Last week the Government introduced draft legislation that aims “to eliminate discrimination against persons on the ground of religious belief or activity”.
It is ironic that the same Government that is pursuing “Witness K” and his lawyer through the courts for telling the truth is now proposing to give legal protection to those who wish to promote non-truths – i.e. the myths and fantasies that constitute religious belief.
Of course, followers of each religion will be quick to point out that their particular religious beliefs are in fact true, but this claim implies that the contradictory beliefs of all the other religions are not true. I rest my case.
No one is arguing that the expression of religious beliefs should be banned or criminalised. Free speech is one of the pillars of liberal democracy. But there is a big difference between tolerating the religious intolerance of others and singling religion out for special protection. Whatever else it was, Israel Folau’s infamous rant on Instagram was an expression of extreme intolerance. In the proposed legislation, Clause 8(3), which is already being touted as the “Israel Folau Clause”, would make it very difficult for employers such as Football Australia to require high-profile employees to set a good example outside of the work setting, if their intolerance, as in Folau’s case, could claim to be ‘religious’.
To stop such outside-work behaviour an employer would have to establish it would cause them “unjustifiable financial hardship”, a very vague and narrow definition of the detriment such actions might cause. In typical Government fashion, this provision focuses purely on the monetary aspect, as the only one that matters, and ignores other important issues such as the welfare of fellow employees and of customers, and potential damage to the reputation and good standing of the organisation, which should also bear on the matter.
While the Government is so intent on protecting the expression of religious beliefs by employees outside the workplace, it has taken a totally different tack with political beliefs. It recently pursued former Comcare employee Michaela Baneji all the way to the High Court in order to establish its right to dismiss her for expressing political views on the Internet, even though this was done anonymously.
Surely in a liberal democracy protecting the free expression of political views is just as, if not more, important as protecting the expression of religious beliefs.
Many of our laws put restrictions on all of us for the sake of curbing the worst human instincts. Most people drive safely, but we need laws against speeding to protect the community from ‘hoons’. Most gun owners use their weapons responsibly, but we need gun ownership restrictions to protect the community from homicidal maniacs.
Similarly, most religious people use their freedom to express their religious beliefs benignly, by advocating loving your neighbour, giving alms to the poor and so on. But we need restrictions on freedom of religion to protect ourselves from the religious extremists. To say that all religious expression should be permitted because most religious people are benevolent is to miss the point. Some are not. The problem with the proposed legislation is that it is indiscriminate: it gives tacit approval to all and any abomination as long as it can claim roots in religious belief.
The only limitation in the draft legislation is you can’t encourage the commission of a crime. Clearly there is a need to put more limits than this on the expression of extreme religious belief. Words have consequences. For example, religious attacks on homosexuality have contributed to violence against gays and to suicide.
Perhaps the logical test should be a ban on attacking people for aspects of themselves they have not chosen, but which are part of their identity, such as race, gender and sexual orientation. No rational religion could maintain the way you are born is a sin.
Most Australian States recognise the reality of the situation and have laws that protect citizens from vilification on such grounds. This Commonwealth legislation specifically overrides the State-based protections and decrees such vilification is lawful if it is done in the name of religion.
The tendency of some religious believers to abuse other individuals or groups in the community is only one common feature of religious belief among many that should give us pause before we decide to privilege religious belief with special legislation to protect it regardless.
For example, religions tend to be exceptionalist. Believers see themselves as being the only ones with the truth, the only ones who will be granted whatever boon the religion offers to its adherents. This can lead to divisions in society. Many conflicts in Australia and around the world have a religious basis.
Many religions are authoritarian. They demand submission to a greater authority, a higher power. The word Islam means ‘submission’. This results in religious people being more likely to accept the exercise of authoritarian power here on earth. It is no accident that many of the world’s dictators – from Franco in Spain last century to Putin in Russia and the Ayatollah in Iran today – have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their dominant religion.
Some religions, including Catholicism, Islam and some sects of Buddhism, are misogynist. The fact that women are seen (by God?) as in some way being different, even inferior, in such religions must be a factor in the prevalence of violence against women around the world and domestic violence in Australia.
Most religions are also dogmatic. They believe in a set of fixed hypotheses often discovered by revelation, so they are antithetical to modern approaches such as evidence-based policy-making and the scientific frame of mind, which takes all statements to be open to revision in the light of new knowledge. The Qur’an actually proclaims “there will be no more revelations”, thus cutting off the possibility of growth and development in Islamic religious beliefs. One may speculate as to what extent acceptance of evidence-free religious beliefs has been a factor in garnishing support for such destructive movements as racism, climate change denial and the anti-vax lobby.
Divisiveness? Authoritarianism? Misogyny? Closed thinking? Are they the features of the kind of belief system we want to valorise and protect with legislation in a liberal democracy?
The Government would better serve its citizens if it devoted its money and energy to such things as meaningful whistle-blower protection, a federal anti-corruption body, reform of draconian secrecy laws, a better-funded CSIRO and a better-funded education system at all levels.
Actual truth is a far more important value to encourage, to promote and to foster than questionable ‘religious truth’.