Kenan Malik on religious freedom

by Greg Mayer

Kenan Malik has an article in New Humanist magazine (online here) on religious freedom that is very interesting. While applauding John Locke’s views on religious toleration, he espouses a more Spinozan approach, which places religious freedom as merely one of a set of freedoms centered on freedom of  expression and conscience, and finds Baruch Spinoza’s views more influential on the U.S. First Amendment religious freedom guarantees. He enunciates a series of principles, and then applies them to a number of controversies. Is there anything wrong with offending religious sensibilities? No. Should burqas be banned? No (except in very limited practical circumstances). His most basic principle:

Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.

h/t: Matthew Sitman at Andrew Sullivan

107 Comments

  1. Posted August 19, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Freedom to teach your children any old codswollop? I don’t think so…

    • Posted August 19, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      I saw the problem with this article similarly — that only physical harms were being guarded against. (and only non-consensual physical harms at that). Where’s the concern over psychological harms, incl. harms against the young (or mentally unstable, impressionable, or otherwise vulnerable)?

  2. NortCal
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “So long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere”.
    Burqas DO violate the freedom of women, clearly marking them as property of their male spouse, as such declared by their “owner” to be out of bounds of anyone else’s permission to see. If that does not clearly “transgress an individual [woman]’s rights in the public sphere”, I fail to se what would.
    In short, democratic countries SHOULD ban burqas as tools of odious discrimination against women as sovereign individuals in a society that prizes political and social freedoms.
    The fact that some women may have been brainwashed to the point that they WANT to wear a burqa or a veil, well…there are self-evident reasons why we don’t allow people who would like to be slaves to be actual slaves — not lawfully.

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      One of the practical effects of wearing a burqa is that she can’t get a driver’s license. The veil would make her a menace on the roads, plus, she wouldn’t be able to have a valid picture taken.

      The argument that there is a choice involved is just a smokescreen. L

      • Mike Lee
        Posted August 19, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

        Is that why the Saudi regime will not allow woman drivers on the road….?

        • prochoice
          Posted August 22, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

          This way or the other way round.
          A gooooood example why most of religion is called “apologetics”, and what does not bear the name has the very same effect.

    • Sawdust Sam
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      I’d like to think that you came to these conclusions through your own reasoning, but I’d need to be convinced that you haven’t be subjected to some undue influence.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

        Relevance for this topic in particular?

        It is not a clever argument that social influence can’t be discussed because everything we do is influenced by society.

        Then you can as well argue (and some do) that science doesn’t work because every experiment influencing nature is influenced by nature constraining it.

        • Sawdust Sam
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t intend to suggest any such thing: it was a poor attempt at sarcasm. Nobody can know what another person thinks. It’s a poor logic to conclude that any woman who wears a burqa is either coerced or has been brainwashed and is incapable of independent thought.
          I’m not sure I want to subscribe to any society that forces conformity on its citizens. What NortCal is saying in this case is: ‘Whatever your situation, you’re wrong until you do it my way.’
          This is another form of coercion.

        • Sawdust Sam
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

          Torbjörn – Eric says it better, below, in his reply to you.

    • ManOutOfTime
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Is that not the theory behind the French burqa ban?

      • Alexander Hellemans
        Posted August 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        Imagine you would board the Paris metro, and there is a seat next to some person in a burqa, very fat, and you can’t see its face. Would you feel comfortable sitting next to it? I know someone, a devout Catholic (at that time) who gave a ride to a hitch-hiking nun in its diver’s suit (you could only see part of its face). While driving he noticed that the creature had big hands, so he decided to drive to a police station. As soon the creature was aware of this it jumped out of the car and ran away.

    • Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      “Personally, I’d never want to be a member of any group where either you have to wear a hat, or you can’t wear a hat. I think all groups should have one rule: Hat’s optional”
      -George Carlin

      He was talking about religion, but it applies equally to society. Telling people what they can and can’t put on their heads is oppressive. Now, oppression is par for the course for religion, but it doesn’t mesh well with the ideas of a democratic, free society.

      • Mike Lee
        Posted August 19, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

        Just a bit of light relief here – Phil Specter (did I spell his name right?) seen during his trial on homicide charges wearing a number of different coloured toupees, was refused permission in gaol to wear the same hair pieces, including hats…. they did say it was OK to wear a yarmulke!

    • Greg Esres
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      “The fact that some women may have been brainwashed to the point that they WANT to wear”

      Ah, so the government has the power now to read your deepest thoughts and decide for itself what you really believe, ignoring what you say? A very dangerous power, one that pretty much makes moot the idea of freedom of expression.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 1:46 am | Permalink

        +1

        Should we, maybe, ban bikinis and hot pants for the exact same reason?

        I find it curious that burkas should be banned and not nuns’ habits.

        I think burkas look utterly stupid, as do punks with all the bits if hardware stuck through their faces and other places, but it’s treading on dangerous ground to decide they’ve been brainwashed and we’ll forbid the wearing of them.

        (Oh, and when I’m dictator of the world and head of the fashion police, I *will* ban bikinis, but only for seriously overweight people 🙂

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

        I don’t know what the science says, if there has been any science done on this, but if the majority of a sect believes in a specific practice it may well be more of peer pressure than personal wishes.

        In that case, there would be no inherent problem if a ban is deemed necessary. Pedophilia, polygamy and I believe incest has been promoted by cults as “freedom of expression” yet been banned, and garbs issued to separate individuals from society at large is based on the same principle of various freedoms.

        The crucial point then is if wearing these garbs are harmful for the individual or not.

        • eric
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

          When you apply this argument to non-religious groups you start to see the absurdity. Consider: “if the majority of a sex/race/age/profession believes in a specific practice it may well be more of peer pressure than personal wishes…In that case, there would be no inherent problem if a ban is deemed necessary. ”

          To which I reply: hell yes there’s a problem. YOUR belief that I might be operating under peer pressure is (on its own) not a sufficient reason to ban MY clothing choice. Unless you are willing to turn it around and apply that same logic to yourself and your peer groups? If its MY belief that YOU are operating under a male cultural peer pressure when you choose to wear pants intsead of a kilt, will you accept a ban on pants? Probably not, right?

          I’m all for prosecuting people in cases where illegal threats have been applied to someone (i.e., if you don’t wear it, I’ll beat you). I’m all for the law being more suspicious of the sort of pressure applied in cases where the person is in a protected class. But I also think we ultimately need to treat religious social pressure the same way we treat non-religious forms of social pressure; as a type of speech, as me voicing my disapproval of your clothing choice. Which means generally not regulating such pressure via law.

  3. corio37
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    “there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere.”

    Persecution! How dare you impinge on my rights to impinge on other people’s rights!

    The men in beards will be around to protest in the morning.

  4. David Leech
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I was pissed off with this post though most of what I was going to say has already been said by, Michael Fisher, NortCal and corio37. So well done you people and knowing this website there is a lot more to come.

  5. Marella
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    one neither physically harms another individual without their consent

    So it’s ok to harm someone with their consent? Or if you can bully them into saying they consent or brainwash them into consent? This is crap, consent isn’t good enough for hurting people. You can’t consent to being killed (unless you are terminally ill) and you can’t consent to slavery, how can you give consent to being hurt?

    And burqas interfere with everyone’s right to see the face of the person they are walking the street with.

    • JTrentadue
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Of course it’s Ok to harm someone with their consent. Tattoos, piercings, sado-masochistic sex, hook suspension, breast augmentation, insult comedy shows, etc.

      If I want to join the Manson family and burn an X into my head as a symbol of my loyalty and devotion to Charles Manson, so what? I’m an adult and that’s my choice to make.

