Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Religion and Society

Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty wrote in the Times yesterday defending the right of BA employee Nadia Eweida to wear a cross on her lapel at work. She mentioned...

an extremely disappointing employment appeal tribunal that found no discrimination, because “Christians generally” do not consider wearing a cross as a religious “requirement”. This fundamentally misunderstands the idea of individual rights and freedoms, which do not depend on how many people agree with your conscience or speech. It also opens up secular courts to lengthy arguments as to what is a theological necessity. Making windows into men’s souls is as pointlessly complex as it is dangerous.

Which all sounds pretty sensible to me. It's one of those cases which is easily used by one group to proclaim that Christianity is being persecuted and marginalised, and by another group to talk about Christians foisting their faith uninvited upon others in what should be 'neutral' space.

She goes on:

It seems to me that any society has three choices in dealing with this small question of religion.

The first is to elevate an approved faith to the point of dominant status over all other belief systems. It is formally woven into the legal, political and social system, every sphere of public life and as much of private life as possible. An extreme example might be Afghanistan under the Taleban; a more moderate one, Britain at earlier and less enlightened times in its history.

The second option is, in many ways, equal and opposite. It is based on the view that faith is all dangerous, divisive mumbo-jumbo. No good can come of it so, if it cannot be eradicated altogether, it must be chased from the public sphere, confined to a place of worship or the home, upstairs under the bed with the pornography. An extreme example would be Stalin’s Russia; a more moderate one, the French Republic.

You will have guessed that I favour a third approach that is based on human rights and resonates well with a society such as Britain’s. Here the struggle for religious freedom has been strongly connected with the struggle for democracy itself.

I believe that human beings are creatures of both faith and logic, emotion and reason and it is as well that the law reflects this. It may be true that religion has caused much war and prejudice but it has also inspired much art, music and compassion. And it is also true that scientists and engineers have produced some of the greatest advances in human history, but also some of the stuff of nightmares.

If we really believe in freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this must include the right to the faith or belief of one’s choice, the right to no faith and to be a heretic. Proportionate limits on this precious liberty don’t arise because a minority causes irritation or even offence. We interfere when someone is harming others, or in the workplace when, for instance, their faith or clothing prevents them doing their job.

Again, all pretty sensible. However, within 'human rights' is normally some kind of pecking order - the debates over the Equalities Bill at the moment are about whether the 'right' to freedom of sexual expression trumps the 'right' to hold certain religious moral views, or vice versa. So an approach based purely on rights doesn't get us out of the woods.

I was also struck by the fact that none of these 3 scenarios is equated to what we have in England at the moment. Christian faith has, to some degree, a privileged status (e.g. Bishops in the Lords, established church) though in areas like faith schools an area once reserved for Anglicans is now open to all. But you'd hardly describe the Church of England as 'dominant'. In one sense it holds the ring, acting as a broker for the many faith groups in England, and the way the CofE engages with politics and society has itself been shaped by history, and the constraints of being the 'national church'. We can't simply start from scratch, we are where we are, and though it has its faults, the relationship of church, religion and state continues to evolve in a fairly consensual manner.

The other thing which puzzled me was where an organisation like the National Secular Society would stand on these 3 options. Their stated principles are along the lines of the 3rd option, but a cursory glance at their website and public statements seems to indicate a contempt for faith more along the lines of option 2.

A debate to be had is on the nature of the 'neutral' spaces in society, like the workplace. Should any expression of faith be banished, or is it better to go for a 'live and let live' approach, where people can express what's dear to them on the understanding that they don't impose it on anyone else. That is an issue of culture as much as law: I personally would dread a society where everything has to be settled by appeal to the rule book. Unfortunately the headlines in the culture wars are being made by narratives of 'persecution', 'intolerance', and 'fundamentalists', which force people into corners and make a culture of acceptance and grace less likely.


  1. Your comment on the concept of a Neutral work place interest me. Having spent 43 years in uniform in the Army, which in the 1960's maintained the traditional stance towards religion - if you were CofE you were a 'right footer' if you were RC or Non-Conformists (as free churches were described) you were left footers. Church Parades were compulsory and also discriminatory, as individuals were singled out by their religion on parade to be sent elsewhere for a service.

    The Army had and maintains rules of what is or is not acceptable to be worn in uniform, and jewellery such as a cross and chain around the neck, can be worn, as long as is was not visible above the neckline of an open necked shirt. Rings and other jewellery are required to be unobtrusive and normally, only a Signet Ring, wedding ring and or engagement ring (for females) are permitted. Ear Rings for females must be of the plain, gold stud or hoop type. Individuals might dislike some of the rules, but they accept them as part of their contract and job.

    There are other standards effecting the length and colour of hair, how females must wear their longer hair (tied up or bunched) and side burns and moustache's and beards.

    In last 40 years or so, real changes for the better have been made to ensure equal treatment for all and discriminatory practices on the basis or gender, religion, race, sexual orientation have been removed entirely or in the case of females, only some limitations on their employment remain.

    Religion within the Armed Forces is considered a private matter, but religious belief is respected and provision is made by way of the Chaplaincy to meet individual faith needs. However, the chaplain of whatever faith, is regarded as much more than just the Padre, he or she has a wide ranging role in welfare, education and teaching, family support, and in particular ministering to those of all faiths or none. In real terms they, along with medical officers, remain with, but outside the chain of command with unique and direct access to Commanding Officers, services and external agencies on behalf of all of their diverse flock.

    The Armed Forces are required to subscribe to Values and Standards, where they give up some of the freedoms that might be available to their civilian counterparts - this is similar to other disciplined services, but the Covenant where they are required to be prepared to kill or be killed or injured as part of their duties is unique.

    In my view, the Armed Forces provide an modest model for a viable Society, where members respect the dignity and capabilities of others equally, accept their responsibilities as well as their rights, and freely give up some of their freedoms for the good of the whole.

    Off course, we could wait for the Kingdom of God to come, but in the meantime, we could do better than we do now.

  2. The problem is that if someone can individually decide what's required by their religion then we'll be in a bit of a mess.

    A burqa isn't considered to be a religious requirement for most Muslims, but is by some, should a nurse be allowed to wear a burqa on duty? At the moment she wouldn't be, if the logic of Liberty was followed then an employer couldn't say no.

    Also, what defines a religious belief, if I said that I believed that as Adam and Eve are generally thought of as naked, I should be at all, would Liberty really defend me coming into work naked? What if I decided to form my own religion and refuse to work during daylight hours? You see the problem?

  3. I think I'd describe a current position as a largely graceful and occasionally graceless retreat from 1 to 3 while under sniper fire from 2.