Religions demand a special status for themselves – the right to practise a profound hypocrisy. They squeal ‘persecution’ whenever they feel they are not being shown due respect, yet at the same time show themselves ready to employ the methods of persecution in prosecuting their own aims.
The ugly side of religion has revealed itself again in the renewed controversy over the Mohammed cartoons. A Danish newspaper has reprinted the cartoon of the prophet wearing a bomb-like turban. This time, the inevitable outrage has been somewhat more muted, but one can expect the usual death threats from extremist Muslims.
Moderate Muslims and many non-Muslims have also condemned the publication of these cartoons as being disrespectful. The irony of that position is that it is itself highly disrespectful – of people’s right to free speech. In most advanced societies, such free speech is regarded as a cornerstone of civilisation.
Indeed, while we might all agree that mutual respect is desirable as a general rule, it is also essential that when some of us find the beliefs and actions of others to be risible and worthy of contempt, we must have the right to voice our opinions. And the law agrees. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which makes it an offence to stir up hate and incite others to violence, also takes pain to spell out:
“Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.”
Not that laws are always perfect. In Brazil, the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is abusing the legal process by overwhelming journalists with legal actions, in an attempt to stifle criticism. Again, freedom of speech and journalistic freedom are regarded as dispensable in the face of religious beliefs.
And let’s take another example in the UK. Hindus who felt they should be able to keep a bull infected with TB and to prolong the suffering of an injured cow (which they were treating with acupuncture and massage) have protested about vets stepping in – as they are required to both by law and natural compassion – to put the animals down.
In all cases, and many others, the faithful believe their feel bizarre and insupportable supernatural beliefs not only deserve an exaggerated ‘respect’ but also somehow trump rationality and key rights that affect everyone (rather than a pious minority). They consider themselves entitled – even required – to cast aside the rule of law if their religious doctrines (as they interpret them) say so. In other words, their faith makes them special, above the rules that govern the rest of us.
One incarnation of this belief even has its own name – ‘sectarianism’. In the UK, we most commonly associate this with the tiresome and brutal conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. A recent UN Report on freedom of religion or belief in the UK (Word document), by rapporteur Asma Jahangir, also points out that the same conflict is present in Scotland (try attending a Celtic/Rangers match). But I would add that it has a much wider presence: witness the frequent demonising of Jews by Muslims. And as religious extremism increases, one can expect more of this mutual hostility between incompatible faiths.
An article in The Atlantic – ‘And the winner is…‘ – about the worldwide competition between religions, correctly reports that there is a general decline in religious belief. It also suggests that when religions gain a new foothold in a particular society – for example, the burgeoning of Pentecostalism in South America – they tend to do so in a slightly watered-down fashion that more easily slides into the legal, social and political framework of the host nation. However, this ignores the power that extremist elements within a faith can exert, both in terms of influence and direct action. The UK is a case in point: religious belief is waning rapidly, but those who do still believe seem to be moving towards the more extreme margins of strict Catholicism, fundamentalism or radical Islam.
The UN report suggests that members of all major religions in the UK feel they are being persecuted. But with one exception, this translates into them saying they are not being given enough special privileges, or they covet the perceived privileges of the other faiths. That exception is the belief by Muslims that they are being unfairly targeted both by anti-terrorism laws and the authorities’ application of those laws. They probably have a point, although whether the solution is actually in their own hands is a debate for another time.
Hypocrisy is defined as ‘the pretence of virtue or piety’ (Collins English Dictionary). Virtue and piety are qualities that the religious like to reserve to themselves. For example, a belief still persists among the religious that you cannot be ethical or moral without religion – specifically, without their brand of religion. They like to reserve a few other things to themselves, too. Anglicans still get to have 26 seats in the House of Lords, for instance: tough luck for the other faiths, but then that’s the nature of privilege, isn’t it? It’s about excluding the others, about having more power and fewer responsibilities to society as a whole than your rival belief systems.
The sheer arrogance and hubris of religious people believing they should be special cases, that they are exempt from the laws and requirements that govern the rest of us, has no place in modern society. That’s why our laws should not be founded on, nor adjusted to, the doctrines or requirements of faith. Our society is for all of us. Your religion is your business.