Liberal democracy and religion-3: The European model

What is happening in Europe is an interesting example of the tension between religion and liberal democracy. The countries in western Europe are only nominally religious. As Dan Barker, co-chair of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said recently in a talk at CWRU, people in those countries usually enter a church only three times in their lives, and on two of those occasions they are carried in. It is surely no accident that these countries are also stable liberal democracies.

I think that a strong case can be made that lack of religious fervor is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for liberal democratic values to flourish. The US is perhaps the only country in which fairly strong religious beliefs co-exist with liberal democratic values and this is because of the existence of the first amendment to the constitution which has at least partly managed to keep any single religious group from imposing its will on everyone.

But even the western European countries face threats due to the rise of overtly religious practices. The introduction of blasphemy laws in Ireland is one example and the growing Islamic population and their increased adoption of overtly religious practices like wearing full body coverings for women is causing stress to their secular societies, many of which do not have many overt signs of public religiosity. The most recent Dutch election results saw gains for political parties that seek to ban further immigration of Muslims because the immigrants are strongly religious and the Dutch see this as a threat to their secular way of life.

It is clear that France especially sees the rise of overtly religious practices as a threat to its secular principles. For example, it has taken a strong stand against the wearing of religious veils. A French parliamentary committee has said that “requiring women to cover their faces was against the French republican principles of secularism and equality.” The French parliament condemned the Islamic full face veil, saying that it is “an affront to the nation’s values of dignity and equality.” Meanwhile a French Muslim woman was fined for driving while wearing a veil on the grounds that since the veil restricted her view it prevented her from driving safely. France has even refused to grant citizenship to a man because he forced his wife to wear the full Islamic veil.

France is not only targeting Muslims. The French parliament passed by (276 to 20) a ‘secularity law’ in 2004 that banned the “wearing of Muslim hijabs, Sikh’s head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes, etc. Small Christian jewelry is permitted.” France has also banned the wearing of Sikh turbans in schools

Meanwhile Belgium has banned the burka.

Switzerland has also started taking steps, such as banning the construction of any new minarets.

While I personally dislike of overt symbols of religiosity, I think that such actions are going too far. I think the US constitution has it just right, requiring the government be strictly neutral is relation to religion, neither supporting and promoting it nor actively undermining it. Going by that principle, banning a form of dress purely because it is religious seems to me to be wrong.

Of course, strict neutrality as required by the constitution is often violated. In practice, the US government does provide considerable support for religion by granting religious groups tax-exempt privileges, allowing religious symbols (especially those associated with Christianity and Judaism such as crosses, menorahs, and ten commandment plaques) on government land, praying at government functions, and the like. The Supreme Court decision on April 10, 2010 allowing the Mojave Cross on public land is one such example. (One month after the verdict the cross was stolen and has not been found so far.)

As a result of treating religious beliefs as deserving of special treatment, religious people think that they have the right not to do anything that is against their religion. So for example, we have some pharmacists in the US claiming that they should not be forced to dispense contraceptives or other medications because they feel that that is going against god’s will.

So what should we do about this? A good start is to not give religions any special privileges at all. Religious beliefs and religious organizations should have exactly the same status as any other beliefs or organizations. The fact that you have religious reasons for something should not count in the slightest. Behaviors based on religion should get no special treatment at all, either positive or negative.

In the UK, a High Court judge has done a great service for this cause by upholding the dismissal of a relationship counselor who refused to give sex therapy for a gay couple because of his religious beliefs. The dismissed person, so used to having religious beliefs pandered to, whined that, “because of my Christian beliefs and principles, there should be allowances taken into account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles.” But why should the fact that he has ‘strongly-held Christian principles’ be at all relevant or be more significant than strongly held principles that are not based on religion? If he had strongly held tribal allegiances against some ethnic group, should they be accommodated? Of course not.

If his Christian beliefs are so meaningful to him, he should get a job where they are not violated. He has no right to expect society to accommodate his private beliefs just because they happen to be religious. Once you allow that exemption, then you are faced with the impossible task of determining which religions and which religious beliefs should be accommodated.

The problem with religious people is that they want society to grant their beliefs special status. The judge rightly said in his ruling that legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds cannot be justified, adding that to do so was irrational and “also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.” The judge rejected a plea by the former Archbishop of Canterbury that judges should be sensitive to religious issues, saying that “this appeared to be an argument that the courts ought to be more sympathetic to the substance of Christian beliefs and be ready to uphold and defend them.”

Rules are often bent to accommodate purely religious beliefs, which strikes me as wrong. Any exemption to a rule should be such that it is based purely on secular grounds. So for example, if the US military has a rule that requires all soldiers to wear certain headgear, Sikhs should not have been given an exemption simply because it violates their religious beliefs. If any exemptions to standard headgear are given, they should be based on reasons that make sense apart from religion and provide options that are available to everyone, Sikh or not.