      • Achrachno
        Posted August 19, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

        But that sort of irrational choice can become dangerous to the rest of us, as that “family” so clearly illustrated. Managing these things can be difficult.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

        As I noted above, society has _not_ in general said that it is “Ok to harm someone with their consent”. Pedophilia, polygamy and I believe incest has been promoted by cults as “freedom of expression” and yet been banned.

        • eric
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

          I think you’ve got it exactly backwards. I.e. society has said that there are some exceptions for extreme cases, but otherwise consensual harm is okay.

          We list illegal things and say anything not on the list is legal (until there’s a court case about it, which might result in itbeing added to the list). We do not list legal consenual harms and say anything not on the list is illegal.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted August 21, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Marella “And burqas interfere with everyone’s right to see the face of the person they are walking the street with.”

      There is no such right, like there is no right for a person walking in the street to be greeted by the other people walking in the street who pass by and no right for a person walking in the street to be smiled at by the people walking in the other direction who pass by.

  6. Dominic
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmm… perhaps I am getting all materialist here, but I am not convinced that expression of belief is a valid reason for stomping on fact, if we accept that there are real facts. I will grant that ideas at least, are up for grabs, but when it comes to describing the world, I cannot say that is acceptable. I agree that there are interpretations of the facts however, but if we (as societies/culture) cannot agree on the material, then anything goes.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted August 22, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      In this context, this is an incredible argument. Following this logic, governments should outlaw every direct or indirect expression of a belief that is counter- factual because they are counter-factual! Outlaw all houses of worship! Outlaw publication and possession of all holy books! Outlaw all publications that make false assertions without identifying the assertions as fictions!

  7. Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    A fundamental problem is that we don’t know, yet, what words (“beliefs”) have to do with behavior.

    There are increasing suggestions, very little.

  8. Jamie
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    “whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent…”

    Implying that it is fine to harm someone who consents… not so sure about that as a basic principle! There may be cases, such as assisted end of life of terminally ill persons, where it might be OK, but certainly other cases, such as Jones style Kool-aid drinking, where it decidedly is not.

  9. Left Coast Bernard
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    What would Malik have to say about the Catholic bishops’ claim that requiring them to arrange for their employees’ health insurance programs to provide birth control coverage with no co-payments infringes upon their religious freedom?

    Perhaps he would say that for the bishops to deny this coverage to a woman employee at a hospital or a woman student at a religious college would involve transgressing against the women’s “rights in the public sphere.”

    Perhaps he would also support the European court’s decision that circumcision of infants arranged for by their parents represents “physical … harm… [to] another individual without their consent…” since the infant obviously cannot consent. Of course everyone involved ignores his may expressions of unhappiness at the time. But many Europeans, including Prime Minister Merkel, object on the grounds that this court decision will infringe upon the parents’ religious freedom.

  10. Charles Sullivan
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I just started reading The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey, and so far, he does a pretty good job of extolling the virtues of a Spinoza-style approech.

  11. Posted August 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    “These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.”

    We call these “laws” and many of them exist to keep one person’s “freedom” from stomping on another’s. It’s why you can’t go to the grocery store while nekkid.

    “…there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere.”

    So hassling, proselytizing, bullying, and being a nuisance are OK? This loser is just making excuses for being abusive.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Proselytizing the young who are not in your immediate family is NOT OK.

      Proselytizing adults should be permitted by law, as there are many annoying behaviors permitted by law. It is not illegal to talk with food in your mouth, not illegal to burp or fart loudly during a chamber music concert, etc. We deal with such matters by social (and civilized) ostracization not through force of the law.

      No, this writer is NOT making excuses for abusive behavior. This is pretty much how a civil society should work.

    • Posted August 19, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      Actually I don’t think that is why you can’t go to the grocery store while nekkid. I believe there are one or two men who do walk around SF nekkid, and the resort of Cap d’Agde, in the south of France, has a summer population of 40,000, all nekkid, and stores.
      http://www.capdagdefrance.co.uk/

    • corio37
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

      I thought that was because there was nowhere to carry your credit card…

      • Posted August 20, 2012 at 12:14 am | Permalink

        I find that credit cards fit nicely between the butt cheeks. Sometimes they even let you take the groceries for free.

  12. Explicit Atheist
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Kenan Malik almost entirely. The one detail where it appears we may disagree concerns government ebforcing laws against violent expression. Kenan Malik is somewhat vague about where to draw the line, he doesn’t give any examples where someone crosses the line to criminal expression. I think a recent history of violence that was justified on the same grounds, or was carried out by people who share the same complaint and complaint targets, is relevant and sufficient to justify government applying laws against the violent expression. Similar violent expression that has no recent history of associated violent activity should be permitted. In other words, governments would need to cite violent actions that closely matches the violent rhetoric before convicting people of illegal incitement for the violent rhetoric. My impression is that Kenan Malik thinks recent violent activity by different people on behalf of the same complaint and against the same target is not relevant, I disagree.

    • NortCal
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      As far as I know, there are laws on the books for incitement to violent acts. So what are we trying to argue here?
      To say that “violent expression” should be prohibited by law not only directly infringes upon everyone’s First Amendment rights and verges on the dictatorial, but such an injunction is so vague and open to personal interpretation that it would become an ideal tool in the hands of any despotically-inclined political ruler or agent of the law.
      Thumbs down, Mr. Explicit, thumbs down emphatically.

      • Explicit Atheist
        Posted August 19, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        Violent expression can be a method of intimidation against legal activity such as publishing cartoons. So we need to balance the rights of people to carry on their activities and lives, and their expression, against the expressive rights of those who advocate violence against those people. Again, I am saying that when the violent expression is not matched with a recent history of violent action then the expression should be allowed. But when the violent expression is matched with a recent history of violent action (both targeting the same identifiable group/class of people on the same basi) then government should be able to act against the speakers to protect the rights of those who have been targets of the violence to freely express themselves and live their lives.

        So, for example, if groups of supremacists advocate violence against some identifiable groups of people those supremicists consider to be inferior but there is no recent history of violence by those supremacists against those identifiable groups than government should not arrest them for their violent expression. However, if there is a recent history of violence by those supremacists against those identifiable groups of people then government should at least have the option to arrest those supremacists for the violent expression to protect the rights of the targeted groups.

        If you object to the above argument, which is specific, then we need a counter-argument, not a false rendition with a thumbs down. The people who are the targets of the violence that the violent expression advocates have the right to express themselves and live their lives freely. When the violent expression of some people, reinforced by actual violent actions, interferes with that right, then the violent expression itself is an infringement on the rights of others. There is a line here, the line is where the violent words are matched with related violent actions.

        • Explicit Atheist
          Posted August 19, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

          To apply what zi am saying to the real world. Let’s say a publication publishes cartoons of a religious prophet. People protesting against the publisher and cartoonists make violent threats. No violent actions have occurred. Government cannot arrest the protestors. Sometime later, there is another such protest. Only now the context has changed. There have now been acts of violence or convictions for attempted violence against publishers or cartoonists that depicted that religion’s prophet. In my view, government should now be able to arrest people for advocating violence against publishers and cartoonists who depict that religious prophet to protect the rights of the publishers and the cartoonists. The violence advocacy is now backed by actual violence or attempted violence and this combination constitutes a deliberate effort to interfere with rights of citizens to write and publish cartoons. As such it is no longer protected speech.

  13. Ludo
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    In my view, freedom from religion prevails over freedom of religion.

  14. Barry Pearson
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    An important question when discussing whether to ban wearing a burqa is “do these women have a realistic choice NOT to wear the burqa?”

    If it is a genuinely free choice, it is harder to find a reason to ban it. If it is not a free choice, then banning it doesn’t interfere with her free choice.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 1:58 am | Permalink

      “If it is not a free choice, then banning it doesn’t interfere with her free choice.”

      … because she never had one in the first place?

