Thank you, Digital Cinema Media


Digital Cinema Media, which manages advertising for Odeon, has refused to show an advertisement which was basically Christian proselytising, as people may find it offensive. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who features in it, says (as quoted in The Times) that its “about as offensive as a carol service on Christmas Day… I think people need to watch the film and come to their own conclusions as to whether it is offensive or upsetting.”

Thus demonstrating that the Archbishop of Canterbury has completely missed the point. What’s offensive is subjecting people who’ve paid good money to go and see Star Wars to religious proselytising. I don’t go to my local church and stand up at the front and say “OK guys, before you do all the god stuff, I’d just like to tell you a bit about atheism.” I respect religious people’s right to be religious on their own time and in their own chosen place. Religious people should do the same and respect my right not to have their beliefs shoved down my throat when all I want is a good lightsabre fight and some cool spaceships.

People do not need to watch an advertisement for a prayer website telling them how to pray, and then decide whether or not they were offended by having their viewing pleasure interrupted. They do not need to be subjected to proselytising without their consent, when it gives them a choice between sitting through it and walking out of the cinema.

I suppose one might think I’m getting rather exercised over what is, (in my opinion!) basically, someone wanting to talk about their imaginary friend. I suppose I should smile nicely, and say “Yes, dear, whatever you say, that’s lovely.” Or just doze through the whole thing, like any other boring advert for a product that I’m slightly less interested in than a penis enlargement. But since these people use their imaginary friend to get free seats in the House of Lords, and to force people with serious diseases to live in pain and misery, I’m slightly less sympathetic to them than to less dangerous people with imaginary friends.

Not for nothing are religion and politics no-go areas at polite dinner parties (or so I hear). What the Archbishop of Canterbury fails to realise is that there is a time and there is a place for proselytising. Any time that people have paid to experience something completely different, and any place where people can’t leave without abandoning what they’ve paid for, is not it.

Of course, on the other hand, maybe I should be glad that the Archbishop of Canterbury – in this time of falling congregation numbers – clearly doesn’t feel that voluntary recruiting is cutting the mustard, and he has to ambush a captive audience. What next, I wonder? Press gangs? Will Sundays become a time of danger as roving parties of deacons patrol the streets, bashing the unwary over the head and dragging them off to Evensong? Or getting people drunk and incapable, then locking them up until they wake up in a choir stall?

The Archbishop has made a fool of himself over this – twice: once in having the advert made at all, and once in not taking his rejection with good grace. Really, is that the impression he wants to give of the Church of England? An organisation that is not only so desperate for new blood that it ambushes filmgoers, but also is a bad loser?

If I were Anglican, it would be like that moment when your friend says something utterly, utterly stupid/racist/homophobic in public, and you just don’t know where to look (it happened; we’re not friends any more).

Good thing I’m not Anglican. I’m an atheist, and I can watch the whole train wreck from a distance. With popcorn.

Freedom of expression: only applies to our sort of people

Like so much that’s been written over the last day or two, this post is inspired by the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine.

Shooting cartoonists is not acceptable, no matter how offensive their drawings.

However, if we move beyond the terrorist act itself, there are some interesting things to think about.

Firstly, there is an underswell of “Well, if Christians don’t get hot and bothered about satirical cartoons of Jesus, why should Muslims get all up-in-arms about cartoons of Mohammed? It’s the same thing, isn’t it? It just shows how intolerant Muslims are.”

Actually, no, it’s not the same thing.

An important point in Islam is that Mohammed is never pictured; to do so is blasphemous, even if the depiction is a favourable one. In fact, when a film (The Message) was made about Mohammed and the beginning of Islam, it was made without Mohammed – he was always there, just never on screen. The nearest you got was seeing the head of the camel he was riding.

If Muslims are going to be criticised for objecting to cartoons of Mohammed, then at least people should understand that there is a difference between cartoons of Mohammed and cartoons of Jesus, or Buddha, or the Hindu gods or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Criticise, fine. Just get the facts right first.

Secondly,  there’s the “Well, Muslims are allowed to practise their freedom of expression etc by being Muslims in France. Charlie Hebdo was only exercising its freedom of expression by drawing satirical cartoons.”

Actually, that’s another mistake. Muslims in France do not have the freedom to express themselves as Muslims however they wish. Muslim women are not permitted to wear a face veil; many girls are not even allowed to wear a hijab in school. Even though wearing a niqab or a burqa doesn’t hurt anyone else, doesn’t damage anyone’s property, and doesn’t demean or insult anyone else’s life choices, French Muslim women are criminalised and fined for expressing their religion in a manner of their choosing.

The reason for this is the principle of “living together”, which was newly added to the armamentarium of the European Court of Human Rights, seemingly specifically to justify allowing France to ban a religious practice that French non-Muslims did not like, in SAS v France. This is directly in opposition to the principle of human rights – that a human has a right to do, or be, certain things, either regardless of how much other people don’t like it, or to the extent that it does not impact on other people’s rights.

