Religion and the right not to respect it

Joel Tan

The hold of religion over law and policy creeps in like a thief in the night: once we lose sight of it, we afford religions a trump card, even above fundamental human rights, that they do not deserve.

Human rights, civic rights, freedoms, rights, rights, rights, all this talk about rights, and yet, today, 60 years after the United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), no one knows for sure who is right — there is the political right, the conservative right, the religious right, all grappling over a matter of who is right, who should be right, who should write, who should not write about what is right or wrong about rights.

This tussle over rights has led to the current situation today, where governments and judiciaries give people the right to impinge on the rights of others — all on the matter of a definitional challenge.

One of the most confounding examples of these “rights to discriminate” is manifested in religion, particularly because of society’s obsessive compulsion to give unadulterated and unquestioning respect to religion.

It is a dreadlock and a deadlock, and so, few people ever question the fundamental assumptions we make about religion or, indeed, if religion has any part to play in the human rights abuses of today. It is critical that we do so, because religion underpins so many other issues in society, not the least of these our concerns with human rights. This article will examine religion and its conflicts with human rights today, reflecting on how our blind-sighted wariness of questioning religion in society is a dangerous handicap.

Giving exaggerated respect to religion

The one major assumption society makes about religion is that it must be accorded, almost fanatically, a sort of shield from criticism, that we must all honour religion with the same sense of the sacred as its adherents. Atheist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his book, The God Delusion, calls this “an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other”. How very true. Where we might argue over differing opinions on all sorts of matters, the instant we hit a religious pet issue — say like Creation, or gay rights, or abortion — religions have an automatic trump card, and even governments have no choice but to accede.

The argument that racial, cultural and religious harmony needs preserving is fair enough, but this argument should not force us to give exaggerated respect to religious views, allowing the glossing-over of clear instances of discrimination and abuse inherent in the religious and their attitudes.

We do not have to look far to see this happening. At the height of the 377A debates in Singapore, our own Prime Minister had no qualms saying that we should not de-criminalise gay sex simply because “some people view it as a sin”, regardless of the views of, say, moral philosophers and theorists, or sociologists, or lawyers and gay activists, as if these people are any less erudite than people motivated only by religion.

Elsewhere, this same acceding to religious precepts gives rise to the tolerance of such nonsense as an Ohio court ruling (Los Angeles Times, April 10 2006) in 2006 allowing a boy to wear a T-shirt in school that said “Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!” based on the statute of freedom of religion, all part of increasing Christian-led sentiments in America condoning the discrimination of homosexuals.

Discrimination arising from religious doctrines

The spurious and emotional wrangling of the Christian rightwing goes so far as to belittle and reject the concept of gay rights, simply because in Christian doctrine homosexuality is deemed to be abhorred by God (Leviticus 18:22, Deuteronomy 23:17, Romans 1:26-32, I Corinthians 6:9-11, Jude 1:7-19) and seen as an abomination to nature. This sentiment is taken to extremes in Islamic countries like Afghanistan, where archaic punishments like being buried alive have been prescribed for homosexuals. Despite their religion’s message of love and charity, how often do those Christians and Muslims that condemn homosexuals forget that homosexuals receive real and actual hurt from what is little more than intolerant hate-mongering?

Even more recently, a 10-year old girl in Yemen stirred controversy when she managed to get a divorce from her abusive husband more than three times her age, who had beaten her and forced her to have sex with him. The incident sparked off concerns that tribal interpretations of Islam allowed for an age of consent for marriage to lie below the official age of 15. When called to raise the age to 18, conservative lawmakers refused to take up the issue, perhaps out of respect to prevailing religious attitudes in the country.

It is this same adherence to religious law that advocates honour killings, marital abuse and female genital mutilation, in instances far too numerous for the scope of this article. Some Christians, too, have been known to argue against feminism, citing Scripture in support of enforcing the subdued place of the woman in the home and in society. That a doctrine based on centuries-old patriarchal sentiments can be so wrangled as to allow the butchery of women’s dignity in our enlightened age is surely evidence of how outdated our inexplicable respect for religion is.