      What it doesn’t do is give her a free choice. Which is kinda difficult to achieve, admittedly.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      There is a difference between a head covering ban and a ban on a coercion. A ban on coercion that only targets coercion to wear a head covering would be odd, but that still would not qualify as a ban on wearing a head covering. As a practical matter, enforcing a legal ban on coercion would first require the victim to take action to avoid the coercion, including divorce and separation from the religious community that requires wearing the head covering. A legal non-coercion ban is impractical to enforce against a spouse or a community when the target of the coercion voluntarily lives with that spouse and as part of that community. Once the victim offers to permanently leave the spouse and religious community, government can actively assist the victim in acquiring a new identity or finding employment, and can arrest and prosecute anyone who pursues the victim and tries to continue the coercion after the victim has left the spouse and/or the religious community.

  15. Posted August 20, 2012 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks for linking to my piece and to the debate about it. A few responses to some of the criticism:

    Michael Fisher: ‘Freedom to teach your children any old codswollop? I don’t think so…’

    Unless you want to live in a Stalinist state in which the state determines what people can say in private, the answer is yes.

    Stephen Q Muth: Where’s the concern over psychological harms, incl. harms against the young (or mentally unstable, impressionable, or otherwise vulnerable).

    That, of course, is the classic argument against free speech, and for the banning of material deemed to be offensive, abusive, pornographic or hateful. I am surprised to find that argument in a forum such as this.

    NortCal: ‘The fact that some women may have been brainwashed to the point that they WANT to wear a burqa or a veil, well…’

    The claim that someone has been ‘brainwashed’ is a lazy argument. It can be – and is – used by anyone who disapproves of someone else’s act or belief, and cannot find a rational argument for it. It is a claim that is often used by believers about atheists. If we are to ban women from wearing the burqa because they have been brainwashed into doing so, perhaps we should also ban people going to church because they have been brainwashed into doing that? Or from voting Conservative or Republican because they could only do so if they had been brainwashed?

    I have dealt the with arguments for burqa bans in many debates and articles, including this.

    Marella: ‘So it’s ok to harm someone with their consent?’

    So would you want to ban, say, sado-masochistic sex or even smoking or binge drinking?

    Dominic: I am not convinced that expression of belief is a valid reason for stomping on fact, if we accept that there are real facts.

    It is not. But that is different from saying that false beliefs, or beliefs that ‘stomp on facts’ should be banned. Creationism should have no place in a biology course at school. That doesn’t mean that Creationism should be banned.

    Left Coast Bernard: What would Malik have to say about the Catholic bishops’ claim that requiring them to arrange for their employees’ health insurance programs to provide birth control coverage with no co-payments infringes upon their religious freedom?

    I dealt with this in the longer version of this article on my blog:

    This is not a matter of religious freedom, but of employee rights. Churches are not being forced to provide contraception. In their role as secular employers, they are being asked to provide employee benefits that all employers must provide. To exempt Church-run organizations would be to deny those benefits to a particular group of employees.

    ironwing: So hassling, proselytizing, bullying, and being a nuisance are OK? This loser is just making excuses for being abusive.

    If being abusive is good enough for you, why not for anyone else? Your argument against being abusive is exactly the argument that believers, and others use, to ban material that is offensive, or abusive or ‘hate speech’.

    Explicit Atheist: The one detail where it appears we may disagree concerns government enforcing laws against violent expression. Kenan Malik is somewhat vague about where to draw the line, he doesn’t give any examples where someone crosses the line to criminal expression.

    I have spent nearly two decades explaining where we should draw that line. This interview I gave for a recent book with the pithy title The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses sets out my argument out in some detail.

    There is, I have to say, a disturbing degree of authoritarian sentiment in some of the responses in this thread, disturbing particularly among people who presumably stand for freedom, free thought and free speech.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      – “Unless you want to live in a Stalinist state in which the state determines what people can say in private, the answer is yes.”

      Dawkins:

      “I have said that I fear it’s true that if children are taught, however moderately, that faith is a virtue, that you don’t need evidence to believe something, then that paves the way for a minority to be extremists. Everybody has been indoctrinated with this view that if it’s their faith, you can’t argue with them. I think that is pernicious. If children are taught they don’t need to defend their beliefs with evidence, that paves the way for extremism, the biggest damage religion does is indoctrinating and brainwashing children.” [ http://www.atheistconvention.org.au/2012/01/25/the-biggest-damage-religion-does-is-brainwashing-children-dawkins/ ]

      The problem isn’t that children is taught any old codswallop, it is that they are exclusively taught any old codswallop.

      Children has the right to a good education, and states have the right to fight terrorism by fighting dangerous extremism. There is nothing of an “reductio ad Stalinum” in that.

      – “If we are to ban women from wearing the burqa because they have been brainwashed into doing so, perhaps we should also ban people going to church because they have been brainwashed into doing that?”

      – “So would you want to ban, say, sado-masochistic sex or even smoking or binge drinking?”

      I don’t know what the science says, if there has been any science done on this, but if the majority of a sect believes in a specific practice it may well be more of peer pressure than personal wishes.

      In that case, there would be no inherent problem if a ban is deemed necessary. Pedophilia, polygamy and I believe incest has been promoted by cults as “freedom of expression” and yet been banned, and garbs issued to separate individuals from society at large is based on the same principle of various freedoms.

      The crucial point then is if wearing these garbs are harmful for the individual or not. Smoking, drinking and sexual practices _are_ banned in many placer, and/or severely restricted throughout many societies.

      That concerns about individuals, especially a group that has been long dominated by religious bigotry, couldn’t be pursued if harmful is a mystery to me.

      – “There is, I have to say, a disturbing degree of authoritarian sentiment in some of the responses in this thread”.

      Pursuing human rights and freedoms are often seen or responded to as authoritarian by those who don’t like such pursuits for one reason or other.

      I am sure there is a reasonable area where that is a fact, I am less sure that it is easy to discern where the by necessity fuzzy boundary lies, and I am even less certain that it is a good basis for analysis.

      The better basis is concern about harmful effects. Given that religion poisons everything, why should we not err in the other direction? Why should pernicious special pleading for religious expression remain as pernicious and unsound basis?

      • Dionne
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        “The problem isn’t that children is taught any old codswallop, it is that they are exclusively taught any old codswallop.”

        – I don’t believe this is true. I went to a Catholic school where I was taught the theory of evolution in Biology and creationism in R.E.

        “Pedophilia, polygamy and I believe incest has been promoted by cults as “freedom of expression” and yet been banned”

        – There is a huge difference between paedophilia and wearing a burqa. The first is an act that causes harm to another person, even if the child apparently consents to it. We have the legal age of consent because we recognise that children are not capable of making decisions of that magnitude. However women wearing the burqa are capable of making decisions regarding the clothes they wear. There may be pressure on them to conform to traditional values, but to describe them as ‘brainwashed’ and incapable of making that choice on their own infantilises them. This obviously does nothing to raise their standing in their own cultures or the larger society. It is possible to recognise that the burqa is a symbol of sexual repression without believing that bans are the correct way to deal with them.

        “The crucial point then is if wearing these garbs are harmful for the individual or not. Smoking, drinking and sexual practices _are_ banned in many placer, and/or severely restricted throughout many societies.”

        – I disagree. I believe the crucial point is whether or not it is appropriate, in a free society, for the government to prevent us from causing harm to ourselves. If wearing a burqa harms the woman who wears it, then that is her choice to make. That is not to say those who disagree with what the burqa symbolises can not criticise it. It simply means that is a matter best dealt with by society, not by the law.

