Do We Live in a Simulation, Or Are We Already Dead in the Real World?

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Some say that we live in a computer simulation, and that we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps God-like creatures, on another planet somewhere, have colonised us and put us in Matrix-style liquid-filled pods, our brains attached to a computer and fed with fake experiences. Proponents of the simulation hypothesis rightly point out that it may be wrong to call such experiences “fake”. We do have them after all, and whether these experiences come from a real world interacting with us or from a computer program pretending to be a world doesn’t make a lot of difference as long as we don’t know the truth of the matter. “Truth” may be a similarly slippery concept. (Nozick’s experience machine is a whole different case, because in that thought experiment the point is whether we would choose to live in such a machine. Here we assume that we don’t have such a choice).

Elon Musk has recently popularised the simulation hypothesis, although it’s centuries old. Descartes’ “dieu trompeur” is a famous example: an evil demon presenting a complete illusion of an external world to our senses, or maybe directly to our minds, or mind in the singular.

Also, rather than Matrix-style pods, we may simply be brains in a vat, or even less: emulations of brains “living” in a computer.

Whatever the merits of this hypothesis, I think they pale in comparison to another one: we are, in fact, already dead. The latter is, in my opinion, much more likely and fits better with the available evidence. Let me have a go.

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The simulation hypothesis can indeed explain all the evidence – since all evidence is facts and all facts can conceivably be simulated by some or other entity. The problem however is precisely this entity. Who or what could it be? The most likely explanation is that the simulating entity is part of humanity itself, perhaps a future generation. But why? Why on earth (or elsewhere) would they enslave physical human bodies, put them to sleep, immerse them in vats and connect them to computers in order to feed them sensations of a non-existing world? Why would they remove their brains or emulate their brains? I don’t see the point. The Matrix plot – humans as a power source – is obviously ridiculous. Emulated brains as instruments of computing power is a similarly weak rationale for the simulation hypothesis (when it becomes technologically possible to emulate brains, there won’t be a reason to fool them; just use their computing power if you don’t have better, non-brain based computing machines, which seems unlikely to me). The same lack of rationale applies to the possibility of aliens or Gods as simulating entities. It seems likely that they as well, just like future humans, would have better things to do.

Whomever is the simulating entity, it must have a reason for its actions. Even the fun of it or outright sadism could not support the simulation hypothesis: it wouldn’t be much fun to the simulators, not even if they’re sadists: our possibly simulated world is often awful but not awful enough to be the product of a sadist entity seeking to enjoy itself at our expense.

So the evidence seems to be against the simulation hypothesis. What about my alternative? Let’s call it the Cotard hypothesis after the well-known Cotard delusion: a mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that he or she is already dead. Although of course in this case we’re not dealing with a delusion. The delusion would be that we’re still alive.

Think about unrequited love, the glances in the subway that went unnoticed, the promotion that you failed to get, the times that your husband ignored what you were saying… Often trivial and banal occurrences, but taken together they may have some weight. Perhaps more weight than the simulation hypothesis. Countervailing evidence can also be explained. The times when you weren’t ignored may have been wishful thinking. After all, it’s easier to believe that you are alive than that you are dead, and so your mind may fabricate “evidence” to convince you that you are in fact alive. Such fabrications are not unheard of: there’s the just world fallacy, we have adaptive preferences and suffer from confirmation bias. And a lot of these biases are unconscious.

Think also about the sadness of some of the memories of early childhood. Good memories maybe, but also sad at the same time because that world is gone, that life is gone. Your life is gone. This fits also nicely with the increasingly popular notion that there is no such thing as en enduring personal identity. We “die” every moment.

(An interesting fictional treatment of the Cotard delusion is the TV-series Talking to the Dead – forget the IMDB ranking, it’s BS. And there’s of course The Sixth Sense).

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Religion and Human Rights (34): What Happens When You Want to Make Politics and the World More Religious?

You’ve probably guessed from the title where this post is heading, so in order to avoid the obvious misunderstandings I’ll reiterate my basic position on the role of religion in contemporary society: I’m an agnostic, but I fully understand the importance of religion for religious people; I believe that part of the function of human rights is to protect those people, and that another part of that function is to protect the rest of us against them; yet I don’t believe some of the overblown but unfortunately very fashionable statements about the extent of the religious threat to society; and neither do I believe that principles such as the separation of church and state imply religion should have no voice at all in democratic politics.

So, now that this is out of the way, let me try to answer the question in the title. The answer will be predictable, but perhaps also somewhat illuminating in the details.

In modern-day democracies, rulers no longer claim a divine right to rule and most of them admit that they don’t have the authority to further the cause of God on earth by violent and coercive means. They can speak and persuade, but wars against against foreign sinners and oppression of domestic heretics is not done. However, the word “most” does a lot of work here. Many democratic politicians, backed by their religious supporters, still try to shape politics and the law according to religion and try to use those earthly powers as means to make the world more religious. That’s fully consistent with the universalist claims inherent in their religious beliefs: their God isn’t just their God but the God of all humanity, and all of humanity has a duty to obey the word of God. If this obedience can be promoted through the use of politics and the law, then religious citizens have a religious duty to try. Their attempts typically follow a number of steps:

1. Demand religious freedom

They start of from the very reasonable claim that they themselves have a right to live their own lives according to their religious faith, unmolested by the state or by other citizens. The first of their religious duties is to obey the word of God themselves, and they should be allowed by the state and the law to do so. That is indeed their human right and they are entirely justified in using politics and the law to protect that right.

2. Demand religious exemptions

However, some religious people interpret this right to religious freedom in a rather loose way. For example, they see this right not merely as a means to fend off anti-religious and hostile legislation or other forms of state action intentionally interfering with their religion (or hostile private action for that matter). They see their right to religious liberty also as a right to disrespect general and non-religiously motivated legislation which they believe violates the word of God.

For example, a law imposing a military draft may be seen as illegitimate by the adherents of a pacifist religion, and a law requiring the use of crash helmets should not be forced upon the followers of a religion that demands the wearing of turbans. Hence, religious people often demand that they should be exempted from the application of certain laws – or at least their right to conscientious objection should be respected – when they view those laws as being against the word of God.

I’ve argued elsewhere that such exemptions – which take us one step further than simple religious liberty – can be justified in some cases, but that we should be careful not to undermine the rule of law.

3. Demand religious laws

Some want to go even further than that. From the point of view of a religious person, the two previous demands on politics and the law were strictly self-regarding: religious people should be allowed to live their own lives according to their own beliefs. However, as I stated above, religion is hardly ever purely self-regarding. Most religious people feel a strong urge to work for the salvation of their fellow human beings. Hence, instead of demanding personal exemptions from laws that inadvertently violate the requirements of their religion, some religious people want to abolish the laws in question and replace them with laws that better promote those requirements.

If we take the same example as above, they may want to abolish the law imposing a military draft, rather than just asking for a personal exemption. Their religion requires not just that they personally refrain from violence, but that humanity does so as well. Hence they would like to end the military altogether rather than just their personal participation in it.

Or take the more salient example of laws permitting same-sex marriages. Many religious citizens claim a right to abolish such laws. Their religion doesn’t permit what these laws permit. And even if they have received a personal exemption so that the laws don’t force them to act against their religion (same-sex marriage laws don’t force people into a same-sex marriage, nor do they force people to validate and recognize the same-sex marriages of others), laws such as these do make it possible for other people to act against the word of God. Hence, some religious people want the abolition of such laws, thereby saving people in the eyes of God. However, the implication is that people’s rights are violated by the religiously inspired removal of laws that guaranteed people’s rights. Maybe religious people want to claim that this is the price to pay for the preservation of their right to religious liberty, but I fail to see how people’s religious liberty is violated by the self-regarding actions of others. (More on the relationship between religious liberty and same-sex marriage is here).

4. Demand religious laws that violate human rights

Now, it’s perfectly OK for religious people to try to move the law in a certain direction, just as it is OK for other people to try to move the law in their preferred direction. I don’t buy the theory that says that in a diverse and tolerant modern democracy religious people should refrain from using religious reasons for legislation or the reform of legislation (sometimes called the Doctrine of Religious Restraint). Religious people are allowed to work against what they see as anti-religious laws and also to promote religiously inspired laws, on the condition that the laws we end up with have managed to convince a majority and do not violate the rights of others (see here for a detailed version of this argument).

For example, a law abolishing the draft or the military could be a religiously inspired law (although it can simultaneously be inspired by secular reasons), but it could also be acceptable when it’s clear that it doesn’t violate anyone’s human rights, e.g. assuming there is no military or terrorist threat. When there is such a threat the law could lead to rights violations and hence should be resisted. Things are clearer in the case of a religiously inspired law outlawing same-sex-marriage. Such a law should always be resisted since people have a human right to get married. The same is true for blasphemy laws and a whole range of other religiously inspired laws.

The efforts by religious people to make politics, the law and the world more religious go too far when those efforts include legislation

  1. that makes non-religious people or people adhering to another religion live according to the precepts of the legislator’s religion, and
  2. that violates the human rights of some.

Those efforts are understandable from the point of view of the religious legislators, since their religion requires them to work for the salvation of everyone, but they are not acceptable.

5. The ultimate step

So there’s an increasing intensity in the demands to make politics, the law and the world more religious: the law should not intervene with religion; then the law should be more considerate of religion and provide exemptions; then it should promote religion; and then it should promote religion even if that means violating the human rights of some. If, however, there is something blocking this increasingly intensive intervention and the law and politics do not cooperate sufficiently, some religious people will take matters into their own hands. After all, one can’t accept that the word of God is trumped by an anti-religious democratic majority or by a religious law that isn’t sufficiently respected. Direct action to make the world more religious is then required. You may then see someone attacking a Danish cartoonist for being blasphemous. Or someone else killing abortion doctors. Fortunately, very few religious people go all the way, which is the reason for the optimism I expressed at the beginning of this post.

Should we conclude from this that it’s best to keep religion as far away as possible from politics and the law? I don’t think so. As long as religious people respect human rights they can do as they please. Given the importance of religion to many of us, it’s illusory in the best case and counterproductive in the worst case to try to artificially ban religion from politics and the law.

Other posts in this series are here.

Religion and Human Rights (33): Christianity and Human Rights

Nowadays, when religion is viewed through the lens of human rights, the subject of discussion is most often Islam and the rights violations it is supposed to produce. Other religions seem almost unproblematic in comparison. Some even claim that human rights are the heritage of the Christian West. That’s not entirely fair to Islam, and neither is it a correct description of Christianity or of the history of human rights. Both Islam and Christianity can be criticized from the perspective of human rights. It’s about time that Christianity receives some of the same scrutiny that is heaped on Islam on a daily basis.

First, though, let’s list some arguments for the defense. Many aspects of Christianity are beneficial to human rights. For example, there’s a long tradition of pacifism in Christianity (in some Christian churches more than others, and in theory more than in practice). That’s based on the quote from the sermon on the mount about showing the other cheek. Poverty and charity as well are prominent in Christian teaching (for example in the parable of the good Samaritan). Also important from the perspective of human rights is the teaching of the equality of all human beings: we are all created in the image of God, we’re all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Hence differences between races, genders, nationalities etc. are contingent and morally irrelevant. And there’s of course the sacredness of human life. Finally, belief in hell – to the extent that this is still a part of present-day Christian faith – is associated with lower crime rates (I assume the fear of punishment in the afterlife limits deviance in this life).

However, it’s just as easy to cite arguments for the prosecution. First, the noble principles just cited were rarely respected. And secondly, there are a lot of other principles that are incompatible with human rights. Like all monotheistic religions, Christianity has universalist pretensions: the Christian God is the God of all, and non-believers are mistaken, even sinfully mistaken. They need to be brought within the right faith. Hence missionary work, colonialism, religious wars and other forms of aggressive proselytizing. All such activities can and often do violate human rights.

As a result of this universalism, freedom of religion is only grudgingly accepted if at all, as is the separation between church and state. Its universalist pretensions often justify coercive means, including the state, as a means to impose Christian teachings (the issue of gay marriage is only one example). It also seems that, theoretically at least, Christians can’t accept democratic decisions that go against the will of God, and are morally obliged to revolt against such decisions. Politics is the handmaiden of religion, and political rights are only contingently secure, i.e. they are secure as long as their results conform to the will of God and as long as Christians don’t believe that its practical and feasible to impose this will when rights deviate from it. Anti-abortion terrorism comes to mind.

Publicity and appearance are important parts of human rights. Different human rights protect the public appearance of a diversity of opinions, beliefs and identities, and their discursive interaction. That’s the idea of the marketplace of ideas. Christianity, however, doesn’t like publicity, for a variety of reasons. First, the relationship to God is more important than relationships between people, and the afterlife is more important than earthly life in community. There’s a strong sense of detachment from the affairs of this world, although this sense was more common in early Christianity. The hidden and the mysterious are valued more than the discursive, ostentatious life of public debate.

Appearance is not only of secondary importance, but also morally dubious. Christianity rejects seeing and being seen. To be good is the supreme value, but goodness must hide itself. When good works become public, they loose some of their goodness because they are no longer done simply for their goodness but for honor, appreciation etc. (as Arendt reminded us). In this respect, there are some similarities between the saint and the criminal.

To the extent that public debate is valued, it isn’t because of the importance of the marketplace of ideas, a major justification of human rights. Free speech doesn’t serve the exchange of arguments, public reasoning or the improvement of the quality of thinking. It only serves to proselytize, to distribute the truth, and this truth is given before public discourse even takes place. Belief is revealed and contemplated individually and in solitude, and is not the product of discussion or debate. Contemplation of God does not even require company, let alone debate. In the words of Tertullian : “nec ulla magis res aliena quam publica” (“nothing is more strange to us than public matters”).

This rejection of the public space in favor of the mysterious, of individual contemplation and of the afterlife, can result in political acquiescence. The powers-that-be are accepted, even if they are cruel and oppressive, since true salvation comes only after death. (That’s Marx’ famous criticism).

And there are other points of criticism: notwithstanding the equality of all human beings as children of God, women are responsible for the original sin, and the Jews for the murder of Christ. And even if everyone is an equal son or daughter of God, that means that everyone is fit for salvation. Which in turn means that you have to go to the far ends of the world to convert the heathens, for their own good.

A mixed record, to say the least.

Other posts in this series are here.

Religion and Human Rights (32): Human Rights and Legal Pluralism

When people talk about legal pluralism, they refer to the fact that different legal and judicial systems co-exist within one geographical area. Some examples:

  • The laws that are valid within a state are often a mix of national and international legislation.
  • In many ex-colonies, some of the laws have been imported from (and by) the colonizing country, while others have a more traditional origin and date from before the colonization.
  • Some countries have recognized indigenous claims and transformed those into rights, laws and judicial procedures. These indigenous laws and procedures may be valid only for disputes among members of the indigenous populations, but they may also affect the rights and interests of other citizens – as in the case of hunting rights, land rights etc. Indigenous rights may then come into conflict with other elements of the law, such as equality, non-discrimination, property rights etc.
  • Other countries revive traditional law or traditional informal justice mechanisms because rulers are inspired by their religion to do so – as in the case of Shari’a – or because they believe that their formal systems aren’t capable of dealing with the existing demand for justice – as in the case of the Gacaca courts in Rwanda.
  • Some subpopulations have developed their own informal justice mechanisms that operate without the approval or interference of formal state bodies: criminal gangs may create and enforce their own rules, and the same is true for terrorist groups like the IRA.