There is no right of “living together” in the European Convention on Human Rights. Neither is there a right not to be offended, or a right to not see things that you, personally, find objectionable.

This “living-together” principle is nothing less than carte blanche to decide on state-mandated standards of behaviour and enforce them – generally at the expense of minorities. France was therefore allowed to use this “living-together” principle to justify banning a minority religious/cultural practice simply because the majority did not like it.

So, going back to satirical cartoons… why is it OK for Charlie Hebdo to print cartoons that are deeply offensive to devout Muslims, and are certainly deliberately disrespectful to Islam, but it’s not OK for Muslim women to practice their religion in a manner of their choosing, which does not harm or disrespect anyone else?

Or, perhaps, is freedom of expression only free when the majority approves of what you wish to say or do?

Thirdly, and perhaps most perniciously, there is an unpleasant, sanctimonious tone to much of the comment, which implies “here in the West we are tolerant; those nasty Muslims are against all the good things like freedom of speech, women’s rights, and bacon sandwiches.”

I think, before we get too proud of our moral high ground, we ought to take a look at how high it actually is. Women’s rights is a large and complicated subject, but we need to remember that until 1937, a woman in the UK could only divorce her husband on grounds of cruelty, sodomy or incest (for a man, mere adultery was enough – but a wife was expected to put up with her husband sleeping around). The marital rape exemption (which assumed that a woman could not refuse her husband consent to sex, therefore it was impossible for a husband to rape his wife as rape requires lack of consent) wasn’t finally killed off in the UK until 1991 (by the House of Lords as was, in R v R.)

When it comes to freedom of speech, in 1996, Nigel Wingrove‘s film Visions of Ecstasy was banned by the British Board of Film Classification on grounds of blasphemy. The last of the blasphemy laws in the UK didn’t disappear until 2008 – and while in force, only applied to the Church of England anyway.

We here in the West are not nearly as tolerant as we think we are, and we should remember that real tolerance consists not of tolerating things that don’t bother us (like cartoonists ridiculing Muslims for profit), or that we even secretly approve of, but of allowing those actions that we don’t agree with.

Tolerance does not consist of outlawing anything (like niqabs, or walking around naked) that we don’t like, and then getting the police to deal with anyone who contravenes the new rules. It consists of asking “Is this weirdo actually harming anyone or anything else?” And if the answer is no, letting him get on with it.

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

This is quite a short book – I read it in one evening. But it is the sort of book that stays with you.

It’s about Fiona, a High Court (Family Division) judge. Her husband of many years decides he wants to have an affair with a much younger woman – and wants her permission for it – and the same evening, an urgent case is dropped on her. A young man, three months short of his 18th birthday, has leukaemia and is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A person under 18 can consent to medical treatment if they understand the implications (Gillick competence), but their refusal can be overridden in their best interests by a court order.

Despite appearances, this book is not about the nitty-gritty of choice, self-determination, and so on. There is no in-depth treatment of the moral and ethical implications of parents refusing consent to life-saving treatment for their children for religious reasons, or even about whether it is ethical to deny the right to choose to a young person who is only three months short of his 18th birthday. The book is, instead, about the way Fiona deals with the case and its aftermath, and the consequences of her choices and actions.

This is one of those books where you have no real doubt how it’s going to end – the interest is in how that endpoint is reached, and the journey you make in getting there.

Right from the start, I liked Fiona. I cared about her, I wanted her to be happy, and I respected her dedication to the law and her duties as a high court judge. But McEwan also wrote – very well – an adult’s dismissal of a child’s (or young person’s) feelings. Oh, they’ll grow out of it. But, as many parents find – too late – young people’s troubles may seem minor to an adult with a wider worldview and greater experience, but they’re pretty shattering to the young person concerned. How many adults have failed to take a child’s problems seriously until too late?

Fiona, of course, doesn’t make all the right choices – it wouldn’t be a very good story if she did. But even as we, the readers, can see the road she is travelling along and where it is likely leading, we know that Fiona can’t. She makes the choices that seem right and good at the time, and it’s only later that she realises where and how and why it went wrong.

In the end, I suppose the book is about responsibility: when you rearrange someone else’s life for them (particularly without their consent), you had better have a care for the consequences – which may be more far-reaching and unpredictable than you expect.

This book will join the very select list of my favourites.

If you want to know which legislation and cases are mentioned in the book, I’ve added the book to my list of Law in Literature examples here.

And the job continues…

Well, the new job continues – on a learning curve that’s a bit like the North Face of Everest, but without the snow. (“It’s only a Part 8″…. “What’s a Part 8?”) I haven’t had a learning curve this steep since… well… ever, really. Even during my first pharmacy job… ahem… years ago, my degree had given me some of the real-world professional skills to cope in the workplace. The same is not true of the Graduate Diploma in Law. I can quote a lot of case law, but I have no idea what a Part 8 is. (Part 8 of what? And what happened to Parts 1-7? Is there a Part 9?) Luckily, everyone in the office is nice and is willing to explain things in short words.

