On Theos on thinking about religious freedom

The UK-based Theos think tank have published a paper by Nick Spencer on How to think about Religious Freedom.

Theos Director Elizabeth Oldfield says:

This guidebook is unapologetically Christian, meaning its foundation and internal logic rest on a commitment to Christian scripture and theological reflection.

Given that society-wide rights need to have a widely-based foundation (i.e. a secular one, it might be better to develop an approach that could be widely agreed, rather than an “authentically Christian approach to religious freedom”. Still, this paper is well worth reading, and indeed in its 76 pages there is much that non-Christians can agree with. But, first, some notable issues that are nowhere addressed.

In commentary on the work, Jonathan Chaplin (Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics) writes:

British citizens have long taken it for granted that they enjoyed as much religious freedom as they wanted and as much as anyone anywhere the world.

I suggest that this actually means that British Christians have long taken it for granted that they enjoyed as much religious privilege as they wanted. What Christians regard as “infringements” on their “freedoms” are often just a withdrawal of privileges and an insistence that other people matter as much as they do.

For example there is still much Christianity entwined with civic ceremony in the UK today, which means that atheists are often expected to accept second-class status, standing around in respectful silence while the first-class citizens indulge their religion. When atheists suggest that council proceedings should not include Christian prayers some Christians respond with outrage, as though it is their rights that are being infringed if they aren’t allowed the special privilege of entwining their religion with government business.

As the report says: “religious freedom means freedom to adhere to, exercise and choose between all religions and none”. Yet, Christians seem to see nothing wrong with actual laws that require schoolchildren to participate in religious worship (yes, the UK really does have such laws!). Christians who sympathise with the feelings those wanting to wear a devotional crucifix at work don’t seem to care about the feelings of a 15-yr-old school child legally compelled to worship a god he doesn’t believe in. One might have thought that 76 pages is sufficient space for Theos to discuss this issue.

Then there are the state-controlled, taxpayer-funded schools, to which a non-religious family is not allowed to send their children because the family do not attend church. By what rights do Christians have a far better choice of local schools than the non-religious? Why on earth are vast numbers of schools handed over to the Church of England to control, amounting to 10 times more places than the fraction of the population who are actually church-attending Christians? This huge inequality — this huge religious privilege — is another issue nowhere discussed in the Theos report. Yet, if we’re talking religious freedom, isn’t equal access to state-funded educational provision, regardless of your religious views, a basic right? Doesn’t it give pause that this religious discrimination is only legal owing to a specific exemption from the 2010 Equality Act?

The report itself starts with an attempt to denigrate atheists. It points to restrictions on religion in communist China and says:

The Chinese example serves to remind us that religious freedom within atheist states, even those as rapidly modernising as China, is a live issue.

Yes, there are violations of religious freedom in communist states, because communism tends to be totalitarian and won’t accept competing loyalties, but this is a feature of communism. It is not a result of atheism. People are motivated by ideologies they do hold (communism) not by ones they don’t hold (lack of theism), and thus placing the emphasis in the above quote on atheism is a misrepresentation aimed at denigrating atheists. Further, the greatest restrictions on religious freedom these days are in Islamic-majority countries, yet the report tends to overlook these, in keeping with a trend of criticising non-religious secularists while excusing the fellow religious. The report continues:

The Chinese example is useful in other ways, too. In the same way as it invites atheists who talk about bishops in the House of Lords as if it were some horrendous scar on the face of liberty and justice (“Only Britain and Iran…”) to get a little perspective, …

Trying to excuse a violation of religious equality by pointing to worse elsewhere is rather feeble. Yes, communist states are worse. So what? Are they the standards by which we judge ourselves?

Indeed, bishops in the Lords is another issue that the report avoids. It says (p38): “The issue of bishops in the Lords is not, therefore, strictly one of establishment”, and then avoids further mention. In 76 pages it makes no actual attempt to defend the legitimacy of bishops in the Lords, which is rather revealing.