As is clear from these examples, the relationship between legal pluralism and human rights is a difficult one. Even if we set aside gang law (a marginal phenomenon that doesn’t affect large numbers of people) and indigenous law (which is a problem that can be solved), we’re still left with a problem, and it’s one that affects mainly poor and developing countries. In other words, countries where human rights are often already precarious for other reasons.

Many developing countries, and especially the poorest ones where the formal state systems of law and justice are underperforming or perhaps even failing altogether, are tempted to condone or even promote and quasi-institutionalize some of the existing informal and traditional systems, because those are the only ones operating somewhat effectively and with some level of legitimacy. It’s difficult to estimate how the positive side of this balances out with the clear risks to human rights that it entails. Let’s have a look at both sides of the coin.

Advantages of informal justice systems

Informal justice systems are obviously to be welcomed when they are the only or main source of justice. People need ways to settle their disputes and claim their rights, and when the formal system fails then an informal one may be better than nothing. And formal systems in many countries fail re obviously failing, because of many different reasons:

  • A lack of resources: institutions may be underdeveloped, people may not have the right qualifications; prosecutors in the formal system may not have the material resources to investigate crimes and claims in hard to reach parts of the country; people seeking justice may not have the means to travel to the city, which is where the formal system usually operates.
  • The lingering effects of violent conflict or genocide.
  • Language problems or cultural and religious sensitivities: for example, some people may not speak the official national language, which is the only language accepted in the formal system.
  • Etc.

It’s estimated that informal justice systems deal with over 70% of all disputes in some developing countries. That can probably be interpreted as an indictment of the formal system.

Disadvantages of informal justice systems

There’s a clear risk of gender discrimination since most informal justice systems are traditional and/or based on religion. For many women, the outcome of informal systems may be worse than nothing. There’s also the issue of cruel and inhumane punishments being handed out by some traditional courts, and it’s certain that none of the existing informal justice systems provide all the guarantees for the fairness of trials: appeals are often impossible, the justices are not selected or appointed on the basis of their qualifications, they are not removable or accountable, and hence in many cases corrupt or partial.

One of the causes of this lack of attention to human rights is that many informal justice systems are about keeping and restoring social harmony and about the maintenance of relationships and peace. Individual interests and therefore individual rights as well come second. Informal justice systems are meant to settle disputes; they are not a means to give everyone what he or she deserves or has a right to have, but rather a means to guarantee social stability. They are not about designating winners or losers in a dispute.

That is why you often see “solutions” such as a fine payable in livestock as compensation for murder. That’s not a real punishment for the perpetrator since it’s often his clan or tribe that has to pay, and neither is it real justice for the victim or his family. But it does help to maintain the peace and relationships between groups. And perhaps that is also what is most important to some of the victims, more important perhaps than criminal-type justice. Victims may believe that it is more beneficial for them, in the long run, to maintain good relations with others on whom they depend economically than to pursue criminal charges and individual rights.

This emphasis on social harmony is also a threat to the principle of the equality before the law: members of out-groups or groups that are considered unimportant for social harmony will not get a fair hearing.

So the evaluation is mixed: informal justice systems are OK is there is nothing better, but we should be careful when promoting them.

Religion and Human Rights (31): Polygamy, Right or Rights Violation?

In the U.S., 9 states – including Utah, the center of Mormonism – make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute polygamous families. Polygamy is only legal in North Africa and most of the Muslim world. Does it make sense to promote the right to same-sex, interracial and interreligious marriage, and at the same time oppose polygamy? (By the way, polygamy usually means polygyny: one husband, multiple wives – the opposite, polyandry, is extremely rare).

Marriage is a recognized human right, but does the word “marriage”, as it is used in human rights language, also cover polygamous marriage? From the texts of human rights treaties and declarations, it’s not even clear that it covers same-sex marriage – although it undoubtedly covers interracial and interreligious marriage. The word “marriage” isn’t clearly defined in the texts. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration merely states the following:

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Polygamy or same-sex marriage aren’t specifically mentioned as being forms of marriage that are included in the right to marry, but neither is it the case that sexual orientation or the numbers of partners are stipulated as unwarranted limitations to the right to marry. So the phrasing as it stands neither includes nor excludes polygamy or same-sex marriage as a right. Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights isn’t much clearer.

However, the case for same-sex or interracial marriage can be based on other articles, such as the non-discrimination provisions. Article 2 of the International Covenant states:

Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Sexual orientation is not mentioned but it is accepted that the list given here is a list of examples and not exhaustive. “Without distinction of any kind” is clear enough. Article 3 states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.

And Article 26:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

It’s not clear whether polygamists can invoke the same non-discrimination provisions. Perhaps the right to privacy can help them. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence… Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

However, apart from the question whether polygamy can be defended or not on the basis of existing human rights law, there are some good reasons why perhaps there shouldn’t be a right to polygamous marriage, even if it can be established that there is such a right. Wives may be pressured into polygamous marriages or prohibited from exiting them; they may suffer inequality and oppression in their marriage; and young girls may be forced to marry. The same risks exist of course in normal monogamous marriage, but are perhaps more important in polygamous marriage.

Moreover, polygamous marriage poses certain risks that are non-existent in normal marriage: excess boys in polygamous communities are often ostracized and condemned to a life of poverty and homelessness; and there’s a risk that marriage as an institution and as a general right may suffer when polygamy becomes widespread:

Polygamy is bad social policy for exactly the reason gay marriage is good social policy: everyone should have the opportunity to marry. Broad access to marriage is important not only for individual wellbeing but for social stability. And, to oversimplify only a little, when one man gets two wives, some other man gets no wife. There’s no better path to inequality, social unrest, and authoritarian social structures than polygamy. (source)

And yet, if it’s the case that

  • polygamy remains a fringe custom
  • polygamists are generally exercising their free choice and informed consent
  • no children are forced to marry or are sexually abused
  • and excess boys are not ostracized

then why would anyone oppose polygamy? Monogamous marriage isn’t illegal because some wives are beaten or because there are some cases of monogamous child marriage. One could oppose polygamy for religious reasons, but those aren’t sufficient in liberal democracies. Polygamy can only be problematic when it’s a practice that regularly and intrinsically leads to rights violations, as it does when child brides are common, when wives are commonly forced into marriage or when widespread polygamy makes it very difficult for men to find brides and marry.

Another thing to consider is gender equality. Even if polygamy is rare enough not to deny men a reasonable chance of marriage, and even if all polygamous wives are adults who freely consent to their marriage and who have equal standing within their marriages, then it’s still the case that the practice itself can signal gender inequality and hence perpetuate it. The reason is that polygyny, by its very nature, signals that men have more rights than women: a man can take several wives, but not vice versa. A legal right to polygamy would of course also entail a right to polyandry, but it’s unlikely that the risks to gender equality created by polygyny would be offset by many cases of polyandry. The more likely result is that polygyny fosters preexisting misogynistic prejudice because polygyny will always be more common that polyandry.

So, in the end a lot depends on how often polygamy results in rights violations. Is polygamy more like child marriage, which by definition is a rights violation (it involves pedophilia, the denial of education, health problems resulting from pregnancy at an early age etc.)? Or is it more like monogamous or same-sex marriage, which may produce rights violations such as domestic violence, but not intrinsically so? If some practice by definition violates rights, it should obviously be prohibited. If the practice only does so by accident and exceptionally, then it should in general be protected, especially when the practice itself is a human right. I claim that there is nothing inherently wrong with polygamy, as long as it’s not set up in such a way that it violates rights – as long as in most cases the wives consent (in an informed way), children are left alone, boys aren’t ostracized, and the practice isn’t so widespread that men can’t marry or that women feel they are second class citizens.

In this respect, polygamy is similar to hate speech. In the case of hate speech we are also dealing with a presumptive right, but one that can be abrogated when its exercise becomes too widespread with negative consequences for the rights of others. When a small black minority for instance is overwhelmed by hate speech, to such an extent that black people can’t go outside for fear of constant insult, then their right to freedom of movement should trump the speech rights of the haters.

For a more pessimistic view on polygamy, go here.

Gender Discrimination (33): Reversing the Veil

Here’s an interesting story about the rule, common in many religions, against the exposure of the female body. Many Muslims and ultra-orthodox Jews argue that women should cover their hair with either a veil or a wig and should dress in such a way that their legs, arms, necks etc. are fully covered. Some go even further than this and claim that clothing prescriptions for women are insufficient: women should be segregated on busses, in public spaces, in schools etc. in order to minimize contact between the sexes. It’s assumed that men can only be protected against temptation and that society can only rid itself of the evil of illicit sexual relationships when contact with and exposure of women’s bodies are kept to a minimum.

Apparently, some ultra-orthodox Jews have understood that solving the problem of male temptation by restricting women’s freedoms is unfair. Hence, they are promoting special glasses that blur ultra-orthodox men’s vision, so they don’t have to see immodestly dressed women (source). The glasses are sold for $6. Obviously, they don’t only blur women but everything else as well. Everything up to a few meters is clear so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that gets blurry — including women. Hoods and shields that block peripheral vision are also being offered.

Other orthodox Jews laugh at this and warn their fellow Jews to buy a crash helmet as well.

More on the veil here. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (29): Human Rights as Expressions of Human Duties in Early Protestant Thinking

Rights are often described as correlates of duties: if you have a right to something, someone else – or maybe everyone else – has a duty to respect your right. However,  it’s also possible to conceptualize your right as a means for you to execute your own duties. So, rather than your rights being my duties, your rights are your duties. This may sound weird but bear with me for a second.

Many early Protestants conceived of their rights exactly in this way. And if you know that Protestant thinking was one of the main driving forces behind the human rights revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, then you also know that it’s important to understand the early Protestant mindset.

How exactly did they view human rights? The individual, according to early Protestants, has certain duties towards God: to exercise his or her religion, to honor God, to worship, to rest on Sunday, to proselytize, and to treat neighbors with care and love. These duties were then transformed into rights, not the rights of others but the rights of the duty bearers. A right became the expression of a duty. If it’s a duty to proselytize, then Protestants should have the right to free speech as a means to proselytize. If it’s a duty to worship God, then Protestants have a right to religious liberty. Etc. Protestants didn’t demand their rights and their freedom from government in order to pursue their desires and private wants, but in order to better be able to perform their religious duties.

Why do I mention this? It’s ancient history by now. These days, hardly anyone conceives of their rights in this way, and Protestants – especially American Protestants – are no longer at the frontline of the battle for human rights (if anything, they oppose many contemporary interpretations of human rights, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, social security etc.).

I mention it because it’s interesting to see how different people belonging to different traditions and cultures can account for human rights in different ways, using the resources available in their own heritage. I don’t think this particular Protestant interpretation of human rights is a convincing account – neither for me personally (I’m an agnostic) nor for present-day Protestants. But I do think that it can inspire others, and particularly those who belong to traditions that contain strong anti-rights strands, to have another look at their heritage and try to find an account of human rights that can be supported by other strands of the same tradition. I mean, if what we would now call fundamentalist Protestants could do it centuries ago, why not pious Muslims today?

All this boils down to the problem of the justification of human rights. Why do we need human rights? Even if you share Richard Rorty’s skepticism about foundationalism – as I do – you’ll still have to answer the question “but why?” if you talk about respecting rights to those who are hostile to them. There’s no way around that question. A particularly powerful answer is one that uses the resources available in the traditions of those who are hostile. An even more powerful answer is one that those people can come up with themselves. Seeing how others did it may inspire them. And I have no problem with different people coming up with totally different and even incompatible justifications of human rights. To put some words into the mouth of Jacques Maritain: I don’t care why people adhere to and respect human rights, as long as they do.

More on the justifications of human rights here, here and here.

Religion and Human Rights (30): Religion, Charity and Cooperation

I’m often very critical of the role of religion in politics and of the harm it can do to human rights, I can see its benefits. One of the benefits is that religious people are more generous and give more to charity. However, the following quote tells another story:

This paper examines the supernatural punishment theory. The theory postulates that religion increases cooperation because religious people fear the retributions that may follow if they do not follow the rules and norms provided by the religion. We report results for a public goods experiment conducted in India, Mexico, and Sweden. By asking participants whether they are religious or not, we study whether religiosity has an effect on voluntary cooperation in the public goods game. We found no significant behavioral differences between religious and nonreligious participants in the experiment. …

In a dictator game, Eckel and Grossman (2004) examined differences in the amount and pattern of giving to secular charities in response to subsidies by self-identified religious and nonreligious participants. The results indicate no significant difference in either the amount or pattern of giving. Tan (2006) used the dictator game and the ultimatum game and similar to Eckel and Grossman (2004) he found that religiosity as a whole yields no significant influence in the experiments. Second, one paper has focused on whether religiosity affects cooperation. Orbell et al. (1992) used the prisoner’s dilemma game to test the hypothesis that religious people are more cooperative. They conducted their experiment in what was considered more religious and less religious towns. They found no general relationship between religious affiliation and cooperation. …

We arrive at the following observations. There are no significant differences between religious and nonreligious participants regardless of what country we are studying. Hence, in line with previous experimental results, we found no supporting evidence for the hypothesis that religiosity enhances cooperation. (source)

Religion and Human Rights (29): When Freedom of Association and Anti-Discrimination Clash

In a recent court case in the US, a Christian student group objected to a university decision to withdraw recognition of the group. This withdrawal was justified by the university on the basis of the group’s discrimination of gays. Gays can only join the group when they “repent”. This policy by the group was deemed discriminatory by the university and in violation of its anti-discrimination policy. Withdrawal of recognition means that the group loses some subsidies and access to university resources, not that it has to cease to exist.

The group claimed that the university decision violated it’s freedom of association and freedom of religion. It also claimed that the university’s non-discrimination policy backfired and in fact created a new instance of discrimination, namely discrimination based on religion (because the group felt singled out; a Hispanic group excluding non-Hispanics did not suffer the same fate). The university contested this reasoning, claiming that the group was free to organize its activities elsewhere.

In my opinion, the Christian group is clearly bigoted and deserves condemnation for that, but groups should be free to decide who can and cannot become a member. And so there’s nothing wrong, in principle, with Christian groups banning gays. Forcing a group to accept members who violate the group’s fundamental rules and principles would empty freedom of association of any content because it would lead to the dissipation of the group’s identity. There is no group without identity, and hence no freedom of association without identity. And identity by definition means exclusion. Communist groups that are forced to accept capitalist members, or neo-Nazi groups that are forced to accept Jews, cease to exist as coherent groups. In case of religious groups, this would also violate the groups’ freedom of religion.

Also, the claim by gays that they are discriminated is weakened by the fact that they have numerous alternatives. It’s not like their non-membership of the Christian group produces a lot of harm to them, in terms of diminished choices, missed opportunities, lost resources etc.

An aside: I always fail to understand why people would want to join groups where they are manifestly unwelcome, except perhaps to cause a stir. Of course, this is no argument in favor or against any of the previous claims, except perhaps a pragmatic argument against the university’s position: if indeed gays will not join the anti-gay Christian group because they don’t have an incentive to associate with people who are hostile, then there’s no reason for the university to move against the group, since no discrimination will occur.

How is this different from what libertarians often claim about private discrimination? (Rand Paul for example recently claimed that the Civil Rights Act should not make “private segregation” illegal and should not force white restaurant owners to accept black customers). The difference is that segregation and Jim Crow were so widespread that blacks had considerably fewer options and suffered considerable disadvantage. The same isn’t true of gays on campus: there are enough associations that accept them. Hence, the discrimination that is imposed by the Christian group is real but not consequential enough to warrant a limitation of its freedom of association or religion.

