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.
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.
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.
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.
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.