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Some Arguments Against a Religious Hatred Law

November 2005

Summary: A law against religious hatred will encourage religious extremism by shielding religious leaders from legitimate criticism. So far the debate about the proposed religious hatred law has focused on the rights of secular critics to speak out, but the majority of religious followers also stand to lose. Freedom of criticism protects gullible followers from manipulation by scheming leaders, whether priests or imams. As David Hume warned in the 18th century, religious leaders often have a different motivation from their followers. The rank and file tend to be inspired by the light of faith, whereas the leaders are more likely to be driven by a mixture of calculation and self-interest. Liberal democratic societies have traditionally tried to keep religion and politics separate. The Americans have maintained a far more complete separation than we have, but both countries have been guided by the same concerns and based their approach on the same historical experience, most notably the furious religious wars of the 17th century, the most vicious of which was the 30 Years War which ended in 1648. During these years the discovery of knowledge was suppressed when it clashed with religious dogma. In 1633 Galileo had been forced to recant his view that the Earth rotated around the Sun, and in 1600 Bruno had been executed for advocating the teachings of Copernicus. The slaughter and disruption of Britain's own civil war, which ended with the execution of the King in 1649, turned the minds of many to the discovery of a political philosophy that would allow people who disagreed strongly nevertheless to live together in the same country. Among the main threats to this ideal of a free and democratic society were autocrats and theocrats. David Hume was among the most severe critics of religious leaders: 'We may observe, that, in all ages of the world, priests have been enemies to liberty; and it is certain, that this steady conduct of theirs must have been founded on fixed reasons of interest and ambition. Liberty of thinking, and of expressing our thoughts, is always fatal to priestly power, and to those pious frauds, on which it is commonly founded.' Democracy has encouraged efforts to see the other person's point of view, to seek agreement rather than to quibble, and where possible, to compromise. For all groups to be subject to open criticism, including mockery and ridicule, has been a great leveller. A law banning religious hatred will begin to unravel the delicate balances on which freedom and democracy depend. It will involve using the law to benefit one faction at the expense of others. It will be used to persecute non-believers by dragging them through the courts. It will silence critics of religion by allowing legitimate criticism, voiced during the ordinary cut and thrust of debate, to be interpreted as incitement of hatred. It will encourage prickliness instead of forbearance and touchiness instead of restraint. We already speak of ethnic groups 'playing the race card'; soon groups will have the chance to 'play the religion card'. Trevor Philips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, recently found himself under attack for Islamophobia because he had the temerity to appeal to Muslim leaders to reiterate their opposition to terrorism. And for her audacity in criticising the inferior status of women under Islam, Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee, has been declared the 'Most Islamophobic media personality' by the Islamic Human Rights Commission. It led, she says, to a bombardment of emails 'each one more luridly threatening than the last'. The Government's intention is to give protection to Islam, but of all the major religions it is the one that should remain open to free criticism, for its own good. A great battle is currently going on between moderates and fundamentalists. For moderates, religious faith offers moral guidance for free and responsible individuals. For fundamentalists, the Koran contains absolute truths that must never be questioned. Both are concerned with right and wrong, but moderates speak the language of chiding, reproach, remorse and forgiveness; extremists think in terms of heresy, apostasy and punishment. Just as open criticism under a democracy produces better government than the suppression of debate under autocracy, so too freedom of criticism discourages religious leaders from propagating superstition and prejudice and manipulating their followers. The 18th century defenders of the Enlightenment were right to fear religious enthusiasm. For the sake of religion, democracy and the continuance of our tradition of tolerance, there should be no law against religious hatred. Priests, rabbis and imams should develop thick skins. Why is the government persisting with a measure that has come under effective intellectual attack? The only plausible explanation is that it is seeking easy popularity among the most prominent pressure groups. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, wrote to all mosques in blatantly party-political terms in April 2005. He said: "We understand that this legislation was of vital importance to the Muslim community. But the reason we cannot pass this legislation is because both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have blocked the legislation in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives made it clear that they were not willing to see this measure become law. They bear full responsibility for blocking this part of the Bill. I am sure that you and other members of the Muslim community will take very careful note of that, particularly the opposition of the Liberal Democrats on this issue." He continued: "However, I can assure you that the Labour Party remains firmly of the view that there should be equality for those of all faiths, including the Muslim community. We cannot see why it is right to have protection in law for Jews and Sikhs, but wrong to extend it to other communities like the Muslim community. It remains our firm and clear intention to give people of all faiths the same protection against incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion." Click here for the full letter. David G. Green, Director of Civitas.

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