Prof. Roger Trigg - Religious Freedom

Professor Roger Trigg is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick
Seminar on Wednesday 24 September 2008   


Why does religious freedom matter? We (or at least those of us brought up in this country) have of course all grown up in a society in which religious freedom has long been taken for granted. It is something that has been achieved by means of long struggles over the centuries. Whenever we want to worship; whoever we want to worship; or however we want to worship, we are free to do so and to act accordingly.

There is still an established Church in England, and another in Scotland, and that is perhaps one of the issues we may decide to discuss later, but, even so, freedom is something we hope is in the very air we breathe in this country. It is part of democracy. One of the things I want to talk about tonight is, of course, the relationship of religious freedom to wider freedoms and wider values (I am not very keen on the word ‘values’, but nevertheless everybody talks about it nowadays): values and democracy. It is important, therefore, to stop and think: ‘Well, what are the roots of religious freedom, indeed what are the roots of democracy?’. It is all very well to take democracy for granted, but again I want to question: ‘Why? From where does it come? What is its relationship with religious freedom? Is it just part of a wider picture, or is it actually the central part of the whole?’.

Another issue I want to consider is that of the limits of religious freedom. This is quite difficult, but we can talk of particular examples. However much we think religious freedom is important, there are going to be some practices we think should be ruled out. No-one, I imagine, would condone human sacrifice because it is done in the name of some religion or other. That is perhaps an extreme case, although unfortunately not necessarily one totally unknown. There are more central cases causing particular problems in this country at this time, and I want to address some of them.

First, let me mention the notion of democracy and how it is built on the idea of individual freedom. Somebody asked me just now if I was going speak of John Rawls. It is not my intention to give here a philosophy lecture, although I am perfectly capable of doing so. Just ask me a philosophical question, and that is it: I am off! But Rawls, one of the most influential political philosophers of the last half-century, placed a great deal of emphasis, as a liberal (in philosophical and political terms), on procedural values: that we should, as democrats, be committed to neutral procedures, not comprehensive or particular views. That view of liberalism has influenced a lot of people, and it is in the background of what we are talking about here. I realised just how far Rawls had reached when I was watching an episode of West Wing, an American soap opera, and heard there a discussion of Rawls!

The idea, to which I shall return, that democracy is neutral has become very deeply rooted: democracy should not be committed to any particular view. Yet, if we are democrats, we must believe in democracy, and there is already contradiction here. It is important that the basic principles that guide democracy are seen to be substantive issues in need of justification, not just procedural values upon which we all agree on before we get started.

They are, in fact, not just substantive issues, but actually ones still very contested in many parts of the world. We must be very vigilant in our defence of them. For instance, there is a lot of talk about human rights, and indeed when I am speaking of religious freedom, I recall that the right to religious freedom is one of the most basic of these in all the key human rights documents. We should remember that. It is part of a wider picture of human rights. But on what are human rights based? From where do they come?

If you look back to the beginnings of the United Nations Organisation and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II, you can see a reaction to the terrible things that had gone on before and during the war. People looked at the concentration camps and so on, and said, ‘Never again’. At the beginning of the Cold War, however, it was always going to be difficult to get everyone to agree, certainly on any philosophical or religious basis for human rights. It was something of a victory to get any kind of agreement that there were such things. We must bear in mind that there may very well be alternative justifications for human rights upon which people may not agree, even if they can agree that there are such things. We might agree that we should talk to each other, but why, why do other humans matter? That is a more substantive issue.

It worries me, and this again links up with the issue of neutrality, that a lot of people think  we need not even discuss the philosophical basis for human rights simply because we may not be able to reach agreement. The argument is that we should simply accept them, without getting caught up in issues that might give rise to dissension. Now, in political terms, if we can get people from varied traditions sitting around a table to act that is probably good enough. But it is not good enough if we are asking: ‘Why do we believe what we do? Why should we teach the generations to come to follow what we do? Why do such things matter?’.

In The Times last Saturday there was an article by Matthew Parris[1] inveighing against the way in which so many people nowadays are prepared just to say, ‘If it works, that is all that matters’. He was thinking particularly of politicians who do not want to get into murky issues of principle. They are happy to say, ‘Let us be pragmatic; let us deal with this problem or that other’. As a philosopher I am bound to say I think it important that we take a principled approach, particularly in politics and about things like human rights. In order to be consistent we should know what principles we are adopting, why we are adopting them and upon what they rest. We must transmit love of freedom, of fairness, and of justice to future generations. These are not self-evident, indeed they are so far from being so that one might spend the next ten minutes listing countries which utterly reject such notions and have no truck with them.

Now it is going to be my contention – I am just putting this on the table initially so that you know from where I am coming – that these ideas have religious roots, and, in our country, specifically Christian roots. If you tear them apart from those roots, I am not sure how long they will survive, or what consequences will be.

If you look back, even to the Enlightenment, and to the French Revolution which seemed to be a product of the Enlightenment, what is striking is how even the ideals expressed then could have come only from a Christian background. Remember the slogans: ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’, which we still see emblazoned on French government buildings. Liberté: well, why does freedom matter? Because God gave us free will, it might be said. Egalité: why does equality matter? Because we are all equal in the sight of God. Why does fraternité matter? Well, that very word shouts the fact that there is a religious context. How can we be brothers or sisters if we do not have a common father? The French Revolution started off vaguely theistic and then became more atheistic. I am suggesting that such notions – basic ideals of freedom and of the importance of the individual – have had life only through development, particularly in Europe, from Christian roots.

