Religious Symbols vs. Political Symbols

Should these be treated any differently?

Religion has an enviable propensity to create and perpetuate powerful myths which remain intact for hundreds of years.

For example: that religion is by definition synonymous with morality (and lack of religion with immorality); that all humans have eternal life but are destined either for the tortuous fires of Hell or the orgasmic paradise of Heaven; that an almighty creator (male, obviously) watches over us constantly [but occasionally and inexplicably takes His eye off the ball, resulting in deaths measured in thousands]; and that a bearded man died and then stopped being dead two thousand years ago so that we might be “saved”.

A more contemporary myth is that Christians in the United Kingdom are not allowed to wear a crucifix. There have been court cases where someone’s right to wear a crucifix has – in the wilfully blind eyes of some – ostensibly been limited, but this has been on sensible and objective grounds, such as pursuant to a ban on all forms of jewellery in certain working environments on health and safety grounds. That the jewellery happens to be a crucifix, or any religious symbol, has been irrelevant.

Similarly, and whether or not you personally think the burka should be banned, I say it should not be banned merely on the grounds it is a religious symbol (and in any case, it is not always religious anyway).

My personal view on banning the burka changes with the tides but even when I (often temporarily) conclude that a ban is justified, I like to think it’s for reasonably objective, harm-based reasons: it subjugates and marginalises women; it hinders effective communication between humans; others have a right to see their fellow citizens’ faces in a public place or a place of work; and it creates a culture of blaming women for violence they suffer (especially sexual violence), rather than their aggressors.

A while ago I had a discussion with a friend and fellow secularist about the wearing of religious symbols. We were in agreement that a religious symbol should not enjoy special exemption from rules applying to, say, all forms of jewellery. We then discussed the desirability or otherwise of actually banning religious symbols in certain public places – specifically, schools – and at this point things got tricky not only from a general civil liberties perspective, but also when we tried to maintain consistency with the wearing of political symbols. We found it difficult to form conclusions so this post is an attempt to do that.

Before I go on it might be helpful to set some parameters.

Parameter 1
The context will be symbols worn by teachers and other staff within a school, because there’s a very powerful argument that children should be educated in a religiously and politically neutral, secular space. There are, I am sure, reasonable arguments that other state locations – local council offices, hospitals, port authorities, etc – should be similarly neutral, but using the example of a state institution entrusted with the care and education of the next generation of adults maximises the case for neutrality which I hope leads to a greater focus on the substantive issues here.

Parameter 2
I shall assume the school is a state school and not a private school. Even though my own personal political default is that the state’s intrusion into people’s lives should be an absolute minimum, my strong view is that children have the right to a religiously and politically neutral education regardless of whether the state or a private institution provides it. (I do not object to private education in principle, for which I make no apology.) I acknowledge that arguments about religious and political symbols might be different for state and private schools so I will shamelessly and deliberately avoid that complication by focusing on the state sector.

Parameter 3
I shall assume that (unlike at the time of writing) no state school in the United Kingdom is allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or lack of it in the hiring of its staff or the selection of its pupils. Well, a blogger is entitled to dream, isn’t he? Let us say that our state school is open to all employees and all children. How outrageous, though, that this need be a hypothetical assumption to make in a democracy.

Parameter 4
I use terms such as “religious symbol”, “religiously-neutral” and “religious beliefs” in the widest possible sense, so far as the context permits. I refer not only to the holy trinity of Christianity, Judaism and Islam but also to minority faiths or denominations (such as Mormonism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Scientology and Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912); to non-religious or non-supernatural beliefs (such as Humanism); and also to lack of religious or supernatural belief (atheism).

Although I say children should be educated in a religiously-neutral environment, my view is that banning all religious symbols is not a proportionate response to achieving that aim and that this unnecessarily, and therefore unjustifiably, infringes religious freedoms.

Besides the non harm-based approach that a blanket ban represents, which is my main objection, there are considerable practical difficulties.

