Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On The Need For Religious Discrimination

Last year, Tony Blair told us that the power to which he is ultimately accountable is his God. This was met with gasps of horror, and apopleptic, spluttering shock in some quarters. The Prime Minister had been duping us for the last nine years; we did not mind so much that he believed it, but rather that he had had the gall to say it out loud.

The most surprising element of the situation, however, was that intelligent social commentators found this out of step with the rest of Blair’s premiership. There were mutters that ‘Alistair Campbell would never have let this happen’. However, for the last two years it has been clear that the British government has a radical Christian agenda. Or rather, as this is the twenty-first century, and we don’t do anything as crass as monotheism, a radical faith agenda. From the indulgence of threats against artists to the Religious Hatred Bill, to the Religious Discrimination Act of 2004, to the open advocacy of faith schools which will be free to teach creationism, to Tony Blair’s statement that he had ‘prayed’ with George Bush, The New Labour project seems obsessed with forcing religion into our lives.

The assumptions of this government were perhaps shown most clearly during the debates over the Religious Hatred Bill. They told us that, as Christianity had the protection of the blasphemy laws, which were centuries old and an anomaly, the same protection should be offered to other religious groups. We learnt, as if we needed telling, that Christianity was unfairly protected under the law. However, when a government’s answer to this disparity is not to remove the special protection afforded to a specific irrational belief, but rather to extend it to all irrational beliefs, this shows us to what extent the government is controlled by a clique of religious activists.

What is perhaps most ridiculous about this protection is that it treats all faiths as equally deserving of it. Common sense suggests that if one religion is the truth, then large chunks of the others cannot be. Not only do the precepts of the holy texts of religions contradict each other, but sometimes the same text contradicts itself. Those who believe an eye should be taken for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth cannot possibly believe that one should turn the other cheek. As definitive authority cannot come from these religions, then, we as a society must come up with a set of rules for ourselves, to which we can all subscribe separate to any religious injunctions to which we might feel beholden. There can be no rational basis for the government to treat all faiths as equally valid, equally worthy, and equally worth encouraging in our children.

This, of course, raises the question of what constitutes a religion. Thanks mainly to an Internet campaign to have as many people as possible list it as their religion on the last census, Jedi is officially an ‘emerging religion’ in the United Kingdom as of 2001. As such, it is afforded protection under the Religious Discrimination Act and Religious Hatred Bill. One wonders how enthusiastic the Church of England will be when millionaire Satanists begin to set up their own faith academies. Do we, as a society, really believe that the taxpayer should pay for most of the facilities at a new school designed to promote Zoroastrianism? Should it really be illegal for me to ‘foment hatred’ against the Jedi? What if I am a Sith, and my faith instructs me to pursue the Jedi across the universe and destroy them?

The obvious assumption that underlies all of this is that, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, faith, irrational belief in the improbable and unprovable, is a valuable characteristic, and one worth nurturing in society. That this can be held to be true in an age when even Sikhs (who, after all, believe that all religions are merely different paths to the same god) are rioting to prevent plays being produced is quite astonishing. The argument is often made that faith brings with it such values as compassion, a willingness to do things for charity and a sense of community. However, for every social virtue, we should recognise that religion is equally able to being social vices, primarily intolerance. It is perverse that in desiring compassion and charity we should seek to promote religion, rather than choosing to promote compassion and charity themselves. The values of a liberal, tolerant society as a whole and those of any particular religion are bound to clash at some point, and there is no need for society to nurture that which is antithetical to it.

There is another interpretation of the government’s protection of religion, and this is one that is perhaps more worrying than a simple wish to promote it. The 2004 Religious Discrimination Act put religion on a par with race, sex, sexuality and disability, in the ways employers must treat them. This elides a fundamental difference. Race, sex, sexuality and disability are all fundamental genetic characteristics of all human beings, religion is not (although disability may be acquired, it is equally immutable by choice). It is right and proper that we should stop anyone discriminating against someone because of the way they are. However, a religion is a chosen belief. No one is born a Moslem or a Christian or a Wiccan. A religious belief is just that, a belief, and beliefs can be changed. There is no inherent religion which should be protected as it is a part of who we are. We may use religion to define our identity, and we may be more drawn to one religion having been brought up within it, but it is not genetic. One chooses to submit certain beliefs to rational analysis or not. The choice not to is not one that should be encouraged by government. We are being told that it is correct and a social benefit if we think less, apply our critical faculties less, reason less.