Of course, I am not saying that people of goodwill from other religions, and no religion, will not recognise the truth of these things. If for instance one believes in a natural law, whether or not God-given, one can use reason to recognise that certain things are needed by human beings for their flourishing, and that other things go against what is good for human beings. There are some things all ought to recognise. There are, however, other matters, about which there is going to be basic disagreement in regard of human flourishing.

A question of religious freedom occurred last year, reported in the newspapers. There was in Wales a cow sacred to Hindus which had TB. The law said it should be destroyed, and it was indeed put down. There was a tremendous outcry because that was viewed as an assault on religious freedom and on the religion of the Hindus.  I am sure most of us would say it is not good to have cows with TB infecting other cattle and, indeed, perhaps infecting humans. Hindus, however, do not see it like that. An appeal to natural law will probably not convince them.

Take another example, that of euthanasia in this country. Those who believe life is a God-given gift would not think it right deliberately to kill somebody merely to relieve suffering, however bad that might be. A humanist probably would. Here there is a difference in approach. You cannot hope that an appeal to natural law will settle the dispute, because what counts as flourishing depends on prior metaphysical views. That is obviously true also in matters of religious freedom. What, then, is the position of a doctor or a nurse who has conscientious objections? Must such a one obey the law? If you really believe in religious freedom, there must be a big question mark here.

Now the contemporary tendency in all of this is to suppose that religious freedom involves privatizing religion. The subtitle of the book I wrote recently on religion in public life is, Must Faith be Privatized?. In some ways it is very comforting to have religion privatized, put out of the public sphere, because it all seems so very tolerant: we appear to be allowing all freely to exercise rights as individuals to believe what they want, as long as it does not enter into the public sphere. It is a matter, literally, for consenting adults in private.

That, of course, for many religious people is simply not good enough, because their faith is about what happens in public as well as in private, and is here being constrained. It is happening more and more in the public sphere that people are being told that, ‘Of course you can exercise your religion, but not here, not in public, not in your role as a public servant’. The controversial assumption is that there is no public truth in religion, and that religion is not to be regarded in the same light as, say, science. The latter is thought to be about what is true, while religion is about faith. I have never accepted such a dichotomy between faith and reason. Faith is faith in something which ought to be rationally justified.

To my mind, faith is as much a public matter, and has as much claim to truth, as anything else. If you accept that there is no public truth in religion, modern governments need not concern themselves with it, even while allowing private space for individuals to practise it. I expect some of you at least are familiar with the French doctrine of so-called laïcité, by which religion is supposed to be a private matter, while the State must remain neutral. This doctrine has led to prohibition of wearing religious regalia in public.

The ‘State’, here with a definite capital ‘S’, demands allegiance over and above religion. That worries me, because one of the important things we are historically very well aware of in this country, is that the state is subject to a higher authority. If I may resort just for a moment to symbolism, think of the cross that sits on top of the crown in this country. That is not simply a bit of decoration. Rather, it means something: that earthly power is subject to a higher power. Unless we take that very seriously, we are taking our first steps towards the kind of arrangement that totalitarian states love: one wherein the State is in fact the final authority, declaring what will, and will not, be allowed. In France the impression is given that it is the State that determines that you will be free to exercise your religion. It is not something that comes first, before any allegiance to the State.

France is quite influential in the way that some such matters are viewed in the European Union, and in Europe more generally. It has very definite views and it will stick its toes in for them in the political arena. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg refers now to what it calls ‘settled case law’, that freedom of thought and conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society. Fair enough, but it also asserts that pluralism is indissociable (horrible word!) from democratic society, and that pluralism depends on religious freedom. Notice the step from freedom to pluralism.

‘Pluralism’ is a weasel word that can mean either a lot or very little. In one sense it is obviously right. If we do not all agree, if there are differing religions or beliefs, there must exist a pluralist society. Indeed, if there are distinct political parties, that is itself a kind of pluralism. Surely we do not need democracy if we all agree. Democracy is a means whereby people who disagree come together to determine how they can live together. Pluralism is in itself just a fact of human life. As it is used nowadays, however, it seems to mean something rather more, namely that differing belief systems are perhaps each true for their own adherents; that no-one should adjudicate between them; that all should be treated equally; and that one should not be set up above any other.

In one sense one might think that fine because one lot of citizens should not lord it over another. If you think about it again, however, another way of looking at it is that it is claiming that nobody’s claims to truth are any better than anyone else’s. Imagine adapting this pluralist approach, as some philosophers in the past have done, to Western science, astrology, and so on. If you were to declare that this science is just Western science, one approach among many, it might be more obvious that truth was being dropped here in a very dangerous way. Even if we are not sure that we have it, it should surely stand as a target. Dropping truth means that pluralism becomes relativism, and that what is true is true only for people believing it. Relativism, I believe, very quickly becomes nihilism, for if something is true only for believers, even believers may end up asking why they should go on believing. If others do not, and it is not ‘true for them’, why should anyone bother?

This is a very slippery slope. Relativism is in the very air we breathe. The second book I wrote, published in 1973, was against relativism, but ever since it has grown and grown. I rather wish more people had read that book. It did well in Poland, and so it may have had a good influence somewhere.

The Court of Human Rights says that ‘the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality is incompatible with any power on the State’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs’. Notice the transition from pluralism to impartiality. It worries me that they keep on using the term, ‘legitimacy’, in varied cases. In a legal context it seems odd, because what they are really saying is that it is not the State’s job to determine which beliefs are justified. Obviously it must be the State’s role to decide what is according to the law. We should not have human sacrifice permitted. So ‘legitimacy’ is perhaps a misuse of language. What concerns belief is justification and truth, and the view is that this is not for the State to decide. But it is the State’s role to enforce democracy. What is the State’s stand on those beliefs, for example about the importance and worth of individuals, or about their freedom? It is not at all clear from where such beliefs might come.

