Nothing Sacred

Paul Goggins went on the Today programme on the day the religious hatred bill was passed in the Lords version not the government’s version, to explain why the bill (particularly, in the government’s version, with the language about ‘recklessness’, instead of the Lords’) was necessary and a good idea. After some pressing he articulated the basic (I take it) point.

Well I accept, Jim, and we always have accepted that there are fine balances to be drawn here, but religious belief is an important part of identity, and the expression of that religious belief is important to many people, and that others should set out intentionally to stir up hatred about those people because of those religious beliefs has no part in our society, so for all the difficulty in getting the balance right we think it’s right to press ahead with this legislation.

That’s it. Religious belief is an important part of identity, and expression of that belief is important to many people (no! really?!?). Therefore stirring up hatred about those people because of those religious beliefs should be made a crime – but stirring up hatred about people because of any other beliefs should not. Because…? The expression of other beliefs is not important to many people? No, that can’t be right, because it’s not true. Because other belief is not ‘an important part of identity’ (whatever that may mean)? No, because that’s not true either. To the extent that ‘identity’ means much of anything in that phrase other than cuddly feelings about oneself, other kinds of belief and other beliefs are also an important part of identity. Religion may be an important part of identity, but you’ll notice Goggins didn’t say it was the most important part of identity, much less the exclusive source of it. So – why are religious beliefs special? Why does their part of ‘identity’ have to be protected if other parts don’t?

Because they’re special? Because they’re sacred? Because they make people go all red in the face with rage and offendedness and outrage and hurt feelings if anyone makes fun of them? Maybe; probably; but there again: why? Why do they make people go all red in the face and self-righteous, and why do so many people think they have every right not only to feel that way, but to demand that the rest of the world join them in feeling that way? Well – because they’re sacred. Oh dear.

I saw a comment yesterday in this article, which Allen Esterson sent me a link to, which included a comment that apparently disappeared when the article was updated. Someone in what is generally (and I think rather patronizingly and communalistically) called ‘the Muslim world’ said that the right to freedom of speech ought to be balanced with – wait for it – the right to protect the sacred. Er – no. That is just exactly the one thing it must not be balanced with, because that is the one thing that would render it null and void. Refusal to ‘protect the sacred’ is the very essence of free speech. And the mindset that thinks great big holy circles need to be drawn around ‘the sacred’ and policed day and night by indignant men with large guns, is a mindset that if left unchecked will suck all our brains out and leave us like pod people.

Rowan Atkinson answered what Goggins said on the same ‘Today.’

You can’t draft a piece of legislation with the intention of just picking off a few nasty people, because the very nature of law is that it applies to us all. And there’s absolutely no doubt that this bill is seeking to provide immunity from criticism and ridicule to religious beliefs, and I’m a great believer that you should be able to say whatever you like about religious beliefs and practices, and if the practitioners and believers are caught in the crossfire, then they just have to accept that. If the exposure of hateful or ridiculous religious practices is there and is done, then the religion’s followers are just going to have to accept responsibility for those things.

That’s a big problem with this whole idea right there. What Goggins said would seem to imply that religion is the first thing that should be protected and given immunity, but in fact it’s the last thing that should. Religion is in need of constant vigilance and interrogation and steady unrelenting pressure, so that maybe someday in some other happier time, it will stop being a source of misery and deprivation and oppression for so damn many people, especially women. So bring on criticism, mockery, cartoons, robust discussion, and whatever else it takes.

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