As I write this thousands of Muslims are marching through London to “Defend the Honour of the Holy Prophet” and denounce the “insulting depictions of our Holy Prophet” by Charlie Hebdo.
They have every right to do so, of course. They have every right to voice their views, even though they would deny that right to others, if they could. It is also entirely within their rights to regard this issue as a more urgent reason for taking to the streets than, for example, the activities of ISIS. Does burning people to death, beheading children, and selling girls as sex slaves — when done in the name of Islam by the Islamic State — not demean the honour of the Prophet of Islam?
The media are quick to label ISIS and their fellow Jihadi Islamists as extremists, which they certainly are. But the implication is that mainstream Islam is moderate. Let’s consider some basic principles of any “moderate” worldview in the West nowadays. Continue reading
I am the sort of person who would draw a Mohammed cartoon, if I could draw, which I can’t, and if I was good at satirical cartoons, which I’m not. Yes, we do understand that you find cartoons depicting Muhammed offensive. We understand that you value the reputation of Muhammed more than that of your own family, and that Western cartoons about your prophet are, to you, utterly disrespectful and blasphemous. We are not drawing cartoons just for the sake of being insulting, nor because we hate you. We draw cartoons because we regard doing so as important for a free society.
Over human history many ideologies have been totalitarian. The Christian religion used to burn people at the stake for heresy. The Soviet Communists sent people to the Gulag for any dissent from communist ideology. The Nazis murdered millions to further their fascist ideology.
All totalitarian regimes control what people can say, and in particular they repress any questioning of themselves and their control of society. The right to question authority is among the most fundamental rights in a free society. Even the right to vote is predicated on the right to discuss and argue about the merits and demerits of the government. Where people cannot question their rulers, society is not free. And that means, overwhelmingly, that economic prosperity is lower, technological advance is hampered, cultural flourishing is restricted, and quality of life is lower. Across the world these things correlate with political freedom and thus with freedom of speech.
The Islamic world, sadly, is different. Political freedom is not accepted. Rather, the greatest good is held to be unquestioning acceptance of Islam. Where Islam dominates, Islam is totalitarian, controlling what people can do and say. Continue reading
This was written for Scientia Salon, and partially repeats some of my previous posts.
In the all-time lists of Good Ideas the principle of religious freedom ranks high, preventing much strife and war and thus being responsible for saving more lives than penicillin and vaccination combined. 
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”, wrote Thomas Jefferson, who rated his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom as his finest accomplishment. 
Yet, despite the fact that the principle of religious freedom is now universally accepted in the civilised world,  there is much less agreement on how to interpret it. Indeed, my thesis here is that the principle is widely misunderstood.
In the United States, the Supreme Court tells us, corporations have the status of “people” and thus have attendant constitutional rights including freedom of religion. That allows corporations to decline to participate in aspects of Obamacare if it considers that doing so would be against the corporation’s religious beliefs.
This landmark “Hobby Lobby” ruling followed predictable lines, with five Catholic judges out-voting the Court’s four moderates. Much of the commentary has focused on the doctrine of awarding personhood to corporations. An equally important issue, however, is the role of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, whose effects are seen for the first time.
That Act would have been better named the Religious Privilege Establishment Act. It requires that the:
“Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability”, with allowed exceptions only where the burden “furthers a compelling governmental interest”, and in addition “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest”.
This privileges the religious since it grants greater import and status to a religious motivation for doing or not doing something than to a secular motivation for the same thing. Through this promotion of religious belief it is a law “respecting an establishment of religion” and thus it violates the First Amendment. Continue reading
The suggestion of a “conscience clause” opt-out from equality legislation has been floated by no less a person than Lady Hale, Deputy President of Britain’s Supreme Court, and the most senior female judge in the land. The idea is that if treating people equally goes against your conscience then you get to play the “conscience” trump card entitling you to treat people unequally.
Unsurprisingly, some Christians have welcomed the suggestion, which they see as preserving their “religious freedom” against what they see as the encroachment of equality legislation.
“It is obvious that there is a growing conflict between religious freedoms and equalities legislation, and that a new balance has to be struck” opines The Telegraph. So, for example, the Christian hoteliers who famously turned away a same-sex couple, and lost the resulting court case, could in future be indulged by a clause that makes “special provisions or exceptions for particular beliefs”. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Reading the British newspapers each morning I’m often irked by the reporting of religious-freedom cases. I’ve posted before about how misunderstood the concept of “religious freedom” is — it shouldn’t grant anyone extra rights, that would violate the equally important principle of equality under the law. In a nutshell religious freedom means this: you should not be imposed upon for religious reasons. That’s it.
Of course society can have every right to impose on you for good, secular, non-religious reasons, even if these impositions affect your religious practice. Such restrictions, if they apply to everyone, are not a violation of religious freedom. But no-one may impose on you for reasons motivated by religion, either their promotion of their own religion or their dislike of yours.
Treating people equally, regardless of their religious views, is as important as religious freedom. Indeed the concepts of religious freedom and religious equality are entwined and inseparable. In the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the first and finest declarations of the concept, Thomas Jefferson declared:
That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry […] opinions in matters of Religion […] shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.
The word “enlarge” is as important there as the word “diminish”. Continue reading