How are we to define a religious symbol? Is a capital “T”-shaped cross a religious symbol, or must the vertical and the horizontal intersect? If the vertical and horizontal intersect at each other’s mid-points, like a “+” sign, is that religious? How do we distinguish between an Islamic crescent and a standard lunar crescent worn by an elbow patch-laden Physics teacher who just happens to be an enthusiastic amateur astrologer? Are we to grant Judaism exclusive trade mark rights to all six-pointed stars? How do we know whether a large, italic A on a male Scottish teacher’s jacket lapel stands for “Angus” or “atheist”?

This does not mean that all expressions of religious belief should be permitted. A crucifix, a crescent, a star of David or a large “A” might be fine but badges telling children that “God Hates Fags”, “Allah Hates Jews”, or “All Religion Is Shit And All Religious People Are Mentally Unhinged” is something else.

My position on religious symbols, then, is that they are generally acceptable provided they are not harmful.

Should school staff be allowed to express a political identity, though, such as the wearing of a Conservative badge or a “Vote Labour” sticker? My instinct is that this is wrong even when expressed in mild, non-inflammatory terms. But why treat religious and political symbols so differently?

These are the differentiating factors I have established:

1. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to establish in all cases what is and is not a religious symbol. Recognising a political symbol is just easier.

2. A religious symbol is not necessarily worn to express a religious identity or religious views. It might be worn just because it looks nice, or as jewellery. A political symbol is probably always worn as an expression of political identity or political views. I find it hard to imagine someone wearing a Liberal Democrats badge just because it looks nice where that person rejects the party’s political ideology.

3. A religious symbol might be worn to express a very loose, cultural association rather than any specifically religious or theological one. Some people consider themselves “cultural Christians” – let’s not worry too much about what that actually means – even though they might never have voluntarily read a bible or attended a church, and even though they might not believe in God. People generally don’t go out of their way to show they are “culturally Conservative” where they disagree with Conservative policies and don’t vote Conservative.

4. Even when a religious symbol is intentionally worn as a religious symbol, it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the person or their views. For example, I certainly don’t assume that everyone who wears a crucifix is a homophobic, misogynist advocate for slavery (I am willing to assume that very few of them are). As the very nature of religious belief is so arbitrary and buffet-like, the wearing of a religious symbol signifying an affiliation to that religion does not provide us with anything of substance about the person or their views. This reasoning does not always work, though: it falls short when we apply it to some denominations, sub-denominations and sub-sub-denominations (not to mention newer, younger religions such as Scientology), because the governing doctrines probably become ever narrower and more crystallised. Generally, though, I say a political symbol provides more insight into someone’s political views than a religious symbol does into their religious views.

Secularism’s task is to strike a balance between the right of everyone to freedom of religion and freedom from it. It is proper to acknowledge that this task is occasionally difficult and imprecise.

A while ago I heard the journalist, Nick Cohen, say that secularism is not perfect but that it’s “the best we’ve got”, and I agree with that.

If we are not to have secularism, what are we to have? State atheism? No, thanks. A theocracy where one religion dominates? No, thanks. A “multi-theocracy” model where two or three of the most muscular religions form an unholy alliance against minority faiths and the non-religious? No, thanks. Secularism is all we’ve got, and we’ve got to make it work.

Secularism is often likened to a totalitarian ideology, which is a ludicrous slur. As secularists we are frank and open when discussing weaknesses of our political ideology. We acknowledge its difficulties and its imperfections and we address them. We are at pains to ensure secularism fulfils its vital function of creating and maintaining a religiously-neutral state and that the rights of everyone – the non-religious, the religious and even religious extremists – are protected. Infringing or limiting anyone’s rights, even to a very minor degree, is the very last thing we want our political ideology to do. Totalitarian regimes do not generally concern themselves with avoiding harm or striking “the right balance”. They do not attempt to strike any sort of balance at all.

I don’t open these posts up to comments because I already spend too much time blogging (and now tweeting) without getting into discussions here, but I have opened this one in the hope others will contribute their thoughts, and help me to clarify mine.