Pluralism from this point can easily develop into a belief that Church and State be kept separate. That might amount only to an institutional point about ‘establishment’, but it usually goes further to hold that there should not be any commitment at all to any particular principles. For, if there is, those who disagree with the principles will be seen as wrong and as, therefore, second-class citizens. I am not convinced by this, because I think the State must stand for something, for certain principles, if it is to continue to exist.

I was in Norway a couple of weeks ago and had a long talk with somebody working on humans rights, on an international basis, in the University of Oslo. What he had to say about his own country, Norway, fascinated me. A decision of last year by the European Court of Human Rights, over a matter originating in 2007, seemed to suggest that Norway should not be teaching Christianity in its schools. This led to a major internal argument in the country. Norway has, in fact, revised its religious instruction syllabus quite a bit over the years, and has tried to make it not confessionally specific. The European Court of Human Rights nonetheless still thought it wrong that not only quantitative but even qualitative differences existed between the teaching of Christianity and other religions or philosophies.

The decision was apparently over the right of parents to withdraw their children if they disagreed, which is fair enough, but the Court seemed to be going well beyond that: in effect saying not just that parents have such a right but that the State should in no sense imply that Christianity was to be preferred over any other religion.

Norway’s circumstances are quite distinctive in that 85% of the population even now are members of the Church of Norway. It seems a rather secular country in some ways but, nevertheless, Norwegians generally are baptised and pay their church taxes. The country is very open and, in fact, allows Church taxes to support any properly formed religious or anti-religious group, so that atheistic societies in fact do rather well there. There is no discrimination at all in that sense: money simply follows numbers which are overwhelmingly on one side. The European Court considered this wrong.

One can, of course, have an argument about how far the State should be neutral, and that is part of the question I am posing here, but what worries me is that Norway is an apparently Christian country and is yet being required to be totally neutral by judges from the European Court of Human Rights, none of whom is Norwegian. Worse still, it was the Grand Chamber, that is, all of the judges acting together because it was a very controversial issue, and the voting was, if I recall rightly, 8:7. If one judge only had changed his mind it would have gone the other way. One person in effect determined a fundamental issue about the education of children in Norway and about the position of the Church of Norway. There is going to be a tremendous knock-on effect in partial disestablishment of the Church.

Although this seems a tangential matter, it does raise an issue about how we think democracy ought to work: should it be for parliaments or for courts to make such decisions? Consider the United States, and how often the Supreme Court there makes a controversial decision by a 5:4 majority? One judge can decide quite far-reaching cultural issues. Sometimes one judge, not always the same, switches, and, as a result, there have been some very peculiar judgements. People often ask what principle is at work in such decisions, but I would go further and query why it is that judges are involved at all in such matters. There is always going to exist a problem when human rights are adjudicated by courts.

The Council of Europe is similarly predisposed to pluralism and state neutrality. Last year there was placed before the Parliamentary Assembly a report stating that one of the most basic European values is the separation of Church and State: ‘This is a generally accepted principle that prevails in politics and institutions in democratic countries’. That is, of course, quite false. A lawyer to whom I was talking about this said he could name about a dozen European countries wherein this gives a false account of both the constitution and the reality. That report was written out of a Spanish context by a Spanish socialist and he had his own reasons for wanting to ensure the restraining of the Roman Catholic Church, but there is a wider claim: namely, that religion should play no part in political life anywhere.

In fact, we are told – and this is the kind of thing that worries me particularly – that States may not ‘allow the dissemination of religious principles which, if put into practice, would violate human rights… States must require religious leaders to take an unambiguous stand in favour of the precedence of human rights… over any religious principle’. Here we have a claim that human rights take precedence over any religious principle.

If you were to ask what is at the heart of my presentation this evening, the answer is that I object to the suggestion that human rights are somehow separable from religion, and from religious freedom. Religious freedom is, in fact, one of the most important of all human rights. There may well be difficult situations in which distinct human rights have to be weighed against each other, but religious freedom must always be in there and must not be sidelined. Human rights are based on religion. To push religious freedom to one side in the name of human rights is utterly perverse. If human dignity and equality are notions derived from Christianity, how can they be opposed to it?

In this country, such attitudes are certainly creeping in. I was listening to a Radio 4 Sunday programme in June on which Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, declared, ‘This is a secular democracy’. She was arguing against any domination of public life by religion or by what she called ‘theocracy’, but she was legally and historically wrong to say that we live in a secular democracy. I am emphasising this because if we did make this a secular democracy, things would change quite radically and unpredictably. This may be what people want, but one must not underestimate the changes that might take place.

In a recent case, a Civil Registrar with conscientious objections to conducting same-sex civil partnership ceremonies claimed she had been harassed and the Industrial Relations Tribunal came down on her side. Islington Council had been championing gay rights against what she regarded as her right to religious freedom. There is, of course, a difficulty as to how far people may be allowed to opt out of the law of the land, but if we do believe in religious freedom, there must exist some degree of opt out. In extreme cases conscientious objectors who really believe it is wrong to do so may not be required to fight for their country.

The Islington case is going to appeal. It is a particularly fraught case that may run and run, but the interesting thing is that the Industrial Relations Tribunal concluded roughly what I am saying here, namely that there is a conflict of rights here: in this case, a right not to be discriminated against, a right to equality, and a right to religious freedom. It held that one right cannot automatically trump another. Sometimes I think there can be no escape from looking at particular cases and deciding on a case by case basis. It is not enough to take Islington Council’s view and hold that equality is much more important, so let us not bother about religion. The idea that religion is a private matter not to be brought into one’s place of work is wrong if one has a public right to religious freedom.