    • SteveDGH
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Kenan I was exposed to religion as a child. Now I realised it wasn’t true in my early teens. This was the easy bit abandoning religion is not so simple as installing a new OS in a computer. It took me years to excorcise the ghosts and spirits from my mind. I resent the damage done to me by the clergy. I’d like to sue them but of course I cannot. I am not suggesting religious indoctrination should be banned. You may be right that the cure is worse than the disease. So you have to allow people to be taught things that are not true like creationism and worse. I don’t have a solution I’m just pointing out your libertarian view allows cruelty (in the form of my religious childhood) to continue in the name of freedom. I was not physically abused so no laws were broken. It was being told things that were not true and believing them that did the damage. But I’m all right now.

      • Mary - Canada
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Dear SteveDGH…. My experiences have been similar to yours. I too was lucky enough to see through the indoctrinating BS my parents, family, and the catholic church were peddling during my up-bring. TO THIS DAY, I am still uncovering the horrid effects of the fatuous religious rhetoric that was “freely” spewed from the authoritarian pulpit. It is utterly maddening to think that others believe it virtuous to raise ignorant children….All the best, Mary

    • Posted August 20, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      Kenan,

      There is a wide range of individuals who comment on topics on WEIT.

      FWIIW, I agree with what you have said and how you have said it.

      By in large, I don’t think there is any way to completely protect children from the parents from which they come. It is, after all, called reproduction for a reason. I am reluctant to be overly presumptive… others seem to believe the motivation to be protective is justification enough to make presumptions of illicit influence in the case of children and women (among maybe others).

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      “Creationism should have no place in a biology course at school.”

      Hang on. In point 16 you were willing to grant an exception to doctors who refuse to perform abortions as a matter of conscience. Why would the same exception not apply to teachers who refuse to teach evolution? From the believer’s point of view, the harm is equally great: children’s souls would be condemned to Hell.

      Indeed, under point 16, a sincere belief in some profound but unprovable metaphysical harm is sufficient to trump every other principle you’ve enunciated. This seems like a rather large loophole.

    • Posted August 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Stephen Q Muth: Where’s the concern over psychological harms, incl. harms against the young (or mentally unstable, impressionable, or otherwise vulnerable).

      Kenan: That, of course, is the classic argument against free speech, and for the banning of material deemed to be offensive, abusive, pornographic or hateful. I am surprised to find that argument in a forum such as this.

      This is why arguments for a completely black & white, algorithmic means of legally ensuring complete and absolute freedom seem to fall flat for me; there are always exceptions. Freedom for whom… everybody? I think you’ve done an admirable job of putting forward a set of organizing principles that tend to promote maximal freedom, but there are always ALWAYS loopholes that are exploited which trample others’ freedoms and are sometimes (for better or for worse) closed by the dominant elements in any society. Physical abuses are pretty cut and dry — easy to identify and (hopefully) correct. Psychological ones are usually much more difficult, with less agreement as to what constitutes harm. But here’s the rub — some psychological harms (most, I would argue, when of a repeated nature) lead directly to physical harms through canalization (in the psych sense). The brain gets hardwired, literally, to believe things that make future physical harm (to self or others) much more likely. Such hardwiring ITSELF I would argue is actually a physical harm being done to a person, though it may be impossible to prove. I suppose I wouldn’t go so far as to promote hate speech legislation (indeed such laws are being used by mostly “Anti-Western” immigrants against Canadians who naively put them on the books long ago). But citizens will continue to fight for resolutions to all kinds of perceived tramplings of their rights, and sometimes this leads to non-physical harms (like changing science and history textbooks towards nonsense, or encouraging genocidal tendencies). Where do you draw the line?

  16. BillyJoe
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    In my opinion, the ideal of sexual equality overrides any religious ideas about the subjugation of women. The burqa should be banned on this premise alone. What we are hpoing for here, is that the daughters of this generation are not subjected to the same discrimination as their mothers. To give in to religion on this matter, is to give up the fight for future generations of muslim women. If your ideas on freedom have this consequence there is something seriously wrong with your ideas on freedom.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      There is a big difference between personal behavior that is gender biased and equality before the law. There is no such thing as a responsibilty or obligation of government to enter the personal space of individuals and restrict individual behavior and mandate that the individual behavior be gender neutral in the name of gender equality. The obligation on government is limited to ensuring equality before the law. That includes equality between citizens regardless of their beliefs and non-beliefs, including religious beliefs and non-beliefs.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        Yet polygamy has been banned.

        This doesn’t pass the smell test.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

          Well, surely the answer to that is that polygamy should be entirely legal if the adults all consent. Just like gay marriage for example.

          • Explicit Atheist
            Posted August 21, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

            Correct. Legal bans on polygamy are almost universal in Christian countries and the primary reason is the religion. From a secular perspective there is little proper justification for such a ban. Marriages could be one to multiple and multiple to multiple. However, there probably are some practical issues here regarding the details of how to extend the existing laws regarding the obligations and privileges of married people to cover such arrangements. Polygamy complicates laws related to marriage, more so than homosexual marriage does. So there are practical, technical difficulties, which are probably resolveable, particularly now that we can determine

          • Explicit Atheist
            Posted August 21, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            One more comment regarding polygamy. Countries that allow it often follow Sharia, which means one husband and the wives have no say in how many wives there will be. That kind of restiction cannot be justified on secular grounds. Secular polygamy would also allow multiple husbands, would require voluntary consent of all spouses to any new spouse, and generally would assign all parties to any group marriage equal responsibilities and obligations by default while otherwise keeping to a minimum behavior or belief mandates to only what is required to protect basic individual rights.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 22, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink

              I quite agree (I think some of that was implicit in my ‘if the adults all consent’). Ditto polyandry.

              I think it might be quite rare (I can imagine practical problems) but I can see no moral / ethical objection.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Personal choice? The burqua is not a fashion statement. It is the visible outer expression of the subjugation of women and should not be tolerated in the name of religion. I would invite you to wear a burqua for just one month and see if you still think that wearing a burqua is a free choice fashion statement. Frankly, it beggars belief.

        • Explicit Atheist
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          Several polls in France determined that a majority of women who wear the burqa do so voluntarily.

          If you think wearing a face covering “beggars belief” then that is because of some limitation you are imposing on yourself. Jews believe that eating pork or shrimp is improper, Christians believe that that one part of a trinity deity took on human form and sacrificed himself to be nailed to a crucifix to redeem humans. So how does wearing a face covering now become so atypical that it cannot be deemed voluntary even though so many women who wear such outfits, including converts from other religions, self-claim to consider the outfit to be proper for women? Lots of women cover their necks and hair voluntarily, the same logic behind their doing that implies it would be better to go further and also hide the face.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted August 20, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

            Did they voluntarily say that they wear the burqua voluntarily? Again, I invite you to wear a burqua for just one month and think about what it must mean for a woman to spend her whole life wearing one when in public. It’s unconscionable. The practice must be outlawed for the sake of these women and especially for their daughters.

            • Explicit Atheist
              Posted August 21, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

              It is not very difficult to imagine oneself believing what other people believe and adopting a lifestyle that reflects those beliefs. Of course, first you to have to understand the beliefs and then give yourself those beliefs. If you cannot do that then again, that is a failure on your part.

    • eric
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      In my opinion, the ideal of sexual equality overrides any religious ideas about the subjugation of women. The burqa should be banned on this premise alone.

      I don’t see how your second sentence follows from your first. If men are free to choose what they wear, women should be too. Right?

      Isn’t part of ‘sexual equality’ treating women as mature grown-ups who can handle social pressure as well as men do (or supposedly do)? I am under social pressure to wear certain types of clothing. I do not wish the state to step in and limit my rights to follow or not-follow this pressure; that’s my choice. Because I do not wish this restriction on myself, I cannot in good conscience wish it on women.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        You seem to be in denial about what the burqua actually represents. It is not just a choice of clothing, like wearing jeans. The burqa is the visible outer expression of the idea that women are second class citizens. This should not be tolerated in our modern society. And religion is no excuse for allowing that idea to be propagated.

