In a debate in the House of Lords two nights ago, Labour peer Lord Ahmed called for a new law outlawing religious discrimination. He's rightly pointed to a number of anomalies in the way religions are treated. Only Christianity is protected by blasphemy laws, for example; Jews are defined as a race rather than a religion (even though this race includes, as Lord Ahmed put it on this programme the other day, black Falashas, white Russian and brown Lebanese Jews). In Northern Ireland there's already a law against religious discrimination. But not on the mainland. He wants to put an end to these differences; he wants all religious groups protected by the law.
Begging his Lordship's pardon, but I think he's barking up the wrong tree. Anomalies do exist and they definitely need dealing with. But I'd go in exactly the opposite direction from the proposals he's making. It's my view that religions shouldn't seek any special privileges or protections. People should be free to criticise us, misunderstand us, and even make fun of us. Sometimes, no doubt, we'd deserve it whilst at others we wouldn't. We should earn any respect accorded to us and work hard to make our contribution to the good of society understood and welcomed. We should always be invoking the Gamaliel principle: if what we're all about is of merely human origin then it'll enjoy its moment in the sun before fading away. If, on the other hand, G-d has something to do with it, then it's going to be part of the scene whether people like it or not. Or, put in a somewhat different way, and as I heard a ninety four year old Cardinal suggesting the other day, The Christian Church is facing its second Constantinian moment. In the fourth century, with the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Christianity began a long flirtation with secular power which, many would argue, has had a disastrous effect on our actions and led to the accommodation of huge privileges across the centuries and around the world. But now, the church is fast reaching the point when secular government, post-Christian realities and pluralistic societies make it highly unlikely that such privileges will continue. Good. Let believers in any religion seek their proper protection under the Civil Law. Let all discrimination on grounds of race, gender, orientation or class be anathema. Let religion take its full place within civil society, a voice and a presence to be reckoned with in the search for justice and the common good. It doesn't need to be cushioned or treated in a special category or given special protection. And when religion loses those swaddling bands of special status, that's when it can stand up on its own feet and offer its unique attractions to a generation which, I'm as convinced as can be, needs them now more than ever.
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