We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that
we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and
his children smart.
H. L. Mencken, Notebooks,
One of the most obvious problems caused by allowing special
legal rights to members of one religion is that it gives others
cause for complaint. In Britain, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others
are outraged to find that their faith is not protected by the
law of blasphemy as the Christian faith is. If the law discriminates
in favour of one group then it must equally discriminate against
those who do not belong to that group. To take another example,
British law requires that animals should be rendered unconscious
before slaughter, but exceptions are made for certain religious
groups. Jews for example may slaughter conscious animals (shechita),
in order for the meat to be considered kosher. Similarly, Muslims
slaughter animals in conditions that many people consider unacceptable
so that the meat may be hal al. Ordinary farmers on
the other hand would commit a criminal offence if they killed
their own beasts in the same way. The Free Church of Country
Sports is a religion that considers fox-hunting a religious
duty*. One is at a loss
to explain why this Church does not benefit from articles 9
and 14 of the 1998 Human Rights Act which allows organisations
to manifest their religious beliefs and not be discriminated
against because of those beliefs. Why does the law permit ritual
killing for Muslims and Jews, but not for members of the Free
Church of Country Sports?
Here is another British example. Sikh men are exempted from
having to wear motorcycle crash helmets because of a mistaken
belief that they have a religious duty to wear turbans.
Anyone who refuses to wear a motorcycle crash helmet for other
reasons, whether religious or not, commits an offence.
In some countries religious leaders enjoy a legal exemption
permitting them to take drugs that are otherwise illegal. For
example, in India Hindu Sadhus are not prosecuted for smoking
marijuana. Other countries are less understanding. In Britain,
Rastafarians claim that smoking marijuana (ganja) is essential
to their religion, yet no exemption is made for them. Similarly,
in the USA members of the Native American Church are prevented
from using traditional psychotropic drugs. The fact is that
wherever we draw the line some religions will feel aggrieved.
Christians in the USA were shocked to find that under the American
Constitution witchcraft was as legitimate a religion as their
own*. If there were any
Satanists in the world, it is difficult to see why Satanism
should not also enjoy formal recognition. Clearly it is impractical
to extend immunities to all of the requirements of all religions.
If this were done, we might expect to see for example the introduction
or reintroduction of all manner of religious practices: Hindu
suttee (widows immolating themselves on their husbands"
funeral pyres), Celtic head hunting, Saxon stranglings, annual
human sacrifices to the Sun, ritual mutilations, the burning
of heretics, and so on.
In other cases the law is not enforced against selected religious
groups apparently depending on how vocal the group chooses
to be. Since the Satanic Verses affair in 1988 a number of Muslim
clerics have made death threats against Salman Rushdie, Jewish
people, Americans, and others*.
Further spates of death threats were made following the events
of 11 September 2001 and again after October 2005 when a Danish
newspaper published cartoons featuring the person of the prophet
Mohammed. If any secular person had made such threats they would
have been arrested, tried and almost certainly gaoled. Unofficial
exemptions generate ill feeling because they undermine the principle
of equality under the law. So it is that Moslems question why
churches are allowed to ring bells to call the faithful to prayer,
while their mezzhuins are not allowed to fit loudspeakers on
their minarets for the same purpose. On the other hand Christians
in London question why police sniffer dogs are allowed in churches
but not into the religious areas of mosques. Animal lovers wonder
why practitioners of Voodoo seem to be free to break the bones
of conscious animals before sacrificing them. Few, if any, prosecutions
are brought for animal cruelty, though prosecutions of farmers
and pet owners are common enough for less cruel activities.
In the USA religious groups are exempt from prosecution for
denying medical attention to their children. Again in the USA,
there are sects who handle poisonous snakes, relying on Jesus"
promises of immunity to believers, as described in Luke 10:19
and Mark 16:18. Many adherents die of the bites they sustain.
No statistics are available on the number of children killed
in this way and we can only speculate on the likely success
of a murder charge in such circumstances, because none has ever
been brought. The law is applied selectively elsewhere too.
