Insulting Islam

I came to know of Uthman Badar recently via the news that his talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, titled “Honour Killings are Justified”, had been called off. It’s certainly a provocative title. My instinct was not to take it at face value, and Badar himself said it would be “ludicrous”, but it’s difficult to make an assessment of a talk that never happened.

Since information is scant on that topic, I’d like to address something else Badar has raised in this article (in a publication called 5Pillarz, which describes itself as “an opinion and analysis-based website which concentrates on British Muslim news but also looks to the wider Islamic world”).

I’ll start at the end, where Badar finally says:

Hence all beliefs and sanctities should be protected from insult, including that which is most sacred to billions around the world: God and His Prophets, peace be upon them all. This should be done, in our present context, by the elevation of values, not imposition of law. You can’t regulate civility. You can’t force people to be respectful. This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

(My emphasis.)

Badar would have done well to say this up-front. Up until those final sentences, you get the distinct impression that he is talking about the imposition of a blaspheme law, or something like it.

After all, he spends a fair bit of time tearing down the notion of free speech; indeed, the piece is titled “Free speech is a liberal tool of power”. Badar does make a some reasonable points when he argues against the notion of an absolute right to free speech. Many of us are quite open to being persuaded, in particular situations, that free speech is absolute. It clearly isn’t, though, and there are many times where, for good reason, we simply cannot (or should not) say whatever we please. All of us know this, at some level, but we do not always remember it.

I agree with much of what he says, but his free speech argument doesn’t really support his broader point about the protection of belief from insult. It looks like it does, on the surface, but it’s a subtle non-sequitur. By “protection” Badar means something other than by means of the law. But free speech is fundamentally a legal notion. It implies that we have (at least some) legal protection, not necessarily moral virtue, when we choose to say something controversial. Libertarian defenders of free speech are often happy to concede the moral argument entirely (focusing instead on what they conceive to be a higher principle — individual rights).

The upshot is that free speech is the apples to Badar’s oranges. Badar’s argument that we should encourage (not enforce) civility by the “elevation of values” does not require a step back from free speech. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the legal protection of free speech at all, either in theory or practice. (Some people, particularly committed ideologues, do often mistake criticism of their ideas for an attempt to silence them, but we need not give their complaints credibility.)

Putting the free speech issue aside, Badar also runs into trouble when he tries to distinguish between “insult” and “critique”:

When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam. Critique of any ideas or beliefs is kosher. It’s halal. Insulting any beliefs or people is not. Critique Islam all you want. Write in measured, considered tones about why Islam is not the truth, or why the Prophet was not a prophet. Such books fill bookstores across the West as it is. Never have any of these books resulted in a riot. But to mock, to denigrate, to provoke, to agitate – that is something else, and is unacceptable.

A very fine line indeed, you might think. Badar tries to make it concrete by praising “critique” and damning “insult” in the strongest terms he can, but that’s emotional reasoning, and doesn’t actually serve to distinguish the two very well.

The real problem here is that the magnitude of the disagreement between religious groups, or the religious and non-religious, is so large that speaking honestly, openly and concisely about what you think of someone else’s beliefs is almost inherently mocking, denigrating and provocative. A debate? What “debate” would you have with someone who sincerely believes that the sky is green, or that we’re inhabited by ghosts who came from a volcano blown up by an ancient extraterrestrial? Your inner voice is not weighing up the evidence and formulating critiques. It’s saying “WTF?! Okay, just smile and nod. Smile and nod”.

Sure, we can, in theory, sit down for a few months (or even years) to meticulously explain in a weighty treatise where some belief system went wrong. “Never have any of these books resulted in a riot”, Badar claims, for those books that address Islam. I don’t actually know if this is true, but there is a logic to it — the longer and more detailed the explanation, the more opportunity the writer has to demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) that they operate from a position of intellectual rigour and not malice. But writing books is a pretty high bar to set. A little forethought is always a good thing, but I don’t think one should be asked to refrain from commenting on a contentious issue unless or until one has devoted months of one’s life to researching and expounding the topic. This would just create a kind of intellectual aristocracy that shuts out most people.