Then there was the problem of the Mobius T-shirt. You will, of course, be familiar with the Mobius strip – give a strip of paper a half-twist and join the ends together, and you’ve got a Mobius strip. It’s a mathematical curiosity, because it’s an object with only one side (the 3-D version is the Klein bottle). Sometimes, if you put a T-shirt in the wash, it comes out with a weird sort of tangle that looks a bit like it might be a Mobius relative – except of course it can’t be, because however you tangle a T-shirt it still has two sides and you can always untangle it. However, the Conveyancing Chap brought in one of his wife’s running singlets which, he said, had got itself tangled up in the washing machine and proved extraordinarily resistant to being untangled. He’d spent hours trying, and had brought it into the office to see if anyone else could figure it out.

Now, I’m usually pretty good at that sort of thing, and I enjoy it (as was demonstrated in the Budapest Palace of Miracles), but I couldn’t manage it. Despite considerable effort.

So Conveyancing Chap gave it to Accounts Lady when she arrived (as the next victim), who gave it one look and said “It’s meant to be like that.” We stared. Then Trainee Solicitor (Female) arrived, and agreed with Accounts Lady. Indeed, the running singlet was supposed to have twisted straps. Conveyancing Chap and I retired, discomfited, having demonstrated our complete lack of fashion knowledge.

What I want to know is, did Conveyancing Chap’s wife know the straps were supposed to be twisted? And if she did, was giving it to him to untangle some kind of devious marital tactic? And if so, what was it supposed to achieve? Just keep him quiet for a few hours (I think that was my father’s aim when he gave me a Mobius strip and recommended that I find the other side) or drive him to despair?

In addition to problems of non-Euclidean sportswear, it’s also Ramadan in the office (it being a Muslim firm – as far as I can tell, the non-Muslim workforce consists of me, Conveyancing Chap, the receptionist and the cleaning lady). Not being Muslim myself, I end up doing fasting by proxy (since it’s a bit rude to scarf cake and coffee in front of people who can’t share), which only means that I get the same dehydration headache as everyone else, but without the spiritual development. Apparently, if you’re fasting properly, it makes you want to watch cooking programs a lot. Who knew? Good job I’m not fasting properly, if that’s the case: we don’t have a TV at home.

So, there we go. The beginning of my career in Law. Let’s see what next week brings!

Are there any moral absolutes?

Are there any moral absolutes? That is the question. Some philosophers would say, unequivocally, ‘yes’. If only on the grounds that ‘the only rule is that there are no rules’ is a paradox. Others would say ‘no’, that morality is entirely dependent on culture. Naturally, there are some questions that get answered the same way in pretty much every culture, “Is it OK to kill someone just because you feel like it?” being one example, but that does not necessarily mean that ‘killing is wrong’ is a moral absolute.

Ethicists have been debating the absolute/relative morality argument for centuries. Millennia, in fact, and are no nearer to finding an answer (although they have come up with a lot of new questions).

Moral absolutism vs moral relativism has come up in the news recently, but in a slightly less elevated manner. It is one of the perils of multiculturalism: life is simple enough when they have a different moral code as long as they stay over there. It’s when they arrive over here that the problems start, because when you have two different moral codes operating in the same community, you have a choice: accept moral relativism and say “Well, it’s their culture, it’s wrong to interfere”, or take a moral absolutist stance and say “Some things are just wrong, no matter how much of a cultural tradition they are.”

Currently, we’ve got the Roma, whose arrival in an area seems to be the signal for reactions varying between despair, resignation, resentment, outrage and panic. In some places, the usual residents simply wait for them to move on (however inconvenient their presence might be) and then clear up the mess. In other places, they are forcibly moved on. But nobody seems to want them because they have the reputation for being messy, dirty, and criminal. How much is true – and how much of the truth is cultural choice and how much is practical necessity – I don’t know. It’s pretty clear, though, that the Roma get a worse press than they deserve, and that affects the way they get treated. How many other ethnic groups would have their children taken away simply because they don’t seem to look like their parents?

Then, we’ve got comments about ‘endemic corruption‘ in some communities, the Pakistani community being named by Dominic Grieve, who then had to apologise. However, one does think that although he could have phrased his statement better, he might actually have a point. But can it legitimately be called ‘corruption’ when giving priority to family and friends is an accepted cultural tradition? The problem is not so much what is done, but the conflict between them and us. If you come from a culture where extended families are strong units, and it’s part of every member’s duty to look after other family members, then of course you are going to bring that tradition with you when you immigrate to a new country, just as you bring traditions in dress and food. One might well ask, if a job needs doing, and a family member will do it well, how is it corrupt to give the job to the family member? After all, someone has to do it, and if the job is done well, does it matter who does it?

Here, of course, is the conflict in ideologies. On one side, the ideal that it is of the first importance to help your family and friends; if you have the good fortune to be in a position of influence, you should do what you can to use your influence in favour of the people you have a duty to support. If you do not share your good fortune, then you are uncaring and selfish.