Another argument in favor of the Christian group: non-discrimination policies have the laudable goal of promoting diversity and allowing every member of society to have the same options and choices. But how do you promote diversity if you don’t allow groups to have a coherent identity? And how do you promote options when you make it impossible for Christians to join a “truly” Christian group?

All this doesn’t mean that there will never be cases in which actions against groups are justified. In some instances, the demands of non-discrimination will outweigh the rights to freedom of association and religion. See here and here for more information on the need to balance different rights against each other.

Religion and Human Rights (28): Is Religion Particularly Violent?

9/11 and other terrorist attacks apparently motivated by Islamic beliefs has led to an increased hostility towards Islam, but also towards religion in general. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the charge of islamophobia, many anti-jihadists have taken a new look at the violent history of other religions, particularly Christianity, and concluded that religion per se, because of the concomitant belief in the absolute truth of God’s words and rules, automatically leads to the violent imposition of this belief on unwilling fellow human beings, or – if that doesn’t work – the murderous elimination of persistent sinners. This has given rise to a movement called the new atheists. The charge of fanatical and violent absolutism inherent in religion is of course an old one, but it has been revitalized after 9/11 and the war on terror. I think it’s no coincidence that many of the new atheists are also anti-jihadists (take Christopher Hitchens for example).

There are many things wrong with question in the title of this blogpost. (And – full disclosure – this isn’t part of a self-interested defense of religion, since I’m an agnostic). First of all, it glosses over the fact that there isn’t such a thing as “religion”. There are many religions, and perhaps it can be shown that some of them produce a disproportionate level of violence, but religion as such is a notoriously vague concept. Nobody seems to agree on what it is. Even the God-entity isn’t a required element of the definition of religion, except if you want to take the improbable position that Buddhism isn’t a religion. All sorts of things can reasonably be put in the container concept of “religion” – the Abrahamic religions as well as Wicca and Jediism. The claim that “religion is violent” implies that all or most religions are equally violent, which is demonstrably false.

That leaves the theoretical possibility that some religions are more violent than others. If that claim can be shown to be true, islamophobia may perhaps be a justified opinion, but not the outright rejection of religion inherent in new atheism (which, of course, has other arguments against religion besides religion’s supposed violent character). However, how can it be shown empirically and statistically that a certain religion – say Islam – is relatively more violent than other religions? In order to do so you would need to have data showing that Islam today (or, for that matter, Christianity in the age of the crusades and the inquisition) is the prime or sole motive behind a series of violent attacks. But how do you know that the violent actor was motivated solely or primarily by his religious beliefs? Because he has a Muslim name? Speaks Arabic? Looks a certain way? Professes his religious motivation? All that is not enough to claim that he wasn’t motivated by a combination of religious beliefs and political or economic grievances for instance, or by something completely unconnected to religion, despite his statements to the contrary.

Now let’s assume, arguendo, that this isn’t a problem, and that it is relatively easy and feasible to identify a series of violent attacks that are indisputably motivated solely or primarily by certain religious beliefs. How can you go from such a series to a quantified comparison that says “the religion behind this series of attacks – say again Islam – is particularly violent”? That seems to be an unwarranted generalization based on a sample that is by definition very small (given the long history of most religions and the lack of data on motivations, especially for times that have long since passed). Also, it supposes a comparison with other causes of violence, for example other religions, other non-religious belief systems, character traits, economic circumstances etc. After all, the point of this hypothetical study is not to show that (a) religion can lead to bad things. That’s seldom disputed. Everything can lead to bad things, including fanatical atheism (and don’t tell me communism and fascism were “really” religions; the word “religion” is vague, but probably not as vague as that – which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any religious elements in those two world-views). The claim we’re discussing here is that (a) religion – because of its fanatical absolutism and trust in God’s truth – is particularly violent, i.e. more violent than other belief systems, and hence very dangerous and to be repudiated.

I think it’s useless, from a purely mathematical and scientific point of view, to engage in such a comparative quantification, given the obvious problems of identifying true motivations, especially for long periods of time in the past. There’s just no way that you can measure religious violence, compare it to “other violence”, and claim it is more (or less) violent. So the question in the title is a nonsensical one, I think, even if you limit it to one particular religion rather than to religion in general. That doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful to know the religious motives of certain particular acts of violence. It’s always good to know the motives of violence if you want to do something about it. What it means is that such knowledge is no reason to generalize on the violent nature of a religion, let alone religion as such. That would not only obscure other motives – which is never helpful – but it would also defy our powers of quantification.

Religion and Human Rights (27): Muslim Headscarves – Between Religious Liberty and Gender Discrimination, Ctd.

Once more on the issue of Muslim headscarves, because the controversy doesn’t seem to be going away. Belgium, my home country, has the dubious honor of being the first western country outlawing the burqa. Other countries like France seem set to follow, or have already interpreted existing laws on masks or police checks creatively in order to impose fines on women wearing a veil. Forcing Muslim women to show their faces is no longer a fringe xenophobic fantasy.

First of all, and before you get upset that a human rights activist such as me doesn’t take a more outspoken position against the veil, let me stress that I do worry a lot about gender discrimination (as regular readers can attest). I do believe that the veil – especially the complete face and body veil such as the burqa or the niqab – is an expression of a culture in which equal rights for women are – to put it mildly – not a priority. That doesn’t mean that every woman who wears a veil does so because of coercion or discrimination, or because she doesn’t have a right not to. Some do, but others wear it voluntarily, although the degree of “voluntariness” is something that’s always difficult to establish given the subtle effects of social pressure, tradition and education that are often difficult to notice – even for the self. However, it can be argued that also those women who wear the veil in a truly voluntary way – if truly voluntary can be something real, which I hope – contribute to an ideology of female inferiority and make it harder for other women who would like to remove the veil to do so.

Moreover, there can be different motives for wearing the veil voluntarily. Women can believe that this is a requirement of their religion (the Quran only seems to require “modest dress”), and that disregard of such requirements amounts to sin. Or women can decide to wear the veil for strategic reasons. They may believe – correctly I think – that wearing the veil enhances their freedom, for example their freedom of movement. One can argue that this strategic use of the veil isn’t truly voluntary, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I’m personally open to the argument that a prohibition of the veil can result in de facto house arrest for some women: their husbands may decide to force them to stay at home if they aren’t allowed to wear the veil in public. Now you might say that one evil doesn’t excuse another, but there is something called a lesser evil (I’ve made a similar point about sweatshops not so long ago). If wearing the veil allows women to venture outside of the home that is undoubtedly a positive side effect of something that in general may be a moral negative.

What about the arguments in favor of prohibition? Some of them are very weak indeed. It’s not because the veil makes some people uncomfortable that it should be prohibited. It’s not difficult to imagine the horror of the place where everything that makes someone uncomfortable is outlawed. Security risks also aren’t a very strong reason for a general ban, since women can be required to lift their veil in specific circumstances. The argument that modern democracies should be “secular” and that this requires the banning of religious symbols in public is indefensible in view of the human right to freedom of religion.

Some claim that the ban on the burqa is just one of many existing and undisputed restrictions on how people can dress in public: people can’t walk naked in the streets; or wear stockings on their heads inside bank buildings etc. But this confuses types of dress that are not religiously inspired with types that are. Religion does receive special protection in the system of human rights, and this special protection should be recognized if human rights are to be respected. Conflating religious dress with dress in general does not allow you to fully respect human rights. That doesn’t mean that the burqa can’t be banned in specific circumstances where there’s a good reason to do so – in Court rooms, in schools etc. But these exceptions don’t justify banning it altogether. (The justification for a ban in Court rooms is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out. A ban in schools – for both teachers and pupils – is justified on the grounds of the need for adequate education. In addition, there’s a phenomenon of peer pressure in some schools, where girls who wear the veil force others to comply).

How about the argument based on gender equality? That seems a lot stronger at first sight. But isn’t it true that gender equality wouldn’t be advanced a whole lot by a burqa ban? (Maybe a ban would even be bad for gender equality, if it forces women to stay home). And isn’t it also true that other measures in favor of gender equality, such as better education, stricter laws and better enforcement on domestic violence etc., would prove much more effective?

There’s another argument in favor of a ban, and it’s a pretty strong one, although you hardly ever hear it. A democratic community requires a common citizenship and a public space in which people can deliberate freely on their preferred policies. If democracy was just an exercise in voting, it would be compatible with the veil. It would even be compatible with complete solipsism and individuals never meeting each other. But it’s more than that. The burqa and niqab are – to some extent – incompatible with deliberation. One could argue that this only justifies a partial ban, namely a ban in places where deliberation occurs, and when it occurs. Just like the partial ban in Court rooms is justified. The question is of course whether proponents of the veil can accommodate a partial ban. Perhaps their religious belief requires the veil in all circumstances. However, we are allowed to require some level of flexibility of them. Rights often come into conflict with one another (take for example the right to free speech of the journalist wishing to expose the private life of a politician). And that’s the case here: the right to democratic government and the right to religious liberty should be balanced against each other, and maybe the former should take precedence. After all, not everything is justified on the grounds of religious liberty: for example, no one in the West argues that mutilation as a punishment for crime is justified, not even when it is prescribed by a religion.

Religion and Human Rights (25): The Eurabia Falacy

If immigration isn’t opposed because of bogus economic reasons or bogus law and order reasons, then it’s opposed on the grounds of equally bogus cultural reasons. Excessive immigration is said to fundamentally change the culture of the destination region: Europe will turn into Eurabia, just like the Protestant U.S. were once believed to be on the verge of a Catholic takeover following Irish and Southern European immigration.

But even limited immigration will not save us given the supposed “high fertility rates” of immigrants:

That Muslims are grinding out babies ready to take over Europe is an outdated canard. The Eurabia authors worry about declining European fertility, but in fact the Muslim decline is much sharper. In 1970, women in Algeria and Tunisia averaged about seven children each. Now, according to the CIA World Factbook, they average fewer than 1.8. The French rate is almost exactly two. Parisian demographers Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd demonstrate in their 2007 book “Le Rendez-vous des Civilisations” that after most men in a country become literate, eventually a majority of women becomes literate, and then fertility plunges. This demographic transition has now happened in most Muslim states. At last count Algerian women living in France averaged an estimated 2.57 children, or only slightly above the French rate. Moreover, the fertility rate of north African women in France has been falling since 1981. Eurabia is not a demographic prospect. …

The other problem with forecasting numbers of European Muslims in 2100 is the presumption that sixth-generation European Muslims will still be a foreign body here: Islam as a bacillus that even secular former Muslims carry around, forever dangerous. This ignores the transition affecting many nominal Muslims in France. …

Although here and there Muslims have made France a little more north African or Islamic, the influence seems to be more the other way: Muslim immigrants are being infected by Frenchness. (source)

Remember also that people in the 1960s were saying that the higher birthrates among Catholics would mean a swift “Catholic takeover” of Europe and the US:

In the United States the lower birth rate of the Anglo-Saxons has lessened their economic and political power; and the higher birth rate of Roman Catholic families suggest that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will be the dominant force in national as well as in municipal or state governments. A similar process is helping restore Catholicism in France, Switzerland, and Germany; the lands of Voltaire, Calvin, and Luther may soon return to the papal fold. (source)

Now, of course I’m not insensitive to the plight of culture. A national or regional culture is an important source of identity and wellbeing, and I believe the whole world gains when even a small culture is allowed to survive. I have an older post here lambasting the demographic aggression of China in Tibet. My point is not that immigration can never be a cultural problem, but that the size of the problem is systematically inflated, possibly as a cover for outright xenophobia. In this respect, the “problem” resembles the two other “problems” caused by immigration: more poverty and more crime.

Religion and Human Rights (24): Why and How Do We Separate State and Church? And What Are the Consequences for Religious Liberty?

A bit more about the proper role of religion in a modern democracy (see here for the original post I’m building on). I know it’s making things more simple than they actually are, but one can see the history of modern democracy as a continuing and progressive effort of the law and government policy to escape from religion. The religious wars of 16th and 17th centuries convinced the states of Europe that they had no choice but to put themselves above the factions. Only by loosening their ties with a favored religion and guaranteeing a free space for every religion and for equal liberty of worship, were they able to channel religious competition away from violence. As religion had become a dangerous and dividing power, it became clear that the state had to separate itself from the church, not only to keep the peace, but also to maintain itself.

The U.S. constitution later followed, inspired by the characteristic religious diversity of the U.S., itself the result of imperfect religious liberty in Europe. In the U.S., the separation of church and state was instituted in the First Amendment, more specifically the part of the Amendment called the “establishment clause” (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”). Religious liberty and the equal respect for all religions was also instituted in the First Amendment (more specifically in the part called the “free exercise clause“: “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”). Obviously, separation and religious liberty interact, but I’ll focus first on separation, and then later I’ll discuss how separation influences liberty.

So the effort of western democratic states to separate themselves from religion is not based on a negative value judgment about religion as such, but simply on the need for peaceful coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect between religions, and this tolerance and respect should promote the rights to equal liberty of all religions. Separation of church and state is therefore a means to protect religious liberty. By removing its ties to a favored religion, a state is no longer tempted to impose that religion and persecute other religions. It will also stop favoring the official religion and imposing a competitive disadvantage on non-official religions.

And this need for peaceful coexistence, tolerance and respect will only become more important in an age in which global mobility and globalization encourage coexistence of and hence competition between different religions. If a multicultural state today aligns itself with one particular religion, even in a very loose way, it will squander its authority as a neutral arbiter between religions and as a peacemaker, and it will undo equal religious liberty because its association with one religion will necessarily favor this religion and give it more power and hence more freedom.

The question whether there should be separation is settled in all modern democracies, precisely because of the salience of these reasons. Sure, other reasons for and justifications of separation are cited as well, and can be just as convincing to some: laws based on one religion should be rejected because they show disrespect to people adhering to other religions, or these people will fail to see the legitimacy of these laws; in the words of Rawls, laws should be grounded in reasons that are accessible to “common human reason”, i.e. secular reason; religiously inspired laws often imply violations of fundamental rights etc.

Whatever the reasons given, most democratic citizens accept that there has to be some kind of separation. The only dispute that remains is the degree or type of separation. Should religion be completely banned from public and political discussions? Should religious reasons for legislation be completely and always unacceptable? Or can they be accommodated when other, secular reasons are also available (i.e. the Lemon test) and when the law in question doesn’t harm fundamental rights? Those and other questions remain essentially controversial. Below I offer an admittedly crude typology of forms of separation that democracies can and do apply. But before that I want to make another point that is important to keep in mind when discussing separation of church and state.

And that point is the remarkable similarity between legal and religious modes of thought. It is this similarity that has led to the original and historical entanglement between religion and politics and that has therefore initiated the attempts to dislodge politics from religion. Both religion and politics are about the realization of morality. They both encourage people to engage in some forms of action and to disengage from other forms of action, and the distinction between forms of action is a moral one in both law and religion. Both law and religion differentiate between right and wrong actions, even if they may not always use the same adjectives (the law doesn’t talk about sinful behavior for example). Both use ritual and judgment. Of course, some religions – notably the Abrahamic religions – tend more towards the legal mode of thought than others. Confucianism, by contrast, sees the law negatively, as a impediment to the internalization of norms of conduct, and therefore an obstruction to virtue.