In such ways the report only deals with issues that the Christians care about (wearing a crucifix in order to proselytise at work; the right to refuse service to a gay couple, etc), and mostly avoids issues that matter to the non-religious. Thus it is not a basis for a widespread agreement on religious freedom, but could form one input into that discussion.

Indeed, there is much that the secularist can support. It is good that the report — from its “authentically Christian perspective” — discusses the proper role of government and says:

To coerce people towards Christianity is just as unacceptable as it is to coerce them away from it. Neither lies within the state’s proper remit.

Excellent! So can we now abolish the laws that demand the compulsory worship of the Christian god by schoolkids?, laws that demand that: “each pupil … shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship”, where the worship is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. Yes, the parents have the right to opt their kids out (at the cost of depriving them of the social and community aspects of school assemblies) but the kids have no rights here, whatever their beliefs.

Please Christians, do you believe in religious freedom or not? Isn’t it hypocritical to get so het up about rights to wear a crucifix at work, when you simply don’t care about coerced religious worship? Indeed, defending such laws in the House of Lords, Baroness Trumpington openly and shamelessly declared that teenagers should be legally compelled to participate in Christianity, and that it:

… did not matter if pupils were bored, did not like going to chapel or were not interested in religious matters …

Less coercive but also important is the still-widespread privileged place of Christianity in national ceremony. If the state should not be coercing Christianity then neither should it be establishing it as normative, by privileging it over other views.

Government Minister Eric Pickles believes that Christianity has a right to a privileged role in public life: “We’re a Christian nation. Get over it”, he says, labelling anyone who wants civic ceremonial to be inclusive as “militant” and “intolerant”. Thankfully, this arrogant dismissiveness perturbs even some Christians.

The Theos report avoids taking a stance, saying rather feebly:

Because Christianity stands, historically and culturally, in a very different place to other religions, it may be right for it to be treated differently, without infringing fundamental tenets of equality.

This highly dubious assertion amounts to “yes, Christianity gets special privileges but we like it that way, so we’ll keep it and excuse it so long as the privileges are not too great”. Handing over a third of state schools to be run by churches, allowing them to pick and choose the kids (allowing them to be socially selective and exclude the harder-to-teach kids from poorer backgrounds), and then giving them carte blanche to proselytise to those kids every school day for 10 years, is a totally unwarranted privilege.

But, further, the whole principle of having “a different place” for Christianity leads to inequality. Separate but equal is never really equal. White Britons stand “historically and culturally” rather differently from Blacks, but would anyone really argue that it would be ok for government policies to deliberately treat blacks and whites differently, involving one but not the other in ceremonial, “without infringing tenets of equality”?

The Theos report argues strongly for the right of religious groups to run themselves according to their own rules. This is indeed, fair, part of a more general right of free association. It is also legitimate that, where such groups employ people, and where the job clearly requires religious faith, that this can be asked for. Thus a church may choose who to appoint as a priest or pastor on theological grounds.

However, Theos asks for more:

The chorus of voices saying that religious organisations must relinquish their self-organising principles when drawing on public money to provide public services, can become a clamour. In response, it is often pointed out that the religious people, who comprise religious groups, also pay tax, and to prevent them from participating in public life with integrity is itself discriminatory. Just as religious people should not be compelled to speak secular Esperanto when engaged in public life, nor should religious groups be compelled to relinquish all principles of self-organisation when engaged in public service.

Here I disagree. When being funded by public money one needs to adopt public standards, including public non-discrimination rules. That is not preventing anyone “participating in public life with integrity”, it just recognises the difference between someone acting as a public servant, paid for by the taxpayer, and someone acting as a private citizen and funding themselves.

If the religious group were allowed such exemptions then, by basic principles of equality, anyone else should be allowed exemptions from anything they wish. Would Theos also argue that a racist person “drawing on public money to perform public service” should be be allowed to do so “with integrity” and thus not hire blacks? Or are Theos arguing that the religious are privileged, and that if the issue is religious then they get more rights to exemptions than the non-religious have?