In 1941, President Roosevelt in his annual address to the Congress of the United States made freedom of worship one of his four basic freedoms. Presumably he meant not just worship, but the wider elements of religious practice as well. Religion is one of the cornerstones of freedom, and indeed historically, from the seventeenth century onwards, the struggle for religious freedom has been identified with the movement towards greater democracy.

Yet now human rights and the ideas of equality and dignity are being opposed to religious freedom, and of that the Islington case was symptomatic, as was the Council of Europe’s saying that human rights must always be followed and take precedence over religious freedom. Religion is thought not to be the under-pinning of human rights, not a part of what it is to have a human right, but something private. That can get in the way of what we all think important. This is happening more and more. The equality of people, which is of course important, becomes a perceived requirement to treat all beliefs equally.

Just because I treat people equally and because I respect persons and attribute dignity to them, it does not mean that everything they may say is of equal validity. It would sound the death-knell of human progress and all science to hold that what a four-year-old says and what a Nobel Prize-winner says are of equal worth. That applies in every walk of life. Otherwise one ends up in the relativism and nihilism to which I referred earlier. Each State needs to start with a set of basic principles. It cannot be neutral about everything, even if it does in practice tolerate a wide range of disagreement.

For some, toleration is not enough and they think the State should stand back. James Madison, at the time of American independence, fought for religious freedom, first in Virginia and then in the United States generally, and he opposed the notion of ‘toleration’ which he thought condescending. He wanted absolute religious freedom. Without, however, entering much into American history, this was in fact more the freedom of differing denominations than a freedom of the State to abstract from all religious views. Even non-orthodox believers like Jefferson had no doubt that the belief in freedom stemmed from a belief in the Creator of the people who possessed such freedom.

The United States certainly did not believe in supporting the Church of England, such as it was in Virginia for instance, but that did not mean that it was wholly opting out of religion, and in fact you could say – and this is one of the reasons for the culture wars in the United States at present – that in fact the country is very much built upon religious principles.

If human rights depend on religion, why is it that being human is so important? I do not think you can explain that well if human rights do not depend upon religion. Championing such rights needs religion. Not all religion is the same, and part of what I want to say is that religion must be out there demanding public scrutiny. It is wrong, however, to apply an external standard of the equality of all beliefs without in fact being willing rationally to discuss their truth and falsity and whether they are based on reason. We should not in fact hold that all people are equal and have dignity without recognising that such tenets can be coloured and helped by religious views which may have nourished them.

Again we find in this country today a tendency to talk about equality and dignity apart from religion, and even to using them to judge religion in general and Christianity in particular. You will notice that it is very often Christianity that is in the firing line, because the authorities are rather afraid of some of the adherents of other religions. Let me offer one example: the Charity Commissioners must now expose religions to the test of public benefit. What is ‘public benefit’? Until recently, if a religion was a genuine religion, that was good enough. Now it has to be judged by some external standard. It may be all right just at the moment, but there are indications in some of the literature that the notion of public benefit might be swayed by public opinion. Given that public opinion can change, one wonders where that might lead one day.

I repeat that freedom of religion is a right, and that it is a right central to human rights. In fact it is a right because very often we believe in the importance of freedom for religious reasons, and religion itself is deeply rooted. If I had time here this evening, I would talk more about what in particular I am dealing with in Oxford at the moment: the cognitive science of religion. In an interdisciplinary project psychologists and anthropologists, as well as philosophers, are examining whether religion is natural, deeply engrained in human nature. That may not mean that it is true necessarily, but it may suggest it is the ‘default option’.

It is all too easy in our secular climate of opinion nowadays to assume that religion is optional and private, but abnormal and in deed of explanation. Some of my colleagues would argue, not necessarily from a religious point of view, but rather simply from a scientific point of view, that atheism itself needs as much explanation. It may indeed be that religion is central to what it is to be human, and that to choke religion off is to strike at one of the most important features of our humanity. The contemporary tendency to place lower in the scale the right to have a religion and practice it than rights to equality, etc., is dangerous.

However desirable a social goal may be, it is the mark of a society that truly respects freedom, that within broad limits we respect religious freedom rather than riding roughshod over it. Religious freedom is too important to be subordinated to other social goals. When governments are worried about social cohesion and national identity – religion of course contributes to national identity – they are tempted sometimes to pursue particular projects of social engineering without regard to basic principles. We must be very, very wary of that. In his speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday, the Prime Minister drew particular attention to a new equality bill to be introduced in the forthcoming parliamentary session. I imagine that might pose problems in relation to religious freedom.



Discussant- Nick Spencer:

When I first had a conversation about what being a Discussant involved, I sought reassurance that it did not mean necessarily disagreeing with the Speaker, I was reassured me that such was the case. By and large, I do not disagree with what Roger Trigg has been saying. He and I, so to speak, sing from pretty similar hymn-books, if not necessarily identical hymn sheets. I suppose it is worth mentioning that Roger and I have spoken about this subject on and off over the past three or four months, so I am not coming at his address tonight completely cold.

I should like to start by affirming the evident absurdity, as Roger indicated in a key point, of the argument made in the Council of Europe that in the event of a supposed clash between human rights and religious freedom, religious freedom must roll over and die. Sadly, it is not too absurd to make its way into a document of the Council of Europe. It is very instructive to look at how we reached this point. As I think Roger hinted, it is incontestable that democracy as we know it, and to a large extent human rights, have grown in a soil nourished by Christian thinking. If that soil is eroded, if those roots are plucked up, there can be no confidence that democracy or other values we have appreciated until recently will survive.

