Saturday, 29 September 2012
The Intolerance of the Tolerant and Giving and Taking Offence in Religious Discourse
On a recent nationally broadcast and widely watched program in Australia, Q & A, a Left-leaning liberal democrat said words to the effect that he believed in freedom of religion as long as said religions were "reasonable". "Reasonable to whom?" one might ask. One suspects the speaker would have been all too eager to set up some sort of National Council for Religious Affairs, staffed by enlightened souls like himself, to decide which religions did not fit into some arbitrarily conceived late modern rubric of "reasonableness".
What such a proscriptive attitude misses is that by definition freedom, like mercy, is "not 'strained". Provided laws pertaining to the protection of life and limb and minors and other basic human rights are observed, in a democracy it is surely best that people are free to practice their religion as they see fit, no matter how bizarre and irrational it may seem to others, particularly the irreligious, who are by definition probably the least capable of judging such matters. The best way to curb manifestations of religiosity deemed dubious or dangerous is not by the heavy hand of law or the privatization of religious beliefs and practices by stealth (through the rigid application of zoning laws to prevent free assembly for religious services, multi-cultural reductionism, pressure to self-censor etc) but through free discussion, debate and critique in the public sphere; which activity, of course, requires upholding the freedom of speech even if it means offence is taken by some.
Giving and Taking Offence in Religious Discourse
Let me add this caveat, though: I personally do not believe that freedom of speech should be abused by gratuitously insulting other religions. To me, that is just bad manners and, more importantly, corrosive of social cohesion in multi-religious cultures. But the best response religious people can make to such gratuitous insults is to ignore them; freedom to indulge in gratuitous insult, however offensive such insult may be to religious sensibilities, is the price religious people should be prepared to pay in order to preserve our own freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to speak about it in the public sphere. And that freedom should be precious to us because, when all is said and done, every religious affirmation offends someone. In particular, Christianity, with its exclusive claims of divinity and supreme authority for Christ, offends just about everyone who isn't Christian, from the atheist to the Hindu to the Muslim to the Jew: "Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (John 6:61b-62).
The Legal Situation in Australia
While Australia does not have a Bill of Rights which enshrines freedom of religion as a fundamental legal right, freedom of religion is implied in Section 116 of the Constitution: "The Commonwealth of Australia shall not make any law establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth."
The legal defence of religious freedom here falls mainly under the rubric of anti-discrimination laws. From the website of the Australian Human Rights Comission: "Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right protected by a number of international treaties and declarations, including article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This right encompasses freedom of thought on all matters and the freedom to manifest religion and belief individually or with others, in public or in private.
For more information see Article 18: Freedom of religion and belief.
The right to freedom of religion is supported by the right to non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, contained in article 26 of the ICCPR.
International human rights law also protects people against the promotion of religious hatred which amounts to incitement of discrimination, hostility or violence (ICCPR, article 20). "
Beyond these reasonable national laws, though, each state also promulgates laws pertaining to freedom of speech which, because they are poorly conceived or drafted, can impinge upon freedom of religious discourse. That is an area that bears watching.