Ep 01: Stephen Evans | Exploring religious freedom

(Alastair Lichten) Well, hello and welcome to a new podcast series of discussions from the National Secular Society Exploring Religious Freedom. I’m Alastair Lichten, Head of Education at the NSS, and over the coming months I’ll be speaking to a variety of activists and experts about religious freedom. What does it mean? What does it protect? What are its limits? And how might it be abused? We’ll discuss how religious freedom expressed as theocratic and authoritarian regimes and also more liberal, otherwise more secular, democracies. For our inaugural episode I am joined by our Chief Executive, Stephen Evans. Stephen leads the National Secular Society, which works for the separation of religion and state, and equal respect for everyone’s human rights, so that no one is either advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their beliefs. So, welcome, Stephen. (Stephen Evans) Hello. (AL) I thought we’d start with the basics then. What is religious freedom? (SE) Well, religious freedom is a principle. It’s a basic, fundamental right, which gives us the freedom to think, to express and to act upon whatever it is that we believe. So, it includes the right to practice a religion, through worship and observance or whatever, but it also includes the freedom to change your religion, not to follow a religion at all. Or, to have someone else’s religion imposed upon you, so for me it’s a good thing. It’s something that’s for everyone, it provides the framework for a society in which people of different faiths and beliefs can live together, when minority faiths and beliefs are tolerated, and no one is persecuted on account of whatever it is that they believe. It’s a principle that’s given legal force by being part of the European Convention of Human Rights, which means that anyone who feels that his or her rights have been violated, by the state, can have a case heard before the court. As many people have. And in doing so, have carved out an understanding of what religious freedom means, and where its limits lie. So, I think one of the key things to understand is that while freedom of belief is absolute, you can believe whatever it is you want, the freedom to manifest your belief is qualified, which means it can be set aside in certain circumstances. (AL) OK. That’s a word that’s not maybe familiar to everyone. What does it mean for it to be “qualified” or “could be set aside”? (SE) Well, religious freedom isn’t a licence for religion to run amok in the public square. You know, there has to be some limits. So Article 9 of the convention comes in two parts: Part 1 gives everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, but the second part qualifies that. And I’ll read you what it states: “Freedom to manifest ones’ religion or beliefs should be subject only to such limitations as a prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health, morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” So, there you can see, straight away, that there are plenty of circumstances where it may be legitimate to override someone’s wish to manifest their beliefs. And when we have a clash of rights, we need to determine when it’s reasonable to interfere with someone’s freedom. And I’ll give one very clear example, which I think most of us will agree on. (AL) Hopefully (SE) Well, not necessarily, actually. Consider the scenario of Jehovah’s Witnesses, refusing to allow their child to receive a blood transfusion, which would save their life. And they do that, of course, in the name of their religious freedom and their parental rights. (AL) Yeah. (SE) So, I’m not making this up. This is an example that has come up numerous times, and the courts have had to decide whether the child’s right to life outweighs the parents’ right to manifest their religion. And, understandably, I think, the life of the child has taken precedence, because it’s so obviously is an infringement of another person’s rights, that the parents’ rights can be set aside at this circumstance. And it’s not even a major infringement, I would argue, because parents aren’t required to renounce their religion. They can still follow it. But this particular manifestation of their religion, the courts have decided, can be restricted, because of the harm it causes. So that’s quite a clear example of the limit. (AL) To be clear, this use of the term “manifestation”, the manifestation here is they’re making the choice for the child, it’s not… We might have our own opinions, but an adult wants to do something to themselves that maybe, to people who don’t share that religion, would look at and just completely could not understand. The state forcing an adult to have a blood transfusion they didn’t want, that would seem to be an unreasonable imposition on religious freedom. (SE) Yeah. I think it’s one thing to take away your own right to life, your own life, that’s one thing. To take away someone else’s life, well, that’s another thing altogether. Sometimes it’s not so clear cut, you know. Religious practices can sometimes conflict with secular law, or secular morality, should we say, and this does create friction points, which in turn creates debate that we see around religious freedom. The issue of the religious slaughter of animals springs to mind, debates around burger vans, and so on. Sometimes these are complex debates, and reasonable people can disagree on where we draw the line and where the limits lie. But, there clearly are circumstances where it seems reasonable to say to someone “Sorry, you can’t do that, even if your religion mandates it.” And I think this is where the narrative has gone astray a little bit. Because some religious groups like to push the idea that religious freedom is absolute. And, well, yes. The freedom to believe whatever you like is absolute. But the freedom to manifest that belief certainly isn’t. And I’ve long been concerned that the concept of religious freedom has been distorted by some people who wish to impose their religion, or their religious values, on others. So, as you’ll be aware, the phrase “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” have, I think, been hijacked by the religious right, and twisted from, what I think was its original meaning, into some disingenuous code words, referring to a licence to discriminate and control the lives of others. And we’re seeing discrimination, particularly against gay people, actually, sometimes justified on the basis of religious freedom. But that’s not what it’s about. Religious freedom isn’t about imposing your beliefs and values on others, particularly in ways that cause harm and restrict the rights of others. (AL) It does seem, then, that there is confusion about what, exactly, religious freedom means. And there are also, as you suggest people who are actively trying to misuse this phrase. There are areas, grey areas, where reasonable people can disagree, so, how, when you’ve got two different people, with different understandings of religious freedom, how can they come together and try and either reach agreement, or at least move things along? (SE) Well, in civil society we need civil debate, we need discussion. But if all else fails, we have the legislative process where you can argue your case. So, if the government wants to bring about a new law, then both sides can bring their case, and, hopefully, the government will say “Well, OK. We’ve heard both sides, but this is the side we’re coming down on.” If all else fails, that’s when it ends up in the courts, as these cases so often do. (AL) So, Stephen, what would you say are the biggest challenges to religious freedom in the UK? (SE) Well, right from the off, I would say that the most egregious restrictions on religious freedom, the worst violations, are happening outside the UK. I think we have a somewhat secularish outlook in the UK, which prevents the worst kind of violations, that we see in countries with a more theocratic bent, shall we say, typically Islamic nations, where there is a great deal of persecution going on. But also, authoritarian states, such as China and North Korea, where we’ve seen terrible religious freedom violations. Whenever politicians take a particular view of religion, and that can be an atheistic world view too, and enact that into law, they begin to fundamentally undermine religious freedom. So where we have sharia law, apostasy codes, blasphemy laws, the religious freedoms of millions of people are being harmed. But, that said, there are, certainly, plenty of barriers to religious freedom being fully realised in the UK, too. For starters, we have a state church. The head of state, the monarch, is actually required to be an Anglican. So, you know, what kind of message does that send out, when your head of state isn’t even afforded religious freedom? And, you know what? All that trickles down. We have laws regarding worship in schools, all schools, not just faith schools. About a third of our schools are, in fact, faith schools, which means that pupils’ and parents’ religious freedom are being frequently undermined, particularly where they have no option other than a faith school. A new report, published by the National Secular Society just this month, shows that almost 3 in 10 families across England live in areas where most or all of the closest primary schools are faith schools, and we know that over half the primary schools in rural areas are faith based. So the system is actually forcing children into faith schools. And that’s not a good place to be, from a religious freedom perspective. (AL) It’s interesting, because, from our point of view, perhaps incorrectly, faith schools are often justified in terms of being about religious freedom. (SE) Well, this is one of the examples where you give religious freedom to one group. You know, you extend the right of faith groups to have their own schools, it starts to encroach on the rights and freedoms of other people. So, the scenario that I’ve given you, if your local school is faith school, and you have little option but to send your child to that school, and that starts to encroach on your rights. So, if we have inclusive secular schools for all, I don’t think that, in any way, impeeds anyone’s religious freedom. OK, you might not have the chance for your child to go to a school of your faith choosing, but the school isn’t going to undermine your faith. You can still practice it in private, at home, in the place of worship, it’s just that school isn’t seen as an extension of that religious community. For me, the fairest way to balance everyone’s rights is just to have secular inclusive schools, certainly not atheistic schools, just secular schools, where everyone’s freedom of beliefs are respected. And that’s as far as the state needs to go, in terms of honouring people’s religious freedom. It’s just, you don’t undermine their freedom, you certainly don’t have to say “Yes” to every demand they come up with. (AL) It’s interesting, the point you made there about certain violations of religious freedom that can be seen as symbolic, or quite theoretical, trickling down to practical implications on religious freedom. What is the National Secular Society doing to reclaim religious freedom? (SE) Right from the get-go, we’ve been about ensuring that religious freedom is something that everyone can enjoy. Our founder, Charles Bradlaugh MP, was denied his right to a seat in parliament on account of his beliefs. He worked to ensure that elected representatives that the right to affirm, rather than swear a religious oath. His Oaths Act, in 1888, made this possible. We’re still at it today. Today we’re still challenging the religious privileges that result in erosions of other peoples’ freedoms. It’s sometimes said that, for every religious privilege, there’s a victim. And I think that‘s right. I think we have lots of problems in the UK with respect to minority faith communities, where individual freedoms have been lost or subsumed by group rights. Take, for example, sharia courts. Yes, tolerating them is tolerating manifestations of religion. It’s granting people religious freedom. But what we don’t think about is the rights of the