In many ways that is exactly what is happening. You have only to look at Baroness Warnock’s comments a few days ago on the supposed duty to die of certain elderly and infirm people to see a value placed on human life that is no longer absolute, but rather contingent upon what society or bored and over-burdened relations may grant. That is a very slippery slope, one that opens up when we ignore, or simply bypass, the Christian roots that have grounded our freedoms and our attitude to human worth.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that society, or at least an intellectual elite, has for various reasons moved away from foundational Christian doctrines. There has been an erroneous assumption that religious freedom and the intrinsic necessary worth of human life are self-evident, the kind of things about which all reasonable people can agree. From that there spins off a related assumption that a State can be neutral. These are two pernicious misconceptions that lead us to where we are at the moment. It is unjustified to think that all reasonable people will naturally agree on certain values. Historically that is very clearly not the case, and it is certainly not the case today. We live in a pluralist society in the sense that very reasonable people have very different conceptions of the good. It seems increasingly difficult to reach any consensus on what it is. The ‘neutral State’ is a chimera. States must always stand somewhere. The extent to which certain unions between men and women – or between one man and several women; or between one woman and several men; or between two men or two women; etc. – are recognised is a duty upon the State, or at the very least something in which the State usually gets involved. Whatever stance is taken on that will indicate the conception of the good that is informing judgements.

Today it is not recognised that certain conceptions of the good are being smuggled in under a cloak of State neutrality: conceptions revolving around ultimate human autonomy and individuality. These seem rational to many who have been brought up on a liberal humanist diet, but not to a vast number of people brought up on other, mainly religious, diets.

Accordingly, people deemed religious are thought like normal people but with something added on, something somehow or other incidental, really. If they are to operate in the public square on an equal level, they must divest themselves of particular religious affiliations, or privatise them, in order that all may engage on common terms. I do not think that there are common terms. Nor do I think, returning to a point Roger made at the end of his address, that religion, religious affiliation, belief or faith – whatever you want to call it – is something additional to being human. It is rather deeply intrinsic. By and large atheism is historically anomalous and a normal position is one of some form of religious belief. That does not validate that religious belief, and still less does it suggest it is true, but it does point to it’s being far more intrinsic to human nature than is often recognised.

At the root of the problem is this notion of neutrality, the idea that there is a rational position all reasonable people hold. There is a belief that if we can simply agree on that, everything will be fine. That is a lie that needs exposing. There are significant disagreements, and the business of a democracy is one of coming to some common consensus over issues about which we disagree. It is critically important that people of religious faith be allowed to bring their own conceptions of the good into the public square where such issues will be debated. The Christian belief in an absolute intrinsic value to human life should and will inform a Christian’s position. It needs to be voiced, even in specifically Christian terms, in public debate, so that a point of view often challenging the status quo position will be articulated.

My main point is that underlying much of this problem is this chimera of State neutrality which must be exposed for what it is. Everybody brings particular ideological views and opinions to the public square, and these will be more or less attractive. But to say, as might a would-be ideological bouncer, that someone is not allowed in because for some reason his name is not down on the list is fundamentally inimical to democratic debate.

That does not necessarily help with the key problem Roger mentioned right at the beginning of his address, one difficult to answer, namely that of the limits to religious freedom. There must be limits, but exactly where one draws the line is going to be very fluid. Principles and criteria of judgement are needed, so that decisions will not be made merely on a case by case basis. When issues arise such as have been in the public view often of late there is need of some common principles.

In general terms, then, I should wish to afford the maximum possible liberty to religious believers, but not a wholesale liberty. One who objects to handling alcohol should not have to receive an exemption from an off-licence in which he has chosen to work. Precisely where we are to draw the lines, and how much respect is to be accorded particular positions or religious identities, are thorny questions that may perhaps feature in the discussion to follow.