        If there really are women who have freely chosen top wear the burqua, then they are a lost cause, sad victims of their religious upbringing. But there is the next generation to consider. Do you want this innocent seven year girl to go through the rest of her life viewing the world through a gauze covered slit in a black coverall? If not, support the ban on the burqua.

  17. Posted August 20, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Apologies, the link to my interview on hate speech was incorrect. Here is (hopefully) the correct link

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      I’ve added the correct link to your previous comment (#15). Thanks for commenting here.

      GCM

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    The short reflection is that:

    – Dismissing atheists that dismiss gods as no more credible than fairies miss the point. Most atheists do that while accepting religious freedom, i.e. its right to function in the social sphere. What many add is that its function is mostly harmful, if not for anyone else than the believer.

    – The right to wear religious garbs is problematic at best.

    Similar uniforms are regulated when they confuse people on social functions of police and military. If you have a state church, religious garbs can then be regulated if they confuse people on social functions of religious personnel.

    Using personal space as ad space, here for religion, could very well be regulated in corporations, and they should have the right to do so.

    That nations choose to make outright bans is then neither surprising nor much of a problem. There are other garbs, and the functions as ad or signaling social cohesiveness (group signal) can well be satisfied with discrete symbols.

    Specifically women garbs have other, more serious problems in addition.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink

      An outright ban is a problem because it infringes in the freedom of conscience of people who consider a head covering to be required to comply with their god’s expectations when in public. I don’t think anyone argues that wearing a head covering is compatible with all employment. But incompatibilities with some employment do not justify a general ban on wearing a head covering in public.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

        I have responded at length to this, twice, above. Well then, for the third time:

        I don’t know what the science says, if there has been any science done on this, but if the majority of a sect believes in a specific practice it may well be more of peer pressure than personal wishes.

        In that case, there would be no inherent problem if a ban is deemed necessary. Pedophilia, polygamy and I believe incest has been promoted by cults as “freedom of expression” and yet been banned, and garbs issued to separate individuals from society at large is based on the same principle of various freedoms.

        The crucial point then is if wearing these garbs are harmful for the individual or not. Smoking, drinking and sexual practices _are_ banned in many places, and/or severely restricted throughout many societies.

        • Explicit Atheist
          Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          All adults make benefit-versus-harm risk trade-off decisions when deciding what to wear, to eat, to believe, etc. When some people conclude that it is better for women to wear a burqa that is because their evaluation of the trade-offs are different from ours because their beliefs are different from ours. In the context of the law, all citizens by default have equal right to make their own decisions regarding how to live their lives and what beliefs to adopt. For example, it isn’t a government role to try to mandate that everyone get a minimum and maximum amount of daily exposure to direct sunlight just because there is solid evidence that daily sunlight exposure within a particular time duration range to a particular quantity range of uncovered flesh is, on average, healthier.

  19. Posted August 20, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I’m a little surprised to see much objection to Malik’s essay. To ban burqas just because some women are forced to wear them just makes things difficult for them, and discriminates against women who do choose to wear them.
    The way forward is surely in educating people rather than rejecting them. We should be saying “If you don’t want to wear a burqa then we will still accept you in our society, but if you do want to then have at it. If you feel coerced into doing so then talk to us, we’ll try to help”. Banning it just sends the wrong message, quite apart from infringing on civil liberties. We have to take at face value the claims of those who say they are under no pressure to wear anything that will cover their face or hair because we can’t read minds!

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      Banning the burqua sends the right message: women will not be descriminated against in our society.
      Perhaps, slavery should not have been banned because some slaves wanted to continue being slaves?

      • Posted August 21, 2012 at 3:38 am | Permalink

        I’m fairly sure that working for someone for free is not illegal. If they liked that aspect of being a slave, strange though it would be, they would be free to do it. However, in banning slavery it removed the legal right of people to keep other people against their will & paved the way to giving the latter the same basic rights as the former.
        Banning the burqa does not say that women won’t be discriminated against – education & support will do that (along with equality legislation, which a ban is not). What it does say is that Muslim women of a particular persuasion will not be tolerated in our society & that is wrong.
        What if the effect of a ban would be for those women who would wear burqas to simply stay indoors, away from men? All that would serve to do is lose their contribution to society, lose the opportunity to reach out to them & ingrain them with a feeling of repression.

  20. Posted August 20, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Eric re the burka:

    …”But I also think we ultimately need to treat religious social pressure the same way we treat non-religious forms of social pressure; as a type of speech…”</blockquote

    Yet we disallow spitting on the sidewalk, public nudity, public smoking, and public flogging – even religious flogging.
    .
    What if, instead of insisting on wearing a burka, Muslim men (and women) insisted upon the practice of outfitting all married women with a metal ring through the nose, to be lead around in public by tugging on a short leather leash?

    Should a child be subjected to this sight any more than to be subjected to the sight of a beautiful naked woman on a magazine cover?

    I *wish* we could treat public religious expression as we treat speech, because we disallow lots of speech routinely. But religious expression is protected far more stringently than ordinary speech, which is the whole bloody problem if you ask me.

    • eric
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      I don’t think your examples refute my point, I think they make it. We regulate those conducts the same way regardless of whether the people desiring to do them do so out of religious or non-religious reasons.

      Likewise, we should not be passing clothing laws designed to target and prevent a religious tradition. I think its perfectly reasonable for the civil government to ask for people’s faces on things like drivers’ licence, and to ask for them to show their faces for identification purposes. We should not bend legitimate civil law to accommodate religion. But we should not use civil law to inordinately punish it either.

      No favoritism for religious practices…and no favoritism against it either. If you would not make it a crime for me (or you) to walk down the street in a bee-keeper’s outfit, fencing garb, or heck just normal cloths plus a hat and scarf covering most of my face, then you should not make it a crime to walk down the street in a burqua either.

  21. Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    He has completely missed out the psychological defects of such Religious freedom. This means that Religion can be used to indoctrinate people (like the Taliban use it) and it’ll go unchecked.

    • Posted August 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      Yep. And he missed it by design, apparently because of adherence to a form of free speech absolutism (see his point to me above), drawing the line at physical harm. I can think of many circumstances where religion and its ugly twin brother, tribalism, should not get such a free pass — but usually this happens under extreme circumstances:
      a) the USA protecting the free speech rights of the American Nazi Party while Germany continues to repress their counterpart. The German kids I have spoke to had no clue that their Nazi Party is illegal because WE (USA/Britain, essentially) forced it as a condition of surrender. We told them that they apparently couldn’t handle free speech – and now it’s the norm. There’s not too many in Germany arguing for a return to the good ol’ days, although there will always be a few. Presumably this is a conundrum for a free speech absolutist – Hitchens might’ve argued to give neo Nazi pricks free rein to make asses of themselves in the marketplace of ideas. Fine, as long as your country is not crawling with pricks.
      b) local radio and TV stations are blaring messages to the countryside about the intentions of your Tutsi neighbors — they would wish you were enslaved once again. Are you going to stand for this, my Hutu brothers?
      Do I need to tell you what you must do? (hint, hint, hint)
      c) Colorado Springs radio pundits have a local politician on the air – all of them wingnuts — and all of them are harping on about clean air regulations and oxygenated fuels that are supposedly ruining all their precious valve jobs. Suddenly one starts joking about how it would be a shame if anything happened to my father, the head of our health department who fought for and helped pass these regulations. Of course they were only joking (this really happened).

      There are a LOT of people in the US really, really pissed off that their science textbooks in THEIR schools paid for by THEIR tax dollars teach evolution AS IF it were a FACT. (For shame.) And so they continue to waste legislative time and energy, pushing crappy elected representatives to the top of the heap, infiltrating school boards in Texas & affecting textbook content nationwide as a result. Many argue for, pass and otherwise support existing unconstitutional (under Fed, not State) laws mandating a religious litmus test for elected officials.