Let’s now return to the modes of separation. In an effort that’s clearly bordering on the simplistic, I count 6 types of relationship between politics/law and religion, in descending order of separateness, from complete separation to complete lack of separation:

1. Secularism or strict separation

According to this view, there should be an impregnable wall between church and state (Jefferson’s “wall of separation”), and the government should be essentially secular. The archetype is of course French laïcité (often translated as “secularism”), the product of centuries of nefarious involvement by Catholics in French public life. It entails the rejection of religious involvement in government affairs (as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs, by the way). That includes rejection of religion in public education, for example. Secularism implies a restrictive understanding of “private life” where religion is supposed to belong. In “public” (which includes for example public schools) religious people should act as citizens (“citoyens”) and also appear as such (hence the controversy over Muslim dress in France, see here and here). Secularism produces a reasonable level of religious freedom in society and private life but often relatively harsh restrictions on religious activity in government, law, politics and public life.

Another problem is that it seems impossible to avoid that religious values and religious moral sensibilities influence the law. And even if it were possible, it would be undesirable, in my view. Religion can be a valuable source in public discourse (and I say this as an agnostic). And neither should one underestimate the power of religious argument to appeal across religious divides, or even across the divide between religion and non-belief.

2. Neutrality

Neutrality, compared to secularism, also separates church and state but imposes a less severe form of exclusion of religion from government, legislation and policy. It forbids governments from favoring or advancing a particular religion over other religions, but it also forbids favoring secularism over religion. Notwithstanding the words of Jefferson quoted above, neutrality rather than secularism is typical of the current interpretation of the U.S. constitution. Religion is allowed a far greater role in U.S. public life than in France. Elected politicians in the U.S. regularly invoke religion, and religious reasons are often used as justifications for legislation (as long as the Lemon test is respected, see above).

Yet, the U.S. government cannot provide tax money in support of religion, for example, or impose school prayer in public schools, not even if students can excuse themselves (of course, prayer while at school is not forbidden as such; on the contrary, it is protected by the free exercise clause).

3. Accommodation

Accommodation, compared to neutrality, is still a system in which church and state are separated, but to an even lesser degree. Accommodation permits a government to acknowledge that religion is an important force in society, and only prohibits laws that either coerce religious activity or fail to treat different religions equally. A state can favor a religion without coercing it. Examples of government interference with religion that accommodation would allow are: the use of public (i.e. government) school facilities by religious groups, government aid (financial or otherwise) to religious schools, or school prayer if students aren’t forced to attend or if different religions get equal prayer time.

Some say the U.S. is slowly moving from neutrality to accommodation (partly because of the influence of Justice Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court).

4. Establishment

An even lesser form of separation occurs when one church is the established church (e.g. the Church of England) but other religions are still tolerated and have a measure of freedom. Establishment can mean either a “state church” or a “state religion”. A “state church” is created by the state as in the cases of the Anglican Church or the Church of Sweden. An example of “state religion” is Catholicism in Argentina. In the case of the former, the state has absolute control over the state church, but in the case of the latter, in this example, the Vatican has control over the church.

The problem here is that non-established churches, although they may be tolerated and even enjoy a large measure of freedom, aren’t treated equally, perhaps not by the law but simply because of their lack of equal recruitment power. So they are disadvantaged and hence there’s no equal religious freedom. Even if non-official religions are not actively persecuted or discriminated against, they are worse off when one religion is established because they have less means to influence the public as the official state religion. They are not as free as the official religion.

5. Entanglement

This takes establishment a step further. The state’s favorite religion is no longer a “primus inter pares”. Other, non-official, non-established or non-favorite religions suffer not just a competitive disadvantage because of their non-official character, but also relatively severe restrictions of their religious liberty (of their recruitment efforts, their freedom of worship etc.).

6. Fusion/theocracy

Law and religion are the same, and separation is effectively and completely undone. The law is an instrument in the realization of religious law and morality. Rather than merely competitive disadvantage or restrictions on worship and recruiting, religions suffer outright prohibition and persecution. Of course, the same can occur when a state has adopted atheism as its official ideology, and actively persecutes religion as such, rather than some religions in particular. However, this has become the exception since the demise of communism, and only occurs in countries such as China, Cuba and North Korea.

Some claim that certain modern Islamic republics or countries that have implemented Shari’a law are examples of theocracy (see here). But is a pure theocracy possible? Not even the most totalitarian interpretations of a religion will unearth rules for everything. Hence, some laws are bound to be rooted in something else than religion. We see that theocracy, like the other extreme (secularism), finds it difficult to remain pure.

Separation and liberty

Now, if you agree that a separation between state and church is necessary for the protection of religious liberty, as I argued at the beginning of this post, then it may be useful to compare these 6 different types of separation (going from complete separation to complete absence of separation) with regard to the respective consequences for religious liberty of each type.

Secularism performs slightly less well with regard to religious liberty than neutrality or accommodation, but better than establishment, and obviously also better than entanglement and theocracy (the latter receiving a zero score). Difficult to say whether neutrality offers more religious liberty than accommodation or vice versa.

Some data

[T]wo-in-three people in the world today live in countries with high levels of restrictions on religion. The report gauges the level of restrictions due both to government actions and to acts of violence and intimidation by private individuals, organizations and social groups. … 64 nations, about one-third of the countries in the world, have high or very high restrictions on religion. The brunt of these restrictions are often felt most directly by religious minorities. … Among all world geographic regions, the Middle East and North Africa have the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures. … In 75 countries, or four-in-ten countries in the world, national or local governments limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith. In 178 countries (90%), religious groups must register with the government for various purposes, and in 117 (59%) countries the registration requirements resulted in major problems for, or outright discrimination against, certain faiths. (source)

More on religious liberty here.

Religion and Human Rights (23): Muslim Headscarves – Between Religious Liberty and Gender Discrimination

The Muslim headscarf is back in the news. First some schools in Belgium decided to ban the headscarves, and then the French government started a discussion about the Burqa. (We should be careful when discussing the “Muslim headscarf” because the concept covers a wide variety of garments, going from the simple veil covering only the hair, over the Niqab leaving only the eyes uncovered, to the Burqa covering the whole body and providing only a grid to see through).

I already expressed my doubts about such bans, and particularly about singling out Muslim women. Why not also Hasidic women wearing wigs, Christians wearing crosses, Sikhs wearing Turbans etc.? It just reeks of islamophobia. It’s true that the Muslim veil, compared to dress codes of other religions or cultures, and especially the less revealing types of veil, can be interpreted as signs of gender discrimination, and even causes of gender discrimination (because wearing a full-body veil inhibits the agency of women and makes them more vulnerable to patriarchal power). However, I fail to see how a simple ban of the veil will result in less discrimination. That would be just “kurieren am Symptomen”. Other, more effective measures are required against gender discrimination, and not only in Muslim society.

On the other hand, the Belgian schools justified their decision by pointing to the fact that many Muslim girls who don’t cover their heads are threatened and pressured by their more pious fellow girl students, as well as by their male Muslim fellow students. So there is a clear dilemma here: banning the scarf means restricting the free choice and the religious liberty of those girls who voluntarily choose to wear it; allowing the scarf means restricting the free choice of those girls not wanting to wear it and allowing the existence of signs and means of gender discrimination. The headscarf ban can be interpreted as either a violation of rights (religious liberty, freedom of choice) or a protection of rights (gender equality, freedom of choice).

There are also those who claim, perhaps not without reason, that young Muslim girls are really not ready to make an informed choice since they may have been indoctrinated from early childhood on. Creating an environment where they can meet girls who don’t cover their head will allow them to make an informed choice. And if such an environment means banning the veil in schools because peer pressure would result in the generalization of the veil, then so be it. The girls who want to wear the veil can still do it outside of school. (More on informed consent here).

The problem here is that it is assumed that girls can’t make an informed choice, and that those who wear the veil are ignorant and indoctrinated and need to be saved and re-educated. Such a view of girls as passive victims of their oppressive religion can itself be an expression of gender discrimination. And even if it’s not, it signals that women are inferior and hence helps to solidify what it intends to destroy.

Religion and Human Rights (22): The Proper Role of Religion in a Democracy

For me, as an agnostic, the question of the place of religion in a democracy is an important one, although I believe the question would be just as important if I held a religious belief or if I were an atheist. There’s no doubt in my mind that the full protection of human rights and civil liberties for all citizens can be jeopardized by misconceptions about the proper role of religion. Take, for example, the rights of homosexuals, the rights of non-believers or adherents of other religions, women’s rights etc.

At the most basic level, this is a problem of tolerance. We should not impose our beliefs, moral values and practices on others if these others don’t inflict harm, even if we think other people act immorally from the point of view of our religion. And neither should we discriminate people when they act or speak or think in ways that are incompatible with our own beliefs. These two prescriptions are based on the need for respect. We would show disrespect for other people if we were to force them to act according to our own beliefs. And the need for respect is, in turn, based, on the importance of freedom. Other people value their freedom to act according to their own beliefs. Let’s take two examples:

  • A Muslim father may, as long as his daughter is underage, impose certain religiously inspired rules of behavior on this daughter, and he can even hope that the girl internalizes these rules and respects them for the rest of her life. But when the girl reaches adulthood and chooses to live according to her own rules, she will be protected to do so by her human rights and civil liberties, even against the wishes of her father. The proper role of the religious beliefs of the father has reached its limit. The father should tolerate and respect (which doesn’t mean agree with) the choices of his adult daughter, and the laws of the democracy in which they live will enforce this tolerance and the girl’s freedom of choice if necessary.
  • A Catholic human resources manager in the recruitment department of the army of a democratic country, refuses to hire a perfectly qualified candidate because of her homosexuality. Again, this would be a sign of disrespect on the part of the HR manager and the law should intervene.

But the problem goes beyond the level of relations between citizens. The question about the proper place and role of religion in a democracy isn’t limited to the problem of how we treat each other in our daily lives, how we treat our wives and children, our gay or “infidel” neighbors or employees etc. In a democracy, the people translate their beliefs in legislation and government policy. Hence we should ask to what extent people can use their religious beliefs as the basis or reason for legislation.

Here I take a nuanced position between the two extremes: between a complete lack of restrictions on the role of religion in democratic legislation, and a complete exclusion of religion from democratic legislation. So the question becomes one of degree: to what extent can religion be the basis of law? When is it allowed, and when is it no longer allowed for religious reasons to be the reasons for government coercion?

I think that the problem arises when the legal coercion resulting from religious reasons violates the human rights and civil liberties of individuals, and that any religiously inspired legislation that stops short of such violations is acceptable. Some would say that even legal coercion based on religious reasons that doesn’t violate the rights of individuals is reprehensible, but I don’t agree. An argument in favor of this more restrictive approach could go as follows. Legislation based on religion automatically implies disrespect for people of other religions and for non-believers, since the religious reasons used as a basis for this legislation are likely to be exclusive to a particular religion. Only religious reasons which are sufficiently vague so as not to be exclusive to one religion can then be acceptable religious reasons for legislation. An example: charity can be an acceptable religious reason for legislation, because it’s not a reason that is exclusive to one religion, perhaps not even to religion as such. Laws regarding the sabbath, on the contrary, would not be an acceptable reason for legislation, even if it produces legislation that doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. Or the argument could be that only a law that is supported at the same time by religious reasons and non-religious reasons is acceptable, and that laws that are supported only by religious reasons are unacceptable, even if they don’t violate anyone’s rights.

I think that goes too far. Disrespect should be avoided, but I don’t see why the avoidance of disrespect should automatically override legitimate religious concerns. It’s not even clear to me that there’s necessarily disrespect involved in the use of exclusive religious reasons as a basis for legislation. It’s certainly not the case that such legislation necessarily means forcing one religion on people of other faiths or of no faith. If that would be the case, we would have legislation that violates the rights of individuals (namely the freedom of religion). And that would violate my own rule stated above.

However, legislation that is based on exclusive religious reasons does involve coercing people on the basis of a doctrine that they don’t accept. But, again, if this coercion doesn’t result in rights violations I can’t see what would be wrong with it. Laws by definition force people to do things they don’t accept or to abstain from doing things that are essential to them. I don’t see why there should be laws in any other case.

To summarize, religious people can advocate and – if they are in the majority – implement laws on the basis of their own, exclusive religious reasons, as long as the human rights and civil liberties of all are respected. A religiously inspired law banning same-sex marriage would therefore not be acceptable; a law instituting a religious holiday on the contrary would be acceptable. In the words of Habermas:

The liberal state must not transform the requisite institutional separation of religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith. (source)

On the other hand, religious people should also refrain from imposing a burden on the rights of their fellow citizens.

Some would say that even my rule is too restrictive on religion. For religious people, religion is not only a personal and private conviction but also the law of humanity. Forcing them to forsake the legal implementation of their religious views means taking away their identity, forcing them to be what they don’t want to be. Their religious beliefs are political beliefs and always trump opposing political beliefs. It’s intolerable for them to be forced not to implement their beliefs by way of legislation, or to submit to political decisions that are not based on their religious reasons. It’s indeed a good question: can religious people really accept democracy, given that God cannot be in the minority and God’s commands are absolute and trump opposing majority decisions? Democracy seems to be unacceptable from a religious point of view. However, catering to this view would mean forfeiting democracy, majority rule, the free choice of others, respect for others, freedom of religion, and human rights, and replacing all this by absolute theocracy. I don’t think that’s a price many are willing to pay, and not even many religious people as I argued here.

Religion and Human Rights (21): The Attractiveness of Religious Liberty to Those Who Hate it

Religious extremism

This post examines the relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism. The expression, “religious extremism”, does not only or even mainly refer to terrorism, jihad or sectarianism. Those are only the more flagrant instances of religiously inspired human rights violations.  All religiously inspired human rights violations are covered here by the concept of religious extremism.

Two other remarks may help to avoid misunderstandings. First, this post by no means focuses exclusively on Islam. Although most news stories about religious extremism nowadays tend to highlight rights abuses in Islamic countries or Islamic terrorism, history shows that none of this is the monopoly of any religion.

Second, the existence of religiously inspired human rights violations does not prove that religion as such is necessarily incompatible with human rights. This post does not make that claim. We should be well aware that rights abuses can be inspired by many different ideologies, religious and secular. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the historic evolution of human rights was and still is underpinned by religious motivation. The incompatibility of religion and human rights is the exception. It is limited to some interpretations of some practices of religions. Religion is above all a matter of conviction and belief, and only then a matter of practice. And conviction and belief can never harm human rights, which is why they benefit from absolute protection by human rights.

Religious liberty

Regarding the concept of religious liberty: what is it and why is it so important? Religious liberty is a human right among other human rights. It contains the freedom of belief, the freedom to practice and promote a freely chosen belief, both in private and in public. It is also the freedom to change belief and the freedom to have no belief at all (the freedom to be non-religious, or the freedom from religion).

Here’s the way it’s formulated in the Universal Declaration, article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Religious liberty is in general words the right to be protected against religious coercion and persecution. Of course, one can and does discuss this definition. There is a lot of literature about the precise meaning of religious liberty. I just assume that we can use the definition given here as a working definition for the purpose of this post.

By protecting people against religious coercion, the right to religious liberty promotes a diverse and plural society, even beyond the field of religion. If there can be diversity and debate in something as important as religion, why not in other fields? So religious liberty functions as an example and a benchmark. It promotes diversity and debate in general, and hence it promotes other human rights – such as freedom of speech – which can occupy the free public space created by religious freedom. Religious liberty, in the same manner, promotes tolerance. If people can be tolerant – or, better, can be forced to be tolerant – in religious matters, it will be easier to enforce tolerance in other fields.

As a consequence, religious liberty is of importance to everyone, including non-religious persons, and not only because it protects them against the imposition of a religion. It also allows them, and everyone else, to live in a world of diversity, tolerance and human rights. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of the system of human rights and of crucial importance to a plural world. It is a prerequisite for the whole system of human rights, but also vice versa. Freedoms of speech, of assembly and of association are religious freedoms as well and are prerequisites for religious liberty strictu sensu.