The less we accommodate religious beliefs the better.

POST SCRIPT: Resurrection of Touchdown Jesus?

touchdownjesus.jpgYesterday I wrote about how lightning destroyed the 62-foot roadside statue known as Touchdown Jesus. Church officials now say that they will rebuild and restore the statue.

I don’t know if this is a wise move. I would have thought that to religious people, a direct lightning strike would be seen as a sure sign from god that even if he does not actually hate Jesus, he really dislikes tacky and ostentatious statuary. They are risking really ticking him off by building a replica and inviting maybe a plague of frogs next time.

My advice to them would be to build something small and tasteful, like a statue of Baal or a golden calf or something. I hear that god likes those.


  1. says

    Mano, Sean Carroll from the California Institute of Technology has posted a text in defense of a more reality-based view of life for the average man: Reluctance to Let Go. I think it is a good addition to your series of posts on religion.

  2. earl says

    It has been proven that the most intelligent/capable person is only capable of using 10-11% of their brain, so tell, me, what if evidence of the divine lays in the 89% of existence that we as human beings are incapable of understanding, then no one can prove or disprove the existence of God, making all of the arguments pure folly, and surprisingly enough, it is said that the existence of God will never be proven anyway, but it isn’t said by just anyone, Jesus said that, so the entire argument is biased and offensive against Christianity. Meaning that you cannot apply justice to something that is immediatly upon starting an injustice upon an individual of a certain belief, because that is discrimination, and a great outcome of such discrimination are things like the Holokaust or Rwandan genocide, or in plain english talk leads to action, but hey, who wants to argue about things that offend people, its not like it will ever hurt anyone, right, I mean, it will never cause dispute that could potentially hurt anyone obviously.

  3. says

    Religion and Politics, it is always a case of separation between the church and the state. A debate which has been raging probably since men first coined the words, Religion and Politics.

    In today’s more individualistic society, like Europe, a person’s individual attitude which is much more effected by his immediate surroundings would effect his thinking towards both religion and politics. An average man deals with daily hassles, and his view on government can change from a policy to next. Can the same be stated for religion, which is more a cornerstone of faith on which broader individual beliefs are derived from.
    A very complex topic, and very interesting article.

  4. earl says

    the point is not whether or not we use our brains, the point is that there are things we don’t know, things that science can’t find out yet, science is flawed anyway, so what’s the point of saying that it can encompass anything, science is what the nazis used to claim that Jewish people are ‘inferior’ when they are not, Karl Popper once said “Science is heavy laden with theories,” what he is saying is that every scientist slightly alters the study of science in general, warping it base on the scientist’s accuracy in their claims;--like having every engineer in the world add one iron beam to the first skyscraper any way he saw fit, and take away any in his way, do you honestly think that that skyscraper is going to be structurally sound in the end? neither did I, furthermore, if you created a human being, the heart, liver, all of the organs, flesh, bone, etc… would it live, no, so what powers human beings, there must be something, surely science has an explanation for life in that sense, surely you create a human being and bring it to life, and if you cannot, then you obviously don’t know enough about human beings, let alone the beginning of the planet, let alone the universe.

  5. says

    earl must be just a Internet troublemaker who has read all common misconceptions regarding nontheism and science to write the most annoying comments he/she can.

  6. says

    Religion and Politics, it is always a case of separation between the church and the state.

    A debate which has been raging probably since men first coined the words, Religion and Politics.

  7. says


    Thanks for that link to Sean Carroll’s post. It is very good and ties in to something that I had been planning to write about.

  8. says

    As a French citizen, what I can say is that we are quite attached to the neutrality of the State in religious matters. However some recent laws, like the recent “Burqa” law -- even if it does not explicitly mention the Burqa at all -- have divided the opinion, because they seem to be a “ad hoc” attempt to stigmatize a particular group.
    I think you are perfectly right about the fact that religion should not constitute a ground to anything relating to laws and rules. The fact that a man forces his wife to wear a particular dress should be punished no matter its religious meaning -- the simple act of forcing someone to do something is reprehensible.

    my blog

  9. says

    The concepts of religion and freedom are often at opposition to each other. Everybody (well, most people) like freedom, and most like their own specific religion, but the problem is, individual freedom has a way of stepping on other people’s religions, or vice versa. This is the odd debate the US is in the middle of when one combines Christianity with various aspects of conservative US politics. It makes for an odd, but interesting, debate.

  10. says

    Hi Mr Mano S

    Religion and Politics is always sensitive and it should be handled carefully . Anyways this opened up a good discussion topic .

  11. says

    There is no compulsion in religion and there shouldn’t be any compulsion in any other area of life. This is a very sensitive topic but I appreciate the open discussion. Thank you!

  12. says

    Agree about the difference of church and state. In america it is “One nation under God.” But this can be interpreted in many ways -- Islam, Christianity, etc. I guess that is why we create the separation of church and state.

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