General discussion

Russell Wilcox: One of the things that most upset me during the debate surrounding gay adoption and the Catholic Church was that some spokesmen for the Church declared it to be ‘a clash of rights’: equality on the one hand, and religious liberty on the other. This was actually a case of an alleged right being used to trump a real right. In a sense Catholic spokesmen bought into the terminological and ideological agenda of their opponents, and consequently did not have a leg to stand on.
Professor Trigg seems to me to have been talking of the replacement of one conception of indivisibly linked human rights with another conception of human rights – ultimately the substitution of one conception of human nature with another. We may still be in a process of transition, so that there will be certain anomalies, but it does seem that that is where we are heading. The new definition of religious freedom seems so anomalous to religious believers because it relies on a wholly different conception of human nature.
Two thinkers in America, one of whom died recently, have gone into this matter: Eugene and Elisabeth Fox-Genovese. Elisabeth Genovese is a kind of reconstructed feminist, speaking from the angle of sexual differentiation, while her husband considers things from the point of view of secularisation. One of the points that they make – as does one of their associates, Christopher Lash – is that we have here a use of human rights terminology to create a type of morality specifically and functionally fitted to an advanced market society. What is your response to that?
Prof. Roger Trigg: Human rights are terribly individualistic, are they not? I suppose that does chime in with the market society. With the current financial crisis we can all see that markets have drawbacks. When individualistic human rights are applied in the religious sphere – and the matter comes up quite a bit in law as well – we encounter a problem, because we are here treating not only of individuals but of people coming together in communities to worship and act together. One must, therefore, consider group rights.
It is all too easy, as one can see happening in some countries in Eastern Europe, to talk vaguely of individual rights and then refuse to allow registration of particular religious organisations. The Salvation Army had terrible trouble in Moscow, partly because the Russians thought it militaristic! They were not allowed registration, and therefore were not allowed to gather together which is terribly important. Here I do agree with the European Court of Human Rights which has been looking into this. The more rights are considered individualistic, which does indeed go with markets, the more they miss a very important feature of religion.
Russell Wilcox: If I might be allowed a supplementary question, is not the real danger now not so much the State as the market? You spoke of there being something irreducibly totalising or religious in our nature, an urge, so to speak, to bring things together. It is perhaps not that we are moving from having religion to having no religion, but rather that we are moving from a religion grounded in the transcendental to a religion grounded in the immanent. This raises the spectre of a ‘neo-Gnosticism’.
Prof. Roger Trigg: Might I just turn back to the Catholic spokesmen whom you criticised? I am not a Catholic, but would like to defend them at this point because I can see they had a difficulty. Religious rights were being ignored in favour of notions of equality. If they could even establish that religious rights ought to be taken seriously in that context, they were doing something. You might think that they were buying rhetorically into a very questionable way of arguing, but they were trying to achieve something in terms the people they to whom were talking might recognise, and indeed ought to have recognised in human rights language. Even if you take rather a secular view on human rights, the right to religious freedom is absolutely at the heart of all of things. If it is not given due weight, if it is somehow shunted to one side because inconvenient, then everything is distorted.
Dr. Tom Pink: A tension, I think, was evident as a running thread in your paper. There are two views people can take of religious commitment, both of which you mentioned. One sees it as something completely non-rational, almost like a personal taste, and that can often lead to an attitude of awarding considerable tolerance to a range of religions – but limitations tend to be imposed quite quickly once one starts annoying the neighbours. The other sees religion as an expression of human rationality, subject so understood to public justification and associated regulation at a public level by the State. The latter can often be much more limiting than religious people are prepared to tolerate. For example, if you look at early-modern natural law, you have just that view of religion: to be permitted by the State only insofar as it is religion in a form that is rational and so consistent with natural law. But then there came with this an extreme hostility to forms of religion, such as polytheism, that seemed, at least to thinkers then, inconsistent with man’s true natural rational nature. If Europe were to be very resistant to polytheism on just such 'rational' grounds, should Hindus be locked up? Do you see religion as having a determining role at the level of human rational expression such that it is the public concern of the State in as far as rational human flourishing is the concern of the State? Or how far would you want to go in tolerating religion as involving elements of non-rational, personal taste?
Prof. Roger Trigg: Well, I am always on the side of rationality and I think religion purports to be rational. I mentioned that I did not like the distinction between faith and reason, which I think is wrong. Faith is something that should be expressed in a rational way and it should be subject to public criticism. One of the reasons why I think it important that religion should not be excluded from the public sphere is that all religions should be subject to public scrutiny. I do not mean just that Richard Dawkins should be able to have a go at the rest of us, but rather that religion should be part of general public discussion. Otherwise it is pushed out to the margins and pressure builds up because people are not able to say what they think publicly. In that case they will probably try to get their way by other means, and that is ultimately a prescription for terrorism.
Dr. Tom Pink: But then how determinate are the limits to be on religious freedom. Supposing, for example, you could actually show or argue that there is something rationally wrong with polytheism for example, might that diminish the case for public toleration of polytheistic religions?
Prof. Roger Trigg: In a free society we reckon that people can be daft and we leave them to their own devices. If some people want to believe the earth is flat, we will not have it taught in our schools but at the same time we will not persecute those who so believe. I suppose the same applies to polytheism. Human rights documents always distinguish between the absolute right to belief and putting of it into practice. The question is not so much what people believe, but how it affects their actions. That is where in any democracy one has to face the issue of where to draw the line. As Nick was saying, I think it is very difficult. It is indeed important to take a principled approach, but it is also very difficult to tackle each particular case. We will in the end probably be guided by our views about what is good and bad for humans, what our notions of the common good are. These will be influenced by our religious views, and Christians’ views will ultimately differ from those of other people. What about polygamy, for example? It is not so very long ago that people would not have had anything to do with that, but I was quite surprised recently to hear that the Government does now allow social security payments to multiple wives in this country. That is certainly a change of policy. Perhaps they do not want to see people actually destitute, but there is a very fine line between that and actually beginning to give a public approval to the institution of polygamy. Polygamous marriages are not legal in this country, but if people contract them abroad and bring their multiple wives into this country, what is to be done? It is not a question only