vulnerable, minority women, within those communities. Are their religious freedoms being respected? Are their human rights being respected? So, we’ve got to be careful when religious fundamentalists masquerade as guardians of religious freedom. They’re usually talking about their own religious freedom, and not necessarily the freedoms of everyone within that group, who they wish to control. I think the NSS is doing an important job in calling that out. We campaign for faith schools to be replaced by inclusive schools. We campaign for an end to collective worship being imposed where it’s not wanted in schools, and other places, such as work places, council chambers, even the mother of all parliaments, which, for some bizarre reason, starts every session, still, with Anglican prayers. So, we campaign for everyone’s rights and freedoms to be properly balanced. And we are constantly making the case that, yes, you have the right to your religion, but you don’t have the right to impose that on others. And you don’t necessarily have the right to have exemptions from laws designed to protect other people, or the welfare of animals, for that matter. So often what we see is those seeking to defend religious freedom are only really talking about their own interests. But I’d like to think that secularists are more concerned about everyone’s religious freedom, and ensuring that we have this kind of, this balancing of rights that needs to occur to make sure that everyone’s freedoms are respected. And that does sometimes mean us saying “No” to religious groups. And that doesn’t make us popular, sometimes. But we are acting in the interests of freedom and fairness. But a significant focus for us, right now, is to correct some of these misconceptions, around religious freedom, that have been allowed to develop. So you ask what the NSS is doing. Well, we’ve got a major conference coming up in London next May, where we’ll be getting religious freedom defenders together, to make the point that religious freedom is a right that belongs to everyone. (AL) OK. And what could the ordinary person do to reclaim or to protect religious freedom, or even just to understand it better? (SE) Well, our work is made possible by members’ and supporters’ contributions. So, I’d say, if this is something you’re interested in, please do join the NSS, be part of the movement that is seeking to create a secular Britain, where everyone’s rights are properly balanced, it’s not just the case of enabling the work that we do. I think people everywhere need to become, maybe, a little bit more vocal about asserting their rights, and also standing up for the rights and freedoms of others. So where you see someone else’s religion imposing on your freedom, make a stand and say so. But be just as vocal when other people’s rights are being unfairly restricted. (AL) OK. I think that’s kind of good advice for just trying to get along better together. Well, finally, we’d like to leave our listeners with some recommendations. Stephen, are there any books or films that you think do a good job exploring religious freedom, that you’d like to share? (SE) Well, two films, that I’ve watched recently, come to mind, in that they take the abstract concept of religious freedom, and show what the lived reality of religious freedom being restricted actively looks like. So the first film is Apostasy. It’s a film by a British filmmaker, called Daniel Kokotajlo – I think it’s brilliant – which sheds light on the rarely seen internal workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and gives an idea of what being a witness is maybe like. And how stifling it must be, particularly when you lose the faith, and find yourself on the receiving end of their shunning policies. The second film, which I saw just last week, actually, is called Disobedience. That’s a film about forbidden love, which happens to be lesbian love, in London’s Jewish orthodox community. And I suppose both of those films are really about how individual human rights and religious freedoms can be restricted, not by the state, in these cases, but by insular communities. And I think we need to be much more mindful about this. So when religious groups are pushing for group rights, we need to be thinking about the human rights of people within those groups. And I think those two films really do provide an illustration of that. In terms of recommended reading, I’d probably suggest Jacques Berlinerblau’s “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom”. I think that book, for me, more than any book of late, probably, crystalized my thinking around religious freedom, and the fact that secularism is probably the world’s best defender of it. If you don’t have time to read the book, I think there’s a great video of him speaking at an NSS conference a couple of years back, in which he presents the key themes of his book. So you can check that out. But I’d definitely recommend the book. (AL) OK. Well, Stephen, thanks so much for your time. And we’ll put those links in the show notes. (SE) Brilliant. Thanks a lot. Cheers. (AL) Before I go, I wanted to thank Stephen and listeners for joining me for this conversation. We’ve had a broad overview of religious freedom, but there are lots of different avenues and aspects that we can look at. And I look forward to discussing these with my guests over the coming months. You can find the show notes for this episode, including links to the films that Stephen mentioned, either subscribe to this podcast on various platforms at secularism.org.uk/podcasts You’ll find the link to this episode’s Facebook post, which will be at facebook.com/nationalsecularsociety where I encourage you to join in the discussion, whatever your views. As mentioned, we are leading up to a pretty major conference at Secularism 2019 Reclaiming Religious Freedom. And that will be in Central London, this May. You can find details and book your tickets at secularism.org.uk/2019 All that’s left to say is that I hope I’ll see you there and that you’ll join us for the next episode.

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