Suppose someone worked for an organisation that asked you to hang up an EU flag. As a sound Euro-sceptic you refuse on principle. (For our purposes, we will assume the organisation hasn’t taken the EU shilling and thus agreed to display said dirty rag – if so, more fool them.)
Now suppose a colleague is asked to help put up the Christmas decorations; the tree, some tinsel and – uh oh – some cards that have been received with the baby Jesus on. He refuses, because he is (say) a devout Muslim.
Now, finally let’s suppose that both cases had been the last straw and your employer dismissed both of you. Which case, under equalities legislation, would (a) even be considered by the courts and (b) benefit from the support of the EHRC (headed by Trevor “our business is defending the believer” Phillips)? Yup, not the Euro-sceptic, even though his views could be as strongly held as the Muslim’s.
Adam Smith, or any excuse for a picture of the great man.
The fundamental question is this: why should religious beliefs get any more protection than political ones? Discrimination on grounds of race or gender – qualities that the subject has no control over – is another kettle of fish entirely. Yet what of religion and politics, those twin taboo subjects of polite conversation? In truth (though the more devout would dispute this) they all are about choices of belief. There is also choice about how such beliefs are practised and demonstrated. Both are philosophies of sorts, but the one difference is that religion, by the very definition of “faith”, is not necessary based on any process of logical reasoning or sound evidence. Political beliefs, however, flawed though one side may think the other’s are, are often drawn from experience, reality-based thought processes and/or theories as to what is practically feasible in making the world a better place. Communists may revere Marx, and free-marketeers will hold Adam Smith in similar esteem, but few on either side would ‘worship’ their respective historical leading thinkers.
Yet base your views of the world on a belief in a supernatural power and suddenly your lifestyle choices become near-unassailable and benefit from protection under the law of far greater weight than, and trumping that of, freedom of speech and association. What’s with that?
Perhaps the separation is a more modern phenomenon. For centuries, religion and politics have been so intertwined that the distinction has been moot. Even within our own shores political divisions can closely follow sectarian lines, even though the religious element has become largely irrelevant in the ‘Irish Question’ other than as a synonym for the Nationalist/Loyalist divide (indeed, it could be argued that it always was a primarily political issue, right back to the plantation of Ireland under Elizabeth I and the struggles against Papal power).
Is the difference in treatment a function of how far followers are ‘willing to go’? Many wars and genocides have been – and still are – carried out on religious grounds but, equally, political genocide is hardly unknown: we’ve seen 45 million killed under Chinese communism, 20 million under Stalin, around 1.5 million under Pol Pot and of course the 6 million under National Socialism (though the motivation behind the latter could be seen as a grey area between religious and political). On the flip-side, most political beliefs would not lead followers to murder any more than ‘true’ or ‘ordinary’ Christians, Buddhists or any other religion might.
Maybe it’s all just a little more mundane. Political views are by their nature open to argument; criticism, testing, cross-examination, subject to variation in the light of experience, and so on. With religion, criticism can simply be dismissed as blasphemy, and followers can be motivated without any remotely ‘legal standard’ of proof. If religion cannot be subject to a legal process of examination, perhaps the law shies away from testing it at all.
I rather think that the solution is to offer no legal protection to either, beyond that of free speech, association and the norms of a civilised free society.
* You know this, of course, so although you don’t like the idea, you otherwise like working there, so you do as asked, holding the flag like a dirty nappy and washing your hands thoroughly afterwards.
(H/T The Heresiarch, who came at this from the thought-provoking ‘believer/non-believer’ angle.)