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.

Limiting Free Speech (6): A Right Not to be Offended or Insulted?

In the previous post in this series I concluded that insulting or offending speech should not be forbidden, and is not a legitimate reason to limit the right to freedom of speech. Such limits are possible in general but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech. In the current post, I’ll flesh out the argument against limits on offending speech.

Offending speech is a slightly broader category than derogatory speech. The latter can be said to imply the intention to offend, ridicule or belittle, but offending speech in general does not imply this intention. People can be – and regularly are – offended by speech (or actions) that is not meant to offend.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as a right not to be offended. Such a right would create a duty not to offend. This duty goes much further than the duties normally assumed to be generated by tolerance. Tolerance forces people to abstain from

  • interfering with other people’s beliefs or practices
  • suppressing other people’s beliefs or practices
  • persecuting people with other beliefs or practices.

The focus is on the duties to abstain from actively interfering, suppressing or persecuting (or coercing in perhaps other ways). Tolerance forces us to leave people alone, even when – or rather especially when – we dislike, disapprove of or feel insulted by these people, because only then will we be tempted to intervene. We will not be tempted to intervene with people who leave us indifferent, in which case tolerance and the duties that arise from it are irrelevant.

A presumed right not to be offended can therefore be thought of as an exception to the duties of tolerance. When we accept such a right, we in fact claim that this right trumps some of our duties of tolerance in certain cases, namely in the cases when other people offend us. We should not tolerate offense, and the right to free speech of the offenders (of those who cause offense) should be limited by our right not to be offended. I say “some of our duties” because I don’t think that many people would claim that a right not to be offended should make it possible to go beyond limiting free speech, and should for example allow us to persecute offenders (some Muslims went this far in the case of the Muhammad cartoons).

If we assume that there is a right not to be offended and that this right has the consequences for tolerance which I have described, then we’ll quickly run into some insurmountable difficulties – and these difficulties will be a reason to reject the right not to be offended.

What are these difficulties? Let’s make a difference between active and passive offense. We can offend others by merely having certain beliefs or ways of lives. This passive offense does not result from an intention to offend. Active offense takes place when

  1. we knowingly and intentionally seek to offend others, by for example making certain derogatory claims about their beliefs and ways of lives, AND
  2. these others take offense.

If we focus on passive offense, then we must accept that it cannot be in itself offensive or disrespectful to have certain beliefs or ways of lives. Offense should entail the active intention to insult and cause offense. If we do not accept this, then we have to conclude that a right not to be offended triggers the duty to change beliefs or ways of life. And that is obviously outrageous.

Now, regarding active offense, the issues are, at first sight, much clearer. However, the problem is that there is no clear distinction between active and passive offense. It can be part of my beliefs and way of life that I should subject all views to rigorous criticism. And such criticism can cause offense. I know this, but still insist that I should criticize. Hence, I create active offense. A right not to be offended would then imply the duty to change my views and way of life, again outrageously.

Or it can be part of my beliefs that everybody should hear the word of God (my God). This as well can be insulting to adherents of another religion, who consider me to be a sinner, a false messenger leading humanity astray. A right not to be offended would again force me to deny myself.

Another problem with a possible right not to be offended is the fact that everything can be considered offensive by some people. It is impossible to predict what will or will not be considered offensive by someone, somewhere. A duty not to offend would ultimately lead to a duty to remain silent.

So, if offense is to be prohibited, and freedom of speech limited, then the only options would seem to be:

  • remain silent
  • force people to change their beliefs and ways of life
  • force people to be hypocrites.

Any one of these options is a nightmare. And the second one is self-contradictory because the rationale behind the proposal for a right not to be offended is precisely the necessity of respect for people’s beliefs and ways of life.

So it seems that offense and disrespect are a necessary price to pay for freedom of speech and the right to live your life according to you own choices and beliefs. However, this doesn’t mean that offense, ridicule, belittlement and disrespect are virtues. We shouldn’t make them illegal, but they shouldn’t be cherished either. They make it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. They poison the debate and make it difficult to argue and persuade. So there are good reasons to avoid them, even if there are no good reasons to prohibit them.

Limiting Free Speech (4): Derogatory Speech

In this series, I examine the possibility of limiting certain kinds of speech, and especially the possibility of legal limits. As stated in the introductory post in this series, such limits are possible but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech.

So-called derogatory speech is a form of speech which expresses ridicule, mockery, contempt or derision. It is a disparaging kind of speech that often takes the form of cartoons, caricatures, pamphlets, comedy shows, outright insults etc.

The main justification for limiting free speech is the possibility that speech violates others people’ s rights. When I claimed that limits are justified in the case of holocaust denial and hate speech, I did so because I believe that these kinds of speech can violate rights, and when rights come into conflict, a balance should be found and one right has to give way for the other. In some cases, limiting the right to free speech of holocaust deniers or hate preachers is a lesser harm than the harm that would be done if they were allowed to speak.

In the case of derogatory speech I think this is not the case. Derogatory speech is often silly, sad and pathetic, but the only harm it does is the insult suffered by the target, or perhaps a feeling of dishonor and a loss of self-esteem. People should be able to live with insults and there are no rights to protect self-esteem or honor. The reason we have a right to free speech is to protect speech that causes offense. Inoffensive speech hardly needs protection.