Of course, we can be diplomatic and simply not point out how absurd we find the claims of (other) religions. For the purposes of maintaining harmonious relationships across belief systems, such discretion is necessary much of the time. But we must also be seekers of truth. Falsehoods have real consequences (see Iraqi WMDs, doomsday cults, vaccine denial, climate change denial, etc.), and we cannot always sit idly by while people are lured into believing something we know to be false. We know people are hurt by having their beliefs questioned, especially if those beliefs are held as dearly as religion often demands. But the same people, or others, or the wider community, can often be hurt even more if those beliefs are left unchallenged.

And so we must at least occasionally speak up, not because “it’s a free country” (as if there was any logic to that), but because we’re sincerely trying to do the right thing. I don’t excuse the trolls whose motivation actually is to upset people by mocking their beliefs. If Badar is only talking about genuine trolls, then so much the better. But removing the trolls will not stop people taking offence at the comments of others; the problem is more complicated than that.

I’ll address other aspect of Badar’s article: his take on “secular liberalism”, which comes off as a little defensive:

But, let’s be honest, the reason this debate over the freedom to insult others is still a live one is because secular liberalism has dominated both East and West, not by the strength of its values, but by the strength of its militaries.

I won’t deny that the military might of the West (and others) has won it great power over the rest of the world. But are we really blaming liberalism for that? Liberalism is just one part of the political spectrum, not a banner under which Western armies march. Consider the internal politics of a country going to war — the nationalistic fervour, the secrecy, the paranoia over enemy propaganda and enemy infiltration. This is not liberalism, nor is it secularism. It was not liberalism nor secularism that advocated for the US invasion of Iraq, nor the Russian war in Chechnya. Liberals in the west are constantly being criticised by conservatives for being too weak to confront Islam, a charge to which they respond (broadly speaking) by calling for peace.

If there is peace to be made between the Western and Muslim worlds, secular liberalism will be a vital ingredient. The whole point of secularism is the peaceful coexistence of different belief systems. Where the word is co-opted to mean something else, this (I think) usually means the speaker feels threatened by such a heterogeneous society. For instance:

This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

There is also a certain level of hypocrisy in railing against insult while simultaneously levelling accusations of “hideous” erosion of “the sacred and the most basic value of human decency” at one’s opponents. Surely, if beliefs are sacred, then secular liberalism is entitled to the same basic level of respect as Islam.

Besides, the above statement is simply wrong, and demonstrably so. Consider the changes in Western society over the last fifty or so years. Erosion of human decency? What about the advancement of women’s rights, gay rights and the rights of (at least some) racial and religious minorities? What about the advancement of medicine and health care and the de-stigmatisation and management of mental illness and disability? None of these are fixed problems, of course, but you can’t easily deny that there’s been progress. Are these things not elevating the human condition?

Badar is thinking of Western militarism, and (though he doesn’t say it) he could also be thinking of the widening wealth gap between rich and poor, both of which are arguably erosions of human decency. I’m not sure that Western militarism has any particular philosophical basis, other than the basic tribal instinct to be as big and powerful as you can. You might legitimately blame the wealth gap on economic liberalism — the philosophy of small government. Economic liberalism has tended to ally itself politically to religious hardliners, who are opposed to liberalism in the secular/social sense.

While Badar is right about the limitations of free speech, and right about the importance of civility, he seems bent on hitting the wrong target. But then, the same thing happens when the ABC’s Scott Stephens writes about the perils of the faltering influence of Christianity. The ills of the world are arrayed before us and, whatever they are, we can be sure that it’s the damned secularists wot dun it. The varied religions of the world are getting quite good at this, and it serves their purposes (at least temporarily) to have an adversary who won’t get righteously outraged at being insulted.

It’s not even really secularism that they spurn (because, as mentioned above, secularism is merely peaceful coexistence among religions). Their true adversary is the absence of religion, including atheism and agnosticism, but also apatheism — a category for those who essentially don’t care. Defenders of religion devote so much of their human compassion, morality and civility to their cause that they conflate these qualities with their religion, and they forget, I think, that the same qualities exist outside of religion too.

