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← Moral compass: a guide to religious freedom

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Jump to comment 6 by Jos Gibbons

Not every quotation of Malik herein is due to my disagreeing with him, but I often disagree with his analysis, as well as often feeling he doesn’t have the faintest idea what he’s talking about. He often makes very confused comments. He also often overlooks the diversity of conceptions of secularism.

religious freedom

What does that mean? I know what freedom of religion is, and what freedom from religion is. But in my experience, the term “religious freedom” is often used to mean, “the freedom to take away other people’s freedoms for religious reasons”. And no such freedom exists.

Is it legitimate to ban the burqa? Should an employee be allowed to wear a cross at work?

The problem with both of these questions is the phrasing misses the fact that the “bans” were always in specific contexts for purely practical reasons. You can’t wear the burqa if we need to see your face, e.g. on a passport photograph; you can’t wear a cross if that means violating health & safety regulations concerning necklaces. We can argue about whether the underlying concerns are valid, but that’s not how the “debate” is ever framed. Instead religious persecution is alleged by dishonestly avoiding the real context. Given a commitment to health and safety, it is those who want crucifix-laden necklaces to be allowed who are asking for people to be treated differently on a religious basis, as it asks for an exemption.

(France’s burqa ban is a bit thornier because, in addition to their “we need to know who everyone is all the time” ID attitude, which is part of why they consider it worth banning burqas in public, they also hate Islamic oppression of women. But even if that’s not a good enough reason for a public ban, don’t pretend the other reason is religiously discriminating. In other words, there is a secular argument for what France did. We can critique that argument, but we can’t claim it isn’t religiously neutral, although there is a not so neutral argument too.)

guide to the logic of tolerance

I’d prefer a guide to morality. What if sometimes doing the right thing is intolerant? Should we tolerate intolerance, or the intolerant? “Always be tolerant” isn’t trivially a valid answer here.

Should a Catholic adoption agency be allowed to turn away gay prospective parents?

Should a KKK adoption agency be allowed to turn away Black prospective parents? It would go against their beliefs, to be sure; but a secular state expects everyone’s behaviour to fall in line with the same laws, whether or not our beliefs can stomach it. And before you say that religion is different from racism, (i) you have to explain why (they’re both evidentially baseless), and (ii) the KKK had a religious basis for its racism anyway.

Should Christian bed and breakfast owners be allowed to turn away gay customers?

Only if atheist homophobes should be granted the same liberty. Which forms of discrimination are allowed for private companies while not being allowed for the State is a major debate, but we have to keep our stands consistent regardless of what answers we give in that debate.

the competing claims of a commitment to the truth and the facts to personal freedom

Does this mean, “only giving people what they want if their beliefs are correct?” That’s not something I’m on board with.

Many believers point out that faith plays a unique role in their lives. That is often true. Those atheists who dismiss belief in God as no more credible than belief in Santa Claus or in fairies miss the point.

If your beliefs are stupid and important to them, it’s not the person who points out they are stupid who are missing the point; it’s the people who allow themselves to have stupid beliefs on important topics. Racism is stupid and important to groups such as the KKK or the EDL; I’m not the one who’s missing the point if I note that stupidity.

Religion is more than an intellectual exercise

In other words, it matters whether or not we get the right answer, which means we should be told off when we clearly don’t. The importance of religion to people is an argument for, not against, laying into its doctrines’ stupidity.

Modern ideas of freedom and tolerance are usually seen, particularly in the West, as having derived from Locke.

By the tiny minority of people who bother reading old philosophers, yes; but what it means to run society properly is a concern for everyone, and it literally doesn’t matter who invented the arguments the debate uses, but only what the arguments are and how credible they are.

Questions of freedom and tolerance are no longer about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting religious views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive, hateful, harmful to individuals or undermine national security.

This assessment of how society has changed is overly optimistic. Religions still manage to get illiberal legislation passed even in Western nations, and many nations around the world are going backwards and not forwards in their liberalism because of such religious influence. Further, many criticisms of religion, and demands religion play the same game as the rest of society, are condemned for harm to the religions themselves when individual people are not even argued to be the least bit harmed.

Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others.

It’s easy to say that. But some people’s beliefs are pro-violence in some contexts. Under the recommendation I just quoted, can a Muslim publicly appraise any Koranic verses they like, with the exception of “violent” ones? And this isn’t just an issue for Muslims; it is an issue for people in many religions and in many political movements. In fact, just about everyone wants to see violence in some contexts; full-fledged pacifists are far less numerous than those who on at least one occasion have advocated a war.

Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them.

Why doesn’t this have the same “except when advocating violence or harm” exception?

there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.

So do Mormons get special access to polygamy under this principle? Others’ negative right not to be harmed is far from the only plausible constraint on one’s permissible behaviour. Again, to be sure, the debate regarding whether polygamy should be legal is nontrivial; but if the quotation above would allow polygamy precisely to those who think they deserve it, I can see there being problems with that being “fair”.

Many atheists want to deny religion the rights accorded to other forms of belief.

I’d like to see some proof of that. Show me an atheist who thinks people should face penalties for publicly saying they think Jesus was resurrected, but not for publicly saying a monster lives in Loch Ness, and I’ll take this accusation seriously. Like all other claims, the claim that both sides are partly wrong needs to be evidence; as with many other claims, this claim’s adherents often forget such evidential responsibilities.

Some atheists argue that secularism requires that religion be kept out of the public sphere. It is an argument that cannot be right any more than the claim that the views of racists, conservatives, communists or gay activists must be kept out of the public sphere.

I think he literally doesn’t know what “the public sphere” means in the context to which that first sentence refers. No-one says religious people should shut up (except, in many cases, rival religions or their members); what is said is that a religious argument for a political policy makes no sense, and should not be treated as if it does, whereas policies should only be passed if an argument which does make sense is offered for them. And this is the sort of concern which makes it invalid to place religion, racism, conservatism, communism and gay activists all on the same pedestal. Gay activists call for equality, and the burden of proof is on those who dispute that. Again, if it can be shown some atheists think religious beliefs should be illegal to bring up in political discussions, I’ll admit it.

It must also be one, however, in which no religion is disadvantaged with respect to another religion, or with respect to secular philosophies and ideologies.

Interestingly, not all secularists agree on this. I once attended in Oxford a talk by Julian Baggini in which he defined secular politics as requiring that cases for policies be based on publicly appreciable facts rather than in-group doctrines; as he put it, public policies must have public reasons. Baggini went on to argue some religions could, in such a state, be treated differently from others, e.g. because some religions represent a public menace. Now Baggini may be wrong about this, but I wish Malik had at least noted that the implications of secularism aren’t as trivially a matter of consensus as he seems to think herein.

Many atheists demand also that religious symbols be banned in the public sphere. Many states and corporations have imposed such bans, from the refusal to allow the wearing of the cross in the workplace to the outlawing of the burqa in public places.

Literally every cited example at the corporate level I’ve ever known turns out, under factual analysis, to be a case of there being some underlying concern with regards to which no discriminatory double standard is being practised. Instead the “persecuted” employees turn out to have been unwilling to be treated just like everyone else. States have violated secular principles often, to be sure; but then, not all states are secular. Of course, France calls itself a “secular” state, as does the United States, but Malik’s conception of secularism and their two are three different ones (at least if our definition of the US “conception” of secularism is the way they behave; you’d think on that basis they don’t even have a First Amendment). Again, Malik’s guide to secularism omits the breadth of conceptions of secularism among its advocates.

The belief that homosexuality is a sin requires that one refrain from gay relationships or gay sex. The belief that life begins at conception requires that one does not have an abortion or help anyone else to do so. And so on.

No it doesn’t; sinners exist, but then they confess or otherwise make amends with their deity. In any case, making others refrain from such things, or denying people rights because they won’t, is another matter altogether.

A racist pub-owner cannot bar black people from his pub, however deep-set his beliefs.

Whenever the gays vs Christian B&B issue comes up, someone claims legally companies can have, for example, no-blacks policies. I bet there’s a lawyer on this forum; could someone who actually knows the law (state in which country, please) say what the situation really is? Of course, Malik may be referring to what should be disallowed in a secular state.

An atheist bar-owner should have no right, whatever his conscience may say, to bar people of faith

Why would his conscience say that anyway? “Only people whose beliefs about metaphysics and eschatology are in line with Big Bang cosmology should buy my alcohol”? No-one thinks like that! Malik forgets that, where religions discriminate against each other, they do so not because they think inaccuracy in beliefs should be punished, but because they think God has placed true believers in a special moral class.

Is it legitimate for a state to ban the burqa? It is not. … Some suggest that burqas cause harm because they may pose security problems, or be incompatible with the needs of particular jobs. Such practical problems can usually be solved on a case-by-case basis without the need for draconian legislation.

