Friday, June 22, 2007

Does "faith" trump democracy?

There is a case in the high court (UK) at the moment playing out in the media involving a Christian girl who claims that she has been discriminated against because her school does not allow her to wear a “chastity ring” (on her finger) as jewellery breaks school uniform rules. Her argument is that this ring is somehow part of her faith and that since the school allows children of other faiths (i.e. Muslims, Sikhs etc.) to wear specific articles then she is the victim of discrimination. I can only fantasize about how much this case is costing; apparently she is being “funded” by private sources (her father is some kind of minister so I’m sure the congregation has been dipping into their pockets), but I’m pretty sure the school will need to be defended from public funds.

Putting aside for a moment the “playground logic” transparently on display here, i.e. those nasty Sikhs can wear their trinkets but us good Christians can’t wear ours; It seems entirely possible to me that this case is some kind of pre-meditated religious stunt as the "offence" claimed by the defendant seems so utterly trivial; the father of the girl more or less admits as much by saying “there are bigger issues at stake” also, somewhat surprisingly, the father happens to be the UK distributor of these (US supplied) rings in the UK. However, before the cynic in me takes over I think it would be interesting to try and explore what these “bigger issues” might be and so I thought I would try and outline my perspective on what I have seen in the media so far in order to attempt to make some sense of this.

Firstly, let me give this family the benefit of the doubt; i.e. that this is not some cheap marketing stunt to promote the sales of this particular line of jewellery, that said, what other reasons could they have for wanting to take this case to court?

They are clearly religious people, in fact their whole livelihood seems to depend upon the Christian religion since the father is a minister/preacher and apparently has at least one side line business of selling these Christian “chastity” rings (not sure what particular flavour of Christians they are, but that’s not relevant to my argument)

Since their livelihood depends on religious faith then clearly they have a vested interest in ensuring the survival and one would assume expansion of their particular religion. The girl claims to follow this same religion also, she claims to have “always been” a Christian. I can only conclude that since it is unlikely that her religious beliefs were planted in her as a zygote then I must assume that her family indoctrinated her in it from birth onwards and that they probably all feel as if they are showing solidarity for "their team". I would certainly not find it credible to think that her religiosity is identically aligned to that of her parents (and presumably her family & peer group) through pure chance?

So far I have not heard any “evidence” (i.e. the substance of legal argument) for any physical necessity for wearing this ring, for example she is not saying it is essential for her blood circulation or that it alleviates her arthritis or perhaps if she removes it her finger will fall off, the argument is clearly that she wants to (or must?) wear this adornment because of her “faith”. Therefore, the crux of her argument seems to be that all faiths should be treated equally, i.e. if Sikhs can wear bangles, then Christians should be able to wear rings. Superficially this seems to be an argument about “fairness”; could it be that simple? Unfortunately, I think not.

I think there is enough evidence in the press and the literary world currently to assert that Religion (certainly in the UK & USA) feels under attack from secularism and atheism; there seems to be a real shift in the zeitgeist going on at the moment (see previous post) the publication of half a dozen books (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris et al) criticising religious concepts are topping best seller lists around the world, and the media has subsequently grasped the topic in true Pavlovian style. The bottom line is that there are many intelligent, coherent and thoughtful people bashing the whole notion of religion right now and I think this case is partly a knee-jerk response to that movement. As an aside, it seems incredible to me that a few books can shake something so supposedly “true” and so engrained, but clearly their cages have been rattled, perhaps their sensitivity belies a fundamental weakness in their position (as an atheist I sincerely hope so) or perhaps it is only the fringe elements of religion that feel exposed, who knows, but I’m not na├»ve enough to realise that the old adage of “any publicity is good publicity” applies also.

Beneath all the rhetoric, it seems clear to me that what these people are arguing for is the notion that “faith” trumps democratic rules, of course in this I am assuming that the school rules were arrived at democratically, and certainly no one so far is arguing that they weren’t. Because of this we also have to assume that they believe that all “faith” (as opposed to religions) must be treated equally; otherwise presumably they would be advocating elitism for their own faith which I’m sure good Christians would not do. This raises another question in my mind, exactly what is this “faith” concept that these people seem to fling around so liberally, well, since they cannot provide any concrete reasoning that wearing these adornments is physically needed then I have to assume that what they mean by faith is a belief in something with no “worldly” evidence or justification for it, i.e. “I believe this, well, because I do and I don’t have to provide any justification for it other than I consider it to be true”, seems unavoidably childish to me, but OK let’s run with it.

So, they seem to be advocating a principal which says, anyone can have a “faith” that something (anything?) is true, all faith is equal and that a faith is important to those that have it such that there needs to be outward & visible “signs” to everyone else that they have that faith. Consequently everyone else in society has to somehow recognise and respect faith, seemingly, just because it is called a “faith” and regardless of whether the actions or statements precipitated by it break democratically derived rules or not.

Hypothetically then, if I subscribed to the “Jedi” religion (as all good star wars fans should) then it clearly becomes my inalienable right to wear a cape, long boots and a light-sabre to school as an outward sign of my faith. Of course if anyone else objects to this then I don't need to provide any evidence or justification that Jedi religion is true or that these adornments are necessary I can just say "back off, it's my faith". Fantastic, now anything is now possible, if people disagree with me then I can say my faith (being divinely authorised by Yoda of course) necessitates me to lock them up and torture them until they take the Jedi oath, perhaps threaten their families or steal their money, invade their countries, enslave their people, oh, hold on, that's already been done before hasn't it.

Is this attitude really what the human race needs or wants at this point in the 21st century, isn’t this just divisive, infantile and irrational?

Obviously I am exaggerating to make a point here but it seems obvious to me that “faith” in this case is aligned with more mundane concepts such as status, wealth and politics, clearly these people want to protect and expand their livelihoods, clearly they want to promote their own religious “club” against competition with other clubs, clearly they feel that their community should have some special “status” in our population over and above normal democratic representation. None of these desires needs to invoke anything supernatural to be understood by everyone else, they are transparent and obvious, wrapping it all up and invoking “faith” to get your own way, seems to be totally contrived and dishonest to me.

However, what really keeps me awake at night are the more sinister (and conspiratorial) conclusions I could draw i.e. that the "faithful" (in all their wonderful diversity) are working some kind of political campaign against the secular and the godless, perhaps they have reached some kind of tipping point and are pushing back against democracy in the name of their "faith" based world-view. The minions of religion are heading the rallying call and rising up against the gains of democracy, science and the enlightenment of the last 400 years; perhaps they really do want to drag us all back to the theocratic dark ages? I think there is tangible evidence of this in the USA, gladly less here in Europe, however I don't think anyone would dispute that there are real problems ahead in the Arab/Iranian world.

If such trivial erosions of common sense, as superbly demonstrated by this case, somehow aggregate (planned or not) then I believe we are in danger of providing a slippery slope for the cult of "faith" to subvert our hard won secular system and wither our own "rational" brains. I feel it is time in this country (UK) that we had a clear separation of church and state, if we regress backwards at this point and cave in to the irrational demands of the faithful then all I can say is, (ironically) God help us.

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