Document Type

Journal Article


University of Queensland, Media and Cultural Studies Centre


Faculty of Education and Arts


School of Communications and Arts / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts, Technology, Education and Communications




Australian Research Council

Grant Number

ARC Number : DP0559707


Aly, A., & Green, L. R. (2008). Less than equal: secularism, religious pluralism and privilege. M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, 11(2). Available here


In its preamble, The Western Australian Charter of Multiculturalism (WA) commits the state to becoming: “A society in which respect for mutual difference is accompanied by equality of opportunity within a framework of democratic citizenship”. One of the principles of multiculturalism, as enunciated in the Charter, is “equality of opportunity for all members of society to achieve their full potential in a free and democratic society where every individual is equal before and under the law”. An important element of this principle is the “equality of opportunity ... to achieve ... full potential”. The implication here is that those who start from a position of disadvantage when it comes to achieving that potential deserve more than ‘equal’ treatment. Implicitly, equality can be achieved only through the recognition of and response to differential needs and according to the likelihood of achieving full potential. This is encapsulated in Kymlicka’s argument that neutrality is “hopelessly inadequate once we look at the diversity of cultural membership which exists in contemporary liberal democracies” (903). Yet such a potential commitment to differential support might seem unequal to some, where equality is constructed as the same or equal treatment regardless of differing circumstances. Until the past half-century or more, this problematic has been a hotly-contested element of the struggle for Civil Rights for African-Americans in the United States, especially as these rights related to educational opportunity during the years of racial segregation. For some, providing resources to achieve equal outcomes (rather than be committed to equal inputs) may appear to undermine the very ethos of liberal democracy. In Australia, this perspective has been the central argument of Pauline Hanson and her supporters who denounce programs designed as measures to achieve equality for specific disadvantaged groups; including Indigenous Australians and humanitarian refugees. Nevertheless, equality for all on all grounds of legally-accepted difference: gender, race, age, family status, sexual orientation, political conviction, to name a few; is often held as the hallmark of progressive liberal societies such as Australia. In the matter of religious freedoms the situation seems much less complex. All that is required for religious equality, it seems, is to define religion as a private matter– carried out, as it were, between consenting parties away from the public sphere. This necessitates, effectively, the separation of state and religion. This separation of religious belief from the apparatus of the state is referred to as ‘secularism’ and it tends to be regarded as a cornerstone of a liberal democracy, given the general assumption that secularism is a necessary precursor to equal treatment of and respect for different religious beliefs, and the association of secularism with the Western project of the Enlightenment when liberty, equality and science replaced religion and superstition. By this token, western nations committed to equality are also committed to being liberal, democratic and secular in nature; and it is a matter of state indifference as to which religious faith a citizen embraces – Wiccan, Christian, Judaism, etc – if any. Historically, and arguably more so in the past decade, the terms ‘democratic’, ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ and ‘equal’ have all been used to inscribe characteristics of the collective ‘West’. Individuals and states whom the West ascribe as ‘other’ are therefore either or all of: not democratic; not liberal; or not secular – and failing any one of these characteristics (for any country other than Britain, with its parliamentary-established Church of England, headed by the Queen as Supreme Governor) means that that country certainly does not espouse equality.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.