On the other side, you have the entirely opposite view that nobody should be given an unfair advantage simply because of their family; each individual should have the opportunity to advance through his or her own efforts, without being unduly disadvantaged by not possessing the right ‘connections’. If you use your connections to help family or friends, then you are corrupt.

I think Dominic Grieve, by immediately jumping to the conclusion of ‘corruption’ spoiled an excellent point: culture means more than what you eat or how you dress. It goes deeper than that, and true integration means that both sides need to understand what the other is thinking. How can you fit in unless you know what you are supposed to fit into? And it’s totally unhelpful all round to label a cultural difference as criminal without some serious thought.

And so we are back to moral absolutes. Are there any? Are there any cultural practices which we can, without a doubt, state are criminal and/or morally repugnant and should be stamped out?

Female Genital Mutilation springs to mind. It’s illegal in the UK, but there have been no prosecutions. There have been accusations that this is due to ‘cultural sensitivities‘ – a reluctance to criticise something that is an important rite of passage in some cultures, regardless of the harm it does to the girls and women who undergo it.

But it is not just with regard to immigration that we need to think about moral absolutes. Here in the UK, we have our own home grown differences of opinion on moral issues. Tomorrow, the 27th November 2013, the Supreme Court will hand down its judgement in the case of Bull and another (Appellants) v Hall and another (Respondents). It concerns a case where Mr and Mrs Bull, who run a bed-and-breakfast business, refused accommodation to Mr Hall and his civil partner. This was, state Mr and Mrs Bull, because their Christian beliefs include the tenet that heterosexual marriage is the only permissible relationship for couples to enjoy full sexual relations. Discrimination in the provision of services on the grounds of sexual orientation is illegal (Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007) – but Mr and Mrs Bull believe that they should be allowed to manifest their religion (Human Rights Act 1998, Article 9) by refusing accommodation to people whose lifestyle they belief is sinful.

So what we have here is no more nor less than two competing ideologies: the belief that homosexual relationships are not sinful, and the belief that they are. Like FGM, there is a specific UK statute involved: Parliament has decided that FGM is not acceptable in the UK and doing it to a girl or woman is therefore a criminal offence; but homosexuality is recognised as a natural variant of human sexuality, and therefore homosexual persons should not be discriminated against. Likewise, on the one hand we have people who are, apparently, still subjecting their daughters to FGM, and on the other, we have people who want to deny services to homosexual people based on their sexuality.

Of course, you could say that this is hardly the same situation: on the one hand, we have girls subjected to an invasive, harmful surgical procedure that can have long-term adverse effects on their health (up to and including death), and on the other we have two men who need to find alternative B&B accommodation.

But it’s not that simple. When we discriminate against someone because of their personal characteristics – when we deny someone access to a service simply because of who they are – we are denying their equality, and denying their right to exist the way they are. You may not be able to see the blood, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, that cuts deep. On what grounds can we justify doing that to someone? If we believe that a person deserves equal treatment, then surely we cannot limit that equality by saying “You only get equal treatment as long as people want to treat you equally.”

The Bull v Hall case, therefore, will decide an important point: does state morality (as expressed in the Equality Act) trump personal morality?

And if it doesn’t – if people’s personal beliefs are allowed to override the equal status mandated for others in statute – what does this mean for other conflicts? Anyone seeking to defend FGM is likely to fail under the definitions of belief set out in Grainger v Nicholason, but what about other conflicts? Al-Madinah school has been criticised for allegedly insisting that non-Muslim female staff members wear headscarves, preventing staff wearing symbols of other faiths, and making girls sit at the back of the class (which the school denies). All of which have possible equality and/or freedom to manifest religion (after Eweida) implications.

We cannot carry on, as a multicultural society, ducking the question of morality. There are simply too many competing moral codes all trying to coexist on one quite small island. I think the time is coming – possibly even tomorrow – when a statement will have to be made to the effect that the moral code as set out in law is non-negotiable. Nobody can get out of it, or around it, by arguing that they have a different culture with a different moral code. Nobody can say “That law is against my religion so I won’t obey it.”

The citizens of the UK, of whatever colour, religion, belief system, sexuality or gender, deserve to know that their rights are protected wherever they go, whoever they are, and whoever they are with. We cannot have a situation where, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Women: only as equal as we say you are…

In the news this week is the Church of England’s vote on women bishops, pretty overwhelmingly in favour. However, a big part of the change from last year’s embarrassing vote against was the provisions for those who want no part of women in the episcopate, and how their views will be accommodated.

Now, here is where I hit a problem. Now, I admit that, as a happy little Humanist, my understanding of theology may not be of the best. But, in my simple little mind, I always thought that when it came to religion, it was God’s views that counted.