The institution of specious reasoning

Stumbling across the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” department, I discovered David Novak’s rather bluntly titled article: “No Right to Marriage for Same-Sex Couples“. It’s long, rambling and so far hasn’t attracted a lot of attention (judging from the solitary comment).

Novak’s points are at least made clearly enough (though rather verbose), but in the end they boil down to a set of very ruthless and arbitrary value judgments. Novak feels it necessary to declare himself a “Traditional Jew”, so I can’t help but feel that there is some religious motivation behind his position, even though he briefly tries to dispel that notion. He does appear to claim, a little way in, that God created marriage.

Throughout his piece, Novak (like most other opponents of same-sex marriage) talks of the “institution” of marriage. I find this to be a clever rhetorical device for giving form to an abstraction. The word “institution” merely means “tradition”, yet the former seems to demand more reverence. Tradition, by definition, is just the way things have been done in the past, but “institution” seems to imply something more formal, almost concrete, built-up over the ages from humanity’s noble efforts. In fact, three times Novak mentions the “traditional institution” of marriage, wherein I fancy he’s tripping over himself.

Novak’s first point of interest (after trying to dismantle a strange analogy with public education) is that the state should not interfere with marriage because marriage predates and “transcends” the state. I’m only quoting selected parts of Novak’s article, but much of it is the kind of waffle that rings all sorts of cognitive alarm bells (if there was a valid point to be made, surely it would have been made in far fewer words and with far more precision).

Novak lays the foundation of his argument as follows:

The most the state can honestly do in such appropriation of an institution that predates its founding – and in many ways transcends its operation – is to refine and reformulate in its governance of this institution the original reasons why this institution has deserved and still deserves social recognition and support.

A bit of a mouthful, but not entirely unreasonable. I’ve stopped Novak there because what he says next is truly ridiculous:

That should be done by judges, already designated by society to be the proper interpreters of the law. If judges cannot refine and reform the existing institution of marriage, then legislators who want this radical change should implement the abolition of this institution altogether, or they should subsume what used to be known as “domestic relations” under some other existing institution, such as private contracts. But, if they do that, they should be honest enough to stop calling what would not have been recognized in law as “marriage.”

I’m not sure what test Novak is  proposing to determine whether judges can “refine and reform” marriage. Judges may well have already sanctioned same-sex marriage if not for the explicit intervention of legislators. In Australia at least, it’s the Marriage Act that provides the legal basis for marriage being heterosexual in nature, not any judge’s determination (as far as I’m aware, though of course I’m not a laywer). Novak would be foolish to assume that the judiciary holds his same views on the origins of and reasons for marriage. To me, same-sex marriage is a natural part of the existing “institution” of marriage (one that has been conspicuously omitted), not at all a radical departure from it.

Novak seems committed to the idea that marriage cannot physically be redefined, though I can’t imagine what he thinks would happen if we simply decided to do so anyway. It’s a testament to the emptiness of Novak’s (and others’) beliefs that they are so possessive of the word “marriage”. Why should the state, and by extension society, be forced to use a different term (e.g. “civil union”) for the concept we want to call “marriage”? You can’t own a word, either morally or legally (except of course as a trademark). Even if same-sex marriage was a significant departure from the traditional definition – which it really isn’t –  it’s perfectly acceptable for words to be co-opted into new meanings, as long as the meaning is clear. Language constantly evolves. Many more words have their meanings corrupted beyond recognition*, and yet this is looked upon at worst as a mere annoyance.

However, Novak is not finished yet. He tells us that there are good reasons, aside from tradition, for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. He cites one Martha Nussbaum, who divides the various reasons for marriage into two categories: expressive (e.g. love, companionship) and procreative (having and raising children). Novak decides that the procreative aspect of marriage, unlike the expressive aspect, is in the public interest and should “be governed by the laws of the state”:

The state’s interest in procreation and familial continuity is because the state needs to replenish its citizenry regularly and thus ensure social continuity.

