Pure neutrality impossible, legally speaking

Dr Keith Thompson; Dr Sandra Lynch, Director, Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society; Greg Walsh, Senior Lecturer, School of Law, Sydney; Professor Rex Adhar and Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the School of Law, Sydney

19 February 2015

Professor Rex Ahdar of the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago, New Zealand, advised Law students and staff that secularism could not be neutral in a lecture at The University of Notre Dame Australia on Thursday 13 February 2015.

Based on his 2013 paper titled ‘Is Secularism Neutral?’ Professor Ahdar, who is also an Adjunct Professor in Notre Dame’s School of Law, Sydney, explored the meaning of the terms secularism and neutrality as well as the supposed necessity of the separation of the state from religious institutions in Western society.

Professor Ahdar said secularism could not be neutral as no philosophy or belief system was impartial regarding its own nature or key doctrines.

“Because no system is unbiased concerning its own existence, the systems that result when religion declines take a position directly or indirectly as to whether issues of transcendence have or should have meaning in the changed society,” Professor Ahdar said during the lecture.

“But it is not possible to treat all claims to meaning even-handedly because many of those claims will be inconsistent with one another. A secular state thus cannot be neutral as it is obliged to make judgements about values and decisions that affect religious and other transcendental ‘truth’ claims.”

Dr Keith Thompson, Associate Dean of the School of Law, Sydney, said Professor Ahdar’s insights provided a refreshing context for students and staff at Notre Dame where they strive to teach the laws of man in the light of the laws of God.

“Secularism, secularity, separationism, secularisation are all concepts the School of Law’s staff and students grapple with in their teaching and learning, and the impossibility of us ever achieving ‘true’ or ‘pure’ neutrality has to be acknowledged by all who participate in the public square. Everything we say or write is autobiographical. It is the sum of our unique life experiences,” Dr Thompson said.

“We are delighted to have had Professor Ahdar share his research and insights with us, and look forward to working with him more closely now that he has joined us Notre Dame as an Adjunct Professor.”

As a direct entry university, you can still apply to study Law at Notre Dame. www.notredame.edu.au.

Leigh Dawson: Tel (08) 9433 0569; Mob 0405 441 093; leigh.dawson@nd.edu.au