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Religious and secular dialogue should rule OK

Anna Bluston on government proposals to criminalize incitement to religious hatred.

The controversial bill to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence is at the time of writing, on its way to being passed.

The Government is extending protection to prevent hatred being stirred up against people targeted because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, as well people targeted because of their race. This is being done through the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill, by expanding the existing criminal offences of incitement to racial hatred contained in the Public Order Act 1986. The proposals will make it an offence to knowingly use words, behaviour or material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intention or likely effect that hatred will be stirred up against a group of people targeted because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs, as well as those targeted on racial grounds.

Critics voiced concerns that this additional ‘protection’ could prohibit performers making religious jokes, but ministers say it will not impede freedom of speech. Comedian Rowan Atkinson supported the attempt to tighten the definition of racial and religious hatred, arguing that the legislation was problematic because it was ‘all-encompassing’; that ‘the incitement of religious hatred doesn't even have to be intended, it is just if it offends any person’. However, the government took note of concerns and changed the wording to that seen above; the proposed offence of causing ‘racial or religious hatred’ to ‘hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds’. Home Office Minister Hazel Blears said the change would help clarify the situation. She told MPs: ‘This is about protecting people, not about the ability to criticise, ridicule, lampoon and have fundamental disagreements about beliefs. ‘It is absolutely right in a modern democracy that people should have the ability to engage in that robust and vigorous debate and the position of the government is not that we seek to outlaw that at all.’

This change is crucial. Obviously, individuals should not be attacked or persecuted for their beliefs, but equally, those beliefs should be subjected to scrutiny, criticism and even ridicule. There is a fundamental difference between attacking an individual and that individual’s belief system.

Many have already written on this subject already, and ‘fundamentalists’ of several religions have demanded that anyone who criticises their religion be prosecuted. If they wish to protect their inflexible beliefs and religious legal systems from scrutiny, surely this suggests they have something to be secretive about. Someone may say, and in fact many do, that their religious texts, which they believe to be divine, condemn homosexuality, and that this is, as the Bible says, an ‘abomination’. They have every right to sincerely hold this view, and proclaim it to the world at large. Others, religious and secular, have an equal right to condemn this belief as absurd, and campaign against any form of discrimination based on this belief.

There are many current religious practices, observed stringently by millions, which appear outdated, anachronistic, even discriminatory in modern societies, and anyone has a right to criticise these. There is also, in my opinion, much wrong with our current secular society, and its values of greed, materialism, selfishness, and short-term thinking, which many religious followers condemn, and try to bring ‘holy’ values to this world. They are also right to do so. Religious and secular have much to learn from each other, and enabling full dialogue, discussion, critique of any and every sincerely-held value system leads to democracy, tolerance, understanding, harmony, and maybe even necessary change.

Religion is very important to me. I studied Theology and Religious Studies at University, and have been interested in religion since early childhood. Though I myself am not a strict adherent to any one faith, I do follow several religious practices and festivals in the year, and believe religious faith and values are important and significant to today’s society. I fully support the right of anyone to practise their religion in any way they choose, without harm to others, and subscribe to any belief system or theory, even to declare that their religion is the True one and anyone else is an infidel, heretic and destined for damnation. That is freedom. I believe that religion has a pivotal role on an individual and societal level, and enriches cultures and individuals’ lives.

Equally, I also firmly believe that each individual has the right to deride, mock or ridicule any religious or belief system they wish, and to publicly declare any or all a load of nonsense, and its followers fools to subscribe to such rubbish. Religion is the cause of many problems in the world, and it is right to scrutinise it, subject it to criticism, and make fun of its absurdities. As previously stated, no-one has the right to incite others to attack any individual or group for any reason, religious or not. I can ridicule a group of peoples’ beliefs, but I cannot incite others to harm them or their institutions because of this belief. I believe religious tolerance is vital, and fully discussing in-depth each religious belief enables greater respect and understanding. Equally, allowing full criticism enables free speech and openness. It is when people are ignorant and truth is covered up that prejudice flourishes.