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Wilful blindness, religion and free speech

By Laurence Maher - posted Monday, 4 July 2016


Recent events in Australia have brought into sharp focus the sorry state of public discussion and disputation about religious ideas, beliefs and practices arising from the fact that one of the three Abrahamic religions is receiving special treatment intended to insulate its ideas and beliefs from critical scrutiny.

The inevitability of conflict between secular/humanist and religious ideas is exemplified in the very wide gap in social norms affecting human sexual behaviour and the rights of women. In each case, the constitutive/inviolable secular value of equality in a free and open society trumps religious ideas ancient and modern. There can be no overarching religious justification for invidious discrimination in employment, education, the supply of goods and services in trade and commerce, or in obtaining access to state-provided services.

Two intersecting influential social forces have bestowed a privilege on one set of religious ideas.

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The first is the Pollyanna-like insistence upon conformity of ideas and opinion based on the belief that anything that is "divisive" is to be deprecated. We are constantly told that belonging, civility, cohesion, diversity, harmony, identity, inclusion, respect and other approved forms of superior abstract virtuousness must govern what we think and say. Tolerance is in the expanding list of pieties, but dissent is never mentioned. We no longer have debates. Instead, we are exhorted to engage in "conversation".

The second is the contemporary manifestation of puritanical censorship, the "hate speech" phenomenon which is based on an ideology of confected "oppression" of selected "minorities". If, for example, one such "minority" happens to expound medieval religious attitudes to human sexuality and the equal status role of women in a democratic society, then the self-righteous ideologues demand the right to shut down public debate about those ideas.

One characteristic of the combined effect of those forces is that, in the immediate aftermath of any episode of terrorist mass murder in which an assassin has explicitly invoked the Almighty, some public commentators insist that the murder had "nothing" to do with religion and denounce the expression of any and all contrary opinions.

This device tends to be deployed without the benefit of any reliance on reasoning which might support the case for a complete negative. Its exponents claim a monopoly entitlement to engage in public communication about the motivation/purpose of the assassin(s). They casually label commentators who emphasise and criticise underlying religious ideas, beliefs and practices as bigots, racists, and xenophobes and insist on being free to comment on such matters without finding it necessary to deal with the substance of the criticism of the religious ideas.

Even when the clerical leaders of the religious community involved confirm that their religious faith condemns homosexuality as being high on the scale of human wickedness, the response in sections of the Australian media (notably the ABC, the Fairfax Media Group and the Guardian) has been to ignore the religious leaders or suggest that the clerics don't know what they're talking about or that they do not represent some (imaginary) idealised single form of the religious beliefs.

This censorious response was applied to the mass murder in a homosexual nightclub in Orlando, Florida on 12 June 2016. In the context of human sexual behaviour and the rights of women, there are ongoing specific debates in Australia about same-sex marriage and "safe schools". Those who will not tolerate any examination of one set of religious ideas tend to be associated with a willingness to heap scorn and derision on those who seek to make the rather simple point that reasonable persons can disagree about same sex marriage and "safe schools" in reliance on their religious beliefs and convictions. In any secular society which claims to be free, open and democratic, religious freedom has two sides, the right to hold and communicate religious ideas and beliefs and the right to condemn them. No idea or belief is beyond critical examination.

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In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando outrage, the Australian media reported that a cleric had recently arrived in Australia for a speaking tour in which he expressed his religious opinion that homosexuality was a sin that could warrant the death penalty. That was followed by speculation that the cleric was facing deportation because of his condemnation of homosexuality.

On 16 June, Prime Minister Turnbull hosted an inter-faith dinner at Kirribilli House to mark the end of Ramadan. In the course of the evening the Prime Minister became aware that one of his guests, an Australian-born cleric (who happened also to be the Chairman of the National Council of Imans) had expressed opinions to gatherings of his co-religionists in Sydney about the sinfulness of homosexuality. The cleric and the Grand Mufti of Australia left the dinner early and the Prime Minister stated that if he had been aware that the Chairman had made his remarks about homosexuals, he would not have been invited.

Would any good purpose have been served if the visiting cleric had been deported (he left Australia on 12 June 2016) or by barring entry to any man of God seeking to echo his predecessor's condemnation of homosexuality? It was suggested that the recently departed cleric had been inciting violence against homosexuals. This was not an altogether surprising contention since it was claimed that the cleric had not long before visited Florida. Common sense dictates that any well-founded apprehension that a visa applicant incites violence (regardless of motivation) is reason enough to keep a person from entering Australia.

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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