The attitude of religious extremists towards religious liberty

The relationship between religious liberty and religious extremism is ambivalent. On the one hand, we see that religious extremists, especially those living in democracies, use or better abuse religious liberty to justify certain religious practices and norms which violate human rights. On the other hand, and more generally, religious extremists do not like religious liberty. They are universalists. They want to impose their norms on others and do not want others to enjoy religious liberty. Unbelievers do not deserve freedom because they oppose the laws of God, the only God and the God of all human beings. Man does not have the freedom to violate the laws of God.

Religious universalists naturally try to take over the machinery of the state, because then they can use the law, the police, the judiciary, state education, etc, to bring back the “lost sheep”, against their will if necessary.

[R]eligiously wrong – a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against.  Deorum injuriae Diis curae.  Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods.  It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures.

The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them.  […] a determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion.  It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty

Universalism is of course inherent in most major religions (perhaps not in Judaism). However, religious extremists go beyond the normal religious tendency of promoting universality by persuasion and voluntary conversion. They try to achieve universality by taking away the religious liberty and other human rights of their opponents. They use force and violence, sometimes even terror and war. Even the members of their own groups often suffer rights abuse because of the objective of universality (for example, punishment for apostasy).

(By the way, universalism is not an exclusively religious phenomenon. We can also find it in many non-religious worldviews such as capitalism and communism. We can observe that these other worldviews also tend to violate human rights if they take their universalism too seriously. One could even claim that the ideology of human rights is a kind of universalism. Fortunately, this ideology cannot permit itself to violate human rights for the sake of its universalism, because that would be self-destructive).

First-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

I’ve mentioned above that there is a two-way causation, unity and interdependence in the system of human rights (by the way, this is a recurrent feature in the system, even in parts of it unconnected to religious liberty). This unity can help to solve the problem of the violation of religious liberty by religious extremists and the violation of other human rights justified by religious liberty. Religious extremists can violate human rights in two ways:

  • either internally in their own groups, again in two ways:
    • for example, certain religious practices such as gender discrimination, forced circumcision, etc). These practices are often justified as falling under the protection of religious liberty;
    • or by prohibiting exit-attempts (apostasy) – which often occur as a consequence of the previous type of violation – and taking away the freedom of religion in the sense of the freedom to change one’s religion;
  • or externally, in their practices directed at outsiders (for example, forced conversion, terrorism, holy war, etc). These practices can violate only the freedom of religion of outsiders, or also their other human rights.

Now, all these practices cannot and should not benefit from the protection offered by religious liberty. No single human right, including the freedom of religion, can justify human rights violations. Human rights have to be balanced against each other and must be limited when they produce human rights violations. Limiting rights for the sake of other rights or the rights of others is a normal practice in the system of human rights. This system is not a harmonious whole. Rights can be contradictory. Take the right of privacy of a public figure trumping the right of freedom of expression of a journalist. Or the right to life of people in a crowd trumping the freedom of speech of one of them wanting to yell “FIRE!” without good reason.

In the case of religious liberty: one could argue that the right to equal treatment and non-discrimination of women, the right to life of apostates and the religious freedom of adherents of other religions trump the right to some religious practices which would normally enjoy protection under the religious liberty articles.

Second-level protection against rights violations by religious extremists

This first-level protection implies, of course, the enforcement, often by force, of human rights against the will of religious extremists. A better protection would be based not on external force but on internal motivation. The central thesis of this post is the following: notwithstanding the hostility shown by extremists with regard to religious liberty and other human rights, they can be persuaded that they have tactical reasons to accept religious liberty and human rights in general, even if their religious views tell them otherwise. This thesis is based on the force of self-interest as a universal human motivation. It therefore excludes the ultra-extremists who blow themselves up for their religion. They have forsaken self-interest and cannot be convinced to take a course of action based on self-interest. However, they are a minority even among extremists (some of them probably have not forsaken self-interest but are forced to do what they do). So let us concentrate on the other extremists.

There is reason to believe that societies are becoming more and more diverse, culturally and religiously. As a consequence of migration and globalization, states are becoming collections of religious sub-communities. This increased diversity of societies means that religious sub-communities need the protection of religious liberty and other human rights. Even the extremists among them, those who want to coerce, can one day, when the demography has changed, be coerced by the opposing extremists. Therefore, they can be tempted to adopt religious liberty and human rights for their own long-term protection even if these contradict their religious beliefs and practices and their universalist claims. At first sight, a universalist religious extremist may not consider religious liberty and the freedom and equality of all religions as being in his self-interest, or even in the self-interest of the adherents of the other religions. On the contrary, it is in his interest that a maximum number of people convert to his religion. From the point of view of salvation, this is also in the unconscious interest of the people to be converted. He may claim that the latter not only should lose their religious liberty, but also their other rights, and perhaps even their life.

But rejecting the religious liberty and other rights of others means destroying the state mechanisms which he may one day need to defend himself against other extremists who immigrate or become stronger through other means. After all, globalization means that everyone can become a minority everywhere.

It makes sense for a strong majority with universalist claims to reject the rights of minorities, but only in the short-term. In the long term, it’s much more rational to keep the human rights protection mechanisms intact, if not out of conviction, then tactically in order not to cut off the branch one may need to sit on in the future.

Even the protection of human rights internally in a group makes tactical sense. Here it’s not a question of counting on reciprocal respect, if necessary enforced by your own reluctant example or by enforcement mechanisms kept intact by your own groups’ respect for them. Respect for the rights of the members of your own group also helps to maintain a rights enforcing state which can help protect you against other groups.

Of course, this reasoning requires rationality and objective analysis of self-interest on the part of religious extremists, which is perhaps utopian.

Inclusive and exclusive norms

We can put all this in another way by making the distinction between inclusive and exclusive norms. Inclusive norms are norms such as tolerance, freedom of speech, etc. They try to protect plurality and hold different people with different convictions together.

Exclusive norms try to win a competitive struggle with other norms and try to exclude difference. For example, homosexuality is a sin. Religious norms are often exclusive norms, but not always (think of charity for instance) and many exclusive norms are not religious at all (racism for example).

Someone who is attached to an exclusive norm will try to change people, to persuade, convert, perhaps even impose or force. (To stay with my example on homosexuality: there are “clubs”, if you can call them that, in the US where people help homosexuals to “convert” to heterosexuality). So, exclusive norms may lead to rights violations or violations of inclusive norms.  In that case, inclusive norms should, in my view, take precedence. However, for religious people, the commands of God clearly trump human rights. It’s easier to protect inclusive norms against exclusive norms if religious communities have internalized inclusive norms and only promote, rather than impose, their exclusive norms. In doing so they guarantee that the inclusive norms are alive and well when the exclusive norms of other sub-communities start to manifest themselves. Even extremists may be convinced that this is a rational approach.

Religion and Human Rights (20): Should a Liberal Society Tolerate Illiberal Religious and Cultural Practices Within That Society?

By a “liberal society” I mean, of course, a society respecting the equal human rights of all its citizens. By “illiberal cultural practices” I mean practices that have a cultural origin and that violate the rights of some of the members of that particular culture. An example would be certain instances of gender discrimination in Muslim migrant communities living in a Western democracy.

Such cultural practices are a dilemma for a liberal society. On the one hand, the society’s commitment to equal rights drives it towards interference within subcultures that violate these rights. This isn’t only a moral imperative. There’s also a legal aspect to it. Equal rights are enshrined in the law of the society, and the equal application of the law is a separate imperative.

On the other hand, a liberal society wants to respect cultural diversity and doesn’t require that migrant or minority communities assimilate to a dominant culture. Freedom of religion, another liberal imperative, also forces a liberal society to accept and tolerate non-mainstream cultures. And, finally, human rights are seen as individual choices: people are allowed to freely abandon their rights if they so choose.

As a result of all of this, a liberal society usually reacts to illiberal cultural practices in the following way: as long as individual members of groups within that society have a right to exit (e.g. a right to apostasy) the state, the law and social forces have no right to interfere with the internal norms and practices of those groups, even when these norms and practices constitute (gross) violations of human rights. If people stay in the groups, then this is assumed to be an expression of their agreement with these norms and practices. Any rights violations that occur are then deemed to be voluntary and no one else’s business. For example, if a Christian church discriminates against its homosexual members, this is deemed to be no reason for intervention as long as homosexuals can freely enter or leave the church.

The problem with this is that there’s not always a free choice to stay within a group, or leave. Choice is often socially constructed. Certain elements within a culture use narratives and other means of pressure in order to encourage other members to “willingly” comply with norms and practices that oppress them. People’s beliefs and preferences are, continually and from a very young age onwards, influenced by the norms and practices of the group they belong to. Hence it’s often very difficult for members of a group to view oppressive cultural norms and practices as illegitimate, even if they are the ones suffering from them. So it’s even more difficult for these members to openly defy these norms, reject them and act to change them. And even when members do understand that the norms and practices of their group are oppressive, it’s often very difficult to leave the group. Leaving may cause an identity crisis. For example, is it realistic to expect an oppressed Muslim woman to negate Islam? Leaving may be too costly, even compared to the gains that result from the end of oppression.

So, the standard liberal solution – let minorities be internally oppressive as long as they allow their members an easy exit – isn’t a solution at all. Personally, I would recommend a stronger insistence on equal rights, even at the cost of intolerance of illiberal diversity.

Religion and Human Rights (19): Between Equality and Diversity – The Rule of Law, Except When…

One of the principles of liberal democracies is equality before the law. The law shouldn’t protect or harm some citizens more than others (and to some extent this even applies to non-citizens within the jurisdiction of the democracy). The law applies equally to all.

Diversity

This principle, however, can be put to the test by another principle that is important to liberal democracies, namely tolerance of diversity. Most democracies are multicultural in the sense that they are made up of many different groups that have often radically different and incompatible beliefs, customs and norms. Liberal democracies value this diversity and have mechanisms to protect it, such as rules on tolerance, religious liberty, freedom of association etc. They value this diversity and try to protect it for at least three reasons:

  • They believe that group identity is an important source of individual identity and well-being.
  • They believe that group diversity offers a plurality of perspectives, and that this is necessary if deliberations on fundamental issues are to progress towards the truth.
  • The believe that national unity isn’t only or primarily a matter of assimilation or convergence towards a single, national and official doctrine, but rather of peaceful coexistence in diversity.

Rules and exemptions

This tolerance of diversity can be burdened by equality before the law. Many liberal democracies have been forced to accept certain exceptions to the principle of the equal application of the law, and have exempted some groups from certain generally applicable laws. Some  examples:

  • Anti-discrimination laws: groups have been allowed to discriminate, for example regarding their membership rules, or their internal operating rules, on the condition that they allow a right to exit of members who come to find this unacceptable.
  • Because of their religious obligations, Sikhs have been exempted from the obligation to wear crash helmets for motorcyclists or safety helmets for construction workers, or from the prohibition to wear knives in public.
  • Certain indigenous peoples have been exempted from prohibitions to fish or hunt or to slaughter animals in a certain way.

The rationale for such exemptions is that a “neutral” law, which is by definition equally applicable to everyone, may not have the same effect on everyone. It may unintentionally place a relatively heavy burden on a very specific minority because it unintentionally prohibits or compels a certain practice which has special significance for that minority. Such exemptions may be deemed necessary to preserve the distinctive identity and way of life of the minority, and to preserve the diversity and harmony of society as a whole.

This opt-out right, which allows minorities – usually cultural or religious minorities – to not apply or respect the general law, is similar to the right of conscientious objection. In many countries, refusal to serve in the military – otherwise a general legal rule – is a legally recognized option. (However, the opt-out right is not the same as civil disobedience, which isn’t a legally recognized option and the disobedient usually accept the consequences of breaking the law. Breaking the law and publicly accepting the consequences is precisely their purpose. They want to create a public spectacle showing the injustice of the law).

Possible objections against the opt-out right

1. Illiberal consequences

Exemptions are often granted for rules that are not really intended to protect third parties (such as crash helmet rules) or that do not create substantial harm when occasionally they are not applied (e.g. hunting exemptions). However, if we accept the general possibility of an opt-out right, can we not end up in a situation in which minorities are allowed to disrespect fundamental rules such as human rights, either internally in the group or externally? The classic example is the possible right of Muslim minorities in liberal democracies to apply Shari’a law within their communities.

Obviously, such far-reaching exemptions sound outrageous to those of us for whom human rights are very important. Yet I believe that even those exemptions can be justified in certain cases: they would only be acceptable if the following three conditions are jointly met:

  • The groups in question do not violate the human rights of people outside of the group.
  • The groups provide the right to exit in a substantial way. “Substantial” means that they do not only provide the formal right to exit but also provide members the educational, intellectual, moral, financial and other resources necessary to make a free and conscious choice about staying or leaving. However, it’s often very difficult to say whether a particular group is a truly voluntary association and whether members have a real choice to leave. Only when this is indeed and obviously the case can such far-reaching exemptions be allowed. There’s also the case of group members that are incapable of making a real choice, e.g. children. Exemptions cannot be allowed to produce violations of their rights, since they cannot exit.
  • The rights violations are an essential part of the group’s identity rather than an opportunistic policy of the group’s leadership.

2. Exemptions for what?

This third condition leads to a second possible objection to the opt-out right: which elements of a group’s identity are strong and central enough to warrant an exemption from a generally applicable law? Who decides which are these elements? Do we trust the spokespersons of the group? But how are they appointed and do they speak for the group? Or is it not likely that they have some selfish reasons for exemptions and the possible rights violations resulting from them, given that they are likely to be in a position of power inside the group? If not the spokespersons, should it be outside elements, engaging in anthropology, or cultural exegesis?

3. Domino effect of exemptions

Another objection: every law puts more burdens on some citizens than on others. Smoking bans put a heavier burden on smokers, shoplifting laws on kleptomaniacs etc. If we provide exemptions for laws which burden cultural, ethnic or religious groups, why not also for kleptomaniacs? And if we would do so, wouldn’t the whole construction of the rule of law tumble under the weight of exceptions? Of course it would, but that’s not the reasons why we limit exceptions or exemptions (one can argue that these are not the same, but I’ll bracket that for the moment) to those which protect group identity. As stated before, group identity – contrary to kleptomania or other possible reasons for exemptions – is deemed to be a very important value in liberal democracies, and important enough to override in some cases the other important value of equality before the law.

Citizens who do not belong to a group that has received an exemption to a general rule may complain that they are discriminated against, compared to the members of the group. These citizens may also want to opt out of the rule – for example a rule imposing military service – not for religious or cultural reasons, but for other reasons, and not necessarily for opportunistic reasons. Indeed, it may seem arbitrary to limit exemptions to cultural and religious groups. But we have to admit that such groups are more likely to suffer from  special burden imposed by general rules, and that they are particularly important to the diversity of liberal societies.

4. Calcification of groups

Exemptions or the opt-out right require strict identification of group members. It must be possible to decide which individual citizens in a society are free to not respect a certain law, otherwise law enforcement becomes impossible. This may have consequences for the exit right. The state fixes group membership. Not only should the state not do such a thing, but it shouldn’t be done at all. The exit right is important, especially when we decide to allow controversial practices. And this right can be harmed if group composition is officially sanctioned.

Moreover, this strict identification of membership implies a simplification of human identity and group identity. Groups are often complex and internally contradictory. Opt-out rights fix not only membership but also group identity: the state decides once and for all, by granting a legal exemption for a certain practice, that this practice is typical of a group. Internal dissent within the group, and directed against the practice, is then stifled. The state has then sided with the most powerful factions within a group, and that’s not something a liberal state should do.

