The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.
Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.
From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”. Continue reading
I have a confession to make. Reading the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer, I am more persuaded by the majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts than by Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. In this I differ from many secular campaign groups who deplore the ruling and are worried about what it might lead to.
In brief, Missouri runs a program using old tyres to improve children’s playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church asked to benefit from this. Their bid was rejected because it came from a church, in line with Missouri’s rule that no taxpayers’ money can go to a church. The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that rejecting the bid simply because it came from a church violated the constitutional ban on laws “… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Sotomayor’s dissent, in contrast, focused on the other half of that clause, banning laws “respecting an establishment of religion”.
The two phrases together are commonly interpreted as erecting Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between churches and the government, preventing taxpayers money from going to churches and preventing the government from taxing churches. Continue reading
British Christians have been writing to the newspapers complaining that the resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows that liberal secularism has revealed itself to be intolerant. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”, said Farron himself. The resignation “should make us wary of those who pretend to be tolerant and liberal” (Telegraph), “… is evidence of wider intolerance in British society” (Christian Institute) and “… symbolises the decay of liberalism” (New Statesman), opine others.
When Christians are unhappy it is usually because they are waking up to the fact that society is increasingly unwilling to grant them the special privileges to which they are accustomed, and to which they think they are entitled. The special privilege being asked for here is not that they be allowed to advance their beliefs in the public arena. That is accepted and not under threat by any secularist or Western atheist, however much Christians try to pretend otherwise. Rather, the special privilege being asked for is to advance such views and to have them exempted from critical scrutiny. Continue reading
The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.
Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading
Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)
As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.
We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead! Continue reading
The conflict between Free Speech and Islam is surely going to be a defining battle of the 21st Century. Worryingly, many in the West consider that the best way to defuse the battle is to make concessions to Islam. For example, take the article just published in The Times by Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford (non-paywall article version).
Biggar writes: Continue reading
Sometimes I pine for the days when British politicians did not “do God”. They realised that, in a nation where only half of us now believe in God, such talk is unnecessarily divisive. But David Cameron is reckoned to have undergone a religious renaissance after the death of his young son, Ivan, and nowadays regularly “does God” and pronounces the UK to be a “Christian nation”.
In one sense this doesn’t matter, since he’s entitled to his opinion and his words can be ignored by those who don’t share his beliefs. But, on the other hand, as Prime Minister he often speaks for the nation as a whole.
By calling Britain a “Christian nation” he presumably refers to the fact that around half the nation identifies as Christian, though often only as a vague cultural affinity. Only about one-in-five are Christian in the sense of regarding it as important in their lives, or in the sense of being church-goers. The rest share some of the cultural heritage, and might attend church weddings and funerals, and perhaps the occasional carol service, but otherwise don’t “do God” in their daily lives. Continue reading
Baroness O’Neill, chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, has recently given a speech, hosted by the Theos think tank, on freedom of expression and religion of religion. There is much that is good in the speech. In particular I agree wholeheartedly with her view that:
There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended. Speech acts that incite hatred, or that intimidate, or that defraud, or that abuse, can be regulated without putting freedom of expression at the mercy of others. But if there were a right not to be offended, this would put everyone’s freedom of expression at the mercy of others.
Baroness O’Neill counsels:
What then should one do if one hears, reads or sees something that one considers offensive, perhaps deeply offensive? The basic thing is to remember is that unless the offending speech act was wrong in some further way (e.g. it was defamatory, or incited hatred, or was fraudulent), no right has been violated, and no remedy of the sort that respect for rights requires is needed.
But, there is one major area where I want to argue that Baroness O’Neil is misguided. And this is the fundamental matter of what we mean by “freedom of religion”. The Baroness says that: Continue reading
The religious might say that your life belongs to God, not to you. Ending it before God wills is thus a blasphemous sin. Most secular people would hold, instead, that your life is your own. If, through an incurable medical condition, your life has become so insufferable that you wish to end it, then that should be your choice. Further, given that your condition is likely debilitating, it would be decent and compassionate for society to assist you if necessary.
Christianity has long had the defect of seeing suffering as somehow virtuous, to be endured for the good of your soul. This attitude was exemplified by “Mother” Teresa, who explained that:
There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.
All that suffering — where would the world be without it? Innocent suffering is the same as the suffering of Jesus. He suffered for us and all the innocent suffering is joined to his in the redemption. It is co-redemption. That is helping to save the world from worse things.
We need a pure heart to see the hand of God, to feel the hand of God, to recognize the gift of God in our suffering. He allows us to share in his suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.
People like Teresa actually want the dying to endure suffering, and for that suffering to continue for however long it takes. You would not treat a dog like that. Quite literally, you would not treat a dog like that; if things got bad enough you would have the compassion to end that life early. Continue reading
David Cameron has recently given a major speech on “extremism”, and the full transcript can be read here. Here is my reaction to parts of the speech.
The title states that “Prime Minister David Cameron set out his plans to address extremism”. What sort of extremism? Well, we all know that we’re referring to extreme versions of Islam, though many politicians are reluctant to spell that out. Let’s see how Cameron fares.
Early on he declares that “Today, I want to talk about … how together we defeat extremism”. It is another nine sentences before he overcomes the “Voldemort effect” and actually names it:
“And because the focus of my remarks today is on tackling Islamist extremism — not Islam the religion — let me say this.”
Well done! Islamist extremism (even if it is accompanied by the hasty and obligatory assurance that Islamism is nothing to do with Islam). Continue reading