This is an edited excerpt from the Acton Lecture, delivered in Sydney on Monday night. The full transcript is available, here.

The opportunity to deliver this lecture followed my interest in religious liberty in my former role. That interest came after a concern that religious liberty was increasingly being deprioritised or completely ignored by the human rights community.

But equally my interest came from concern that religious leaders and communities were responding poorly to the issues that were arising and doing harm to themselves and their cause, particularly around the tensions of religious freedom and sexual morality.

…who better to try and resolve these issues than someone who is gay and agnostic.

At the time I concluded: who better to try and resolve these issues than someone who is gay and agnostic.

That might seem like a joke; but in all seriousness getting the conclusion of these debates right has as much impact on people like me as those of faith. These debates set precedents for how freedom is treated generally, and also decide whether debates are handled smoothly or finish with a bang.

Like freedom of speech, the different sides of these debates go to the heart of people’s sense of security in society.

While a technical choice, religion is closely intertwined with culture and often ethnicity. So simply dismissing it as a ‘lifestyle choice’ diminishes its contribution to people’s identity. It is why it must be taken seriously.

Religious freedom doesn’t trump the rights and freedoms of others, but it is something to be accommodated in the rights and freedoms of all.

The importance of religious freedom to liberalism is considerable. It is closely associated with freedom of conscience and the exercise of other rights – speech, association and property rights.

Tim Wilson

Tim Wilson Centre for Independent Studies

Religious freedom doesn’t trump the rights and freedoms of others, but it is something to be accommodated in the rights and freedoms of all.

A free society does not seek to homogenise belief or conscience but instead, affirms diversity and advocates for tolerance and mutual respect.

If we are to preserve religious liberty in Australia in an increasingly pluralist society it must be built on an understanding of the importance of humility.

I am encouraged by St. Augustine’s meditation on the three paths that lead one to faith ‘‘the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility” and ‘‘If humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are meaningless”.

Lifting up the virtue of humility offers us a channel for reconciliation between secular and religious individuals.

The state of religious freedom in Australia today is, frankly, unsettled and perpetually evolving.

The capacity of modern Australia to unite depends on the coexistence and mutual compatibility between those with faith and those without. Instead of seeking differences and division, humility offers a pathway to understanding and acceptance.

Religious freedom today

The state of religious freedom in Australia today is, frankly, unsettled and perpetually evolving.

It is one of the few Rights that is explicitly protected in our Constitution prohibiting the Commonwealth “from making laws for establishing any religion, imposing any religious observance, or prohibiting the free exercise of any religion” under section 116.

The Constitution makes it clear: the Australian government is secular.

The grey is where government ends and society begins, and whether we are a secular or pluralist society.

The future of religious freedom is up to religious communities.

A secular society is one which respects religious liberty, but recognises its place as a primarily private practice. Faith ends at the temple door. It has a limited place in the public square. There is no room for religion in public institutions, such as schools and hospitals. Equally unless they want to accept secular strings, religious institutions can’t accept public monies to deliver services to the community.

A pluralist one respects that, like other individual characteristics, faith informs all aspects of people’s lives. Public institutions reasonably accommodate faith and religious institutions are not discriminated against simply because of wanting to act consistent with their traditions. Instead they are embraced as a way of delivering a diversity of services.

These different approaches fundamentally inform how different political parties approach issues of religious liberty. The Greens are in the secularist camp. The Liberals and Nationals are in the pluralist camp. Labor used to be in the pluralist camp. Today they are drifting in the direction of secularism with a diminishing understanding of the importance of religious liberty.

Humility in an authentically individualistic age

The consequence of these two defining approaches essentially informs whether the space for religious liberty in Australia is large or small. The future of religious freedom is up to religious communities.

This is why humility matters.

…religious people can be part of correcting the drift toward authentic individualism back to a shared culture.

If faith communities and leaders approach the tension between pluralism and secularism based on religious liberty trumping the freedom of others then the space will be small, and shrink.

If faith communities and leaders recognise their freedom as akin to need the respect the freedom of others then the space can be large and stable.

More importantly, religious people can be part of correcting the drift toward authentic individualism back to a shared culture. That will not be achieved when lobby groups and communities only talk to themselves. Engagement brings mutual respect.

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Some prayer points to help

Pray that as Australians seek to live in diverse communities, they would show humility to others.

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