Thursday, 14 April 2011

Religious Freedom and Tolerance

Despite being a lifelong Atheist, I have always been interested in religious matters. Questions about the right to agree, or just as importantly to disagree, with someone else's beliefs yet retaining respect and tolerance, goes to the heart of freedom in a democracy. I have misquoted Voltaire as much as anyone on this matter. Some recent events have brought these issues to the forefront of my mind.

In France a law has been passed to make the wearing of a full Islamic head-covering illegal. France has a 'muscular' secularism, and because the law makers in France have decreed this type of clothing is 'illegal', the tiny minority who have chosen to follow this Islamic dress code face arrest.

Today, I heard Damien Green, Conservative Immigration Minister, talk about an issue with immigration as being the lack of a shared experience within the whole community creating tension.

The nature of the debate around the UK's Religious Freedoms has often been framed around fundamentalism in recent years, and in particular fundamental Islam. Since 9/11 the West has struggled to reconcile the freedom we enjoy with a sense that some within our society would wish to bring death and destruction to us.

I believe that the strength of a society's freedom can be measured by how well we tolerate minority views that we personally might not approve of. I am a vegetarian of 24 years, and personally think that killing animals for foods is unethical and distasteful. However, it is a view shared by a minority within society. I will gladly argue with anyone about the merits or otherwise of being a vegetarian or being a carnivore. Such disagreements must take place where both sides have a basic respect for each other and be tolerant of those who do not see the world in quite the same way as ourselves.

Muslim women in France live in a democracy, where the law should protect their right to choose. If a small number choose to follow a religious code that means they wear a head scarf, it is for them and not the State to judge that.

Back in Britain, we also have a choice. We should allow all people to practice a religion without the fear of discrimination.  Those forces that declare that because someone has a strong faith in Islam, it means they don't respect British values are wrong. British values are broad, reflecting the myriad of influences that have shaped our Nation, culture and language.

I have travelled across the world and one thing really strikes home – most people, whatever Country they live in, whatever religion they follow, want the same things. A safe home, a happy life and a healthy family.

Extremists are very small in number and are not representative. We must not let them change our core values, because if we do they have won.

So to anyone concerned about 'integration', just ask them to go out there and talk to their fellow citizens of other faiths, skin colour and ethnicity. They just might be surprised to discover they are no different to themselves underneath their skin or Burqa.


  1. Very interesting and well put. The biggest question comes when freedon of religion comes into conflict with some other issue of discrimination or liberal belief. In England I believe in those cases there has been a very heavy move against freedom of religion.

  2. I think that while individuals should be free to practise a belief system (as long as no direct harm is done to others), organisations cannot side step equality laws.

    For example, individual Catholics are free to disapprove of homosexuality, but if the Catholic Church provides adoption services, it surely cannot opt out of equality regarding same sex couples adopting.

    A strong personal belief used to stop a gay couple using a Bed and Breakfast (in the news recently), and perhaps a right wing extremist discriminating against Black people could result from Organisations opting out of UK equality laws.

    So an individual right to religious freedom is fine (respect), but organisations providing public services must stay within National laws (tolerance).