In some countries it is unacceptable for Moonies to indoctrinate
children and young adults, yet it is acceptable for Christian,
Jewish and Moslem schools, seminaries and madrassas to indoctrinate
children in the same way.
In many countries male genital mutilation (circumcision) is
lawful, but female genital mutilation (clitorectomy) is not.
There is no medical justification for either practice and the
legal acceptance of one but not the other is essentially a form
of cultural and religious discrimination.
It is not only the law that discriminates. Employers also discriminate,
often citing cultural sensitivity. Here is a revealing letter
from a Dr Harry Baker to a national newspaper in the UK, published
I hear doctors may be allowed to extend the range of procedures
they can opt out of on religious or conscience grounds, and
some Muslims medical students are refusing to attend lectures
relating to sexually transmitted diseases or diseases caused
by alcohol abuse. Now you report Sainsbury's has agreed
that Muslims should be able to opt out of selling alcohol....
What about Jews selling pork, Christians not selling books
by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, atheists not selling
bibles, vegetarians not selling meat, antivivisectionists
not selling anything in most chemists shops? Why are Muslims
Dr Baker seems unaware that Roman Catholic physicians and pharmacists
already enjoy exemptions allowing them to opt not to give family
planning advice and not to provide contraceptives, but his broader
point is valid. Religious discrimination creates more problems
than it solves.
Few liberal thinkers would wish to deny others the right to
believe whatever they want. All beliefs must be respected equally,
however bizarre or odious. But can there ever be a justification
for the State giving support to any set of religious beliefs?
If there is, how should we decide which set (or sets) of beliefs
merit such support? Certainly there is no objective way of distinguishing
a true religion from a false one, or a true sect from a false
one. By all objective tests Christianity fails to distinguish
itself from other mainstream religions. Similarly, within Christianity
no sect stands out as more genuine than any other. From any
objective viewpoint all religions and sects appear to be equally
valid or equally invalid. Clearly we cannot permit all religions
to enjoy the special privileges that they would like
not least because the requirements of one group would cause
offence to other groups. Providing privileges and exemptions
to one group is guaranteed to cause trouble. If Christians can
have state-funded schools, why cannot Muslims? If Muslims why
not Jehovah's Witnesses? If Jehovah's Witnesses why
not Jedi?* If Jedi why
not Moonies? Jim Jones" style suicide sects? The Holy Child
non-Christians find Christian traditional worship offensive.
For example, the idea of worshipping a dead man, and claiming
to eat his raw flesh and drink his cold blood, is horrifying
to some. Encouraging, or forcing, children tojoin in such behaviour
is arguably a form of cruelty amounting to child abuse. Many
children are obliged to look at representations of dreadful
martyrdoms and other such horrors, and are told in great detail
about the tortures of Hell, often with obvious sadomasochist
overtones. Gory depictions of the crucifixion on classroom walls
in Bavaria led to at least one child being made to feel ill,
and ultimately to a court case over the matter in 1996. If gory,
cruel and often fictitious Christian depictions can be allowed,
why not a wide range of other sadomasochistic images belonging
to other religions and interest groups.
Once again, the issue here is that of equality before the law.
Why should one set of beliefs ever be officially favoured over
another? If the law can exempt Sikhs from wearing motorcycle
crash helmets, why can it not exempt Rastafarians from the law
prohibiting the smoking of marijuana? And why should religious
views merit rights denied to other views? For example what about
eccentrics who decline to wear motorcycle crash helmets on political
grounds? Are religious beliefs more worthy than political ones,
or ethical ones, or philosophical ones?
In fact there is a simple solution to all these problems. The
solution is to treat all religious groups in the same way as
each other, and as any secular group. If none enjoyed special
rights, privileges or exemptions, then no one would feel discriminated
against. This would hardly revolutionise the world, but it would
end anachronistic discrimination and equalise obligations. This
solution is obvious, equitable and simple and has so
far been adopted nowhere in the civilised world.