In particular, I would like to know whether anyone supports an outright ban on staff wearing religious symbols in a state school (and remember my wide interpretation of “religious symbols”).  I am also keen to hear additional reasons why religious symbols might generally be acceptable but political ones might not (or, why political symbols should be allowed). If you think political symbols should be allowed, how would you distinguish in objective terms between mainstream political ideologies and extreme ones, such as the BNP? Or would you not?

I also hope to hear from some of the religious followers of my blog (for they do exist, and they are most welcome).

Alternatively, if you just want to say, “you think too much; stop it or you’ll make yourself ill,” that is an entirely reasonable response.


13 thoughts on “Religious Symbols vs. Political Symbols

  1. Some thoughts about the burka. I do think it oppresses women, both literally and symbolically. But should it be banned? I don’t think so. When one group of people bully women by telling them what they MUST wear, does it really help if some other people (us) start telling them what they MUST NOT wear. What we must do is make it clear that the choice is theirs, not their husbands, not the Imams, but theirs. This freedom must be backed up by law, and not undermined by tacit recognition of a parallel law.
    On the question of symbols in schools. I don’t think I do find political symbols less acceptable than religious ones. Is it really bad for the students to know that “Mr Jones is a Catholic” or that “Miss O’Mally is in the Labour party”. I don’t think either are a problem so long as neither of them are pushing their “faith” in the physics class. What I think is wrong is that the school itself, rather than individual teachers, should have a religious or political bias. I would oppose a “Labour Party” school as much as i do oppose faith schools.
    I think, in the end, we have to fall back on the idea of “reasonableness”, both morally and legally. Mr Smith wearing his fish-pin, or his happy-human is fine. A huge crucifix or reciting the ten commandments is not. In between we have to accept that it gets messy, and we have to try to be reasonable
    I’ll be back to read other comments – keep on bloggin.

  2. Hey Dave, thanks for your thoughts.

    I really don’t know where I stand on banning the burka. However much I despise it, I really don’t know whether banning it is the best way of dealing with the problem. It would certainly send a strong message, though.

    Like you suggest, we all need to make it clear that the decision is for the woman alone and no-one else. At that point, if someone genuinely chooses to wear it of their own free will, well I say she is emancipated enough to take some criticism of her dress choices and also to understand that her actions affect others.

    Yes, regardless of whether symbols in the school are political/religious, what’s not on is pushing the message. The difficulty is that the very symbol arguably does that.

    I would certainly oppose a ‘Labour school’ as much as I oppose a faith school, but for some reason I think I would be more bothered about a Labour badge (or any other political badge) than a crucifix; not sure why, though.

    Definitely one for commonsense. It’s just confusing because even when you try to formulate some basic principles here it just becomes quite tricky.

    One other thing – the distinction between the political and religious will not always be clear anyway. For example, the Catholic school that was in the news recently with their gay marriage petition would argue this is a religious teaching (and therefore under our current system, acceptable) rather than a political one, which is not. Again, it raises the question of why the different treatment for political and religious issues.

  3. Asalaam aleikum, brother.

    I’d approach the question from a different angle. My impression is that you’re approaching it on the level of principle (which is quite a “religious” thing to do, if you’ll forgive me for saying so), and I’d prefer to approach it pragmatically. The question to ask, in the case of both religious and political symbols, is “is this causing a problem?”, If so, we ban or restrict it. If not, we don’t.

    It’s not difficult to imagine that wearing religious symbols might cause trouble in some circumstances. They might create division within the school community, be taken by some pupils as a provocation or insult, cause parents to lose confidence in the school and/or undermine discipline. Alternatively (and more probably, if we’re talking about something like a cross necklace), it may be that few people would notice the symbol and even fewer would give a shit. These things should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

    I’d say that political symbols, in most schools in 21st century Britain, would be more likely to be inflammatory than religious symbols, which would suggest that they should normally be banned. In different cultural contexts, of course, religious symbols will be similarly inflammatory, but that’s not generally the case in the UK today (outside of certain minority communities, and with the partial exception of Northern Ireland).

