Tuesday October 18, 2005
Britain is inching ever closer to the introduction of a new offence of “incitement to religious hatred”, and already it seems as if the law is a mess. In the last week, evangelical Protestant groups have announced that, should the offence come into law, they may attempt to press for prosecution of bookshops selling copies of the Koran which they claim incites religious hatred. No doubt we should have – in a counter-move – followers of Baal (if any are left!) prosecuting those who sell the Bible and, more to the point, Muslims prosecuting Buddhists who sell texts relating to the Kalachakra Tantra, with its images of holy wars waged upon Islam.
One of the UK’s few Buddhist peers, Liberal Democrat Lord Avebury, has been instrumental in the attempt to broaden the laws defending religion. In 2002 he introduced a Religious Offences Bill in the House of Lords, aiming to move beyond the old blasphemy laws – which are clearly outdated, arcane and absurd – and to extend similar legal protection to all faith groups.
This may sound sensible on first hearing, and any change in legislation that removes the ailing Church of England from its position of authority might not seem to be a bad thing; but in reality the changes now proposed are incoherent. When pressed on the matter recently, Tony Blair was incapable of either giving a clear definition of ‘religion’ (you can’t blame the man for that, but you can question his wisdom in promoting a bill based on such ill-defined concepts) or of giving a single example of any act whatsoever that is not already protected against in existing law but that would be covered by the new bill. This is not a promising start for a new piece of legislation.
Behind all this debate, it is possible to detect the curiously tenacious conviction that morality depends upon religion, the suspicion that a world which was purely secular, without any religious values, would be a world empty of the possibility of goodness. This is what the churches and the religions would like us to believe. But it is simply untrue. There is no necessary connection between religion and morality. Morality does not depend upon religion. Ask the Epicureans in Ancient Greece. Ask Aristotle. Ask the Buddha, because view of morality is based merely upon recognising which acts lead to suffering and which to its cessation, and plumping for those that lead to the cessation of suffering.
The view is this: that religion properly understood is about love, peace, harmony and brotherhood; but those manifestations of religion that do not speak in this soft voice are merely ‘misunderstandings’ of the true form of the religion, which itself is inviolable, and in need of defence, for all of our sakes. This is not true. There is so much well-meaning and misguided confusion here that it is hard to know where to start. The reality is that the Bible, the Koran, the Kalachakra Tantra are all, to some extent, documents written in blood, texts that preach intolerance. Those who take these texts as sacred, and who at the same time value morality, may not read them as such, and they may interpret away the bloodthirstiness of these works by turning endless hermeneutical somersaults: but the bloodthirstiness remains, written there in black and white.
Why protect such views? It is clear that people should be protected, whoever they are, however mad or sane their ideas. It is good to protect people. It is good to protect all that is good. It is good to nurture the good. But religions themselves? What is it that we are claiming to protect when we are claiming to protect religion? Religious practitioners? Books? Doctrines? The insane delusion that religion is the only source of morality?
We do not need legislation to protect Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any of the other religions. Yes, we should defend people, we should take a stand against hatred, because hatred is unhelpful and destructive, whatever the supposed grounds for this hatred. But at the same time, we should repeal the blasphemy laws, let religion fare for itself, and sever in our minds the delusory conviction that morality and religion are necessarily linked.
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