One could object to this objection by claiming that the “losers” of the internal struggle to determine the group’s identity still have the right to leave the group. However, that also isn’t a choice that the state should determine. It should allow dissenting group members – such as feminist Muslims or gay Catholics – to continue to dissent within the group, rather than impose the limited choice of either accepting the dominant doctrine of the group – a doctrine elevated to dominance with the help of the state and the opt-out right granted by it – or leave the group.

The effort to protect groups from external pressure can inadvertently promote internal pressure. In other words: the effort to protect a group from externally imposed change can stifle internally promoted change. By recognizing a practice as typical of a group and worthy of an exemption to a general rule, the state helps to cement this practice, perhaps against the wishes of minorities within the group that work against the practice.

5. Opportunism

It’s often difficult to tell if an exemption is demanded by a true group member for identity reasons, or by a wavering member for opportunistic reasons. Or, for that matter, by an individual who decided to join the group, not for substantial reasons but to escape the law.

Conclusion

I believe exemptions are sometimes justifiable, especially if the risk of harm created by the exemption is relatively small compared to the benefits for the groups enjoying the exemption. But there are many practical problems related to the decision whether or not to grant an exemption.

Religion and Human Rights (18): Euthanasia

People own their own body. Their body is part of their private property. It is something that is theirs; it is the thing par excellence that is their own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination and therefore the right to die.

Religion and Human Rights (15): Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty

From someone on the political “right”:

Changes in the law that bring a little happiness, resolve some painful practical injustices (from hospital visitation rights to the ability to benefit from the spousal Death Tax exemption) and help take the previously marginalized deeper into “regular” society should, probably, be seen as a Good Thing.

The role of the Right should be to shape the way that this change takes place, by building in, for example, free speech and “conscientious objection” protections to those who do not go along. If that’s the aim, a position of outright opposition is not the best place to begin. Andrew Stuttaford (source)

This view on same-sex marriage is a welcome change. Unfortunately, many in the religious right still adopt prejudiced and bigoted opinions regarding gays (which doesn’t mean that all on the right are prejudiced or that prejudice is the monopoly of the right). Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, bigoted or not. That’s a fundamental freedom. And when these opinions are grounded in religious morality, the issue is not only free speech but also religous liberty. The problem arises when people want to impose their opinions and morality on others by way of the law.

If a Christian believes that gay sex, gay marriage etc. are immoral, then he or she has strong reasons not to engage in such activities. And also to communicate these reasons to others and to try and persuade them to be “moral”. What this person should not be allowed to do is to use the power of the state and the law to force others to be “moral”. The role of the state and the law is not to impose one particular view of morality or religion, but to guarantee a maximum degree of freedom and equal treatment to all citizens.

Religiously wrong, a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly protested against. Deorum injuriae Diis curae. Injustices to the gods are the concern of the gods. It remains to be proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on high to avenge any supposed offense to Omnipotence which is not also a wrong to our fellow creatures. The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them … A determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion. It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested. John Stuart Mill.

So we should outlaw only an offense to Omnipotence which is also a wrong to our fellow creatures: there have of course been attempts to describe homosexuality among consenting adults as something that can produce harm to others (e.g. children adopted by gay couples etc.), but in my view no successful attempts.

To come back to the first quote: the “conscientious objection protections” that are mentioned are indeed useful. Proponent of same-sex marriage such as I should take into account the genuine fears of religious people. When we abolish the laws that refuse same-sex couples the right to marry – and hence abolish one instance of the law being used to impose one person’s morality on another – we should make sure that we respect people’s freedom of religion. For example, we should not make it illegal for a Cathholic priest to refure to marry a same-sex couple, or for a Christian adoption agency to refuse to place children with same-sex couples etc. If we were to make such refusals illegal, we would be needlessly limiting the freedom of religion of those people. I have a detailed post here on the need to balance the rights of gays with the rights of religious people.

Limiting Free Speech (25): Does Freedom of Religion Require Limits on Freedom of Speech?

The UN Human Rights Council recently passed a Resolution on Religious Defamation. The main concern of the drafters of this resolution is islamophobia, defamation of Muslims, negative stereotyping of Muslims and Islam, and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. The main targets are, obviously, western societies where, it is believed, “terrorism hysteria” has caused widespread anti-Muslim feelings.

Of course, no one should accept discrimination and intolerance, and even less islamophobic acts of violence. If there is discrimination and violence, then these human rights violations should be countered, wherever they occur, in the West and elsewhere. However, trying to outlaw defamation and stereotyping is a lot more controversial. While such acts are certainly not helpful in any circumstances, it’s not beyond doubt that they are harmful in themselves or that they are the single most important cause of more harmful acts, such as discrimination and violence.

For the proponents of the resolution, this is beyond doubt. Defamation, stereotyping, derogatory speech, blasphemy etc. are all believed to be harmful enough to justify limiting freedom of speech. The resolution clearly proposes such limits. It talks about

the need, in all societies, to show sensitivity and responsibility in treating issues of special significance for the adherents of any particular faith.

The “provocative or regrettable incidents” it mentions are clearly but not explicitly instances of speech rather than the very rare cases of actual violence and discrimination against western Muslims, namely the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the remarks by Pope Benedict, the Rushdie affair, the attempts of some to equate Islam with terrorism etc. The resolution urges

States to take actions to prohibit the dissemination of… material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence,

and says that

respect of religions and their protection from contempt is an essential element conducive for the exercise by all of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

So in these statements, there are two distinct attempts to justify limits on speech that defames and stereotypes Islam:

  1. The first justification is that such speech is hate speech and speech that incites violence and discrimination.
  2. The second is that it restricts the freedom of religion of its targets.

I dealt with the first one before, in this post (where I argued for a very limited possibility to restrict hate speech), so here I’ll focus on the second one. Of course, the second one can collapse into the first one, if the restriction of freedom of religion is supposed to follow from acts of violence that are caused by speech. Acts of violence can indeed restrict freedom of religion, but this argument isn’t valid in the case of Muslims in the West, who have only very rarely been subjected to islamophobic violence and who therefore cannot claim that hate speech and the resulting violence restrict their freedom of religion. If anything, Muslims have more religious freedom in the West than in many Muslim countries.

So something more is meant by the second justification of limits on freedom of speech. It’s not, however, clear what exactly is meant. I haven’t been able to find examples, given by proponents of the resolution, of ways in which speech can restrict an individual’s freedom of religion. These proponents don’t get any further than the general claim that freedom of religion requires laws against defamation, and most likely also blasphemy, and corresponding limitations of free speech.

The question here, of course, is whether freedom of speech can in any way restrict the freedom of religion. If that is the case, then a trade-off has to be made as in all cases in which different human rights come into conflict. But I don’t think that is the case. On the contrary. Freedom of speech is an essential safeguard for freedom of religion.

Now, let’s suppose that there exists, somewhere, a good argument linking defamatory speech and restrictions of freedom of religion, but that I’m just not aware of it (yet). The problem is that, even if defamatory speech can in some obscure way limit someone’s freedom of religion, it doesn’t necessarily follow that in such a case freedom of religion should automatically take precedence over freedom of speech. When two rights come into conflict, it’s often very difficult to decide which one has priority.

Another problem with this undiscovered argument is the vagueness of “defamatory”. Defamation, according to Wikipedia, means the following:

In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel (for written publications), slander (for spoken word), and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. It is usually, but not always, a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).

Defamation – also libel or slander – is the offense of bringing a person into undeserved disrepute by making false statements. (I already discussed the relationship between free speech and defamation or libel here).

This definition, however, doesn’t help a lot because it doesn’t make clear what is or is not supposed to be considered as defamatory. What is defamatory differs from one person to another. And this vagueness of the concept may have far-reaching consequences. Suppose we agree that there are good reasons to restrict defamatory speech for the sake of freedom of religion. Is it not likely that those who have to enforce these legal restrictions will be tempted to use them to stifle legitimate criticism of religion instead of real defamation? Where is the border between defamation and criticism? Or between defamation and alternative, non-official interpretations of a religion? I guess that there will be a rapid transition from concerns about religious freedom to their exact opposite, namely policies to punish heresy, blasphemy and apostasy, and to criminalize dissent in general. It’s not defamation of religion that harms but the measures taken to defend religions from defamation – or, better, the measures that are claimed to be taken in defense or religion, but more often than not are taken in defense of power.

Religion and Human Rights (13): Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty, How Much Can We Discriminate?

Same-sex marriage to me is a no-brainer. Although international human rights law doesn’t explicitly grant gays and lesbians the right to marry, the notion of equal rights can be used to counter discrimination of homosexuals, including discrimination of marriage rights. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration states that everyone is entitled to all the rights set forth in it, without distinction of any kind. And the right to marry is recognized in article 16.

Furthermore, article 7 outlaws discrimination. On the basis of articles 2 and 7, many countries have enacted anti-discrimination legislation which outlaws racial discrimination, gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination and sometimes other types of discrimination as well. Such legislation punishes citizens who discriminate other citizens, for example restaurant owners refusing access to homosexuals, Jews, African-Americans etc.

However, the Universal Declaration and many constitutions also grant the right to religious liberty. Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Now, I think it’s fair to admit that freedom of religion and anti-discrimination laws can sometimes clash with each other (although the importance of such conflicts is often artificially inflated by opponents of same-sex marriage, see here for example). Anti-discrimination laws can force people to do things that violate their religious beliefs, if these beliefs require them to discriminate. Such laws can, if we stick to the previous example, force restaurant owners, who believe that homosexuals and Jews are sinners, to open their doors to homosexuals and Jews. When people are forced to act against their religious beliefs – no matter how bigoted these beliefs – it is fair to say that their religious freedom and freedom of conscience and belief are violated. These freedoms are not contingent on the quality of beliefs. All beliefs and religions, even the most bigoted ones, deserve protection (as long as they don’t cause harm to others of course).

It is not uncommon to see contradictions in the system of human rights. This system is not a harmonious whole. I’ve covered this problem extensively here and here. Rights are not always compatible, in which case one has to decide which of the conflicting rights has priority (or “trumps the other”). The normal (but not the only) rule is the extent of harm caused by a limitation of one right or the other.

In the case of discrimination of people on the basis of their sexual orientation, anti-discrimination laws based on article 2 of the Universal Declaration (or relevant articles of a national constitution) come into conflict with religious liberty (based also on the Universal Declaration or constitutional provisions). Both rights are very important (and I say this as a non-religious person), so the decision in favor of one or the other will never be an easy one.

Take again the example of the restaurant owner. At first sight, the answer seems obvious: let the restaurant owner refuse entry. The harm done by forcing him to grant access is clearly greater than the harm of forcing homosexuals to find another place to eat. On top of that, the restaurant owner can rightfully claim that not only his religious liberty and freedom of belief would suffer from forced access, but also his right to property (and to use it as he pleases). However, on closer inspection, things aren’t so clear. The harm done to homosexuals is likely to be much greater than just a dinner inconvenience. If a restaurant owner is allowed to discriminate, then this sends a signal to others that discrimination is OK. Choosing the side of the restaurant owner is in fact choosing the side of discrimination and legitimizes discrimination, causing harm that is potentially very widespread. After all, in a great majority of cases of people refusing to do something because of their discriminatory beliefs, there is someone else available to do what they refuse to do. So allowing people to refuse in one case because there is someone else who will not refuse (another restaurant), opens the door to a great number of refusals, and hence to widespread discrimination.

Furthermore, many cases are much more complicated than the restaurant case. How about a doctor refusing fertility treatment to a lesbian couple (married or not)? Or a Muslim doctor refusing to treat a female patient? Or a Christian university refusing to grant a gay person a place in its dormitory? Or a Catholic adoption agency refusing to place children with same-sex couples (married or not)? It’s clear that in many of these cases, the rights of those discriminated should take precedence over the freedom of belief of those discriminating because the harm done by discrimination is greater than the harm done by outlawing discrimination.

We should also distinguish between refusal by private persons and refusal by public officials. It seems much less acceptable for the latter to refuse to grant their services to certain types of people. The government should never discriminate people on the basis of religious belief. Governments should be religiously neutral as much as possible, and should respect the separation of state and church.

Anyway, sometimes anti-discrimination laws will trump other rights such as the freedom of religion, and sometimes not. So equal rights for gays, including the equal right to marry, will not “kill” religious freedom as some on the right believe. If we can convince opponents of anti-discrimination in general and same-sex marriage in particular that the concerns of religious beliefs are taken seriously and are not systematically deemed of lesser importance compared to equality, then they may give up some of their opposition. After all, even in those cases in which the concerns of equality are deemed to outweigh the concern of religion, the harm done to religion is not of catastrophic proportions. No one will ever force a priest to marry anyone, or a church to modify its doctrine, or someone wishing to express a preference for “traditional marriage” to shut up. In all these discussions on same-sex marriages, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Hysteric reactions on either side aren’t helpful at all. Compared to other rights violations, this problem is a minor one.

Much of this concerns discrimination in general, not just discrimination in the application of the right to marry. It just happens to be the case that the ongoing efforts to reduce marriage discrimination seem to cultivate the fears of many religious people that anti-discrimination laws will impose even further restrictions on religious liberty when same-sex marriage is recognized by law. These fears, however, are not substantiated by the evidence of countries or states which have, sometimes long ago, recognized same-sex marriage. Another reason to put things in perspective, something which is clearly captured by this quote:

While marriage and religious belief are one creature in the minds of many people, they are separate things in the law. Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism, for example, refuse to recognize secular divorce. But few argue that we should refuse to let people divorce for this reason. One can be divorced under the law but married in the eyes of the church. The statuses can be separated without a diminution of religious liberty. And nobody thinks that this de-linking of the two constitutes official oppression or the obliteration of religious freedom. Similarly, in principle, it should be possible to have a regime in which same-sex couples are married under the law but not married in the eyes of a given religion – all without extinguishing religious faith. Dale Carpenter (source)

Limiting Free Speech (23): Blasphemy Laws

Blasphemy laws are obviously limitations on the freedom of speech, and in my view, unjustifiable limitations. Blasphemy is a disrespectful or insulting statement about a God or a religion. It’s a kind of defamation or libel of God. (I disregard in the current context the act of claiming the attributes or prerogatives of deity, also a kind of blasphemy).

I never quite understood how people can think that an almighty God can be insulted by statements made by unbelievers, and needs to be protected against such statements by blasphemy laws. And I don’t say this because I’m agnostic. I would say the same thing if I was a believer. I think my God would be able to take it, and I can’t understand the concept of a God who can’t take it.

More intelligent proponents of laws prohibiting blasphemy see my point and redirect these laws towards a defense, not of God himself, but of his teachings and his flock. Blasphemy is then a verbal attack on a particular faith or on the followers of this faith. But this is also a sign of weakness and self-doubt. It implies that blasphemous statements can hurt a community of believers, individual believers or elements of a faith. It implies, in other words, that this faith isn’t very strong, either as a system of belief, or as someone’s conviction. So maybe the system of belief is so weak that it needs to be defended by law against criticism, because otherwise it would fall apart. Or maybe the believers need protection so as not to loose their belief. But perhaps the hurt in question doesn’t refer to a teaching or a belief, but is merely a matter of being insulted. And then I refer to a previous post in this series, more generally on the supposed right not to be offended (see also here).