The free press in Denmark experienced this phenomenon first hand after its publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Jyllands-Posten. It is true that the original 12 cartoons were, in many regards, very offensive and tested fire in their rude portrayals of the Prophet. But when protests by Danish Muslim organisations against the cartoons were rebuffed by other Danish newspapers, who had re-published the cartoons under the mantle of freedom of expression, a group of Imams living in Denmark distributed, in a dossier, the 12 cartoons, along with three other irrelevant and intensely-offensive pictures, (particularly this one, taken completely out of context), to Islamic nations like Pakistan and Indonesia.

The three pictures ended up being falsely attributed to being published by Jvllands-Posten, fanning the flames of an already tense situation and sparking off a furore that saw the destruction of churches and the murdering of innocent people. Here, we see how religious groups can hijack our exaggerated respect (perhaps even fear) of religion to disastrous ends. Sadly, “free expression” is a very loosely-understood term, as we can see from the anti-Semitic cartoons and sentiments (similar to this one) expressed in the media of many Islamic countries in the Middle East.

Indoctrination of children by religions

Most disturbingly, religions often have no issues with mobilising children for devious and dangerous purposes. In Pakistan, young children are taught to hate Jews and how to use guns and grenades — all in preparation to one day give their lives in a smoking testament to their anti-Semitism. In Northern Ireland, children are told they are “Protestant” or “Catholic”, and that the distinction matters, and consequently they grow up with the hatred and stigma associated with each denomination.

In the United States, Christian children are taught by their fundamentalist parents and teachers that they have a responsibility to ensure the rise of a Christian Nation, that the theory of evolution is nonsensical, that abortion is murder, that homosexuals are possessed of the devil, that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that the severity of climate change is a political half-truth (that, even, we should do nothing about it because it is part of God’s plan!).

In many countries, religions, particularly Christianity, are also behind the muting of sex education and contraception, a Sisyphean effort to promote abstinence, which only intensifies a dangerous stigma surrounding sex. This is indoctrination of the highest level — stuffing lies and misconceptions of an absolutist world down the throats of young children to steer them along precepts and beliefs that they may not, at their tender age, be prepared to accept. It is through children, impressionable and malleable as they are, that hatred and misunderstanding and ignorance are passed on from generation to generation, ostensibly to fulfil strong political motives.

The right to religious beliefs vs the right to criticise

Today, many of us shy away from questioning religions and religious beliefs because we respect them, bearing little understanding that this respect sometimes involves condoning gross and massive disrespect for the dignity and liberties of other human beings.

Religious people will not stop short of citing “hurt” at criticism hurled at their religion, but often have no qualms about causing real hurt, in the form of words, sentiments and, as we have seen above, actions, to those who do not stand in line with their precepts.

As we have seen, we do not have to look back terribly far into the Middle Ages to witness human rights abuses being exacted by religions and their adherents, because it happens around us today, from the conflicts in the Middle East to the Evangelical movement in the United States, to Singapore’s own proto-Christian right wing. It is an unsavoury truth, and one deliberately muddled and often confused with the principle of “freedom of religion” or the “right to religious beliefs”.

Undoubtedly, a fundamental human right is the freedom of worship, and that is generally undisputed in most countries, but will we refrain from criticising religion, where reproach is due, simply because of some ill-conceived respect?

A critical difference

At the end of the day, all I am calling for is an understanding that while we should afford people their rights to religious beliefs, we do not owe it to religion to fawn and bend over backwards simply out of deference.

There is a critical difference between rights to religion and criticism of religion, a line blurred only by those who wish to live comfortably with their overt discrimination and maltreatment of other human beings.

It is crucial for states, and especially secular ones, to understand that religions are capable of causing real hurt to people and that allowing them to hold sway over policies and laws that discriminate and marginalise others is unacceptable. Recognising this is not the same as “insulting” religion or denying people the rights to religion, and this should be the guiding principle in our laws.

The hold of religion over law and policy creeps in like a thief in the night: once we lose sight of it, as is easy in a debate of such an emotional and “sensitive” nature, then we afford religions a trump card, even above fundamental human rights, that they do not deserve.


TOC will be showcasing a contrary viewpoint in a few days time.


Joel has a personal blog here: The Daily Backtrack.


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