'monocultural' and discriminating practice should continue.  I personally, perhaps not surprising to those who know me even just a bit, find it appalling.

Although Australia doesn't have a state religion like Britain and the Australian constitution even prohibits the establishment of a national church, we don't have a clear separation of State and Church like in the USA.

One side effect of this is that we spend a lot of money to support religious schools.  I agree that in a free country religious organisations should be able to indoctrinate (ahem...  I meant: to educate ;-) children in the tenets of their religion.  But what I don't agree about is that they receive state subsidies while doing so.

In general, the existence of expensive private schools encourages and perpetuates a classist society.  Therefore, I am against public funding of private schools, whether they are religious or not.  The objection that abolition of public funding would force closure of many private schools is not a valid one, because it has been shown over and over again that government subsidies of private enterprises result in inefficiency and complacency.  That money should go to improve public schools: higher pay for teachers, smaller classes, better infrastructures.  Then, with time, the idea that private schools provide better education would fade away.

But I am digressing...

By funding religious schools, beside diverting money away from public schools, the State legitimises them.  I don't think that any public penny should support, for example, the juxtaposition on equal footing of unprovable beliefs and proven scientific theories, like stating that Intelligent Design is as valid a theory as Evolution by Natural Selection.

About Multiculturalism, I would like first of all to state unequivocally that I am in favour of maintaining cultural diversity.  I read in several articles that Multiculturalism in Europe has failed.  This might well be, and I cannot be sure that the idea of Multiculturalism is in fact unworkable on the long run.  But it seems to me that we have no choice, and that we should work hard to keep it alive.

What are the alternatives?  Ghettoes?  A revival of the White-Australia Policy?  Forcible integration by banning cultural diversity?  I don't think so.

In Australia, despite some cases of ghettoisation, like with the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta in the late 20th century, Multiculturalism seems to be working.  I feel I don't need to cease being an Italian and a Roman in order to be and Australian and a Canberran.

This is what I understand as Multiculturalism: a blending of communities that integrate their traditions into the fabric of Australian society.  I have no doubt that Australia has benefited from the presence of substantial minorities coming from different cultures and languages.

Perhaps, if my skin were not lily-white, I would feel differently.  Perhaps, if I had not been educated in a European country, I would find it much more difficult to integrate into the Australian society while maintaining what makes me an Italian.  Perhaps, if  I were a Muslim man and wore a black long beard, I would be looked at with hostility and fear.  I don't know.  I hope not.

I believe that everybody should be able to maintain their traditions and, even if I am an atheist, practice their faiths.  But, although I am not in favour of a policy of total assimilation, there are practices that I don't find acceptable.  I know: who am I to claim the higher moral ground?  Why should the rules of our society, based on the Christian tradition and an Anglo-Saxon model of state, be better or preferable to those of other societies?

These are not easy issues to talk about, but they have to be resolved nonetheless, if we want to maintain a peaceful coexistence in our country.

I am against forced marriages, infibulation of women, circumcision of women and men, and violent domination of female family members, to name some.  Also, I find that punishing people by stoning to death or by cutting a limb has no place in a free society.  Therefore, I would never agree to introduce a form of Sharia law as, I believe, has happened in Britain.  The laws of the country should equally apply to everyone.

Circumcision of minors, unless done for documented and validated medical reasons, is nothing else than gratuitous mutilation.  I would like to see it banned in Australia.  If Jews and Muslims, instead of cutting the foreskin of their male children, had the tradition of cutting off their left ear, I am confident that it would have been banned long ago.  Then, why should religious circumcision be tolerated?

We now condemn how children were treated in Australian orphanages decades ago.  They were subjected to damagingly harsh discipline and physically and sexually abused.  We now condemn the practice of taking aboriginal children away from their families to educate them in our European ways.  We now think that lashing people until their back is reduced to a bloody pulp is barbaric.  We are appalled at learning that people were routinely lobotomised in order to calm them down.  And yet, not long ago, these practices were perfectly acceptable.

Our society is based on respecting the integrity of the individuum, both physical and psychological.  The general principle is that we are free to do what we want as long as we don't affect others.  This is why we now ban smoking almost everywhere: to protect the health of those who would be passive smokers.  But I find it absurd that we can tell a parent: stop smoking in the car if your child is on board, but please feel free to cut away a part of his body if it makes you feel better!

Is this arbitrary?  Absolutely!  And who should be entrusted with the task of deciding what is acceptable and what is not?  In a democratic country, only one answer is possible: through legislation passed by elected representatives.

Inevitably, cultural minorities will invoke the application of anti-discrimination laws designed to protect them to continue practices that the vast majority of Australian people would find unacceptable.  And so they should.  But a culture that is unable to adapt is destined to oblivion.  In the end, they should accept the changes, as we all do.

In my opinion, practices should be considered in terms of the permanent impact they have on the subject.  One month after I was born, I was taken to a church and received some cold water sprinkled on my head.  I cried for that, but no permanent damage was done.  But if my father had come from some regions of Sudan, he would have made three cuts on my face, which would have scarred me for life.  I say: if we have to allow people to scar their children in the name of traditions, to hell with those traditions!

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