The way I see it is as follows:
1. Religion is about the Will of God. The rules in any particular religion are their interpretation of the Will of God. Follow the rules, you go to heaven (or equivalent). Disobey and you go to hell (insert appropriate alternate post-mortal destination).
2. God either wants women bishops, or he does not. The two points of view are mutually exclusive.
3. It is therefore the Church’s task to figure out what the Will of God is, and do that.

So, if we have some dioceses, or parishes, refusing the ministry of women bishops, and some accepting it, then by definition, we have some Church of England people who are not obeying the Will of God. In fact, they are setting themselves directly against the Will of God.

OK, the excuse for this is that these people (whichever side is right) are following their own consciences.

However, I was always under the impression that religion was about what God thinks, not what you think…

So then, if we accept that a particular parish, or diocese, can refuse the ministry of a woman, we have a situation where that group of people is saying, effectively, that they think that the Synod is wrong and they are right, about what the Will of God actually is.

So, one of two situations must exist:
1. The Synod in fact has no jurisdiction in the matter of interpreting the Will of God, and such interpretation is up to each individual parishioner. In this case, what is the point of having a Church? If each person has a direct, personal relationship with God, and nobody – be he (or she) never so well-versed in theology – can gainsay the individual’s interpretation of the Will of God, then the Church becomes merely a sort of social club, with singing.
2. The Synod (full of archbishops and that sort of people) actually does have a head start in interpreting the Will of God. In that case, anyone who goes against the Synod’s decision is going against the Will of God as interpreted by the Church of England, and logically, those people ought to either rethink their position (because, as Christians, they are supposed to obey the Will of God, not their own personal prejudices) or find a different religious organisation that is more in tune with their view of the Will of God.

Logically, you cannot have a situation where people who profess to be interpreting and obeying the Will of God allow two contradictory points of view in their organisation, because one of those points of view must be in direct opposition to the Will of God.

Alternatively, one might explain this by saying that this is nothing to do with the Will of God, and everything to do with the personal prejudices of human beings. There is simply no-one with the moral courage to say either “This is the Will of God; take it or leave” or “This is a 21st century church and we are having no more sex discrimination.”

So what we have, apparently, is a situation where a woman can be consecrated as a bishop – but a proportion of the congregation has carte blanche to deny her authority and, indeed, the fact that she is a bishop at all. Simply because she is female.

And if the Church of England allows its adherents to deny the status of one of its bishops, then clearly that ‘bishop’ has no real status at all. What someone can take away from you, after all, is not something that is yours. It is something that you are allowed to hold only so long as others let you.

So although I applaud the decision (half a loaf being better than no bread, and all that), I do not believe that this represents equality. It is not equal if a woman’s status as a bishop can be denied, but not a man’s.

And, in related news, Germany is apparently poised to introduce legislation requiring German companies to give 30% of non-executive board seats to women, from 2016. If these seats cannot be filled by women, then they must remain empty.

Again, this looks like a step forward. However, personally I think it’s a step backwards: “Oh, so you’re on the board. Well, don’t think we have to pay attention to you; you’re only here because we had to have a female, not because you’re qualified. So be a good girl and keep quiet while the men get the work done.”

The problem with quotas is that the people who are given the job can never be quite sure whether they got the job on merit, or because the company had to take what they could find to fill the post. That could have a disastrous effect on the effectiveness of women board members: it is all too easy to ignore someone who is suspected of being a political, rather than a merit, choice. And what of the women themselves? Myself, I would not like to think that I had gained my role because of my gender rather than my abilities. And with a quota in place, no woman will ever be able to be sure that she really deserves her position.

As far as I know, there has been no serious research on why many executive boards are still dominated by men. And without that research, we don’t know the reasons why, and it is impossible to come up with the correct solution to the problem – if it even is a problem. Because all we know is that the numbers aren’t even: we don’t know for sure whether that’s because women are being kept out, or because they simply don’t want to come in.

This brute force approach of mandating a quota that will compel companies to scrabble around trying to find enough women to fill the ‘female seats’ is not true equality. It is saying: “We don’t think you can make it on your own; you won’t succeed unless we make it nice and easy, so we’ll keep out the male candidates so you don’t have any competition.”

Equality is when you make sure there are no barriers to people making the choices they want, and achieving their goals through their own efforts. It is not about a fake equality where you give someone the appearance, but not the reality. That is an expression of the profoundest disrespect, because it denies people the chance to succeed on their own.

Moral Relativism and the Hierarchy of Rights

There’s a certain amount of debate in human rights circles about whether, although all rights are supposedly equal, there is in fact a hierarchy of rights. And when people discuss this, they usually add “and the right to freedom of religion is at the bottom of it.” Or words to that effect.

So, according to the Human Rights Act 1998, what rights do we have?

  • Protection of property
  • Right to education
  • Right to free elections
  • Right to life
  • Prohibition of torture
  • Prohibition of slavery and forced labour
  • Right to liberty and security
  • Right to a fair trial
  • No punishment without law
  • Right to respect for private and family life
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of assembly and association
  • Right to marry
  • Prohibition of discrimination

Additionally, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Looking at these rights, quite a lot of them are the kind of right that isn’t really vulnerable to conflict with people trying to exercise other rights. For instance, in order for there to be a conflict with the prohibition of slavery and forced labour, it would be necessary for someone else to argue that one of their rights included the right to enslave others or subject them to forced labour.

