Freedom of Religion and the Limits of Secularism

Posted on May 11, 2011

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From a Guest Blogger:

The Fountain of Knowledge?

A case that is about to go before the courts in which a former employee of the BBC is suing for wrongful dismissal appears to test some of the limits of what constitutes a belief worthy of government protection. The man in question, Devan Maistry, claims the Corporation wrongfully dismissed him owing to his beliefs about the purpose of the BBC as regards  ‘promoting cultural interchange and social cohesion’. It is prima facie strikingly odd that Mr. Maistry should ever have been in a position to dictate the purpose of his former employer’s business, especially when the BBC Charter has its purposes set out fairly clearly as:

(a) sustaining citizenship and civil society;

(b) promoting education and learning;

(c) stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;

(d) representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;

(e) bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK;

(f) in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

Yet, earlier this year the papers reported how, among other things, belief in climate change might be afforded protection as a kind of philosophical belief or world-view. Now it seems that views about the purpose of an organisation may also be afforded such protection.

Secularists have maintained that religious belief is simply a personal, private choice, and on a par with personal taste: I like blue, you like beige, and neither of us should suggest that the other, under any circumstances, be required to accept different preferences. As long as no one is doing any coercing my beliefs and opinions can be afforded the same protection of the State as yours and I cannot be sacked for believing or not believing in God or for asserting that Richard Wagner was a very nice man.

However, secularists have yet to distinguish meaningfully between personal taste and religious belief. Once this distinction is removed (a state of affairs we are all-too-rapidly approaching) the way is open for tastes and even lightly-held opinions to be treated as of the same magnitude as religious faith. The same goes for deeply-held beliefs about matters that are, to all intents and purposes, of secondary importance. With the best will in the world someone’s personal belief about the purpose of the BBC cannot be afforded the same legal protection as belief in the purpose of mankind. While I do not wish to diminish the loyalty that Mr. Maistry clearly has to his former employer I should be surprised if a doctor would consider him of sound mind in putting his life on the line for a broadcasting provider. Martyrdom for one’s faith, for love and friendship – possibly; for Cbeebies and Jeremy Paxman, I think not.

The truth is that religious beliefs are not of the same order of magnitude or importance as personal opinions about either our planet’s climate or the raison d’être of public institutions. Religious beliefs are, in fact, about truth – truth, indeed, of the utmost importance. That is why it matters to those who hold religious or non-religious beliefs whether or not other people believe as they do. It matters to secularists that I think Christianity is the only true religion and that everyone should practise the faith of the Church. They sincerely believe that Christianity is not the only true religion and that I should join them in their religious indifference and work towards a society in which religion becomes purely a private matter. Beliefs on matters of universal importance deserve protection under the law. But to elevate opinions on such parochial concerns as whether or not a particular institution operating via specific media is doing a good job in promoting ‘cultural interchange’ is, surely, to miss the fact that the BBC is (thankfully) far from being our only provider of information or education, and even further from being our sole source of social cohesion.

Regretfully, I do not think there is any reason to believe this will be the last of a series of rather silly cases regarding protection of beliefs about matters of relatively little importance. Our judiciary still seem to think, in spite of all evidence to the contrary (especially the first paragraph of the BBC’s Charter!), that this is a secular country. We must anticipate many more such cases until secularists can bring themselves to accept that belief and opinion are not one and the same thing. The former certainly needs State protection. The latter is hardly worth losing one’s job over.

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