This confusion is evident when supporters of the rights of Moslems to call for the deaths of cartoonists cite the easy but misleading example of anti-Semitism. They elide the difference between the religious anti-Semitism of the Early Modern period with the racial anti-Semitism of Nazism. Yes, in the seventeenth century an anti-Semite distrusted a Jew’s religious rites and practices. However, in the twentieth century anti-Semitism was, on the whole, a racist movement: the practices of Judaism were not the motivational point for the movement as much as the archetypal Jew’s racial characteristics. Anti-Semitic caricatures very rarely dwell on the Feast of the Passover, or the sitting at seder, it is the Jew’s swarthiness, his avarice and his prominent nose that feature most highly, none of which are functions of his religion.

The fact that we allow this elision of the difference between racial and religious discrimination to go unchallenged shows how confused we are on this issue. It is perfectly reasonable to challenge a belief. The Islamic community is now trying to perform the same sleight of hand as is performed when Israelis claim that any opposition to the domestic policy of Israel is symptomatic of anti-Semitism. The only difference is that they are calling it Islamophobia. It is utterly right that we should challenge entrenched beliefs, and that we should be allowed and encouraged to do so. We are allowing dissent to be stifled through the conflation of different ideas. A challenge to an idea is not an attack on the person holding that idea, and, automatically, their race or religion.

Not only is it right that we should challenge entrenched beliefs, it is absolutely imperative that we do so in many situations. As an employer, should one indulge an employee’s religious belief that women are inferior (“Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” 1 Corinthians 11:9), even in a role which will lead the employee to have to interact with women on a daily basis? Should one be compelled not to take their religious beliefs into account when hiring? The Religious Discrimination Act 2004 not only suggests that an employer should do these things, it makes it illegal for them not to. It is illegal for a butcher to refuse to hire someone on the basis that they refuse to touch pork for religious reasons.

The Act makes no provision for the fact that there may be occasions in which employees’ religious beliefs conflict with each other, and yet each has a right to have their beliefs protected. It leaves agnostics with less protection under the law than the religious. Under the law as it stands, if a pagan wishes to have a day off to celebrate the summer solstice they have more protection under the law than someone who has decided that they do not have enough information to make a reasonable decision about religion, but who wants to spend the longest day of the year in the sun. Or seeing their terminally ill mother. Or doing anything of a non-religious nature.

Having impinged on the rights of the secular in the workplace, the Religious Hatred Bill showed the first counter-attack by the faithful on the freedoms we have worked so hard to establish over the last two hundred years. In its altered form, it is true, the bill is less pernicious, only prohibiting ‘threatening’ speech or behaviour based on religion. Still, it means that the English tradition of calling for the beheading of the Antichrist Pope and his Romish spies every 5th November may have to be toned down in our household.

However, the bill promotes thinking of religion as a different sort of thought or concept to any other. It is an attempt to impose sensitivity to irrationality upon us. Any other example of muddy, prejudiced thinking would rightly be scorned in public discourse, and yet we let amateur theologians of all stripes speak on news programmes as if they were informed. The fundamental texts of religions are ancient and well-examined, and yet their content, if the present trend continues, will become less and less assailable by those who value truth.

Everyone should be expected to defend their beliefs, no one’s prejudices should be beyond question. This should be a fundamental part of being a member of a free society, and yet we are trying to restrict the arenas that are open to debate, rather than expanding them. With so many extremists in the world it is time for us to become more discriminating, not less.

In this sense, and in any sense, we should encourage religious discrimination. We should encourage people to examine the tenets of the various religions and discriminate about them, to decide which are compatible with a free society, and which are not. Discrimination, the making of value judgements, is exactly what religions should be subject to. It should also not be unreasonable to suggest that someone who has chosen to adhere to beliefs that are thousands of years old and to suggest that they are more valid than scientific evidence is, by their very nature, not the sort of inquiring mind we wish our children to become.

This is not, of course, to argue that there is no place for religion in our society, merely to argue that it must be subject to the same treatment as any other prejudice. It, as many moderate religious people would argue, must be subject to the laws of the land, and one should be as free to explore it on stage, in comedy and through debate as one is to explore ideas of democracy, love or politics.

This is a time when the rational majority who might describe themselves as spiritual, but who reject religious dogma must stand up for their right not to believe. Our right to make up our minds based on evidence rather than creed is under attack. Now, more than ever, is the time when we need to be discriminating about religious beliefs. Now is the time for more religious discrimination.

See my Faithless Academies blog for more evidence...