Monday, January 18, 2010

More privileging of religion

On the (BBC) news this morning were two stories that shared two common aspects:

1. Religion was entwined in both like a winkle in its shell
2. The reporting of and reaction to each story was virtually identical

Here they are:

The first was a suggestion by the UK Independence Party that burkas be banned in the UK, because that would cure terrorism.

The second involved a Hindu gentleman who wants to be cremated outdoors when he dies. Apparently this is not allowed in the UK and so this chap is claiming a human rights violation.

The similarities in the response to these stories (by both reporters and press) were striking if unsurprising. My immediate thought was that religion was a red herring in both cases, but the majority of others seemed to think it was the central – if not the whole – thing. Few people seemed to question that religion trumped secular arguments by default. They felt that you can’t stop people from doing things like wearing burkas if that’s what their religion tells them to do. Their position seemed to be that religion is sufficient to grant its practitioners special privileges that atheists are not entitled to.

My response would have been something along these lines:
I think there is a case for banning burkas because they are not only a symbol of the oppression of women, they are its instrument.

I see no evidence that banning burkas would reduce opportunities for terrorism and make us all safer, so I don’t think there’s a case for banning them for that reason.

Even if there does turn out to be a link between covered faces and terrorist attacks, I’m far from convinced that it would be a good case to ban covering our faces, let alone burkas specifically.

Either way, religion is a red herring. The question is whether being allowed to cover our faces if we want to increases the threat of terrorism (or whether it increases misery of Muslim women). We should make the decision of how to legislate based on evidence and once we’ve made it, nobody should be exempted on religious – or any other - grounds.

The apparent public – and my – responses to the second story were virtually identical: I personally can’t see a reason why cremation shouldn’t happen outdoors or indeed anywhere it’s safe and hygienic. The BBC repeatedly claimed that the majority of British people found open air cremations 'abhorrent', which was certainly a surprise to me. Anyway, if Hindus get to burn bodies outside cemeteries, then everyone else should too. If they don’t then nobody else should.

Religion is a red herring unless you decide in advance that it has privileged influence. And of course, almost everyone – religious or otherwise – seems to think it does.

It drives me spare. I just can't see why it should.

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