    • Hello Reg

      I was trying to avoid approaching it on the basis of principle, and trying to focus on harm, but I take your point.

      I certainly agree that with religious symbols there should be an element of commonsense, but – if you’ll forgive me for saying this – are religious issues often or even ever determined by reference to commonsense?

      Different people have different ideas about commonsense, especially when everyone is “speaking a different language” (i.e. referring to their various holy books and mutually exclusive deities/prophets).

      Another differentiating factor might be this: even though religions and religious leaders are often power-seeking and therefore in that sense ‘political’, the wearing of a religious symbol in an individual case might not be in any sense ‘power-seeking’. It could just be a demonstration of personal faith, personal religious views, or a sense of religious/cultural belonging. But the wearing of a political symbol must surely, almost always if not always, have something of the ‘power-seeking’ about it. So maybe that’s why I’m instinctively against political symbols but I’m more relaxed about religious ones.

      Ah yes I’ve read your blog (I think you have a couple?) and I remember the NSS linking to one of your pieces a while back.

      • Yes, they did! I had a sudden spike in traffic, and very gratifying it was too.

        Sadly, common sense is anything but common…. And you’re right – you did use the harm criterion, so my criticism was a bit unfair. I think what I was trying to say was that this question should be approached entirely in a piecemeal, case-by-case manner, so seeking to deduce general rules is (in my opinion) not the right way to approach it – interesting though the questions raised are.

        There must be an element of power-seeking in displaying a political symbol, or at least of trying to big up the cause. This will sometimes be the motive for wearing religious paraphernalia, but not always (I doubt, for example, that a Jewish teacher wearing a kippah would care about trying to convert his pupils to Judaism, not least because Jews don’t seek converts – it’s more likely to be an act of cultural affirmation).

  4. The power-seeking might be key here.

    From experience, and allowing myself to generalise, the Jews I have worked with generally have not been the “converting” sort so I’d agree on that, but I don’t think I would go along with such a general statement that “Jews don’t do xyz”. I just don’t think you can make any sort of meaningful statement like that about any of the big brands.

    Right I’m off to my pit, I’ll sleep on this.

    • “No generalisation is true, not even this one.” I should have said “the most widespread attitude among mainstream Jews today is that it is not appropriate to actively seek converts for Judaism”. You do get organisations like the controversial Chabad-Lubavitch which are missionary in character, and the mainstream attitude was different earlier in history.

      Sleep well.

  5. Though I have no authority to comment, I found this really interesting to read! And I thought I would comment back!

    I completely agree and now find myself pondering : what is the difference between religious symbols and political symbols?
    Personally, I think you hit the nail on the head.
    You can hardly tell anything about a persons opinion or standpoint by looking at something like a cross of an aum, however you would have more luck in guessing someones view point based on if they were wearing a labour, lib dem, BNP or conservative badge. Saying this, as you have also established, the UK is and has been moving away from the basic foundations of the church, and though we are a Christian State, in reality, we are more a political state that is religion-less.

    In regards to banning the Burka, the ONLY reason why I would think this could be an option for legislation is that the Burka is about consealment- and in regards to national security, itit the Burka could be used in a dangerous and harmful way in order to hide objects or even bombs. This fear has nothing to do with the Islamic religion, meerly the garment. I.e. anyone could buy a burka and wear it- regardless of religion, political belief or colour.

    Also, may people think that the burka represents the subjication of women and I agree. Telling them they must NOT wear something is a form of opression- stemming from society. Though isnt the forcing of them TO wear the burka opression from a different society? I feel this point is completely arguable and moot. It could go either way, hence why it should be decided in other terms: i.e. the one above. Though please do not get me wrong, I am neither an advocate nor someone who thinks it should be banned- this is litterally a responce of my stream of conciousness.

    Again, I agree with the comments above that suggest that for example, if a hospital matron is not allowed to wear ‘any’ jewelery, there should be no exception for any jewelery regardless of what it is, so in this there should be equality. I am Christian, and I wear a cross as a religious symbol, though I would adhere to these rules, as long as there is no acception. You cannot favour one religious symbol over another i.e. allowing someone to wear a cross but making someone take off an aum symbol.