There is something terribly cold about this logic. Novak talks about “the state’s” interest, as though this is somehow divorced from society’s interest, and this obscures a fairly obvious and universal human sentiment. Yes, it clearly is in society’s interest to continue procreating (at some level, at least). However, surely the expressive aspect of marriage is also in society’s interest. Surely our society is richer and more human for its collective (not just individual) embrace of love and companionship. The state is supposed to serve the interests of society, not just keep the human race alive. Nevertheless, Novak continues:

Since procreation combined with child rearing is the only truly public reason for marriage, I think marriage is essentially endorsed and structured by the state to best facilitate the procreation and rearing of children.

This betrays a rather stunted idea of what a “public reason for marriage” might be. Novak is saying, quite earnestly, that love cannot be a basis for the legal recognition of marriage. Couples should only be allowed to marry on the basis of their having procreation and/or parenting potential. This is a particularly egregious value judgement, and is completely nonsensical when you consider all the symbolism and ritual associated with marriage. Marriage vows are generally about love and companionship, not raising kids.

Even after we accept this monstrous logic, Novak is aware that there are still two obvious problems: (a) not all heterosexual couples can or even intend to have children, and (b) homosexual couples can and do have kids (in various ways).

On (a), Novak invokes a bit of Latin:

I would answer that objection by citing the old legal principle: de minimis non curat lex, which could be translated loosely as “the law is only made for what usually obtains.”

The fact is, the majority of people who marry are fertile and are of an age to be fertile. And how could we reasonably establish a criterion to determine who is fertile and who is not? Moreover, in an age when new reproductive technologies are enabling persons heretofore assumed to be sterile to become parents, almost no one can be presumed to be incurably infertile.

That is, the law is designed to take care of the big problems, and we shouldn’t worry so much about the little ones. Basically, we can’t really come up with a ironclad test for fertility, especially considering technological options. However, this undermines his larger point. Novak is already applying a gender-based fertility test (heterosexual and you’re in, homosexual and you’re out), which is by no means an ironclad determiner of a couple’s ability to have kids, one way or another. However, if we hold the gender test to be valid – as Novak does – why not more fine-grained tests? Why not have a marriage automatically revoked after a period of time if no babies have resulted? That would be quite easy to administer, and would almost certainly achieve Novak’s stated objectives for marriage.

On (b), Novak descends into pure snobbery:

But let us examine some examples of how gays and lesbians can “have” or “create” children.

The first example concerns children from a previous – and I assume heterosexual – marriage. Since children from a previous marriage can be and often are raised by a single parent after having been widowed or divorced, I fail to see what the addition of another adult adds to the family, especially when that new spouse functions in loco parentis, at least de facto, replacing the now displaced parent in the new domestic arrangement.

What passes for an argument is merely Novak “failing to see” how a homosexual partner can fulfil the role of a parent. This is empty prejudice, with not even the veneer of an intelligent point. He further adds:

There is also the question of adultery and its connection to the question of custody of children after a divorce. That is, when an originally heterosexual couple divorces because one of the spouses decides he or she is really homosexual, is it often the case that this spouse discovered his or her homosexuality from having been involved in a homosexual relationship already?

I don’t know Novak – is it often the case? You don’t appear to have any evidence that homosexual parents are engaging in adultery. I myself don’t have any problem imagining that a homosexual parent might discover his/her homosexuality without engaging in an extramarital affair. Are you perhaps predisposed to thinking of homosexuals as being morally inferior?

The second example concerns surrogacy or artificial insemination, which creates a violation of a child’s natural right to have both natural parents raise him or her.

I skipped over the bit when Novak rambles on about a child’s “natural right” to have a mother and a father, but it comes into play here. Novak never gets around to saying what is actually wrong, morally, legally or practically, with surrogacy or artificial insemination. His case is, once again, built entirely on value judgments. Bringing a bit of the real world into this story, it seems a Victorian gay couple have just been granted the right to parent a daughter conceived with a surrogate mother. If there was anything wrong there the judge certainly couldn’t discern it. (Remember again that judges are the people Novak would have guarding the institution of marriage).

