Dearly Cherished Beliefs

Polly Toynbee has a very good column today on the religious hatred law.

The natural allies of the rationalists have decamped. The left embraces Islam for its anti-Americanism. Liberals and progressives have had a collective softening of the brain and weakening of the knees. While they have a sympathetic instinct to defend harassed minorities, they prefer to abandon some fundamental principles and prevaricate over some basic freedoms than to face up to the damage religions do, the wars they fuel and the rights they deny.

Exactly. What I keep saying – to the point of tedium. Mushy language about ‘the right to lead a life in which one can peacefully practise one’s own religion without fear’ is designed to do exactly that – to overlook and skirt around and pretend out of existence, ‘the damage religions do, the wars they fuel and the rights they deny.’ Peacefully practicing one’s own religion to some people means peacefully bullying women into wearing the hijab, staying home, always being in the possession and control of a man. To others it means keeping lower castes in their place. To others it means an invisible guarantee that all their instincts are sound and all their decisions are right because God wants them to do what they take God to want them to do.

Iqbal Sacranie of the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain said that linking the Prophet’s name with this crime “will have shocked Muslim readers” who are “calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs”. And there it is. He expects the new law to protect “cherished beliefs”, while David Blunkett in the Commons assured his critics it would do no such thing. Dead prophets and holy books would be as open to criticism and ridicule as ever. The law will protect the believers, not their beliefs.

And there it is indeed. That’s one problem with a law like this, even if it really is true that it might, carefully applied, prevent some incitement to group hatred that otherwise would go ahead. It reinforces the assumption of religious people that their ‘dearly cherished beliefs’ ought to have some kind of special immunity. Of course they have the assumption anyway, but the fact that the state agrees with them would just entrench it that bit more.

That’s what I keep getting at with those repeated questions about why religious ideas should have special protection or respect or tact or forebearance when other ideas don’t and shouldn’t. I’ve suspected all along that I knew what the answer was, but I wondered if other people would think so too. My suspicion is pretty much what Iqbal Sacranie said – that the beliefs are ‘dearly cherished’ and therefore they should be immune. That’s an understandable reason, but it’s also an absolutely terrible one. It’s a recipe for permanent blindness, illusion, submission to authority, and inability to think. Humans have to be able to think. It’s as simple as that. The reasons are blindingly obvious – things like nuclear weapons being only one.

And of course the ‘dearly cherished beliefs’ reason is a bad one also because it’s not consistently cited. Other dearly cherished beliefs are not respected, obviously, so it’s still not clear why some should be when others are not.

Foreign Dispatches has a post on Toynbee’s column and also on a couple of Crooked Timber’s comments on related matters.

Update: I re-worded that last sentence, since I put it clumsily.

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