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.