      In the latter case, it is religious free speech being given its usual free pass, leading to a tyranny of the majority Madison argued so strenuously against. Many argue education is the answer; but that’s pretty thin gruel when your education system is getting taken over by historical revisionists.

      • Explicit Atheist
        Posted August 20, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

        Madison would not endorse the banning of burqas if he were alive today. Madison very much emphasized individual rights and the obligation of the government to limit its powers to respect individual liberty. Kenyan Malik’s arguments are the closest match to Madison’s arguments among the competing viewpoints represented here so far.

        • Posted August 20, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

          I agree; nor would I ban burqas (strangely enough). I’m pointing out problem areas though – note that I am short on solutions.

          It still seems that combinations of education and good old fashioned ostracism and ridicule are the best offense against indoctrination of all kinds–whether it is in enlisting the young towards racist or religious bigotry, or bending minds against rationality in other ways (anti-environmentalism, to pick just one major problem).

          This just in. Freedom to serve in your military with completely unfettered free speech / assembly rights is under attack. Again, the problem is what to do when you have pricks in your ranks.

          • Explicit Atheist
            Posted August 21, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

            Nothing that Kenan Malik argues in the article linked to here, as far I see, requires that elected school boards be given authority over setting public school curriculums or even that constitutional judges at the state level be elected (they are not elected at the federal level). I have only read the one article linked to here, I don’t know anything more about his opinions, but I wouldn’t surprised if he shared some of your perspective on these other issues also.

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted August 20, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      The closest thing to an identifiable root cause of conflict and disfunction is a winner take all, zero-sum game approach to government and law. If you look you will see this in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Libya, in Egypt, and throughout history on all continents. There are many societies where everyone has good reason, from personal experience and history, to view governing as an ‘us versus them’ issue where our role is relegated to being their victims if they rule. Dissenters are imprisoned and tortured, enforcers are given wealth. The descent down that path begins with an attitude that a role of government is to deploy its fangs to coerce people into adopting a standard dress code and a standard reverence for particular national heros and a standard interpretation of national history and a standard conviction regarding gender roles and behaviors and a standard this and that, imposing behavior and beliefs on individuals by government force.

  22. Posted August 21, 2012 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    OK, let me have a second crack at this:

    Torbjörn Larsson: Children has the right to a good education, and states have the right to fight terrorism by fighting dangerous extremism. There is nothing of an “reductio ad Stalinum” in that.

    That is true, but it has nothing to do with whether the state should deny parents the ‘Freedom to teach your children any old codswollop’. For ‘children [to] have the right to a good education’, the state must provide access to good schools with sufficient resources and working to a proper set of standards. It does not require the state to censor the conversations that parents have with their children. That would indeed be Stalinist.

    Torbjörn Larsson: The crucial point then is if wearing these garbs are harmful for the individual or not. Smoking, drinking and sexual practices _are_ banned in many placer, and/or severely restricted throughout many societies.

    And many of these policies are deeply illiberal. We should not defend one form of illiberalism by appealing to another.

    Torbjörn Larsson: Pursuing human rights and freedoms are often seen or responded to as authoritarian by those who don’t like such pursuits for one reason or other.

    That may well be true, but that clearly is not my view. The trouble is, atheists can be as one-sided in their defence of freedom and rights as many religious believers are.

    SteveDGH: Kenan I was exposed to religion as a child. Now I realised it wasn’t true in my early teens. This was the easy bit abandoning religion is not so simple as installing a new OS in a computer. It took me years to excorcise the ghosts and spirits from my mind. I resent the damage done to me by the clergy. I’d like to sue them but of course I cannot. I am not suggesting religious indoctrination should be banned. You may be right that the cure is worse than the disease. So you have to allow people to be taught things that are not true like creationism and worse. I don’t have a solution I’m just pointing out your libertarian view allows cruelty (in the form of my religious childhood) to continue in the name of freedom.

    Parents indoctrinate their children with all manner of odious beliefs. That is the nature of parenting. And the nature of growing up is that young people decide for themselves, often rejecting the views of their parents. This is not specifically an issue of religion. Parents pass on all manner of unpalatable political, cultural and social beliefs, too. We might want to challenge those beliefs. But we should not look to the state to ban them. Mine, incidentally, is not a ‘libertarian’ position. It is simply an anti-authoritarian one. After all, do we really want the state to determine what conversations parents may or may not have with their children, whether cultural, political or religious?

    Stephen Q Muth: Some psychological harms (most, I would argue, when of a repeated nature) lead directly to physical harms through canalization (in the psych sense). The brain gets hardwired, literally, to believe things that make future physical harm (to self or others) much more likely. Such hardwiring ITSELF I would argue is actually a physical harm being done to a person, though it may be impossible to prove. I suppose I wouldn’t go so far as to promote hate speech legislation (indeed such laws are being used by mostly “Anti-Western” immigrants against Canadians who naively put them on the books long ago). But citizens will continue to fight for resolutions to all kinds of perceived tramplings of their rights, and sometimes this leads to non-physical harms (like changing science and history textbooks towards nonsense, or encouraging genocidal tendencies). Where do you draw the line?

    All speech ‘rewires’ the brain of the listener. The consequence of your argument is to abolish the distinction between the impact of speech and physical harm. And once that happens there is no point in asking ‘where do you draw the line?’ because there is no line to draw. All speech is potentially harmful and therefore open to censorship. I certainly cannot see if you really believe what you do, why you ‘wouldn’t go so far as to promote hate speech legislation’.

    Gregory Kusnick: In point 16 you were willing to grant an exception to doctors who refuse to perform abortions as a matter of conscience. Why would the same exception not apply to teachers who refuse to teach evolution? From the believer’s point of view, the harm is equally great: children’s souls would be condemned to Hell.

    Because there is a fundamental difference between forcing someone to commit what they consider to be murder (even if you and I don’t consider that to be so) and expecting teachers to abide by some basic standards set in the national curriculum.

    BillyJoe: In my opinion, the ideal of sexual equality overrides any religious ideas about the subjugation of women. The burqa should be banned on this premise alone.

    So sexual equality for you means not insisting that women should have the same right to make choices (even wrong ones) as men, but insisting that the state must decide what they choose?

    BillyJoe: What we are hoping for here, is that the daughters of this generation are not subjected to the same discrimination as their mothers. To give in to religion on this matter, is to give up the fight for future generations of muslim women. If your ideas on freedom have this consequence there is something seriously wrong with your ideas on freedom.

    What does it mean to ensure that ‘daughters of this generation are not subjected to the same discrimination as their mothers’? It means that they have the right to make their own choices, not have it made for them, whether by clerics or by liberals. If you truly believe that to accept that women should have the right to decide for themselves is to ‘give in to religion’, then I’m afraid that ‘there is something seriously wrong’ not with mine ideas on freedom but with yours.

    Roger Lambert: I *wish* we could treat public religious expression as we treat speech, because we disallow lots of speech routinely. But religious expression is protected far more stringently than ordinary speech, which is the whole bloody problem if you ask me.

    The problem is precisely that ‘we disallow lots of speech routinely’ that we should not. It is ironic that the very people who are (rightly) up in arms about demands for censorship when such demands come from religious believers should suddenly lose their abhorrence of censorship when it comes to free speech for religious believers. Insofar as ‘religious expression is protected far more stringently than ordinary speech’, we should oppose it. But that is not the issue in this debate. Here people want to impose of religion the kinds of censorship they would rightly not tolerate elsewhere.

    ghassankhan: He has completely missed out the psychological defects of such Religious freedom. This means that Religion can be used to indoctrinate people (like the Taliban use it) and it’ll go unchecked.

    Funny how people only get indoctrinated and brainwashed to believe in ideas of which you disapprove, but those who believe in ideas of which you approve do so of their own free will.

    nonfreewillist: There is a wide range of individuals who comment on topics on WEIT.

