Religious tolerance
Religious freedom has turned out to be a mixed blessing. The idea was once an article of faith with me, irreligious though I am. But my faith is beginning to weaken. Religion has turned out to be different from what tolerant people of my monocultural childhood understood by it — a system of private belief and devotion that did not intrude into the public space except through charity and uncontroversial good works.

Now, by contrast, religion is constantly claiming attention in the public space and demanding special treatment. It is also abused in the name of divisive identity politics. All this makes even the most tolerant liberal think twice about freedom of religious expression.

Last week’s case of the self-styled “crucified” nurse is a perfect example of the problem. Shirley Chaplin, an experienced ward sister and devout Christian, discovered at an employment tribunal that — despite the support of seven bishops and a mention in the Easter sermon of the Archbishop of Canterbury — she had lost her battle to be allowed to wear a crucifix at work in the wards of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital. Her crucifix is on a long chain and although she has worn it at work for many years, a recent hospital risk assessment found that it breached health and safety rules. This decision was upheld by the employment tribunal.

“I don’t use the word crucified lightly,” said Chaplin, “but in one sense I have been crucified by the system. Every Christian at work will now be afraid to mention their beliefs.” What on earth can she mean? The reverse is the truth. The hospital suggested to her as a compromise that she might indeed wear her crucifix openly at work, but pinned to her uniform rather than on a chain — rather as nurses wear watches pinned to their frontage for reasons of hygiene — thus publicly displaying her beliefs at all times.

One can, however, sympathise with something else she feels. Commenting that Muslim hospital staff have been allowed to continue wearing head coverings, she said that “Muslims do not seem to face the same rigorous application of NHS rules”. There’s certainly some truth in that.

At the end of March it emerged that female Muslim doctors and nurses are indeed to have special treatment on National Health Service wards. Non-Muslim staff in direct contact with patients must keep their arms bare to the elbow for important hygiene reasons — to make sure their sleeves do not become contaminated and so they can wash their hands thoroughly on ward rounds.

Their Muslim female counterparts, however, have been given a special dispensation by the Department of Health. Because some Muslims consider nudity of the female forearm to be immodest, Muslim doctors and nurses are to be issued with disposable sleeves, elasticated at wrist and elbow, to cover up the erogenous zone that lies between. This is absurd, unfair, wasteful and yet another example, as Chaplin and her episcopal supporters (and I) all feel, of the bias in favour of a vociferous religious minority.

The truth is that special dispensations for such reasons are not acceptable. Everyone ought to abide by the same rules. Disposable hospital sleeves for Muslims, full veils, long dresses in public pools and ceremonial knives at school are not acceptable in the public domain. They may be unhygienic; they may be dangerous; they may be a security risk. Yet the main argument for prohibiting all these supposedly religious symbols is that they are socially divisive and disruptive without being a religious requirement at all. I applaud the decision of the General Medical Council in 2008 that Muslim doctors must not veil their faces when with patients.

To me, one of the most heartening aspects of the case of Chaplin’s dangling crucifix was the tribunal’s finding that there is no mandatory requirement in the Christian faith that a Christian should wear a crucifix. That is correct, of course. Wearing a crucifix is entirely optional and indeed historically some Christians have actually disapproved of them as graven images.

This same criterion could and should be applied to comparable claims for special treatment on religious grounds, such as the wearing of supposedly Muslim clothing. Saying this will bring protests down upon my head, but, as far as I can understand, there is no mandatory Islamic requirement for women to wear a particular kind of garment; there is merely a requirement for them to dress modestly. If it weren’t for the spirit of tolerance in this country, combined with politically correct cowardice, officialdom would have acted accordingly long ago.

Beyond all this, the awkward fact remains that there is nothing to stop anyone insisting that a certain practice — whether it is circumcising little girls or teaching creationist nonsense or turning homosexuals away from B&Bs — is indeed a requirement of his or her religion, no matter what any theologian may say.

It is useless to argue: the problem is with religion itself. Religion is a word that can be used to silence argument, not least because religious faith is by definition beyond the reach of rational argument. Yet somehow in this country we have encoded that irrationality into law — into recent human rights law and anti-discrimination legislation — with the result that we are all defenceless in the face of antisocial demands made in the name of religion.

We have put ourselves in a position in which we cannot discriminate between religions and between religious practices; even joking may be against the law now. Not taking religion very seriously ourselves, we failed until recently to understand that others do and do not consider it a private matter. At the same time, we seem to be in a state of cultural moral funk, in which even the Archbishop of Canterbury could recommend that aspects of sharia should be incorporated into English law and then wonder at the fury he aroused.

Beyond a certain point in a liberal society, religious tolerance is a loss of moral nerve.
The concept of religious tolerance makes for a deluded but peaceful society given that one cannot hope to convince more than a handful of people that all theistic religions and those that prescribe supernatural explanations of Reality such as reincarnation and rebirth are false.

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