Some rights are capable of conflict, but only in rare circumstances. For instance, the right to life (of an unborn child) conflicts with a woman’s right to respect for private and family life, in the case of abortion. Different states have decided that the balance of rights falls in different places; in England, for example, the woman’s right to respect for private life is given priority over the foetus’s right to life – and, indeed, under English law the foetus is not legally a ‘person’ with rights at all, so technically there is no conflict. Personhood, in the eyes of the law, happens at birth.

In Ireland, the balance of rights is counted differently: the foetus’s right to life (and personhood begins at conception in this case) overrides the woman’s right to respect for private life, unless her life is also in danger – which, of course means that it is no longer a conflict between life and private life, but between two lives.

The right to freedom of religion or, more accurately, the right to manifest one’s religion, however, is a right that is much more prone to conflict with other people’s rights. One of the most glaring ways in which one person’s right to manifest their religion conflicts with the rights of another is in the matter of homosexuality. This has been recently demonstrated in the cases of Bull & Bull v Hall & Preddy 2012 and Black & Morgan v Wilkinson 2013. In both cases, the complainants were gay couples (one in a civil partnership, one not) refused bed and breakfast accommodation in a double room by the Christian proprietor of the B&B where they had booked. The proprietors’ arguments included that:

  • it wasn’t about homosexuality, it was about married-ness, and unmarried heterosexual couples were also refused rooms.
  • it wasn’t about homosexuality, it was about homosexual behaviour.
  • even if it was about homosexuality, it didn’t matter because

in all three cases, the discrimination (if it was discrimination) would be allowable because the B&B proprietors were simply exercising their right to manifest their religion, which included the belief that homosexuality was sinful. This being the case, they should not be expected to do violence to their beliefs by aiding and abetting homosexual acts under their roofs.

Other people have explained, and commented on, this much more elegantly elsewhere.

But to return to the conflict of rights, most rights are self-directed: the right to life is basically a right not to be killed. The right to education is a right to education for oneself. The right to a fair trial does not have implications for the fairness, or otherwise, of other people’s trials.

The right to freedom of religion, on the other hand, is not only self-directed (the right to believe, and the right to worship) but it is also other-directed, in that religions prescribe how adherents should treat others. And it is this which causes the conflict, because some of the major religions have important beliefs that require believers to discriminate against others on grounds of sexuality, gender, and/or marital status.

But when rights conflict, should there be a hierarchy? Are all rights equal – or not?

At this point, I think it’s necessary to step back from the letter of the law, and consider why the Human Rights Act was passed in the first place, and why rights exist.

The top and the bottom of it appears to be that rights exist to allow people to live their lives without undue interference from others (especially the state). So basically, it’s all about ‘do as you will, only harm none’ (with an obligation on the state to facilitate this, plus a reasonable standard of living).

This, I would suggest, is why religion frequently gets the short end of the stick: the gay couple on holiday just want a B&B room like any other couple; the Christian proprietor wants to treat them differently (worse) than non-gay couples. This is the right not to be discriminated against, going up against the right to discriminate.

But why should that be the case? If the Christian B&B proprietor truly believes that homosexuality is sinful, why should he, she, or they, not be allowed to act on that honest belief? This is, after all, a matter of morality. And where would we be without morals?

I would suggest that while this country would like to pretend that it has equal respect for everybody’s culture and everybody’s moral code, this is not, in fact, the case. The existence of the Equality Act itself proves that this country has a legally-enforceable moral code in certain areas, rendering conflicting moralities illegal.

Is this a bad thing?

Personally, no, I don’t think so. A country has to have some clearly defined rules about what is, or is not, morally-acceptable behaviour. Otherwise, for example, we might have the situation where it’s viewed as acceptable by some members of the community to kidnap young people for forced marriage, or to shoot young men for being the wrong race in the wrong place. True cultural moral relativism means that if someone says “in my culture, we believe it’s OK to shoot black people”, you pretty much have to nod and say “Well, I don’t agree with it, but each to his own” and then let them get on with it. Morality is dependent on the prevailing culture – which prevents a bit of a law-and-order problem in a multicultural society.

So we have to be morally absolutist about some things: it’s not OK to kill people because you don’t like the colour of their skin; it’s not OK to force a person into marriage; it’s not OK to steal other people’s property. And we have also decided, as a country, that homosexuality is not wrong, or immoral, and that people should not be disadvantaged because of their sexuality any more than they should be disadvantaged because of their gender or their race.

The Christian B&B vs Gay Couple cases, therefore, are not about a straightforward conflict of rights. They are about whether one section of the population (Christians) has a right to discriminate against another section of the population (homosexuals) either for simply being who they are, or for engaging in practices that are completely legal.

