Religious Freedom vs Secular Freedom – what is the right balance?

As an atheist, there are specific things that have clear simple answers, for example God claims can be dismissed due to the lack of evidence,  attempts by the religious to impose by force their crazy ideas can also be rejected, obnoxious behaviour or abuse motivated by irrational beliefs can and should be denounced, but what happens when things are fuzzy? We can criticise  crazy faith-based behaviour, but it cannot simply be banned because we don’t like it.

Linda Woodhead, has written an article in the Guardian today entitled “Religious freedom in Europe – when both sides go too far” that addresses the topic of tolerance and claims that things have gone too far. Now, firstly, let me be 100% clear, I do not agree with her argument or conclusion, especially when faced with phrases such as, “A new secular intolerance to match Europe’s old religious intolerance“, but there are indeed a few very valid points to mull over, and while I might not like that turn of phrase, it is sadly true to some degree. Take for example the French dress code law; you might indeed agree that banning the Burka is a good idea, but personally I find legalizing how people should dress is a step too far and is a valid instance of “secular intolerance” that needs to be criticised and resisted. Having such laws makes them no different from the Saudi’s mandating the Burka, so why would we condemn the mandate to wear it, yet happily accept the legal mandate not to?

First the basics

There are specific principles that I hold to that go beyond just being an atheist … namely …

  • Freedom of thought : people should be free to believe whatever they wish, even if it is clearly wrong, and they should be free to practise that belief as long as they do not impose that belief upon others.
  • Freedom of speech : no idea, no thought is beyond criticism, ideas and beliefs do not have a right of privacy or censorship.

The Guardian Article

The article starts of by contrasting a libertarian approach with a secularist approach, and then moves on to talk about …

Such secularism lies behind some of the four British cases that are currently being appealed to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights], cases concerning a British Airways employee who wore a crucifix, a nurse who prayed with a patient, a Christian registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships and a Christian counsellor who would not work with gay couples. Examples of the secular “persecution” of Christianity, say the conservative Christian lobby groups who are backing the appeal.

… and then she proceeds to claim for all the above that … “No law is broken, and no serious harm is done” … but does acknowledge that the case of some B&B owners banning a gay couple is an example where… “the exercise of religious freedom clashes with equality law.

So where is she going with all this? Here …

When they take their approaches to their logical conclusion, then, both the libertarian and secularist positions go too far. One pushes individual liberty, and sometimes group autonomy, so hard that it denies state and society any space at all. The other pushes state and society so hard that it denies any space for individual liberty or group self-determination. In that sense, they are mirror opposites. But in another way they both make the same mistake, for they are equally careless of democracy. Libertarians deny the legitimate claims of democratic decision-making, while secularists forget that democracies include religious people as well as secular ones, and that genuine democracy tries to balance competing interests rather than impose a single norm.

Do I agree with this conclusion? No, I don’t believe I do, and neither should you. The problem is that the examples she gives are not quite as described, so lets briefly look at each in turn.

A British Airways employee who wore a crucifix – but this is not a case of non-belief vs belief, there is no ban on wearing a crucifix; there is no ban on saying a prayer in public. It is about an employer trying to uphold a strict uniform policy in the face of a difficult employee. There was a general limit on jewelery that could be worn when in BA uniform, it is no different from an employer banning potted plants on desks and somebody refusing to comply and getting dismissed for doing so; we can dismiss this example.

A nurse who prayed with a patient – This is about a nurse abusing her position to impose her faith on someone who didn’t want it during a home care visit. If two consenting adults wish to engage in a dialog with an imaginary friend, nobody has a problem with this, but it becomes an issue if it is not requested or wanted. She does not get to force her beliefs on others, especially when they are vulnerable patients.

Christian registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships – Nobody gets to filter, it’s a public office. Imagine the degree of uproar if she had refused to marry a couple because they were Jewish, Asian, or black. If this is so damn highly offensive for the registrar, she should quit and do something else, because it comes with the job. She is quite free to be a homophobic bigot, but what she does not get to do is to impose that insanity on others.

Christian counsellor who would not work with gay couples – Similar question, same answer, “No, I will not counsel you because you are black / Irish / too stupid”, is that acceptable? Of course not, so if he can’t do the job because he is mentally disabled by his belief, then he needs to get a different job.

So my point is this, the claim that any of the above is some form of extreme position that pushes the secular agenda too far is complete bollocks, in all those cases belief was demanding a special privilege. Nobody was telling any of them “You can’t believe that”, instead they were simply not being permitted to impose their belief upon others, there is nothing “careless of democracy” in any of this.

Oh and one other point here, these are all British cases, but the UK is not a secular republic, there is an official church, a queen who runs it, and a house of lords stuffed full of Bishops, so while the followers of this belief claim they are being persecuted, they actually retain an excessive degree of special privilege … now that is indeed all very odd.

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