Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Westminster Faith Debate: What Limits to Religious Freedom?

Westminster Faith Debate: What Limits to Religious Freedom?
The title of last week’s Westminster Faith Debate - what limits to religious freedom? – seemed designed to strike a chord in the heart of any Baptist. Religious Freedom is, after all, an achievement we prize dearly. It is at the core of our beliefs, our church structures, and our services: it is what makes us who we are. As the Baptist Historian William R Estep said,

“It is impossible to define Baptists apart from their devotion to the principle of complete religious freedom.”

So when I looked at the question of limits to religious freedom, my temptation was to answer “none whatsoever, what could there possibly be to discuss?” Well, plenty...

The debate started off with a presentation from Professor Peter Jones from the University of Newcastle. He addressed the question of freedom of expression and advocated an approach based on the respect we each hold for fellow human beings and the beliefs they hold, that is, based on basic courtesy. Free expression is, as J S Mill argues, an essential vehicle for the pursuit of truth, but, argues Jones, it need not subject sincerely held beliefs of others to gratuitous ridicule unless there is an overriding reason for it so to do. The restraint should not, Jones adds, extend to criticizing or attacking a belief, for that is disagreement, not disrespect, and a vital element of free speech and discourse.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger largely agreed with the professor. Respect, she said, is an important public virtue. We must uphold courteous, civilized debate, listen to other people, and realize that there is more than one acceptable weltanschauung out there, she said.  We could sort out some of our problems with a ‘reasonableness test,’ she argued. It is perfectly reasonable, for example, for religious people to wear religious clothing. Why should anyone mind?

‘Respect’ is a fine thing between individuals, said the writer Lisa Appignanesi, but not in the public sphere.  As far as public discourse is concerned, all belief systems and philosophies must be available for approval or contempt, a subject for spoof, satire, parody, mockery or ridicule. None can be marked out for pious deference. Christian philosophy merits no more respect than Marxist philosophy or any other.

The second presentation was given by Maleiha Malik, a professor in Law at King’s College London.  She offered a sharp analysis of the application of law to incidents where the exercise of religious belief has clashed with equality legislation or employment law.  Should the law make some sort of ‘accommodation’ for the exercise of religious belief? Absolutely not she says: race, creed, and colour should be irrelevant in the application of the law. The law represents the agreement society has reached on the balance of rights and equalities, and no exemption can be permitted on the basis of religious belief.

Bishop Nazir Ali dismissed this argument as “ultra-benthamite legal positivism!” Morality transcends law, and law cannot command conscience.  He argued that the custom of toleration within the law, as extended to conscientious objectors in the wartime, could be applied to protect and strengthen the freedom of religious groups.  Without it we may risk creating a tyranny of the majority.

It was good to see such an eminent panel explore the complexities of religious freedom, and disagreeing with each other is such a courteous and respectful debate. The best comment of the evening, however, came from the floor. A priest from the inner city, Rose Hudson Wilkins, who is also the Chaplain to the Speak of the House of Commons, got to her feet and told of her diverse parish, full of different cultures and religions living happily side by side. They do not hold seminars on the balance of freedoms, nor do they debate the nature of free expression, tolerance and offence; they just get on and live together happily and harmoniously. Speaking as a Baptist, I think that is a jolly good idea!