Personally, I reject the entire notion of natural rights. I prefer to think of “rights” as an evolving societal construct that has no meaning without the consent and support of members of society. What society demands principally, I think, is that a child have dedicated and loving parents. I don’t think we’re all that worried about their gender. (At least, we won’t care about it for long, given the trends in public opinion of same-sex marriage.)

Novak then talks about adoption, and seems to do a bit of backtracking:

Nussbaum’s last example concerns adoption. Despite all my talk about natural parentage and childhood, I am in favour of the institution of adoption. Surely, a child’s right to being raised to adulthood is better upheld by adoptive parents than by natural parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their natural offspring.

And, in principle, I am not opposed to a gay or lesbian couple being able to raise a child so abandoned by his or her natural parents. Surely, a child is better raised by two people who love him or her and each other, rather than being raised in the less personal setting of an orphanage, or by foster parents.

Exceptions, exceptions, exceptions. Novak is clearly quite eager to make an exception for adoption, even for homosexual couples, but again this undermines his main point. If marriage is all about raising kids, and Novak concedes that a homosexual couple can be viable parents, then why can’t homosexual adoptive parents get married? His logic is tangled into knots of self contradiction.

The two previously-quoted paragraphs provide at least a flame of enlightenment, which Novak can’t help but extinguish in the following text. Nothing else Novak has said so far has any bearing on homosexual vs. heterosexual adoption, and yet he still manages to worm his way into arguing that the latter is preferable.

That is because a heterosexual couple can better simulate – perhaps improve upon – the heterosexual union that produced this child in the first place. This better simulates the duty of the natural parents to raise this child, a duty they would not or could not exercise.

Better “simulate”? Whatever parenthood might entail, it’s not about “simulating” anything, least of all (in the case of adoption) the original parents. There is clearly no biological directive at work here – no “natural right” left to uphold – so what makes a homosexual couple less able to raise an adopted child than a heterosexual couple?

Novak concludes by returning to the state, and raising the notion of “civil unions”:

Although I have extrapolated on many points at which Martha Nussbaum and I disagree, I do agree with her when she says: “I personally favor the solution of leaving civil unions to the state and leaving marriage to religions and other private entities.” In fact, such a move would greatly strengthen the social prestige of religious marriage.

Novak’s religious underpinnings are showing here. There would be utter outrage from across secular society at the notion of “leaving marriage to religions and other private entities”. Marriage is a secular concept, co-opted by religion by means of various rules and rituals. Every society in the world has marriage, even those that have nothing in common by way of religious tradition. Given the universal applicability of marriage, it is society that grants religion the privilege of officiating marriage, not the other way around.

It is secular society, not religion, that holds the mandate for changing it.

Uniculturalism

I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the minds of people who despise multiculturalism. Do they hold to a fantasy in which multiculturalism is some sort of government construct that prevents people from adopting the same culture? Presumably they must start from the premise that the different cultural practices of other people are somehow detrimental to their lifestyle, or to the “moral fibre” of the nation, or some such nebulous phobia. Even so, do they honestly think that we can just ship all the immigrants and their descendants back to where they came from?

Angela Merkel has apparently decided to go down this sordid path:

At the start of the 60s we invited the guest-workers to Germany. We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn’t stay, that one day they’d go home. That isn’t what happened. And of course the tendency was to say: let’s be ‘multikulti’ and live next to each other and enjoy being together, [but] this concept has failed, failed utterly.

If multiculturalism has failed, answer me this: what else is there? On what basis do people of different races and cultures coexist, if not “multiculturally”? The Guardian article notes that Merkel didn’t bother to explain how or why multiculturalism “failed”, or what “failure” even means.

I would have thought that the utter failure of multiculturalism – if that’s truly what we’re talking about – would be marked by something akin to the Rwandan genocide. That is the inevitable, logical consequence of the total inability of people to live with each other.