Indeed, that question is at the heart of the issue of religious freedom. Properly understood, religious freedom is just an aspect of wider freedoms that we all have, freedoms of thought and conscience. Unfortunately, Theos do not properly understand this, as is clear when they ask:

Should other beliefs be classed the same as religion?

Why even ask this question? It can only be from a presumption that a religious belief is somehow privileged, and thus grants the holder rights that a non-religious belief would not. That flatly contradicts basic principles of equality and the principle that the government should treat us the same, regardless of our religious views.

Theos allow some other beliefs to be granted the same status as “religious” beliefs, but wants this status restricted. “Serious” beliefs about weighty matters get the nod. But this is a false road to travel down: it is not up to the state to start judging how seriously anyone holds a belief or how weighty the matter is to them.

Indeed, this path leads to ludicrous conclusions, such as the idea (following Mr Justice Burton) that a belief qualifies if it is:

… a belief and not…an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.

In other words, if you have good evidence and good reason for believing something, then it somehow counts for less than a belief just taken on faith!

After discussing this issue Theos concludes:

There is no clear or obvious ‘solution’ to this confusion and, for all that the principles outlined in the first half of this essay provide a cogent basis for protecting religious and non-religious beliefs and practices, within certain limits, they do not provide the clear definition of the category of religion which this matter needs.

There is indeed a clear and obvious solution. It is the idea that whether or not a belief is “religious” should not be relevant to the issue of rights, and that religious beliefs should have no greater and no less status than any other belief. Thus there would be no need for any court or government body to involve itself with deciding what is a “religious” belief.

Theos continues by asking and then answering:

Should religious people be protected from, or prevented from giving, offence? At first glance, this question, of all those posed in the second half of this essay, seems to merit the shortest and simplest response: no.

And at second and third glances, and indeed after a long stare. The religious content should certainly be irrelevant to acceptable legal boundaries, and legal prohibitions on speech may legitimately prevent incitement to violence, but not the giving of mere offence.

Theos then asks:

How far should the religious be free to manifest their religion?

This one is also easy to answer: The religious should be free to manifest their religious beliefs to exactly the same degree that a football supporter should be free to manifest their fandom of Manchester United.

Thus, if a football fan is allowed to wear a Manchester United emblem at work, then other employees should be free to display a crucifix. If, however, it is accepted that an employer can specify a dress code to prevent the former then the same restriction should be properly applied to religious emblems. A desire to proselytise at work is not a “freedom” that overrides this.

There should indeed be reasonable accommodation between employers and employees, and employer demands should be for good reason, but non-religious employees should have just as much leeway as the religious.

For example, if an employee wishes not to work on day of the week that they consider holy, then an employer should try to accommodate this — to the same degree that they should accommodate an employee who wishes to keep a weekend day free to watch his kids playing for the local boys football team in the local park. We should reject any notion that the feelings and preferences of the religious count for more than those of the non-religious, and thus that the employer is obliged to make any extra accommodation for “religious” requests.

The last issue Theos discusses is:

How should we reconcile religious freedom with equality legislation?

For example, if a B&B owner doesn’t want to take gay couples, or if a registrar doesn’t want to conduct gay marriages, does “religious freedom” entitle them to decline? Again, this is a badly worded question, implying that the religious have more rights than the non-religious. A better question is thus the extent to which equality legislation overrides individual preferences in general.

The answer is that the whole point of equality legislation is to overrule individual preference, for anyone offering a public service. Thus a hotelier should no more be allowed to turn away a gay couple than they should be allowed to turn away a couple because they are of mixed race or because they are Christian.