    Oh, I know and that is all for the good. I was not complaining about the diversity of views, nor suggesting that there is, or should be, a ‘WEIT line’. What I was objecting to is a certain authoritarian sentiment that has become more prominent recently in atheist circles. What I find particularly disturbing is that comments such as this can be left unchallenged:

    Alexander Hellemans: Imagine you would board the Paris metro, and there is a seat next to some person in a burqa, very fat, and you can’t see its face. Would you feel comfortable sitting next to it?

    ‘It’ is a person. We should not need reminding of the consequences of such dehumanization. Such comments turn up, of course, on many blogs (including mine). But have people become so loathful of religion that they no longer recognize the need to challenge such bigotry?

    • Posted August 21, 2012 at 4:00 am | Permalink

      Thank you, by the way, for your measured and thoughtful responses. Much food for thought…

      ” I certainly cannot see if you really believe what you do, why you ‘wouldn’t go so far as to promote hate speech legislation’.

      Easy. Such legislation backfires, as it has in Canada, multiple times – and to great expense each time, the way their legal system is set up (requiring convened tribunals every time a completely meritless case comes up). No types of persons avail themselves of such laws with as great a frequency (and with so little merit) as the religious. In short, the cure is worse than the disease, a point I’m pretty sure you make all the time.

      But I’m pretty sure such freedoms are not always such a great idea, depending on particular circumstances. (extremes such as those I’ve mentioned above) I’m pretty sure you’ve read it, but for the benefit of others, I recommend Mark Thompson & Monroe Price’s Forging Peace, concerning media freedoms in extreme circumstances.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 21, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      In point 16 you were willing to grant an exception to doctors who refuse to perform abortions as a matter of conscience. Why would the same exception not apply to teachers who refuse to teach evolution? From the believer’s point of view, the harm is equally great: children’s souls would be condemned to Hell.

      Because there is a fundamental difference between forcing someone to commit what they consider to be murder (even if you and I don’t consider that to be so) and expecting teachers to abide by some basic standards set in the national curriculum.

      Sorry, I’m not seeing what the “fundamental difference” is between a doctor who believes that abortion is murder, and a teacher who believes that evolution means damnation for his students. The teacher’s horror at being forced to do such a thing is just as real (and just as irrational) as the doctor’s. But you’re willing to ignore that and demand compliance from the teacher that you do not demand from the doctor.

      Understand that I’m not defending the teaching of creationism. I’m wondering why you think the doctor merits a free pass for his irrational beliefs when the teacher plainly doesn’t.

      • Posted August 21, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        With apologies to both you & Kenan for butting in with a response, perhaps I can offer one:
        Abortion (or euthanasia for a similar scenario at the other end of life) is rather final. It can’t really be compared (fairly) to teaching a child about evolution. At the very least, the teacher could pray that the child will reject what they’re being taught (and we would hope that they wouldn’t) – if they trust in God enough to teach creationism dogmatically then surely they can trust him to do that? You can’t really say the same thing for a doctor in an abortion scenario.

        • Posted August 21, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

          With apologies to you for butting in with you butting in with Gregory and Kenan, perhaps I can help by pointing out that the Doctor could take just as much comfort (as the teacher that you posit) in knowing that the aborted fetus or euthanized person is merely being transitioned to the afterlife were they will spend eternity with their loving deity. (This is assuming they have an equal amount of trust in God as you are assuming the teacher does.)

          • Posted August 21, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

            Then why would they object to performing it? (I’m not saying they shouldn’t object – that question is posed in the context of a scenario where the doctor is comfortable with abortion because they think they are sending the child to an eternity of bliss – a slippery slope).

            Also, there is still a big difference in knowing you’ve just ended a life & believing that, without further counsel, a child might persist with an idea that might condemn them to Hell. While the child is still alive they will always have the hope that the child will reject evolution & even if the child died the very next day they may even be able to tell themselves that at heart, the child almost certainly rejected it – if they don’t know for certain, they will always have room for comfort. The doctor doesn’t have that luxury.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted August 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              You’re still specially privileging the doctor’s belief as knowledge (in italics, no less), while the teacher’s is merely belief.

              My point is that anyone can make a claim to spurious “knowledge” of immediate and dire metaphysical harm. If the teacher says he knows in his heart that the mere mention of evolution will irretrievably damn some child to Hell, who are we to contradict him? By what rational ethical principle are we to evaluate such claims to decide which are worthy of exemptions and which aren’t, without violating the principle of free exercise of all beliefs, however absurd?

              Seems to me it has to be all or nothing. If we can override the teacher’s conscience to ensure compliance with educational standards, we can do the same with the doctor regarding health care standards. (And indeed some jurisdictions do require pharmacists to dispense contraceptives and morning-after pills, regardless of their personal beliefs.)

              • Posted August 22, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

                Yes. The teacher’s position merely is belief. Actually performing an abortion is not a “belief” that the embryo/foetus dies, it actually dies. That is a much bigger pill to swallow & harder to come to terms with.

                Even in the case of the pharmacist, they aren’t actually performing the act of taking a life away, they’re providing the means for someone else to do it. Difficult though that might be, it is still far removed from actually doing it themselves (particularly as a morning after pill only applies at the embryo stage before it’s even implanted – a lot easier to rationalise for most people).

                I see that Kenan has already made a more rigorous comment than mine so I’ll butt out & leave it to him to defend his own words!

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted August 22, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

                Actually speaking the words that plant the seeds of doubt in a child’s mind is not merely a ‘belief’; the words actually are spoken, and understood, and cannot be unsaid. Who are we to say which is the bigger pill to swallow? That’s a matter for the individual believer’s conscience. I don’t see how you can rank the doctor’s revulsion above the teacher’s without injecting your own subjective moral judgment into it.

              • Posted August 22, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

                “I don’t see how you can rank the doctor’s revulsion above the teacher’s without injecting your own subjective moral judgment into it”

                Really? You can’t see that? Then I’m just not sure we can have a rational conversation about this.

          • Posted August 21, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

            (Also, apology accepted 😉 )

      • Posted August 22, 2012 at 12:49 am | Permalink

        Three points on the difference between refusing to teach evolution and refusing to perform abortions, and why we should accommodate to the one but not to the other:

        First, evolution is a fact. There is no moral issue in insisting that children receiving state-sanctioned education should be taught the facts of evolution. Indeed it would be immoral to suggest otherwise.

        Abortion is not a fact. It is an act, the rights and wrongs of which can be complex. It is true that religious believers often have what to you and I may seem irrational arguments against abortion, arguments that, for instance, may appeal to the existence of a soul, etc. Even atheists, however, are deeply divided as to why we should support abortion, to what degree, and what the consequences are of doing so.

        Peter Singer and I, for instance, both support abortion. There are few facts about which we would disagree. Yet we differ profoundly about why we support abortion, a difference that arises from holding fundamentally different views about the character of human life, the meaning of morality, the means by which we evaluate norms, etc. I defend abortion on the basis of rights and choice, Singer does so from a utilitarian perspective. This leads him to support ‘post-birth’ abortion – that is, infanticide – and to suggest that animals that possess greater cognitive abilities than young children possess also a greater claim to life. I profoundly disagree on both points.

        This is not the thread to debate my differences with Singer. All I wish to point out is that even atheists as strongly in favour of abortion as Singer and I are, can also be profoundly divided on the issue. Singer and I can have – indeed have had – a rational debate about this. But it is not a debate that can be settled simply by appealing to facts because it depends partly upon the philosophical and moral framework within which we fit those facts.

        There are deep debates, too, even among atheists, as to when abortion should apply. Should the limit be set at 18 weeks? 24 weeks? Birth? Post-birth? The very fact that we have this debate reveals the complexities and dilemmas surrounding the question of abortion. There are many doctors (both religious and non-religious) who support a woman’s right to abortion but who would not wish to perform an abortion themselves.