Fortunately, blasphemy laws are more or less defunct in most western democracies. They are common only in theocracies. However, there are calls for their reinstatement in some democracies, especially those with large Muslim communities. It is an unfortunate fact that most of the modern day terrorist attacks are carried out by radical Muslims, and this fact convinces some people that there is a kind of necessary link between the religion of Islam and terrorism. As a result, public discourse in some circles is rife with incendiary remarks about Islam (Wilders is a particularly loud example). No matter how simplistic and unfair these remarks are, they are taken very seriously by many Muslims who seek to stop them by demanding the reinstatement and application of blasphemy laws. Some democratic governments seem to take these demands on board, and consider blasphemy laws to be a good way to accommodate religious and cultural sensitivities, to avoid social divisions, violent protest and radicalization of young Muslims.

However, I think they are wrong. Rather than silencing the debate about Islam and terrorism, governments should allow moderates within and outside of Islam the chance to win it. Blasphemy laws will only encourage islamophobes in their belief that Islam is intolerant and weak, seeking special protection because it is flawed to such an extent that it cannot survive criticism. And they get further encouragement from the often harsh and brutal punishments for blasphemy demanded by some vocal Muslim minorities.

In many countries, blasphemy laws are used as a means of political oppression. When religious leaders are also political leaders, or closely affiliated with political leaders, these laws can stifle dissent and opposition because they recast criticism of politics as criticism of religion. Even a secular leader can use blasphemy laws to decide religious animosity between groups in a way that suits his own purposes.

Blasphemy laws are a symptom of an insufficient separation between state and church. Religious liberty requires equal treatment of all religions, and equal political and legal power for all religions. Otherwise the choice for a religion wouldn’t be a free one. Blasphemy laws typically do not apply to all religions equally.

Limiting Free Speech (22): Aggressive Proselytizing

Some governments, local or national, want to ban aggressive proselytizing by some religious groups. In a multicultural environment, and especially in an area where there have already been tensions or clashes between religious groups, governments may believe that public order requires such a ban. Aggressive proselytizing by one group can provoke angry reactions by other groups. This can lead to public disturbances or even violent clashes.

As a rule, proselytizing is a form of speech that should be protected by freedom of speech, even when it is “aggressive” in the sense of persistent, widespread, continuous, and highly visible. However, “aggressive” can be more than this. As always in discussions on limits on freedom of speech, this freedom has to be balanced against other rights. When freedom of speech is used in such a way that it leads to violations of other rights, one has to decide which does the least harm: continuing to respect freedom of speech, or limit it for the sake of respect for other rights?

For example, when proselytizing becomes intrusive, the right to privacy may be harmed (in the case of religious telephone marketing for example). Or when it becomes too aggressive in an already tense multicultural setting, it may lead to violence and violations of the rights to security and bodily integrity. The system of human rights isn’t an harmonious whole, and different rights can harm each other. Freedom of speech is very important, but there’s no reason to believe that it is the only important or the most important human right.

Proselytizing is of course also part of freedom of religion. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration grants the right to freedom of religion, but this article doesn’t include a right to try to induce someone to convert to one’s faith. It merely states that anyone has the right to freely choose, practice, change, teach, manifest and worship his or her religion. “Teach” may be interpreted to include proselytizing, but that is not evident. Article 19, however, the article about freedom of speech, does specifically grant the right to impart information and ideas. Religious information and ideas are obviously included.

Article 18 clearly states that proselytizing shouldn’t mean forcing people to adhere to a certain religion. Religion should be a free choice. The rule against forced conversion is mirrored by the exit-right: freedom of religion means that people shouldn’t be forcefully converted, and also means that people who are already members of a religion have the right to decide to leave. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration as well prohibits coerced membership of an association.

This prohibition of coercion is important when talking about proselytizing. Many religious groups use “soft coercion” in their attempts to increase their flock:

  • they use their power in the media, in politics or in the economy
  • they promise rewards to people if they convert (such as education or healthcare)
  • they use family members who have already converted to try to convince people to convert as well,  etc.

Hard coercion, such as indoctrination, “deprogramming” (a kind of indoctrination), fear tactics, bribes etc. are less common, because most religions understand that religious belief must come from the heart and must be a voluntary choice (albeit a voluntary choice that can be encouraged).

It is precisely when coercive tactics (hard or soft) are used that the “target religions” will consider the proselytizing to be aggressive. And then they may decide that counter-aggression in some form is the only possible response. The results of this are obvious.

Proselytizing should be a contest of ideas, and the only tactic should be voluntary persuasion. This can mean argumentation, “witnessing”, giving the good example, and even doing good works and engaging in charity if there are no conditions attached. A soup kitchen that is only accessible after conversion is again a type of coercion that shouldn’t be allowed. Most religions adhere to these principle, at least in their major texts. Many followers, however, are less patient in their attempts to save unbelievers from eternal doom. And their impatience often forces them to use tactics that go beyond persuasion.

For many religions, it’s a duty to proselytize: “Go to all the nations and make disciples” says the Bible. And this is understandable: if you’re convinced that you possess the truth, it would be immoral to leave your fellow humans in the darkness of error. The same goes for non-religious “truth”. What makes religious truth special is that this truth means eternal salvation. So the absence of truth not only means error but also eternal damnation. Hence, persuasion is a very important and urgent matter (although some religions, like Orthodox Judaism, don’t proselytize at all, in part as a result of a historical fear that other religions would react in an aggressive way). This importance and urgency, however, do not excuse the violation of people’s freedom to choose.

Limiting Free Speech (14): Religious Education in Public Schools

There can be nothing wrong with educating children about religion. And I say this as an agnostic. But religious education must include information about all the world’s main religions, and about atheism as well. And it also shouldn’t avoid mentioning some of the problems caused by religion. Children benefit from seeing all sides of the coin.

Even public schools, i.e. schools instituted, organized and funded by the government, should provide this kind of religious education. Banning religion from public schools is wrong, but not because it would be a limitation on the freedom of speech of religions, as some religious activists claim. It’s not because you’re not allowed to speak in a certain place that you’re not allowed to speak (freedom of speech does not include the right to say anything anywhere; if it would, then newspapers would be forced to print everything everyone asks them to print). Such a ban is wrong for another reason: it would be stupid and a disservice to children.

It would be politically and legally wrong to have public schools teach only one religion, or emphasize one religion. The separation of church and state does not allow agencies of the state – such as public schools – to be hijacked by a particular religion, even if it is the religion of the majority of citizens (I would even say, especially when it is).

If this were allowed, then a religion could then use its privileged position to compete unfairly with other religions, and the result would be the abolition of religious freedom. The choice of religion would then no longer be a free one. Children would be led to one religion. Rather than complete information on all religious options, necessary to make an educated choice between religions, children would have a one-sided view on religion.

For the benefit of their students, private schools are of course also advised to teach all religions. But since many of these private schools are religious schools, it is only fair to allow them to focus on their own religion. It would indeed be an unjustified encroachment on religious freedom if religions and churches were not allowed to organize their own system of education according to their own rules (even if it includes teaching that Darwin was wrong and that Dinosaurs and men walked the surface of the earth together – but evidently they wouldn’t do their pupils any favors).

As long as parents have a choice to send their children to such a religious school or to another, public school, then there is no problem. But this must be a real choice of course. If the public schools are of inferior quality, or difficult to reach, then there isn’t really a choice.

School prayer is quite another matter. Praying is not learning, and the demand of inclusiveness mentioned above does not appear to work in the case of prayer. Starting lessons with different prayers of different religions seems awkward. Hence, school prayer in public schools looks like the kind of hijack that is contrary to the separation of state and church.

Limiting Free Speech (9): Religious Monuments and Symbols in Public Spaces, and “Killing Christmas”

The U.S. is obviously a very Christian country, but also one which values religious liberty and pluralism. Government authorities in the U.S., and especially local governments, sometimes allow displays of the Ten Commandments, nativity scenes or other mainly Christian religious monuments or symbols to be placed in public parks or buildings.

However, when doing so, they often invite demands to allow a different religion’s display as well. And many of them refuse, either because the people who decide are themselves Christians, or believe that Christianity is inextricably linked to the national identity of the U.S.

The problem is that such a refusal violates the First Amendment, and does so in two ways:

  • It harms the freedom of speech of other religions.
  • And it violates the rule of the separation of state and church and the Establishment Clause.

Religious monuments and symbols presented by a government authority in government buildings or spaces don’t imply that the government in question establishes a religion, prohibits the free exercise of religion and coerces people in religious matters. Onlookers can avert their eyes, and the government doesn’t force people to look, let alone accept what is written on the monument.

However, government sponsored religious displays do establish religious preference and religious discrimination by advancing one religion and inhibiting another. There can be soft pressure if governments link themselves to one religion in a way which is at first sight relatively harmless, as is the case in this context. Other religions, which do not benefit from government affiliation, are, at least in the long term, at a disadvantage. As a result of their “non-official character”, the choice of religion is no longer a free choice but one which is influenced by the fact that the government and, by analogy, the rest of society, favors one religion. Religious liberty is threatened in such circumstances.

Another problem is that people of other religions or non-believers can be forced by such monuments to feel like outsiders, as people who are out of the mainstream, who believe things that are wrong and sinful and who need to be converted for their own good, by the government no less. This “cultural violence” (dixit Galtung) can result in (self-)exclusion and low self-esteem, and in general polarizes and divides a society.

Hence, displays of religious symbols or monuments in public spaces should follow the “all-or-nothing” rule. Public property must be open to all religions on an equal basis – or open to none at all. Since the first option – open to all – would quickly lead to an absurd clutter in spaces which are, by definition, limited, the second is the only realistic option.

Others would say that this second option – prohibitions of all religious displays in public spaces – violates the right to free speech of the government agency and the adherents of the religion which would find a government agency willing to display its symbols and monuments. However, a ban on religious displays can only cover public spaces. There are plenty of places on private land where the Ten Commandments and other symbols can be displayed without the need to include the symbols of other faiths. Freedom of speech in general is a universal value, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can speak everywhere. Everyone can speak and say what they want, but not everywhere. For instance, we can’t all claim equal airtime on national television, or demand a right to speak in parliament.

A ban on religious displays should be enforced only for the purposes of religious freedom and religious equality. Dismantling Christmas trees because they might offend non-Christians is stupid political correctness. Not giving offense is not a sufficient reason for banning religious displays. The only possible reason is religious freedom. (And regarding Christmas, one can easily make the case that this is much more than a religious festival, and hence there are good reasons not to ban displays of it in public spaces).

Another point: atheists shouldn’t see bans as a vindication of their beliefs (I’m not pronouncing myself on the merits or demerits of atheism here). A ban doesn’t amount to the installation of official atheism. It’s just neutrality. Atheist expressions fall under the same ban, since atheism is also a religious belief (there’s no way to prove that God doesn’t exist, as there is no way to prove that He does). The government doesn’t pronounce itself. Not on a religion, but neither on atheism. If you have to give it a name, you could say that a government that tries to respect the First Amendment in this way, is an agnostic government. You couldn’t call it an atheist government.

What is discussed here should also be distinguished from other controversies such as bans on head scarfs, overly prominent minarets etc. Head scarfs and mosques are normally in the private, non-government sphere and are not religious symbols used by government authorities on their land and space. In such cases, we don’t have a government linking itself to a particular religion by way of symbols or monuments, but governments banning religious expressions. This is also a problem of religious freedom, but a different one. Rather than a government associating itself with a dominant religion, there is active persecution of minority religions, fed by fears of religious colonization by migrants, a willingness to protect cultural homogeneity etc.

Religion and Human Rights (10): Apostasy

Apostasy (from the Greek word for defection) is the explicit and formal abandonment or renunciation of one’s religion. The word has a pejorative connotation and is mostly used by the adherents or dignitaries of the former religion of the apostate. It is used as a condemnation. Most if not all religions consider defection a sin, which is a normal position for any religion to take. Religions, like any other group for that matter, are communities that quite naturally regret the loss of a member and consider such a loss the concern of all remaining members. They try to minimize such losses and to recover the “lost sheep” and bring them back into the “umma”. The word “apostasy” as such may not be frequently used by all religions, but all religions and all groups know the concept.

However, most religions believe that persuasion is the only legitimate tool to keep members in the group and that the sin of apostasy will be punished by God in the afterlife. Only some, and a certain form of Islam is an example, believe that it is up to man on earth to punish apostates. They make apostasy a punishable offense and these punishments are human rights violations in two different ways. First of all, the punishments themselves often inflict harm on the victims thereby violating their rights to bodily integrity or even life. And secondly, they violate the right to freedom of religion.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to change one’s religion:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. (my emphasis)

Islam is often targeted for its treatment of apostates. However, within Islam there are those like Egypt’s grand mufti Ali Gooma, who take a more liberal stance and use the Koran to back up their position. There are three verses in the Koran that are important:

“There is no compulsion in religion”. “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”. “Whosoever will, let him believe. Whosoever will, let him disbelieve”.

The punishments for apostasy are often not purely religious. Politics is implicated. When a state identifies with a religion and receives its authority and legitimacy from this identification, it naturally wants this religion to be the majority.

Belonging

Belonging to a group is an important human aspiration. People want to belong to something larger than themselves. Belonging gives them an identity. However, groups not only promote but sometimes also hinder the creation of an individual identity. They can, for example, impose ideological or dogmatic rules, practices or beliefs. While some people may desire enforced conformism, others will see it as contrary to their freedom. For the latter, belonging and identity should be a free and voluntary choice. It is important therefore that membership is free and that people are allowed to leave. Groups exist for the benefit of the members, not vice versa.

The fact that membership of a group is a free and non-final choice is not an expression of individualism. Communities are a very important part of an individual’s life, but not all kinds of communities. Individuals as members of a particular group must be able to decide when this group is no longer important or has become harmful. It is not up to the groups to decide that they are an important part of their members’ lives. Individuals decide which groups are important, which groups they wish to join or to leave.

If individuals, who wish to leave a group because this group violates their rights or forces them to conform, are forced to stay, then one uses the individuals as means for the survival of the group. The survival of a group is dependent on the presence of members. Using people as means dehumanizes them.

Self-defeating

If a religion forces someone to remain a member, it defeats its purpose. Someone who stays within a religion in order to avoid punishment is not guided by an understanding of the genuine value of the religion.

We can coerce someone into going to church but we will not make her life better that way. It will not work, even if the coerced person is mistaken in her belief that praying to God is a waste of time, because a valuable life has to be led from the inside. [Such a] policy is self-defeating. It may succeed in getting people to pursue valuable activities, but is does so under conditions in which the activities cease to have value for the individuals involved. If I do not see the point of an activity, then I will gain nothing from it. Hence paternalism creates the very sort of pointless activity that it was designed to prevent. We have to lead our life from the inside, in accordance with our beliefs about what gives value to life. Will Kymlicka

Religion and Human Rights (9): Honor Killings

An honor killing is a murder, carried out by a family to punish a female family member who has supposedly brought dishonor on the family. The acts which are the cause of dishonor can be

  • refusing an arranged marriage
  • being the victim of a sexual assault or rape
  • seeking a divorce, even from an abusive husband
  • committing adultery or fornication
  • pre-marital sex
  • flirting
  • etc.

Men can also be targeted by honor killings, but more rarely (for example in the case of homosexuality).