While a company or organisation must ensure that it provides equal service to all, in line with equalities legislation, that does not mean that every employee of the company must be involved in all aspects. This returns to the issue of reasonable accommodations that an employer should make, balancing the needs of the employer against individual preferences. One can legitimately discuss the degrees to which an employer need go to accommodate employee preferences, but this is not in itself an issue of “religious freedom”.

To summarise, Theos’s “authentically Christian” approach to religious freedom is too much about preserving Christian privilege, and too little about the rights, freedoms and proper accommodations that should apply similarly to us all.

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Jon Snow, climate change, and the nature of science

Channel 4 News tonight gave extensive coverage to the widespread flooding in England, the wettest spell for two hundred years we’re told. The senior news anchor, Jon Snow, was interviewing Andrew McKenzie, a hydrogeologist with the British Geological Survey:


Snow: Answer me the question that everyone keeps asking. Is this caused by climate change?

McKenzie: Well … quite probably.

Snow: I like that answer, but of course it’s not a scientific answer is it?

Aaargh! Obviously we’re getting nowhere in educating the public about science if a leading journalist such as Jon Snow thinks that being uncertain is “unscientific”, when in reality being uncertain is exactly the scientific response to partial and unclear evidence.

Well done to Mr McKenzie for his excellent “quite probably” answer and for explaining that, yes, his answer was indeed scientific:

McKenzie: Well it is a scientific answer. It’s really hard for us to say with certainty that this is down to climate change, but this is the sort of event that we think will happen if we have climate change.

Is this partly due to school science education? School-level science deals almost entirely with known science, stuff that has been worked out and evidence accumulated to the extent that it is certain1, and is quite rightly presented as such. But things are very different at the cutting-edge where partial and unclear evidence is ubiquitous. Are schools failing in teaching what science is actually about, that it is really about attitudes and methods for attaining new knowledge and for dealing with uncertainty?

That which science has already discovered is of huge importance and underpins our whole society, so teaching kids about what we already know is essential, but an appreciation of the nature of the scientific process is also essential for genuine literacy in science.

One could hope that this has improved in the decades since Jon Snow went to school, but in some ways we are going backwards. British science exams nowadays are often about rote learning, about very closely specified mark schemes, and about memorizing the exact word or phrase that the mark scheme requires. Is it too much to hope for school science based on understanding, on problem solving, intellectual exploration and scientific attitudes?

(1. Not absolutely certain but sufficiently certain that any withholding of assent would be perverse.)

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The Sam Harris Moral Landscape Challenge: Part 2

Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge had a 1000-word limit, and thus to accompany my entry I’ve written this additional (and rather longer) piece, essentially a response to Harris’s Response to Critics article. This piece is best read after my first part and is intended to clarify where I agree and disagree with Harris. Indeed I do agree with Harris on much, probably more so than many of his critics. However, I consider that Harris goes wrong in hankering over the label “objective” to stamp on his account of morals, and that this gets him into a mire while gaining little. Continue reading

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My entry for Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge

Sam Harris has issued an essay challenge, calling for 1000-word pieces that try to refute the main thesis of his book The Moral Landscape, essentially the idea that morals are objective facts about human well-being. Here is my entry (with some bits similar to my previous posts on the topic).

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, wrote Dobzhansky, and we can’t understand morality except as part of our biology, programmed into us by evolution to do a job. That job is to facilitate cooperation. Morality is a social glue that enables us to collaborate with our fellow humans and so benefit from a highly cooperative way of life.

Evolution had long programmed feelings and emotions into us (hunger, fear, disgust, love, satisfaction, pain, etc) so it adapted that mechanism to police our interactions. Thus we have notions of loyalty and comradeship, and treachery and ostracisation, of fairness and exploitation, of pride and shame, punishment and forgiveness.

Morals are opinions about how people should should treat each other; morality is our feelings and emotions about inter-human behaviour.