        The debate about abortion, in other words, is not merely one of facts, as is the debate about evolution, but one that touches on profound questions of what we think it means to be human, and of how we define morality. To dismiss those who take a different view in this debate merely as ‘irrational’ or as appealing to some ‘unprovable metaphysical harm’ is to miss the point.

        Second, a biology teacher who rejects evolution is a poor teacher. As Dobzhansky put it, ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution’. That might be an exaggeration, but it is broadly true. To insist that a biology teacher teach evolution is simply to insist that he or she be a biology teacher. A doctor who objects to abortion, on the other hand, is not necessarily a poor doctor. In fact there are many exceptional doctors who oppose abortion. It is not the case that ‘nothing in neurosurgery or oncology makes sense except in the light of support for abortion’.

        Third, to force someone to commit what they consider to be murder (even if you and I do not consider it so) seems to me deeply immoral. This is not an issue simply of religion. It is not different in principle, for instance, from accepting that people may have ‘conscientious objections’ to war. I am no pacifist, but I accept that there are people, both religious and non-religious, who have moral objections to killing other human beings in conflict. I disagree with their argument, but I also accept that it is legitimate to hold that moral view.

        A decent society is one that allows people, where possible, to live by their conscience, especially on issues of life and death, so long as in doing so they do not harm others without their consent or infringe their rights. We can both challenge robustly attitudes we find objectionable and accept that moral debates cannot be resolved according to some abstract notion of rationality but have to reflect the rationality of human lives as actually lived.

        I realize that this has been a very long response, though to set my arguments out properly would take longer still. Rather than taking up yet more space on WEIT I will hopefully set out the longer case on my blog, perhaps next week.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          Your first point seems to boil down to the idea that evolution is considered by philosophers to be a settled issue, whereas abortion is not. Therefore it’s reasonable to grant anti-abortionists more latitude than creationists in exercising their moral qualms. That’s fine as a matter of social pragmatism, but it does seem to cut against your earlier principle that all religious viewpoints are equally entitled to free expression (absent harm to others of course).

          Point #2 is a fair one: a biology teacher who rejects evolution is a bad biologist (though not necessarily a bad teacher). I think a case could be made that a gynecologist who refuses to provide all the services expected of his specialty is at the very least guilty of false advertising, but I’m not going to defend that case very vigorously.

          Point #3 is simply another repetition of your claim that the doctor’s horror counts for more than the teacher’s. Let’s try to make it more equal by supposing that the teacher is especially blessed by Jesus (or gifted with an unusually vivid imagination) and can actually see his words thudding like arrows into the unsullied souls of his students, with dark stains of doubt spreading outward from the impact sites. Stains that he put there, and that can never be entirely erased, because innocence once lost is lost forever. For this teacher, teaching evolution is (let us suppose) as repugnant as child rape.

          On what basis should we dismiss this (allegedly) deeply felt horror as mere bad biology, and demand that the teacher suck it up and do his job, while accepting at face value the doctor’s aversion to what he calls murder? Why the double standard?

    • Posted August 22, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      ‘It’ is a person. We should not need reminding of the consequences of such dehumanization. Such comments turn up, of course, on many blogs (including mine). But have people become so loathful of religion that they no longer recognize the need to challenge such bigotry?

      I’m largely in agreement with your anti-authoritarian approach but I would just issue the following caution: I don’t know Alexander Hellemans at all, but his use of ‘it’ might be a clumsy way of describing someone gender neutrally. The rest of his comment suggests that someone he knew gave a lift to a nun who subsequently appeared to be a man posing as a nun for nefarious purposes. So he might be suggesting that the burqa wearer is a man, up to no good, and not trying to dehumanise a woman because she is a Muslim (which appears to be your accusation?).

      It can get a bit wearing when there is so much bigotry about, and a comment like Helleman’s, which is a little ambiguous, might be passed over because of its ambiguity, not because readers are so loathful of religion. I think, as you say, it’s important to challenge bigotry wherever you find it (and there are plenty of atheist bigots, no doubt). I’m hopeful that such bigotry will have less purchase, not least because atheist bigots don’t support their bigotry with a bogus appeal to supernatural authority.

      • Alexander Hellemans
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        I think you live in a different world. Is criticising forcing a woman, either by religious propaganda, or by coercion, to hide her face “dehumanising a woman because she is a Moslim?”

        Is criticising a trend to make women “faceless” because of superstition bigotry? Have you ever travelled beyond your doorstep?

        • Posted August 25, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

          If this is addressed to me then you have misunderstood my comment. I did not say that your criticism is dehumanising her. I was discussing Kenan Malik’s criticism of your use of ‘it’.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      @kenan malik

      You don’t seem to understand that forcing a woman to wear a burqa is the ultimate form of “dehuminization”–making her faceless. You are completely off the mark calling criticising the forcing of women to wear burqas, either by coercion or by superstition “bigotry.” Is the criticism of female circumcision bigotry as well?

      • JeremyR
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        At a debate I attended about Islam in society in which a right-wing speaker had said he wanted to ban the burqa, a young woman stood up to make a comment. She was not only wearing a burqa but also log black gloves covering her arms. She said that she was dressed that way because she had taken a personal decision about the way she wanted to express her religion. It was nothing to do with anyone else, including her father, brothers etc.
        I spoke to her afterwards. The friends who had come with her – all wearing colourful hijabs showing their faces – said “there’s no way we would have come to a meeting like this dressed like that!” I thanked her for what she’d said – it was courageous to make a stand – but pointed out that, while I thought she had the right to decide for herself what to wear, she had to accept that a consequence of deciding to dress that way was to give other people – like me – a negative and hostile message about her willingness to engage with them. She took the point and thanked me for coming over to talk with her.
        I wonder what Alexander would have said to this intelligent and independent young woman?

        • Alexander Hellemans
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

          I would ask her what she thinks of the women that are beaten up in the street in several Islamic countries by the religious police because a bit of hair is visible. I’m against imposing dress codes for anyone anywhere. And coercion of women happens in western countries as well. I know a Turkish family where the daughter dated a fundamentalist Muslim, and the entire family was terrified because the women would be forced to change the way they dress.

          • JeremyR
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:29 am | Permalink

            Looks like we’re agreed that you wouldn’t impose a dress code that banned the burqa on this young woman, who was not living in Iran or Saudi Arabia, but making a free (and unusual) choice as a Londoner.

            My guess – on the basis that she came over as a feisty and independent person – is that she would have answered your question by agreeing that it’s completely wrong to force women to wear burqas, as that denies them the freedom of choice that she thinks is their right.

      • Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:30 am | Permalink

        @Alexander Hellemans

        And you don’t seem to understand that there is a difference between criticizing the wearing of a burqa and dismissing a human being, even one wearing a burqa, as ‘it’. Yes, forcing someone to wear a burqa is to dehumanize her. But in what way is dehumanizing her yourself challenging such an attitude? The irony is that your attitude merely mirrors that of an Islamist cleric, both of you seemingly looking upon that woman in the Paris Metro as not fully a human being.

        • Alexander Hellemans
          Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:19 am | Permalink

          No, I was pointing out that you don’t know if you are dealing with a man or a woman–if I remember correctly an attack by a man wearing a burqa has happened. I thought this was clear from my post. Can you board a plane in the US wearing a burqa?

  23. JeremyR
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    There doesn’t seem to be much room for kindness and compassion in some of the reactions to Kenan’s thoughtful and balanced argument, yet surely those are central to humanist morality.

    Those who are adopting an authoritarian position could perhaps think whether they are falling into the trap laid by the fundamentalists on the other side, who want everyone to see the world in highly polarised black-and-white terms, draining the humanity out of any debate.


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