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Should religion and culture receive special consideration?
Submitted by admin on 1 October, 2010 - 16:14
In 2007 two young people in the Indian state of Haryana were murdered in a so-called “honour killing” for marrying within the same gotra (Hindu clan). This is forbidden by their culture and, as we see in the case of other practices such as female genital mutilation, culture and religion are sometimes difficult to separate. The young couple were killed by family members who were subsequently convicted by a state court and sentenced to death. A leader of the khap panchayat (a traditional local governing council) was also convicted, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Even though these killings were illegal and the decisions of the court were legitimate, there has been an uproar because the murders were considered justifiable by the standards of an ancient tradition. Various khap panchayats are supporting the convicted men and demanding that Indian marriage law be changed to include a prohibition of marriage between members of the same gotra1. It is difficult to imagine that constitutionally secular India, or even one of its states, would alter its law to accommodate this demand. It is even less likely that “honour killing” will be legalised. But honour killings will still occur, just like child marriage and sati (the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), which have long been illegal, and those who take part in or promote these practices will face the legal consequences.
Arguments over such issues are part of a much broader picture. In many parts of the world we find resistance to the basic modern principle of one secular law for all, with no special exceptions for cultures or beliefs, and equal treatment for all before the law.
The case of Islam
In recent decades, many mainly Islamic countries have moved away from secular law towards Islamic (Shari’a) law. Viewed in terms of universal human rights, this is a very objectionable step. Islamic law normally treats men and women unequally. It also treats non-Muslims as inferior in rights to Muslims. Typically, blasphemy, apostasy and atheism are treated as crimes – even capital crimes – and someone can be an “apostate” even if he or she never freely chose Islam in the first place. Some forms of Islamic law permit or even mandate cruel and severe forms of physical punishment such as lashing, amputation and stoning to death.
Of course, where a majority of the population are in favour of such laws, a case might be made for them, but the whole principle of international human rights is founded on the rights of the individual as opposed to the group. The individual should be protected against the tyranny of the majority. It is also doubtful that in a fair, secret ballot the majority of the population would necessarily favour Islamic law if they were fully informed of its provisions.
Many western countries now have sizeable Muslim minority populations and there are constant calls for the implementation of Shari’a law, even if only for the determination of family disputes. But many western Muslims like their secular western constitutions and there is doubt about how many women are able to freely express their opinions on the subject. Where Shari’a family law is adopted, even on a voluntary basis, women may well be coerced into using it in preference to the general secular law.
How about Judaism?
Judaism is another patriarchal religion that makes special claims. Israel was established as a Jewish state and ultra-orthodox Judaism is the main force behind the annexation of Palestinian territory that is causing such a dangerous situation in the Middle East. The ultra-Orthodox Jews claim that over 3000 years ago their god gave them dominion over the regions that they call Judea and Samaria. Yet the majority of Palestinians are Muslims, some of whom, apart from feeling aggrieved at being dispossessed of their more recent ancestral territory, believe that once land has been under Islamic control, it should always remain so. This is a classic case of different religions putting forward incompatible claims, and it illustrates the need for completely secular law.
Interestingly, ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews claim and receive exemption from military service, even though much of the effort of Israel’s armed forces goes into supporting their territorial ambitions or dealing with their consequences.
And what of Christianity?
Historically, Christianity dominated much of Europe and western Asia from the time in the fourth century CE when it was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before then, Christians were sometimes persecuted as atheists, because they did not accept the prevailing polytheism and refused to worship Emperors. However, once they were in a position of power, they set about persecuting others: polytheists, atheists and apostates. The anti-Semitic attitudes that led to the 20th-century Holocaust owe much to the Church’s view of Jews as “Christ-killers”, handed down over the centuries. The Church split many times in its history over doctrinal and political issues, but the main church from the time of the Great Schism in the 11th century CE has been the Roman Catholic Church, which at present claims some 1.2 billion members2, with other Christian denominations claiming a total of about 900 million.
For many centuries the Catholic Church exercised huge economic and political power in western Europe, and then later in the Americas and Africa as western colonisation flourished. As long as it held such power, it was intolerant of other religions and of “heresy”, resulting in the torture, trial and execution of many dissenters from official church doctrine. Moreover, the church was a law unto itself, with clerics being exempt from obedience to civil law, but subject instead to canon law.
Over several centuries, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of new lands and the rise of science led to challenges to the prevailing Church thinking. Gradually, the Church had much of its power in Europe wrested from it, but it happily turned to establishing control wherever it could in Africa, South and Central America and some islands around the Pacific.
Protestant churches grew up, but they tended to be almost as authoritarian as the Catholic Church, and the same could always have been said of the eastern Orthodox churches. But the multiplicity of churches did help sow the seed of an idea that any one particular church might not have a monopoly on truth. Eventually this idea could lead to a more daring one: perhaps no church was necessarily a conduit for truth. After several centuries of struggle, the idea took root of a secular state that did not have to privilege a religion, and partially successful efforts were made to implement it. Needless to say, the churches fought against secularism every step of the way and have not given up the fight.
Readers of International Humanist News will be aware of the invention of the word “Islamophobia” to characterise any criticism of Islamic views or practices. Its use has been successfully promoted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to deflect attention from their shortcomings in the field of human rights. They have worked energetically to make people view it as equivalent to racism.
The Vatican thought that this was a good idea and came up with the idea of “Christianophobia” to describe the attacks of secularists on the Christian religion and its entrenched power. Of course, genuine persecution of Christians does take place in a number of countries, including Pakistan, Egypt and Nigeria. IHEU has joined with other NGOs to support their cause. But attempts to show that Christians are persecuted in the west have descended to the level of farce.
The BBC recently broadcast a very biased programme called “Are Christians being persecuted?” discussing the views of some UK Christians who claim persecution by the law. After trotting out a few feeble examples, the programme was forced to the conclusion that they were not being persecuted, but that they felt “marginalised”. (It should be noted that this was in a country whose Head of State is also head of an established church and where this same church and the Roman Catholic Church both run large numbers of state-funded schools as indoctrination centres.) Three cases were featured:
- A teacher employed to give mathematics tuition in the home to seriously ill children was suspended as a result of a complaint from the non-Christian parents of one pupil. They had asked her not to discuss religion with their 14-year-old daughter, who was becoming distressed by her proselytising, but she persisted.
- A nurse (a friend of the above teacher) objected to the hospital policy that nurses were not allowed to wear necklaces when on duty, as she wanted to wear a cross on a chain. She was told that she could pin a cross to her uniform – like the watches that nurses normally wear instead of wrist watches – but she still felt victimised.
- A registrar, whose job was to register births and deaths and perform civil marriages and, in addition, preside over civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex couples was fired on account of her refusal to conduct civil partnerships because her religion taught that homosexuality was sinful.
The second and third complainers had their cases dismissed in court. This and a few similar cases led the former Archbishop of Canterbury to suggest that a permanent panel of judges be established, with a “proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues”, to try such cases3.
Everywhere we find expectations and even demands for special treatment for religions and beliefs. The UN human rights instruments establish a right to belief or non-belief, but this right does not and should not trump all other rights. As Humanists, we need to defend our own rights and those of others, but surely we should attack unjustified privilege wherever we find it.