Multiculturalism cannot be allowed to fail, because there is nothing else besides the abyss. Multiculturalism is not some adopted or invented concept – it’s the natural way of living in the modern world, where we are not isolated tribes but a global civilisation. It’s the alternative to crazed paranoia and ignorance. If multiculturalism fails, civil society fails.

Of course, Merkel wouldn’t be the first to suggest this sort of thing. What I would suggest is this: whenever someone argues that multiculturalism should be discarded, imagine how their argument would sound with “secularism” in place of “multiculturalism”. I suggest this because the two are very similar and comparable concepts. Whereas secularism is the means by which many religions and philosophies can coexist, so multiculturalism is the means by which many races and cultures can coexist. The alternative to secularism is state interference in your belief system, where religious laws effectively institute certain types of thought crime. The alternative to multiculturalism would likewise be a kind of cultural theocracy, with cultural laws mandating or prohibiting certain cultural practices.

There is a fantasy among some that multiculturalism is something imposed on them, as though it takes undue conscious effort to refrain from spitting (metaphorically or perhaps literally) on people they don’t like. They see “political correctness” as some sort of lead weight that stops them expressing their opinions. This is both laughably untrue and excruciatingly petulant. Opinions opposed to multiculturalism are expressed with scarcely-restrained fervour every day. These opinions are frowned upon by reasonable people not because they violate some arbitrary set of rules and conventions, but because they are ignorant and offensive. Yes, we will certainly uphold your right to express your opinion, but we can and will tear it apart with gusto if we see something wrong with it. If you think it’s unfair that people don’t give your views any respect, maybe it’s because you don’t have any respect. “Political correctness” is usually a label given to normal human decency, in order to attack it without seeming too inhuman.

But there’s more than an academic discussion here. There’s the rise of the far right in Europe, and in particular anti-Islamic sentiment. When concepts like multiculturalism are derided by a politician, the entire debate risks slipping off the ledge of sanity. Raving lunacy is ever present at some level in society, just waiting for a voice. As a result, politicians have a responsibility to be scrupulously reasonable – a responsibility that they often either neglect (because they need the votes) or were never aware of in the first place (because they are themselves part of that raving lunacy).

Merkel’s remarks might be defended on the grounds that they’re not provably wrong, but the academic in me twitches at the sheer indefensibly of such a standard. Ignorance does not need a voice – it needs an education.

False security, false feminism and false secularism

There seems to be a growing school of thought in Western countries that the burqa (or other forms of Islamic headdress) should be banned, with several European countries (including Belgium, France and Spain) debating or already having passed laws against it. There are murmurings here too, by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and the Christian Democrats’ Fred Nile.

The most ludicrous claim is that such religious clothing is a security risk. If that were so, we ought to ban all manner of clothing, including just about anything you might want to wear if the temperature drops below about 20 degrees C (as it has been known to do, on occasion), or even if it doesn’t. Bernardi and others claim that the veil obscures the wearer’s identity. This may be so, but implication is that none of us are entitled to anonymity – we must be readily identifiable in any public place to which we might venture. Why? We are not (yet) a police state, and I rather like the idea of being anonymous when out in public. I suspect most other people would as well, if they thought about it. Identifying specific circumstances in which the veil may cause problems does not justify a blanket ban. The security argument is simply designed to press the buttons of islamophobes looking for the most flimsy of excuses.

A marginally less ridiculous argument concerns women’s rights. It is argued that we ought to ban such clothing because it represents the submission of women to a male-controlled religious establishment. This is a little more plausible, but there are still two enormous holes in the argument:

  1. What about Muslim women who want to wear religious clothing, due to a genuine, freely-held belief that it’s the right thing to do? Any claim to be defending their rights through a ban on such clothing is completely nonsensical. If you’re not actually being oppressed, then the fact that some people see your clothing as a symbol of oppression is utterly irrelevant.
  2. Even in cases where religious clothing does indicate female subjugation and/or religious oppression, it’s only a symptom of the problem. A likely outcome of any ban might be to effectively prevent women in such an unfortunate position from going out in public at all. After all, it’s they who will be targeted under any ban, not their oppressors. They will face a three-way choice – violate the law, violate religious commandments, or stay at home. The law might be written to ban men from forcing women to wear religious clothing, but how do you enforce that? You can’t legislate to force people behave as if they aren’t at the wrong end of a power relationship, or as if their beliefs don’t matter. It’s the women in question who will miss out on attending university, getting a job, etc., and this lack of exposure to society would only entrench the problem. If there really is a problem, what on Earth could possess you to think that punishing the victims will solve it?

I worry that this argument has ensnared a number of feminists, which is disheartening because it’s largely anti-feminist. It appeals to one’s sense that one group ought not to impose standards on another, but the proposed solution is to hypocritically impose just such a standard while ignoring whatever religious/gender power relationship might be at the root of the problem – if indeed there is a problem. The argument probably arises out of the ancient reactionary instinct that “bad things” can simply be banned. It’s not always that simple. Whatever you think of the idea of covering yourself up in public, or even of forcing others to do so, surely it’s better that devout Muslim women feel they can at least be in public places.

The final fall-back argument is high-minded secularism. France, for instance, bans all “conspicuous” religious symbols from state schools. This thinking also annoys me. (The protagonists talk about values, which is never a good sign in political debates.)

I’m a great fan of secularism. I think it is, almost by definition, the only way that different religious groups can coexist peacefully. When I’m wearing my atheist hat, of course, I argue that religion and religious beliefs are unnecessary, that morality derives from human nature (far from being in conflict with it), the universe is inherently naturalistic, etc. I see those arguments as being largely of intellectual value, while the political arena presents an entirely different set of problems.

Secularism is essentially the separation of church and state. It is not anti-religious; it permits any type of belief system that does not infringe the rights of others. The state is supposed to be, as much as possible, agnostic.

So what, then, is the state doing making judgments of what constitutes religious clothing or symbolism? In theory, the state shouldn’t even be aware of the concept of religious clothing or symbolism, because such awareness in itself breaches state-church separation. The state should merely ensure that the rights of its citizens are being upheld.

To impose a ban on religious clothing or symbolism (except perhaps for those people who symbolise the state itself – but that’s a side issue) is not a secular idea, but an anti-religious one. I have no love of religion, but government intervention isn’t how atheism wins. It is far more important that everyone in society be able to get along. Militant secularism is not secularism at all.

Biblical decline

I read that the National Biblical Literacy Survey 2009 in the UK has reported a poor showing for Bible knowledge. I can’t say I’m either terribly surprised or troubled by this; there are any number of other literary works more deserving of public knowledge, and at some level this must be reflected in the public’s attitude.

There is, of course, some lingering sense that we “should” understand the Bible; that it above all other books has some special status. Well, that particular miscellaneous collection of ambiguously-translated ramblings is supposed to be the Definitive Word of the Infallible Creator of the Universe, isn’t it? Of course it is – it says so itself. Comments from those affiliated with the survey are not much more moderate:

Brown said the survey showed the need to push for greater religious education among young people as knowledge of the Bible among the under-45 age group was in decline.

“We have got to recognize that it (the Bible) is the foundation of our society, upon which our whole culture has been based,” he told Reuters. “To understand it and to live in it you do need an understanding of the Bible.”

Well, I’m not entirely convinced. If only someone had conducted a survey to determine the relevance of the Bible to our society. Oh look, they did! This piece of logic evidentially fails on some people. The fact that few of us know or care about the Bible these days is fairly good evidence that it isn’t relevant to much of our society at all, let alone forms the foundation of it. I assume, of course, that British and Australian culture are not too far removed.

To understand and live in Iranian or Saudi Arabian society, by contrast, I imagine you would need a solid understanding of the Koran and other sources of Islamic doctrine, but then that’s because those countries are theocracies. The West has spent a good few hundred years slowly disentangling society and governance from religion, and frankly we’re all much better off as a result.