Or even, it’s about whether one section of the population (Christians) has a right to impose their own particular morality over the morality outlined by the laws of the country in which they live, and to unilaterally impose sanctions (such as refusal of services) on persons who are acting morally by the standards of the country.

A minority culture living within a country has, of course, the right to impose its own moral standards on its own members. If a Muslim woman wishes to wear a veil in the UK, then good luck to her, unless the practise has an adverse effect on others.

If I went to Saudia Arabia, I would expect to have to wear a veil, because that is dictated by the morality and laws of the country. I wouldn’t like it, and I don’t agree with it, but I accept that by visiting the country I would have to accept its laws.

But I would strongly protest against a minority culture expecting to be able to impose its own internal rules and morality on outsiders who are acting within the terms of the country’s legally outlined morality.* Any citizen of the country should be able to go about his or her life safe in the knowledge that law and morality are not mutable; if their actions are legal in one town, or in one business premises, then they are legal in all.

If we truly believe in equality – if we believe that nobody should be discriminated against on grounds of their sexuality – then that right is absolute. To say that some people are allowed to discriminate against people on grounds of sexuality is to say that actually, homosexuals aren’t truly equal – that the LGBT community can only expect to be treated equally as long as they take care to stay out of areas populated by people who don’t agree. That is effectively “You are equal until someone says you’re not.”

I hope, when the two cases above go to the Supreme Court in the autumn, the preceding judgements will be confirmed: that it is not legal to discriminate against homosexuals when providing services to the public. Otherwise, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 – good news though it is – will be only false progress.

End rant.

*Note: if a person is a personal guest within a culture, then they tacitly accept ‘insider’ status for the duration of the visit.

Religion. How do you know when you’ve got it?

This is what the Supreme Court have been discussing (reported in the Guardian here), with reference to whether a Scientology church should be approved for religious marriage ceremonies.

The question is, is Scientology a religion or not?

We don’t know what the five judges (Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson) think yet, because they have reserved judgement. However, this is my take on the subject. I wonder if their lordships will agree with me? (Or, with slightly less hubris, if I will find that I have agreed with them.)

Firstly, a religion is a system of belief. If it was a system of fact, then it would be science. This is important, and it also includes atheism. Just as ‘proofs’ of the existence of God (or gods) cannot stand up to formal logical refutations, neither can the reverse: as stated by Terry Pratchett (in Feet of Clay) “atheism is also a religious position.”

Secondly, religion is a system set up to deal with the intangible, but important, questions of life, such as “where did we come from?”, “where do we go?” and “why are we here?” and “while we are here, what should we do?” These are questions that cannot be answered by reference to evidence, because there is none. Even the existence of evolution does not disprove the existence of a god, because how do you know that’s not how he did it? Even if the answers are, as with Humanism, “there is no soul”, “we didn’t come from anywhere”, “we cease to exist when we die” and “during life, we should do our best to treat our fellow humans, animals, and the environment well”, these are still answers to the ultimate questions. Humanism is the most tentative inclusion in the ‘religion’ group because a person can have humanist beliefs without identifying themselves with Humanists as a group. But Humanism does tick all the boxes – so people self-identifying with the organised Humanist movement should count as practitioners of the Humanist religion.

Thirdly, its practitioners should genuinely believe in its teachings. This differentiates ‘true’ religion from cynical attempts to circumvent laws by invoking religious freedom (like the Neo-American Church regarding which a judge decided that “one gains the inescapable impression that the membership is mocking established institutions, playing with words and totally irreverent in any sense of the term”) or satirical social protests against religious intolerance (like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

So, Scientology? Is it a religion or not?

Well, they have a theory on how the universe came to be, and they have views on what is essentially the soul (thetans). They have a philosophy for life, and they believe that thetans are reborn over and over again into different bodies (reincarnation – corporeal life after death). And its adherents certainly seem to take it seriously as a religion.

So, yes. Scientology is a religion.

However strange a religion’s answers to the ultimate questions appear, we cannot use that as a means of deciding whether something is a religion or not. After all, every religion’s beliefs seem at the very least mistaken, and at worst wrong to the point of obscenity to non-believers. We must stick to the bare bones: is it a belief (rather than a fact) and does it deal with the ultimate questions?

If our objection to classifying Scientology as a religion is that we do not approve of what it teaches, or of its practices – either towards its own members or towards outsiders – then we need to say that for recognition by the state, a religion must not just exist (and be a real religion), but its aims, objectives and conduct must be such as can be respected in a democratic state.

Trying to argue that a belief system is not a religion simply because we don’t approve of it is only going to cause trouble later on, because if I can detect the logical difficulties in this kind of argument, it’s a safe bet that they won’t escape the kind of lawyers who will be fighting the case.

The right to manifest religious belief… what do you really want?

The case of R (on the application of Ghai) v Newcastle City Council [2010] EWCA Civ 59 is one of my favourite cases.