Causes

  • The practice is mostly associated with Muslim cultures (sometimes in minority Muslim groups in the West), although there is no support for the act in Islam. And it does occur in other cultures as well. In India, more than 5.000 brides are killed annually because their marriage dowries are considered insufficient. (However, one can argue that honor is not the main motivation in such cases). It also occurred in some Latin cultures (“crime of passion” is often still a “mitigating circumstance”). In Muslim countries, the practice is seen by some as a justified enforcement of religious rules, and therefore not strictly a matter of honor. This is corroborated by the fact that sometimes the killings are perpetrated against women by individuals who are not close relatives, but who claim enforcement of religious rules as their motive. In Iraq, for example, honor killings are conducted by armed insurgent groups on politically active women and those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women who are perceived as human rights defenders.
  • There is a strong correlation between honor killings and illiteracy rates.
  • Men often use honor killings to assert their dominant patriarchal status. Women in the family may support the practice in order to preserve the honor of other female family members and to preserve their chances of getting married in the community. It’s a kind of purge or purification.
  • Some claim that the practice goes back to ancient motivations based on anxieties about reproductive power. Women, who were considered by the tribe to be a factory for making men, were forced through “honor” killings to obey the man’s family planning and not to reproduce outside of the tribe or the extended family.
  • In a society where marriages are arranged by fathers and money is exchanged, a woman’s desire to choose her own husband is a financial problem, one which can be “translated” in terms of honor.

Consequences

Apart from the obvious consequences (death or lifelong disability), the practice of honor killings also forces women to stay in abusive marriages or to avoid reporting rape. If the women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and the community denies that they ever existed. And if they don’t die, the chances of receiving justice are minimal as many governments fail to prosecute the crime. And even when there is a trial, it’s the woman’s behavior that becomes the focus, not the defendant’s. As a result, the women sink deeper into shame and often don’t take the trouble of reporting the crime.

Numbers

Because the murders frequently go unreported and the perpetrators unpunished, it is difficult to get precise numbers on the phenomenon. Estimates range between hundreds and thousands of women each year. In Pakistan, it is estimated that every day at least three women are victims of the practice.

What can be done?

Some say that the backwardness of the tribes where most killings take place makes it very difficult to do anything. However, education can work. The fact that the Koran does not prescribe the practice should be explained and taught. Honor killings are just one instance of gender discrimination and education should focus on women’s rights and the equality of women. Where the practice is linked to arranged marriages and dowries, one should first tackle these problems.

The judiciary and the police should be forced to intervene. Penal codes should be modernized, and the economic dependence of women should be dealt with.

Related phenomena

Related phenomena are acid attacks (instead of killing women, acid is poured on them) and honor suicides. People can be forced by their community or by their feeling of guilt to kill themselves. Relatives thereby avoid penalties for murder.

Religion and Human Rights (7): What is Religious Liberty?

Religious liberty or the freedom of religion and belief is a human right. It is the right to be protected against coercion in matters of religion, to be free to practice and profess a religion of your choice, in private as well as in public, to change your religion, or to practice no religion at all.

Legal rules on religious freedom

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This right is closely linked to the right to free expression and the right to free association.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It protects the freedom of religion in the US. It’s made up of two parts. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from passing laws that will establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. The courts have interpreted the establishment clause to accomplish the separation of church and state and have held that the clause extends to the executive and judicial branches as well.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s practice of his or her religion.

Importance of religious freedom

Religious liberty is an important value because it protects religious diversity and plurality and hence counteracts religious persecution and coercion. It makes a monopoly of one religion impossible – except when culture and demography are such that there is a de facto monopoly which is not contested – and it guarantees the coexistence of different and publicly competing beliefs. In this way, it also guarantees publicity, debate and diversity in general. If there is publicity, debate and diversity on the level of religion, then why not on other levels? On top of that, religious liberty guarantees tolerance: if people can be tolerant – or are forced to be tolerant – in the field of religion, then they will probably be tolerant in other fields as well.

This shows that religious liberty can be of interest to non-religious persons, not only because it protects them from the imposition of a religious belief, but also because it allows them to live in a world of tolerance, publicity ad diversity. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of a democratic society and a system of human rights.

Problems with religious freedom

However, there is a downside to the concept of religious liberty. Anyone can call their personal insanity a religion in order to try to get government protection. There is no easy answer to the question of what is or is not a religion in the proper sense of the word, but it is obvious that any belief or practice which is part of a religion or claimed to be part of a religion, and which provokes violations of human rights, should not be protected under the right to freedom of religion. Every human right is limited and has to be balanced with other rights.

Freedom of religion is no exception. In particular, the right to absence of discrimination, although closely connected to religious liberty (one should not be treated badly as a consequence of one’s religion), can be a problem if everything can be labeled a religion and if every imaginable theological ideology can enjoy an absolute level of protection granted by the freedom of religion. The equal rights of women should be balanced with the right to practice a religion which provokes discrimination of women. Limiting one right for the sake of another is a normal practice in the field of human rights. This is even more evident in the case of terrorism based on religion.

Separation of state and religion

Religious liberty implies that the state (but not only the state) should not interfere with the religion of its citizens, should not favor or discriminate a particular religion or religions, and should not attach benefits or penalties to any religious affiliation or lack thereof. Religious liberty therefore limits the power of the state and creates a difference between state and society by granting some measure of religious independence to society.

However, religious liberty not only means that the state should avoid interfering in religious matters. It also means that the state should be absolutely neutral as regards religion. There has to be a separation between state and religion (but not necessarily between politics and religion) in the sense that there can be no official state religion. The state should not link itself to a particular religion but should stand above the plurality of different religions. One and the same person cannot be both head of state and head of a church (or an important functionary of a church).

Without this kind of neutrality, certain religions as well as atheists and agnostics will be worse off compared to the adherents of the official religion, if they are allowed to exist at all. Religious liberty means religious equality and the equal treatment of all religions. This equal treatment is impossible if there is some kind of link between the state and a particular religion. If adherence to one religion brings more advantages than adherence to another – and this can be the case when the former is an official state religion or is in any way favored by the state – then there is no real religious liberty. The choice for one religion rather than another will not be a free choice. Even if non-official religions are not actively persecuted or discriminated against, they are worse off when there is no separation between the state and religion because they have less means to influence the public as the official state religion. They are not as free as the official religion.

Another reason why religious liberty implies the separation between state and religion is the need for an impartial judge to mediate between different religions. If different religions are allowed to exist together, we need a non-religious law which regulates their coexistence. It is very unlikely that people adhering to one religion will accept laws which are inspired by another religion. The fact that a religiously neutral state with its religiously neutral laws allows many different religions to exist and to coexist, makes it acceptable to many people. A state which only allows one religion or favors one religion, will only be accepted by the adherents of that particular religion.

The historical fact that religious communities tend to become more and more intertwined within the borders of states, will enhance the attractiveness of this kind of state. A democracy is by definition such a neutral state, because a democracy respects human rights. Once you respect human rights, you also respect religious liberty, and religious liberty leads to religious neutrality on the part of the state.

Just as the state is kept out of religion, religion is kept out of the state. The claims of religion are restricted. A particular religion cannot claim to be the religion of the country in order to take possession of the state or the law and thereby achieve more power than other religions and impose itself on individuals. The state, for its part, is not allowed to prohibit, persecute, discriminate or impose a religion, and it should also avoid using a religion as a means to enhance its authority, as a kind of transcendent confirmation. If you stand close to something glorious, you may hope that something of the glory shines on you as well. You may even hope to become godly, which, historically, has been an enormous advantage to states in pre-modern times. The representative of God on earth is godly as well, and he who is godly is eternal and escapes contestation, which is of course anti-democratic. It is equally unacceptable for a state to use certain religious texts to justify or enforce authoritarian measures.

Separating state and religion may cause some problems. It will for example make it more difficult to universalize human rights. Many cultures, for example Muslim cultures, see this separation not as an advantage but as a problem because religion – unified religion, not the freedom of religion – is still very important in their societies and is considered to be the foundation of politics.

However, state neutrality in religious matters does not imply that democratic politics is necessarily a-religious or atheistic. A democracy executes the will of the people and not the will of God, but if the people believe that their will equals the will of God, then this does not pose a problem as long as the religious rights of the minority are respected and as long as the religion of the majority does not acquire unjustified privileges and does not become the official state religion.

Separation of politics and religion?

This already indicates that the separation of state and religion is not identical to the separation of politics and religion. Religion does not have to remain silent when it comes to politics. It can be a source of inspiration for politicians and it can enhance ethical consciousness and behavior. Therefore, it should not be excluded from politics. It is important to make the distinction between politics and the state. The fact that freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion do not imply the separation of religion and politics can make it easier to impose religious liberty and state neutrality. Religious people obviously and justifiably fear the separation of religion and politics.

The religious neutrality of the state does not necessarily lead to a religious neutrality of politics. A religion is not allowed to infiltrate the institutions of the state, otherwise it would acquire more power than other religions and therefore destroy religious liberty (a choice for a religion is not free if one religion has more power of persuasion than another). But a religion is allowed to try to convince a majority, at least as long as it respects human rights and the liberty of other religions.

Religion and Human Rights (5): Separation of Church and State

The separation of church and state is not always what it seems to be. Religion does not have to remain silent when it comes to politics. It can be a source of inspiration for politicians and it can enhance ethical consciousness and behavior. Therefore, it should not be excluded from politics. It is important to make the distinction between politics and the state. The separation of state and religion is a very important principle.
Freedom of religion requires it because without such a separation the choice of a religion will not be a free one (a state which is linked to a religion can force a religion on people or can force people to abandon a religion).

But this separation does not imply the separation of religion and politics. This distinction between politics and the state can make it easier to universalize the principle of the separation of church and state. Religious people obviously and justifiably fear the separation of religion and politics.

Religion and Human Rights (4): Religious Liberty is About More Than Religion

Religious liberty or the freedom of belief is a human right. It is the right to be protected against coercion in matters of religion, to be free to practice and profess a religion of your choice, in private as well as in public, to change your religion, or – which is often forgotten – to practice no religion at all and to be free from religion.

Religious liberty is an important value because it protects diversity and plurality and hence counteracts religious persecution and coercion. It makes a monopoly of one religion impossible except when culture and demography are such that there is a de facto monopoly that is not contested and it guarantees the coexistence of different and publicly competing beliefs.

In this way, it also guarantees debate and diversity in general. If there is debate and diversity on the level of religion, then why not on other levels? On top of that, religious liberty guarantees tolerance: if people can be tolerant – or are forced to be tolerant – in the field of religion, then they will probably be tolerant in other fields as well. This shows that religious liberty can be of interest to non-religious persons, not only because it protects them from the imposition of a religious belief, but also because it allows them to live in a world of tolerance and diversity. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of a democratic society and a system of human rights that also aim at such a world.

Religion and Human Rights (3): The Historical Origins of Religious Liberty

The European religious wars not only caused harm and tyranny (tyranny because it led to the creation of absolutism by the European monarchies trying to restore peace and tranquility). It also led to the institution of religious liberty. After all, the state had no choice but to put itself above the factions. Only by loosening its ties with a favoured religion and guaranteeing a free and equal space for every religion, was it able to channel the struggle away from violence. As religion had become a dangerous and dividing power, it became clear that the state had to separate itself from the church, not only to keep the peace, but also to maintain itself.

The duty of the state to support one particular religion was replaced by the duty to protect the plurality of religions. Religious freedom gave citizens who belonged to a religious minority the power to claim protection from the state. In this way, the state not only liberated the people from the horrors of religious wars, but also from the pressure of religious conformity.

The fact that, in our day and age, global mobility and globalization encourage competition between and coexistence of different religions, makes it likely that the local historical events which resulted from the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe – which have been events limited to the history of the West – will be reproduced elsewhere in the world. Different states in different parts of the world will feel the same need to pacify competing parties by putting themselves above these parties. They can only put themselves above competing religious communities if they separate themselves from religion and if they grant religious liberty. Only religious liberty can produce peaceful coexistence in a plural society. The option of suppressing one or all of the competing parties (as is attempted in China for instance) will only produce revolt and will lead us away from rather than towards peace and security.

These contemporary historical developments justify and promote the universality of the right to religious liberty.

Religion and Human Rights (2): God is Alive and Kicking; Mostly Kicking

This is a post on the logic of religious terrorism.Those who listen to the daily news, and that’s about all of us, know it very well: God is not dead, whether you like it or not. Many of the major news stories are about religious conflict: Islamic terrorism, Muhammad cartoons, the Pope insulting other religions…

It seems that God is directing world affairs, or at least the God in the minds of the numerous religiously inspired actors who initiate the world events that reach our news programs. In many cases, these events are violent and bloody. God is alive, and He’s kicking, of course not personally but through His representatives on earth. And of course He’s kicking the unbelievers or the believers of a rival God.

So it is not uncommon to hear complaints about the pernicious effects of religion. I want to argue that it is not religion as such which should be blamed for religiously inspired suffering, but the status of religious beliefs in the minds of those causing the suffering. There is an enormous difference between the action patterns of those who think that their religious beliefs are their personal opinions and those who think that their beliefs are exact images of the Truth.

Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they cannot be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that we may give this label to an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus. The laws of physics for example have attained this level of consensus and therefore can be labeled truth rather than opinion. Religion obviously has not.

Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and no good reasons or arguments against are left can we claim to have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments and not mere prejudices are available.

As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It is not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation on the condition that I would have the power to do so then I would not be acting democratically. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy.

Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it is not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.

For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it is a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding abortion. There is intense debate about this subject. The predominance and hence also government policy shifts from one side to the other and back again.

But what we see in the example of abortion and in many other examples in the field of religion, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped to give reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or feelings or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.

So truth can enter democracy; democratic governments would be literally stupid not to allow this but it will never be its essence. When truth becomes the essence of politics, democracy dies. This can happen when people forget that what they believe is not an opinion but the truth, and this often happens in the case of religious beliefs. People become unable or unwilling to see that other, contradictory opinions based on good arguments continue to exist, and try to transform politics from a space of discussion into a machine for the application of the truth. Other opinions are suppressed and violence is used against people who hold them, because these other opinions are not recognized as valid opinions based on arguments. Instead, they are seen as mistakes or errors or even lies because they contradict the beliefs of those who believe to posses the truth. And who would not admit action against errors or lies?

This unwarranted renaming of opinions into truths and the subsequent actions against opinions that are not in fact errors or lies but real opinions based on sound arguments, not only destroys debate and democracy but destroys the very lives of many people. Politics becomes a tool to transform reality, to shape the world according to some theory or utopia considered to be the true teaching. Islamic fundamentalism is a typical example of this approach. The adherents of this ideology are convinced that they possess the truth and are unable or unwilling to recognize the views of others as valid opinions based on sound arguments. Everything outside of their worldview is false and needs to be corrected or destroyed.

If you see yourself as the carrier of truth rather than one who holds a particularly well argued opinion, then you have to suppress other views. You are morally obliged to act against mistakes and lies. Allowing someone to lie or to live a life of mistakes is immoral. This person is not someone who happens to hold another opinion based on arguments that according to you are less successful, and who has to be respected for this. He or she is clearly stupid or even of bad faith, and has to be re-educated in order to access the truth. Democratic argumentation and discussion will not help in these cases because argumentation requires a target that is either sensitive to good arguments and hence not stupid, or of good faith. And in any case, truth does not need arguments. It is self-evident and, if not, merely requires explanation. But explanation does not help either when the target is stupid or of bad faith. Force is then the only means left. This is the fatal logic that drives people who believe to be the holders of truth away from democracy and in the arms of tyranny and terrorism.

All this does not mean that democratic politics cannot or should not be based on strong beliefs. Participants must believe that their opinions are valid and that they have good reasons for believing in these opinions, and they can act according to these opinions. Democratic action can be inspired by beliefs and theory, and even should be if it wants to be intelligent and something more than pure activism. But it should never forget that others may be inspired differently and have sound reasons to follow other opinions. Action inspired by theory has to take place within the democratic game of competing opinions and should not replace this game by the effort to impose something that is mistaken for the truth and that is in fact merely one opinion in a setting of many competing opinions.