Consider again the case of France, which is incredibly security-conscious. This is a society where you need to carry papers at all times, and where you can be trapped where you are if you don’t and there is a perceived security threat. The argument there for not covering faces is religiously neutral (although some adherence for the burqa ban was probably also based on a concern for pernicious effects of Islam, but see above my reference to Baggini’s conception of secularism). When Malik says, you can’t ban the burqa but can make a case-by-case ruling against it, he clearly doesn’t understand that for France the “case-by-case” approach is just not going to work, because they have a universal view on a security issue.

Should an employee be allowed to wear a cross at work? In almost every case the answer should be “Yes”. There may be a pragmatic case for, say, banning loose chains that in certain workplaces may be dangerous

How does Malik know “almost every case” doesn’t have such health and safety issues? What percentage do?

Should a Catholic adoption agency be allowed to turn away gay prospective parents? If the agency receives public funding, or performs a service on behalf of the state, then the answer is “No”… If, however, it is a private agency – if it is simply performing a service for Catholic parents who subscribe to its views on homosexuality – then the answer should be “Yes”. Should Christian bed-and-breakfast owners be allowed to turn away gays? Such owners, even if they are turning their own home into a B&B, are providing a service from which a gay couple could reasonably expect equal treatment. The answer, therefore, is “No”.

Now he’s not even keeping his story straight. Do “don’t discriminate laws” apply as much to private groups as to publicly funded ones or don’t they? How are adoptive agencies unlike hotels?

Should gay marriage be legalised? Yes. … What the state should not do is to force religious bodies to accept or consecrate gay marriage.

Incidentally, this shows how important it is for British secularists that the Church of England lose its primacy not only as a state religion, but also as a religion of the monarchy. After all, if the Church of England doesn’t wish to accept or consecrate gay marriage and the state cannot force them to, and if monarchy marriages need to be within the Church of England, that effectively blocks royals seeking the throne from gay marriage.

many of these conflicts would be better resolved through the pragmatic use of common sense

Apart from the fact that common sense is no more likely to get ethics right than it is to get physics right, religions’ contribution to the debate shows no interest in common sense. It does not persuade the Church of England if common sense is in favour of gay marriage; and, insofar as it has political power, the political process doesn’t give common sense primacy either.

A religious believer should not normally have the legal right to discriminate. But if it is possible to arrange matters so that a believer can act according to conscience without causing harm or discrimination to others, then we should do so.

When would one be able to discriminate without causing discrimination to others? This isn’t a legal question; this is a logical one.

a Christian marriage registrar should expect to have to perform gay civil partnerships… However, it might make pragmatic sense to roster others to perform ceremonies for gay couples, not because we should accept prejudice, but in acknowledgement of the fact that genuine social conflict exists on this issue, and that many oppose gay partnerships or marriages as a matter of conscience and not simply through homophobia… The law should not make such an accommodation. But as individuals, or as organisations, it may be wise to, though not at the cost of causing harm, allowing discrimination or endorsing bigotry.

Why should a registrar expect to have to do what their Church doesn’t? Why should “genuine social conflict” matter more to pragmatists than to the law? Insofar as it should, this is so in any context, not just a religious one; why has Malik missed the umpteenth opportunity to add, “by the way, this is the same as everything else”, as he normally does? All in all, it was a very confusing paragraph.

we should not expect a doctor or a nurse, even in principle, to perform an abortion, if they feel to do so is against their beliefs. Whatever we may think of the belief that life begins at conception, it would be unreasonable in the extreme to expect those who do hold that belief to commit what they consider to be murder.

Malik’s making up these rules as he goes along. Where in the “people should all obey the same rules, whatever their conscience says” rule he gave before does “oh, but not if it’s abortion?” come from? There is no serious thinking happening here.

A pragmatic approach to matters of religious conscience is neither a sign of “weakness” nor a matter of “accommodating” the devil. Standing by political principle is vitally important, including the principle that people should have the right to act upon their conscience if possible.

So, even on the subject of whether you have to keep your ethical story straight, Malik can’t keep his ethical story straight. “People should do as the law tells them, except when not so”, doesn’t tell us anything. Maybe religious doctors needn’t abort. Or maybe religious managers of hotels needn’t allow in gay people. How do you tell which exceptions work and which don’t? Allowing people to act on their conscience “if possible” doesn’t answer this, because it’s always possible to let them, and also always possible not to.

Sun, 24 Jun 2012 09:13:21 UTC | #947992