Religious Hatred? You betcha!

Today the UK parliament votes on the proposed Racial & Religious Hatred Bill (BBC story here). [EDIT: Since publishing, this link has changed to the BBC story reporting the defeat of the new law. Hooray!]

There is much opposition to this bill (and, I’m sure, much support too) from various quarters, much of it valid. One of the most vocal opponents is the actor/comic Rowan Atkinson, who claims the bill is an infringement of freedom in general and, specifically, an infringement on his right to make humour at the expense of religion. He has claimed it should be everyone’s right to: “cause trouble, or create discomfort, or offence, as long as your words or behaviour are not threatening”.

He’s right. This proposed law is appalling, and the government is trying to slide it past parliament by the most devious means. It has hooked it up with the existing law banning Racial Hatred.

This new bill is an abomination and, if only by precedent, a huge infringement of freedom and liberty. Sounds too strong? Why stop at Religious Hatred? Why not pass a law banning “hatred” against any other arbitrary belief or choice? How about a law banning Skoda Hatred? You would be prevented from ridiculing and bringing scorn on owners of Skoda cars. Or let’s ban Soap Opera Hatred – no more harsh and abusive jokes regarding EastEnders.

The trouble with this proposed law is that it prevents people from saying what they wish about someone else’s views. And that, by any normal definition, is a limit on free speech. To hook it up with the Racial Hatred law is outrageous. A religion is not a race, nor is a race a religion.

News reports on the new bill have mentioned that Jews and Sikhs are already protected from religious hatred by merit of also being races and thus being covered by the existing Racial Hatred laws. It is quite right and proper that these groups, as races, should indeed be protected as such, along with every other racial grouping. However their religions, separate from their races, deserve no more protection than any other. And that level is precisely none. You choose to buy a Skoda car? I’m allowed to make harsh jokes about you. You watch EastEnders? I can mock you mercilessly. You choose to be a Catholic? I can get jailed for making fun of you. After all, who’s to say that my idea of making fun is not your idea of hatred? I hope the UK parliament sees sense and rejects this special treatment for religions.

You do not choose your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, and so on. These are rightly, therefore, protected under the law in the UK. You do, however, choose to follow a religion. It thus deserves no more protection than any other preference or choice.

The counter-argument to this runs that the law is not intended to protect religions per se from mockery, but rather to stop hatred being whipped up against groups of people using religion as the pretext or cover. Most normal people would agree with this desire. However if that is the desire, then why not frame the legislation such that it achieves that, rather than the sweeping religious protection it offers, with a glib assurance that the law won’t be used unless essential…?

The British Humanist Association’s evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences proposed changes to the proposed law which would achieve the goal of protecting any grouping from hatred while preserving vital freedoms. This page provides links to much of their input.

I dislike religion and maintain it is my right to express that. Other may call it “hatred” if they wish. However my dislike of religion should not be linked, legally or in any other form, to the assumption that I do not like the people who practice it. I hope common sense and a desire to preserve freedom prevails.

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