Wednesday, October 26, 2005


The interconnected matters of religious and ethnic identity, social solidarity (or lack of it), freedom of expression and hate speech are universal. But they manifest themselves in a variety of ways in different contexts. The issues are being tested in UK public debate at the moment through a piece of legislation aimed at outlawing incitement to religious hatred. The aim is to protect vulnerable groups, but the effect may be to stifle criticism of religion and civil liberties. The quality of argument is pretty low outside (and sometimes inside) parliament, but the subject is vital. Ekklesia has just issued a response to the bill, which received a mauling in the House of Lords yesterday. At the end of the document, which is critical of the proposed legislation, are positive wider reflections on underlying - in some cases overlaying - issues.

It is now a commonplace view in liberal society that religious identity is (or ought to be) secondary and subservient to ethnicity or nationality because, unlike these, it can be changed.

But this is simplistic and unhelpful. Religion is not just about private opinion; it is also about belonging to a community of tradition and (for some) obligation. As with conscientious objection, a free choice may also be a fundamental one that exceeds other loyalties.

The inability of a secular culture to comprehend the depth of such commitment (and, correspondingly, to take seriously religion’s capacity for reason and intellectual depth) will only strengthen the trend toward fundamentalism and inhibit moves toward genuine inclusion and participation.

This does not mean that religious and ethnic communities are the same and can be treated as legally equivalent (another problem with the bill). Rather it points to an issue of social solidarity which cannot simply be reduced to statutes, but is a political and interpersonal reality.

Similarly, we would all benefit from an approach to public conversation which, while rooted in strong legal protection for liberty of expression, goes beyond an adolescent delight in causing offence – ironically, one of the sure by-products of attempts to outlaw it.

It is not true that only sticks and stones can break our bones. Words can wound and intimidate too. Flawed though it is, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill at least recognises this, in a way which its detractors sometimes fail to.

The best response to puerile, insulting, cruel or victimising talk is not censorship, however. It is the responsive language of truthfulness, honesty and compassion.

For, as the message of the Word made Flesh proposes, speech really worth having is much more than ‘free’ – it is costly, demanding, challenging and life-giving.

[See also: Afghan sentenced for blasphemy over women's rights, and humanist calls for renewed cooperation with believers]

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