These feelings do not reflect any deeper and more objective reality about how we “should” behave or treat each other. Why would they? Evolution has no such concern; all that matters for evolution is whether someones moral feelings assist cooperation and enable them to leave more descendants. Even if there were such a thing as “objective” morals evolution would not care one hoot about them and thus they would bear no relation to how we feel, to our evolutionarily-programmed sense of morality. Continue reading

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What is wrong with Channel 4′s censorship of Jesus and Mo?

This article was written for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here

What is it about the decision by Channel 4 News to censor a Jesus and Mo cartoon that makes it wrong? In essence the decision is wrong because it implies that the request that no depiction of Mohammad be shown is a reasonable one, whereas by all normal standards of the secular West the request is totally unreasonable.

You are likely familiar with the story, of how students at the London School of Economics advertised their Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society by wearing T-shirts that are utterly innocuous in their content, save that they depict the prophet Mohammad. The LSE demanded that the T-shirts be covered up but subsequently apologised for their heavy-handed action.

The issue featured on the BBC’s The Big Questions leading to the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim, tweeting the cartoon and stating that he was not offended by it. Less tolerant Muslims are now calling for his deselection and even threatening his life. In the resulting publicity Channel 4 News showed the cartoon but censored it owing to the “offence” it might cause, while the BBC’s Newsnight refused to show it at all. Continue reading

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Catholic theology facilitated the child abuse

This article was commissioned for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been hauling the Vatican over the coals regarding its record of systematically covering up the sexual abuse of children by its priests. Hearings in Geneva this week are the first time that senior Vatican officials have been confronted in public about the ongoing scandal. Despite UN requests, the Vatican still refuses to open its archives containing records of every instance of abuse reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long presided over by Cardinal (later Pope) Ratzinger. It also tried to argue that it was responsible only for abuse that took place in the tiny enclave of the Vatican City, not by Catholic priests worldwide.

The story is now all too familiar. Time after time priestly child abuse was hushed up by the Church, the victims sworn to secrecy, the files sealed in the Vatican vaults, and the priest not turned over to secular authorities but instead quietly moved to a new parish. There the abuse would continue with a new set of victims. If the Church did apply “punishments” they tended to be a requirement for “penitence and prayer”.

The pattern was worldwide, from Ireland to Australia to Germany to Mexico and the US and … we still don’t know about many Third World countries where the Catholic Church is still powerful enough to continue its cover-up. Power corrupts, and the fact that the Catholic Church regarded itself as morally answerable only to itself, coupled with the excessive deference paid to it by others, enabled the ongoing corruption that has now shredded the Vatican’s claim to any moral authority. Continue reading

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William Lane Craig’s eight Special-Pleading arguments for God’s existence

William Lane Craig — Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology — has set out in the latest edition of Philosophy Now his eight “best” arguments for the existence of God. For an atheist these are worth reviewing if only to marvel at how bad such arguments — touted as the best of a “renaissance of Christian philosophy” — actually are. All show the pattern of deciding ones conclusions on wishful-thinking grounds and then using any amount of special pleading and spurious argument to defend them.

They are the sort of arguments (following in a long tradition including C. S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell and many others) that only convince those who already believe. Their general tenor is actually to make things worse, trying to “explain” something by pointing to something that is even harder to explain. Only, the believer doesn’t ask that question because at that point they’ve already got to their god, and so stop.

(I) God is the best explanation why anything at all exists

Right, so in order to “explain why anything at all exists” you start off with something unexplained, namely God. Anyone can “explain” why something exists if you’re allowed to start off with something!

Admittedly, even Craig can see that flaw, so he uses special pleading. While claiming that everything needs an explanation, he then exempts his god, which of course doesn’t need explaining. He does this by claiming a distinction between “contingent” things (which need explanation) and a “transcendent personal being” (which doesn’t). Thus his argument becomes:

1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.

A 14-yr-old could see the flaw: “So, what caused God, then? And if we’re allowed to say that God doesn’t need an explanation then why not just say that the universe doesn’t require an explanation?”. Continue reading

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