    … So that is what I think anyway.
    But thank you for the blog, it was very interesting to read though I do think your last statement was true. Dont think too much or you will make yourself ill!

    • Hi Daniella, you have as much right to comment as me or anyone else, and I’m glad you have!

      As a secularist I would have to disagree that the UK is a “Christian State”. I acknowledge its Christian heritage but I would say it has other heritages, too. But even though the UK is definitely not secular ‘on paper’ i.e. bishops in the House of Lords, an established church etc, I think we are lucky that generally in the UK one’s religion or lack of it does not put you at a great advantage or disadvantage. There are exceptions to this, though – faith schools being a very important one.

      I think the safety issue is certainly one of the possible grounds for banning the burka, but probably not the only one. But I agree it should not be banned on the basis that it is ‘religious’.

      I am glad that you live in a country where you are free to choose a religion and to be religious – long may that continue. And I am also glad you don’t believe your religion gives you any additional rights to someone else, such as the right to wear jewellery when others don’t have the right.

      Glad you like the blog and thanks for visiting.

      • I’d argue that, even on paper, the UK today is an essentially secular state. There is a line of case-law going back at least as far as the First World War, and burgeoning in recent years, which asserts the secular character of British law.

        Astonishingly, I have blogged on this issue:

        Of course, as you note, there are historical survivals which qualify this statement to an extent – the C of E, the bench of bishops, the religious criteria for the monarch, and so forth. But these are residual elements, the products of history which will almost certainly be reformed in the future. At most, they make the UK a secular state with residual Christian elements, not a Christian state with secular elements. Personally, I have no problem in principle with this because I don’t seek recognition for my faith in the structures of the state.

        • Hello again, Mr. P.

          I think I would go along with everything you have said. This country is in practice, to a great extent, secular.

          One thing that continues to perplex me (there are many things that perplex me) is the way the UK is non-secular in theory but secular in practice, whereas the US is probably the opposite. I tried to deal with that in the last section of this post:

          Your comment confirms my recollection of a previous online interaction of ours on the Roll on Friday forum, which is that you are a religious secularist (or a secular religionist; no difference as far as I am concerned). As I think I remarked previously: long may you continue to live in a country where you can choose your own religion and how you as an individual choose to practise that religion.

          That was a really good blog post, thanks. Lord Justice Laws – like you say, an observant Anglican, and as I recall a churchwarden – fucking nails it. Such an eloquent judgment reminds me of that bit in “National Treasure” where Nicholas Cage’s character reads a section from the Declaration of Independence and then says, “People don’t talk that way anymore”. It was this bit:

          “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object [evil] evinces a design to reduce them [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

          Even though I get down about the influence of religious privilege on our lives, one of the main factors that gives me hope is that our courts have generally been ruthlessly secular when these issues have come before them (and even more encouragingly, when the judges involved in the case have themselves been of faith). The second that stops, we really are in the brown stuff. I think it would be a jolly good thing if our courts could one day consider the legality of faith schools discriminating against employees/parents/pupils on the basis of religion or lack of it. If I were a barrister instructed on that, when I received the papers I might be inclined to nod slowly and remark, “hmm, interesting case”.

  6. Hi, thanks for this post. I am currently writing about private fundamentalist schools in Britain and thinking about whether there is a case for the state regulation of them. Your post has many thought-provoking points I need to consider.

    I realise it’s poor form to post a link to my own blog in my very first comment on yours, but if you have time I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on my (relevant, I hope) article Fundamentalists vs. Neutrality:

    • Hi Jonny, that sounds an interesting post so I will check it out.

      The question of private religious schools is definitely different to state religious schools. Like I say, my view is that neither should be allowed.

      But banning religious schools in the private sector definitely raises additional civil liberties issues. I will keep an open mind on that, so I’m looking forward to reading your post.

      It’s not poor form to link to your own blog at all – but then I would say that because I do it all the time!

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