of certain Muslims who practise it, but also of extreme sects, like breakaway Mormon groups. When there is talk of instituting public recognition of Shariah law in this country, that can be relatively harmless: allowing people to settle their own disputes in their own way. Once, however, these disputes can be resolved by English courts – county courts, the high courts – it becomes much more problematic. We are already in fact in such a position here legally: because disputes between Muslims, settled by Shariah courts, are recognised under an Arbitration Act, they can be enforceable. There we are getting into vital issues about marital law and the treatment of women, and might find ourselves enforcing things we would not perhaps want to tolerate. It is s a particularly difficult issue because there is here a specific question of religious freedom, which may go against much that always been upheld in this country. If there is to be a pluralist, multicultural society in which everyone gets on with things as they like, with the law appropriately adjusted to allow for it, things will very soon begin to break up in a quite alarming way. In the end, we must determine where we are going to stand, and must have a conception of what human flourishing is. That has to be negotiated in a democratic society, and it would be shirking the issue just to let each community decide among themselves.
Dr. Omi Hatashin: I am a Japanese academic, and I come from a rather polytheistic society. People pay tribute to a Shinto shrine on New Year’s day. They may marry in a Christian church. Their funeral rites are often undertaken in a Buddhist manner.
I am also a lawyer. In the field of constitutional law, American and French-influenced factions dominate in Japan’s academia with very definite views on secularity and laïcité. I am personally more interested in the English example. It seems to me that the monarchy and the established Church of England have facilitated a highly developed level of human rights here. At the same time, in the United Kingdom religious issues such as abortion and evolution do not bulk large in politics as in the republic of the United States. In Japan we find the government flirting with nationalism and militarism by its attitude to the Yasukuni shrine to ‘martyrs of the state’, and thereby perhaps even glorifying, Japanese war crimes. The shrine deifies those who died in the course of their service to the state, including Japan’s Class-A war criminals, as ‘martyrs and gods’. The Emperor, under pressure to pay tribute there, has firmly refused to do so. If the monarchy were abolished in Japan we might find a religious right wing flourishing in the vacuum.
I should like to know what you think about the stabilising role of a monarchy in these matters.
Prof Roger Trigg: Yes. I do worry sometimes that this is not being taught enough in our schools and that it has been taken too much for granted. The Government certainly does not take it seriously enough. When it raises the issue of citizenship, there is never mentioned any notion of a common loyalty to the monarchy. The monarchy also holds the United Kingdom together when there are powerful influences trying to pull the several nations apart.
I do, therefore, think monarchy is a stabilising influence. It is also in a sense a force for religious freedom because it provides stability and a connection with historic religion, while offering also an umbrella for acceptance of other people. It amounts to balancing tradition or traditional belief and the acceptance of something wider. That is a very difficult balance to keep, and to a considerable extent it is the monarchy that does the job. It is one of those things which, if taken away, would actually change everything.
Fr. Joseph Evans: I wish to ask for clarification. Does the notion of human rights really have a fundamentally Christian origin in medieval thought, or does it in fact arise rather out of a departure from Christian ideas with the Enlightenment and other modern currents of thought?
Prof. Roger Trigg: Well, that is a very big question about which many books have been, and are being, written. My own view is that the notion of human rights is deeply rooted in Christianity. Of course, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment adopted them just as it did the notion of reason which it secularised and rendered a weapon with which to attack Christianity. The Enlightenment was, however, a continuation of something much older. You talked of the Middle Ages, and I am sure that is right.
There is a very interesting new book, Justice, by an American philosopher called Nicholas Wolterstorff. He argues very firmly, especially in the latter party of the book, that human rights are based on Christianity. I have the impression that he rather surprised himself by how firm this conclusion was when he arrived at it.
I believe, however, that we can reach further back than the Middle Ages. One of the most important things about human rights talk is that we are actually talking about the importance of being human. Why is it important to be human? That is much easier to see in a religious, particularly Christian or Judaeo-Christian, context: we are all made in the image of God, and that is why we matter. The crucial question is, ‘Why do we matter?’. I agree with humanists that human beings matter, but I have never quite seen why they think people matter. They say, in effect, ‘Well, they just do’.
Humanists are in some sense the children of believers, and they retain a belief in the importance of human beings without accepting any of the justification for it. For that reason, theirs is not a self-perpetuating belief. Modernity emphasised the importance of humanity, but that, even over 200 years, was not, I think, a very stable view.
It is not simply coincidence that we are now assailed by those who talk of ‘post-modernism’. This term surfaces at times even in soap operas, so it has seeped quite far out. Post-modernists do not believe in the notion of humanity. There are famous philosophers like the late Jacques Derrida who have wanted to talk of human rights but without being able to say why human beings matter. I once asked him precisely that in a meeting, and he said he did not have time to answer the question! If one does not believe humans have an essence, if one does not in effect think there is such a thing as being human, it is going to be very difficult to say humans have rights. Yet that is the very position into which post-modernists have got themselves. Implicitly the idea of human rights depends on quite a ‘thick’ notion of human nature, and such usually has its roots in religion. I am not saying that non-religious people cannot agree to a considerable extent about what is important, but I am not sure from where their belief comes.
Russell Wilcox: Might I be a little provocative…? Could one not argue – because all of this depends on a robust notion of what freedom is – that actually the most free societies will be confessional societies? In a sense severe religious intolerance followed on the Reformation, partly because there was an attempt to subordinate a common religion to a human institution, the institution of the monarchy. Could it not be argued that in some sense Europe was most free when it was least religiously divided in the Middle Ages?
Prof. Roger Trigg: Well, it was certainly not very democratic then, so there is a question to be considered about the relationship of individual freedom and democracy, is there not? The development of notions of democracy went hand-in-hand with notions of human freedom which were generally religiously rooted in the seventeenth century. Perhaps democracy only comes about when we find we disagree with each other about fundamentals...
Russell Wilcox: If we are going to ask for rational justifications for religious discourse, we must ask also for rational and thick justifications of freedom. The question is then whether historically democracy has increased that freedom and human goods, or undermined them. I am simply posing the question. Surely these questions must be debated, in robust rational discourse.
Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Perhaps Nick might wish to come in here on some of the points that have been raised since he spoke.