Mr Ghai, a Hindu, wanted his body cremated in accordance with his beliefs, which involved natural fire rather than electricity or gas, and in the open air. The previous decision of the court (Ghai v Newcastle City Council [2009] EWHC 978 (Admin)) had been that due to the provisions of the Cremation Act 1902 and the regulations of 2008, this manner of cremation would be illegal; Ghai therefore lost his case, hence the appeal.

The interesting thing about the appeal is that the judgement is very short, and does not consider whether Mr Ghai’s right to manifest his belief was being curtailed, or whether this would be justified if it was. The Master of the Rolls – admittedly with the advantage of further evidence produced by Ghai – cuts right to the heart of the matter: what, precisely, does Ghai want, and does the law allow it?

The previous case assumed that the only sort of cremation that would satisfy Mr Ghai would be cremation on a truly open site – a bonfire in a field. However, by the time we get to the appeal decision, it has been clarified that what really matters is that the fire should be a wood fire and that sunlight (he should be so lucky, in Britain) should be able to shine on the pyre. These factors can be accommodated within a permanent structure with a hole in the roof, or openings in the walls, and the Master of the Rolls decided that the meaning of ‘building’ within the 1902 Act would include this kind of structure. Therefore, the law permits Mr Ghai to have the kind of cremation that he wants.

The thing that really struck me about this case is that it involved people having to think about what was really important, rather than simply trying to replicate ‘the way we’ve always done it’. The separation, if you like, of the spiritually significant from the customary (or habitual).

Different cultures, as we are all painfully aware, have different ways of doing things that can seem odd, ludicrous, or even perverse, to strangers (and this knowledge has been around for centuries). This isn’t a problem as long as everyone stays at home, but once you have a multicultural society, suddenly everything gets complicated.

The old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” has validity – although it’s not politically correct to say so. There are very few cultures which do not deserve protection – the indigenous culture included. It’s quite hard to identify the ‘indiginous’ English culture because it’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water: for people brought up in it, it’s just ‘the way it is’, and you don’t realise that an activity is an important part of your culture until someone tries to stop you doing it.

But protecting the indiginous culture does not justify squashing incomers’ own beliefs. So some way of making the two (or four, or six, or…) sets of beliefs and customs work in harmony has to be found. And that, I believe, is what we should be aiming for. We should work for harmony, where – as far as possible – everyone can carry on doing what is important to them.

This is difficult. This requires more than the sledgehammer approach of “this is my country: do it my way” or “I am an ethnic/religious/sexual minority so you have to let me do what I want”. Harmony requires actually listening to what the ‘other side’ has to say and, even more difficult, reassessing one’s own beliefs. Harmony requires, sometimes, a compromise.

Mr Ghai is to be admired for reassessing his own beliefs; rather than sticking to his guns and demanding that he be allowed to reproduce exactly the type of funeral that is commonplace in India, or Nairobi (where he came from), he took the trouble to think about which parts of the funeral were spiritually important, and which parts were simply a reflection of the facilities traditionally available. When he reached the conclusion that it was the wood fire and ability for sunlight to fall on the pyre that mattered, suddenly many of the legal obstacles fell away. The end of this case was a win for everyone: Mr Ghai could have a funeral that was consistent with his beliefs (and would incidentally probably be more consistent with weather conditions in the UK), and the sensibilities of the indiginous culture were also respected.

Since the Master of the Rolls did not consider the Humans Rights Act implications, we don’t know what the answer would have been had Mr Ghai not realised that cremation in some type of building could still be consistent with his beliefs. But it is at least possible that completely open-air cremation would still have been judged to be illegal, and that the law was not disproportionate regarding its purpose and its effects – if if that was the case, Mr Ghai would have lost out.

The decision has been criticised as ‘sleight of hand’ and ‘passing the buck’ rather than dealing with the issue of how far public bodies should go in order to cater for the demands/requirements of minority interests. However, I don’t agree: the masterstroke here is realising that there was no need for any change. That a minority interest could be catered for very well under existing regulations, with just a little imagination.

Assuming that accommodating a minority interest must always involve major upheaval is a narrow-minded and rigid view; it treats minorities as ‘alien’ and ‘other’ by assuming that their needs are not in any way the same as the needs as the majority, and always require ‘special’ treatment. Isn’t it more inclusive, as well as easier, to think about similarities and not just differences? To think about what is truly important to each side, and find a new solution to the problem that has something for everyone, rather than try to hammer square pegs into round holes because all you’ve ever had before is square pegs?

Yes, the question of how far public services should be expected to change to meet the demands/requirements of minorities in a plural society is an important one – but surely the answer is “as far as is necessary”. The key being necessary. In this case, major upheaval to the law was not necessary, and that, in itself, is a very important point.

Be imaginative; be collaborative; be willing to talk, to discuss, to challenge old assumptions, and to find new paths. Then we will get away from the idea of the indiginous culture being under some kind of seige by invaders determined to destroy it, or incomers being deliberately kept out in the cold by hostile natives. Then we might finally stop being us and them, and start just being all just different shades of us.