A British court recently decided that payers at the start of the council meetings are illegal (see the BBC news item HERE). The reaction of religious figures was swift, their condemnation of the decision unequivocal. The court’s decision was based on the belief that Christian religious practices in the public may violate the rights of any atheist to enjoy ‘freedom from religion’. The case was brought to the attention of the court by the National Secular Society.
While I am myself an atheist, I fundamentally disagree with the court’s decision. I think the court as well as the NSS operate with a profoundly mistaken notion of freedom ‘from religion’. Here is what I think went awry.
It seems to me that the court based its decision on a fundamentally flawed notion of how to best protect religious minorities in society. It advocates that their interests are best secured if they are to be insulated from the practices of other religious groups. the ‘freedom from’ argument. This is a widespread view which goes back to the idea of separation of public and private. Yet, it has a fundamental flaw.
Our society is based on the tolerance of a wide range of social and religious practices. Tolerating other people’s views however can only happen in a social environment which permits people to observe other people in their commitments, to foster the respect and understanding we need to have even for those practices we disagree with. This requires a public arena that exposes us to other people’s beliefs and practices, rather than isolates us from anything that may run counter to our convictions.
Mutual respect can only develop when we come to know more about other people’s strength of faith and convictions. Separating people and their lives in order to artificially prevent people from being challenged by other beliefs may make life easier for us in the short term. However it rests on the mistaken belief that there can be something like a conflict free world. And banishing religious practices into discrete ghettos of belief undermines, I believe, a free and vibrant society based on mutual engagement and debate.
I have countless times been in situations where I had to negotiate tricky moments as some people rose to prayer and I had to ask myself how to react. Yet, each and every time I found it possible to navigate these situations in a way that showed respect to other people’s belief whilst at the same time upholding my own convictions.
To encounter these situations is part of life, and shielding people from these sort of experiences infantilises us, and ill-prepares us for the conflict of beliefs that every healthy society experiences.
In fact, I would argue, what we need is more public manifestations of religious belief, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish. As an atheist I do not take offence by public displays of religious beliefs. On the contrary, it instills a sense of respect in me for their commitment. And let us not forget: it is the fundamentalists on all sides (including the secular fundamentalists) who believe that religious diversity is wrong. I think we can celebrate our faith (or lack of faith) in public while still respecting each others’ commitments.
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