But is it really true that insult is the only harm produced by derogatory speech? One could argue that derogatory speech causes other kinds of harm. It perpetuates negative stereotypes of certain minority groups in society, groups which are already relatively vulnerable. Or it devalues the collective image of the group, thereby deepening social divisions and increasing the risk of discrimination. It may also erode the capacity of the majority culture to be receptive of new identities or communities. Tolerance may suffer.

Moreover, derogatory speech makes it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. It poisons the debate. Neither the Muhammad cartoons, for example, nor the subsequent reactions from parts of the Muslim community did anything to foster the debate on the multicultural society. Ridicule, just as threats of violence, kill the discussion.

John Rawls reminded us that free speech should contribute to rational debate. The purpose of speech is to convince, to examine arguments, to revise one’ s opinions in the light of as much information as possible, to submit one’ s opinions to a critical public etc. Neither ridicule nor threats can advance such a vision of debate. (source)

All this is undoubtedly true, but is it enough to prohibit derogatory speech? I don’t think so. The best defense against harmful speech is either counter-speech or simple disregard. If we start to prohibit insulting speech, we take the slippery slope: anything can be insulting.

Limiting Free Speech (3): Hate Speech

Hate speech (or antilocution, or fighting words) is speech that incites other people to hate a certain group in society defined by common characteristics (race, gender, religion etc.). It usually also incites to commit violence and discrimination based on hatred.

The most famous case is that of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. These cartoons led to worldwide protest and expressions of anger and hate, not only against the cartoonists in question, their newspaper or their country, but against liberals and democrats in general.

However, hate speech is by no means an exclusively Muslim matter. It can be found everywhere where there is hate: it can be racist, anti-gay, islamophobe, etc. It can also be framed in anti-terrorist language: many western countries have initiated legislation outlawing hate speech that is part of Muslim mobilization of terrorists (in militant mosques for example).

Given the importance of freedom of expression, it is not universally accepted that hate speech can be legally prohibited. There is of course article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which outlaws hate speech:

Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

However, contrary to hate crimes, such as attack on gays or muslims or writers/movie makers/cartoonists critical of Islam etc., the basic rule should be that speech as such is not a crime, even speech expressing or inciting hatred, violence or discrimination. Speech is protected by the right to free speech.

However, this right, like many human rights, is not absolute and can be limited when it endangers other human rights (like the right to life and bodily integrity, the right not to suffer discrimination etc.). The general defense of hateful speech has therefore some exceptions. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. Hate is taught. The example of the Muhammad cartoons protests is again telling in this respect. Many protesters were encouraged by some Muslim leaders to commit acts of violence.

But much depends on the circumstances, the context and the manner of speech. Islamophobia in front of a crowded mosque is obviously not the same thing as islamophobia in an obscure publication. Examples of speech, in the wider sense of the word, such as hanging a noose in a tree in the front yard of the house of an African-American family, or spraying graffiti on someone’s car or house, are more of a problem than posting a picture of a Koran in the toilet on a blog or a website. The first examples are clearly intimidation and can force people to sell their houses and move somewhere else. This has human rights implications (freedom of residence and property rights), which the latter examples don’t have (it’s difficult to argue that a photo of the Koran in a toilet, although undoubtedly an expression of hatred, harms anyone’s freedom of religion).

When speech has implications for the rights of some people, it is legitimate to consider limiting this speech, according to the rules set out in the introductory post of this series.

An important distinction here: all this is about hate, not about speech that is merely offensive, insulting, ridiculing etc. That’s the topic of another post. The distinction, however, can be blurred. What is hateful and what is merely offensive is a matter of personal conviction, it differs between groups and it changes over time. Some groups may be more sensitive than others. If one decides to legislate the matter, this can complicate things.

Moreover, what to someone can be seen as hate – for example homophobia – may be a central tenet of someone else’s religion and therefore protected by the freedom of religion. However, the freedom of religion is not absolute either.

And finally, some examples of speech that were once considered to be hateful – such as “nigger” – have been reclaimed by the groups that were previously targeted, and are sometimes even used as a badge of pride.

Another distinction: it is perhaps possible to imagine hate speech that is not directly or indirectly inciting violence and/or discrimination. Obviously, this kind of hate speech is less dangerous. However, like derogatory speech or offensive speech it does create a problem. It perpetuates negative stereotypes, devalues collective identities, deepens social cleavages and conflicts, makes it more difficult for the community to accept new identities, and it makes debate more difficult. So it makes it more difficult to create and uphold a tolerant, diverse society in which there can be civilized debate and discussion leading to better knowledge.

However, is this reason enough for a legal prohibition on hate speech? I don’t think so. Is it reason enough to combat hate speech with other means? Sure. The remedy for harmful speech is not necessarily prohibition but counter-speech, and sometimes it is best to just ignore some kinds of speech. Engaging the hate mongers, let alone prosecuting them, gives them legitimacy, publicity, and under-dog or victim status.