Nick Spencer: Taking up Russell’s last point and his initial question, I do think the English Lollards would have disagreed with him. The Hussites, too, would disagree about such ‘freedom’ as was enjoyed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We may rightly cite the horrors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were not free of them. It is surely rather rash to argue that there was a culture accepting genuine intellectual dissent before 1517. I am by no means sure that a confessional culture is necessarily conducive to freedom.
Russell Wilcox: Was that because of concerns that dissent was actually undermining substantive goods and freedoms?
Nick Spencer: Undoubtedly…
Russell Wilcox: And if it was, was it not legitimate for the State then to stamp on it, because it might lead to undermining of the very freedoms it was there to guard?
David Burke: Roger and Nick certainly agreed on one point. Roger spoke about natural law and said that if we wanted to find a basis for human rights we should turn to the natural law. That, however, is not very effective when we have differing metaphysical conceptions of what is good for human beings. Nick said it was a fallacy to believe that that we have a set of values on which all reasonable people can agree.
If this is the case I struggle to see how we can have any basis for human rights? I may be oversimplifying what you were saying, but for me there must be a set of fundamental values on which human rights are based. Does Roger believe philosophical agreement to be possible.
Prof. Roger Trigg: Yes.
David Burke: Well I did not think Nick was saying that.
Prof. Roger Trigg: Well, maybe not. I am in a sense an objectivist, and although I am not going to say I am right and everybody else is wrong, I do believe that there is such a thing as being right and wrong, and that we can talk rationally about that.
David Burke: Russell spoke of a false competition between rights – to equality and religious freedom. Did I understand him to say that equality is not really a human right?
Russell Wilcox: Well, there are two rights to equality, but only one of them legitimately claimed… That to same-sex partnerships being treated on the same level as normal marriages is illegitimately claimed. I suggested that there is no real clash of rights here.
David Burke: Allow me to put a more general question. Is the right to equal treatment a human right?
Prof. Roger Trigg: Yes, the right to equal treatment is, in a sense, a human right, but here we are addressing not just the equality of people, or equality under the law, but also equality of beliefs, and that is precisely what worries me. The idea is abroad that somehow one is being disrespectful if one does not respect another person’s beliefs; that if one says he is wrong one is not respecting him as a person. The equality of persons and of beliefs is becoming muddled. Once accept the equality of all beliefs, and all is over, because nothing can be achieved if it does not matter what one believes.
Nigel Parker: Do you agree that there is an emerging division between a Christian-based notion of human rights and human rights law as interpreted by the European Courts of Human Rights, and now by our own courts under the Human Rights Act? If that is so, do you think there is anything that could or should be done to establish more clearly the content of an autonomous, Christian-based notion of human rights? We have a European Convention on Human Rights, a Human Rights Act, and case law. For most people that is what human rights mean. If others think they mean something else, should they perhaps try and proclaim in a tangible, public, formal way what they think the content of the rights should be?
Prof. Roger Trigg: The problem with the European Court is that although it is supposed to be very judicial, you can readily see the social and political backgrounds of the judges influencing the way in which they are coming at things. If a French judge sits he or she will think differently from a judge originating in a State where religion is still established. That is going to influence things. Up to now a lot of people would, I think, have wanted, from a Christian point of view, and in part for the sake of trying to keep up the conversation going with people who disagree with them, to buy into human rights rhetoric. After all one does not want to be in the position of saying that one does not believe in human rights.
Clearly, however, human rights rhetoric is being warped by some who emphasise certain rights to the exclusion of others. They do not talk enough about religious freedom and speak too much about equality. That is now having its impact upon British political attitudes, too. One of the things about religious freedom is that sometimes we have to accept the right of other people to act in ways of which we disapprove. That is what freedom is: we let people do things we do not like. What are the limits of that? Everyone will accept at the outset that there are certain limits. In my book on religion and public life, I cite an example from the United States in the 1970s – the ‘Church of the New Song’: a real case from the Mid-West, where prisoners in a U.S. prison claimed the right to have sherry and steak every Friday night as a matter of deep religious principle. I think most of us would think there was something a bit odd about that and feel that it looked a bit self-serving, a very convenient religion to have. They won their case, however, and successfully vindicated their right! The Canadian Supreme Court has now adopted the position that whatever somebody sincerely says is their religion has to be respected as such. There is a balance to be struck, but I do not think courts should want to get involved in that. We must try to find a middle way, while courts across the world should always be firm about not wanting to turn the courtroom into a theological seminar about what is, and is not, the right thing to do – or who is, or is not, the right person in the hierarchy to make this authoritative decision.
Nick Spencer: I find that interesting, because I cannot see how that can be the case at least in some instances. Take Lydia Playfoot, the teenage girl who ended up going to court over the right to wear a silver purity ring. The court found against her. I cannot see how it could have come to adjudicate at all, even if it did not transform itself into a theological seminar, without in some way taking evidence and soundings on whether her ring was a genuine, sincere and legitimate expression of her faith.
Prof. Roger Trigg: Well, yes, that must be so. Courts seem happy to have a sociologist or an expert in religion saying, ‘This is what most people believe’, or, ‘There are Jews who believe this’, and so on. Sometimes particular Jews may say, ‘Yes, this may not be a mainstream view, but it is a recognised position’. That, however, is still very different from entering a theological discussion about whether an orthodox Christian ought to be believing such-and-such a tenet. It is, on the contrary, purely on the level of what is likely to be held by people as part of a religious position, without any judgement at all as to the worth of the position. That may amount to a very fine line of distinction. In a way I felt that the court was wrong in the Playfoot case, because in relying heavily on the fact that it is not a mainstream religious or Christian practice to wear purity rings, one might nonetheless see why in particular circumstances a girl with particular religious views might feel that to be an expression of her religion. It is not something totally idiosyncratic, and certainly not in the same category as the Church of the New Song to which I referred. Given that one might believe pre-marital sex to be wrong, and the tremendous pressure on teenagers, the girl might legitimately have wished to make a stand. It all meshes in with known religious views, and I should have thought the court ought to have accepted it as an expression of religious position. It may not be getting involved in theology, but it certainly amounts to getting involved in some kind of social- scientific generalisation about what was going on. Indeed, the judge involved in that case came to very different views about the rights of Muslim girls to wear Islamic dress. I think, in fact, that he was probably quite right to give way to them up to a certain point even though I do not feel a full-face veil to be a very good idea in a school. Why should people not be allowed to express their religion in dress? Since he allowed religious freedom in the latter case, I do think he was a bit harsh on the Christian girl with her purity ring.