Religion is a Diversity Issue

Equality and Diversity issues in Higher Education  have been very prominent in the media recently, though usually in the context of gender. A recent article in the Times Higher urges academics to include religion as a diversity issue, which prompted me to make a few comments here. Then my attention was drawn to the following Code of Conduct for lecturers at the forthcoming STFC Summer School for new Astronomy PhD students. I’m one of the invited speakers, actually:

Code of Conduct

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

Before I go on I should declare that I am an atheist and a secularist. I’m a paid-up member of the National Secular Society, in fact. That means that I’m in favour of the removal of religious privilege from all aspects of the government of this country. What it does not mean is that I think I know all the answers. I may be an atheis, but I am not a fundamentalist like Richard Dawkins. In fact, I think Dawkins does more harm than good to secularism.

People far cleverer than me – including many of my colleagues in astrophysics and cosmology – are deeply religious and I don’t respect them any the less for that. I may not understand their beliefs, but I respect their right to hold them. I don’t delude myself into thinking that everything that I think do or say is perfectly rational, so I don’t judge people whose beliefs I find hard to comprehend.

Sir Isaac Newton was a great scientist, but he was also a deeply religious man who also dabbled in alchemy and other forms of magic. Science may have displaced some of the more esoteric parts of Newton’s belief-system, but it hasn’t banished the magic of our Universe. It just describes it better.

I believe in free speech. As a consequence, I do not believe that it should be illegal or unlawful to say things that insult a religion. I have myself made jokes about religion, e.g. on Twitter, that some have found offensive. I have also mocked the bigotry and hypocrisy which seems to me all too frequently associated with certain types of religious belief. And those who use religion as a pretext for racism, homophobia or gender discrimination. But that’s not the same as poking fun at someone just because they have a religious beleief.

Although I don’t think such things should ever be made unlawful – there is too much law about this already – there are circumstances in which such things should not be said. This seems to be an aspect of free speech that people get very wound up about. If you don’t say what you’re thinking then surely that’s cowardly “self-censorship”? No. In everyday life there are countless situations in which things are better left unsaid. We make such decisions all the time. That’s not about cowardice, unless you hold your tongue just because you’re frightened of making waves. There can be many reasons for discretion including, and these certainly apply in the context of the Summer School, professionalism and respect for your audience. Just because you can say something doesn’t always mean you should.

So I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a Code of Conduct to remind speakers that they should refrain from making “offensive verbal comments” related to religion (or the other things listed). I welcome it, in fact. Religion is a diversity issue, in science as it is everywhere else.

42 Responses to “Religion is a Diversity Issue”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree with your penultimate paragraph in particular. Not everything that is wrong should be illegal. For instance, I have no wish to draw cartoons of Muhammad (even in support of free speech), but every wish to live in a country where it is legal to.

    “The STFC Introductory Summer School will be a harassment-free environment for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality, religion.”

    Regulations like that do tend to suggest the challenge of constructing a joke that breaks them optimally…

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I approve of the guidance provided by the STFC.

    Curiously, I cannot recall seeing any guidance about appropriate conduct in all the time I worked in universities, despite teaching students in a number of institutions. There was occasionally guidance about how to handle students suffering from problems, but nothing about appropriate or inappropriate conduct. The absence puzzled me.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    It does raise the question of what is a religion. Like any belief system, secular humanism is based on tenets that are held by faith and cannot be derived using reason from anything deeper; for if it could then those deeper tenets would be the faith; and so on. An infinite regress is preventable only by a declaration of faith.

    So, is a religion a set of propositions that its followers assert were stated by a god, ie a powerful spirit being (perhaps inhabiting a human body)? No, for there are some belief systems that are commonly called religions which are nontheistic.

    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed. Is atheism a religion?

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Not in any meaningful sense.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        In particular, it is not considered to be one by those who claim that freedom of religion does not imply freedom from religion.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        No; you can’t construct anything on the proposition “there is no god”. But atheists in practice also believe other things, and necessarily believe them by faith (see my infinite regress argument).

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      I think that, for the purposes of this discussion, one can define religious belief as a belief which is held regardless of the fact that, were it not a religious belief, it would have long since been abandoned.

      A justice of the US supreme court once said “We’re not final because we’re authoritative; we’re authoritative because we’re final”. I think that something similar applies here. As some bumper stickers (often next to ones with a Confederate flag, much in the news now) in the US say: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

      People can, of course, believe anything they want. Nowhere in the world is this impossible. Differences between societies arise with respect to expression of such belief. In my view, one should be able to express any belief, but a) no special privileges should be granted based on something which is merely a belief, religious or otherwise, and b) one has to live with the consequences of such expression, as Sir Tim has learned. (Whether or not those consequences, in Sir Tim’s case or in others, are appropriate is, of course, another question.)

      Yes, there are examples of scientists who are well respected, by me as well, who are religious (Lemaitre, Ellis and Barrow spring to mind), but I see little if any influence of their religious beliefs in their scientific works. By the same token, there are other people who are well respected for some of their work yet hold beliefs which many people find disturbing. Richard Wagner is a good example. Note also that Hitler was a vegetarian, on moral grounds. So, it is possible to hold various beliefs, some of which are liked by others and some of which are not. As Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

      Some people have a problem with listening to Bach’s religious music. Can one, as a non-religious person, just appreciate the music and ignore the lyrics (perhaps easier if one doesn’t understand German)? What about, say, (subjectively, of course) good music with non-religious lyrics one fines objectionable? Bach famously wrote S.D.G. for “soli Deo gloria” (solely to the glory of God) on his manuscripts. I saw the same abbreviation in a museum recently, on an executioner’s sword.

      The world is complex.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Sure Phillip, if you define religion as drivel in your first sentence then it’s not too hard to conclude it in your last.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “It does raise the question of what is a religion.”

      I know it when I see it. 😀

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Granting for the purposes of argument that this “atheist faith” exists, the difference to religious faith is that an atheist would accept an argument which disproves his faith, just like he would accept an argument which demonstrates that something else he had previously believed (such as that the periods of rotation and revolution of Venus are the same) was false. In other words, truth is provisional (which doesn’t mean that “anything goes” in the sense of some sort of post-modern relativism).

      Some (I’m not implying you) religious people try to discredit secularism by declaring it a faith, and try to make creationism acceptable by declaring it a science. 😐

    • telescoper Says:

      According to the One True Wikipedia:

      A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.

      I suspect most people including atheists have something that could be defined that way, though in my case I’m not sure of the “organized” bit…

  4. Peter, I’d consider myself to be more or less aligned with Dawkins on this topic and think perhaps you treat him unfairly by describing him as fundamentalist.

    “Religion is a diversity issue, in science as it is everywhere else.”

    Everybody should be allowed to believe just exactly what they want to believe and in this sense I agree with this sentence and with the spirit of your blog post. The thing that winds me up (and perhaps Richard Dawkins) is when the actions on the basis of those beliefs harm other people or perturb their right to do what they themselves want to do with their own freedoms. Then I’m afraid your beliefs need some sort of rational justification for my respect, or otherwise keep it entirely to yourself, thank you very much – I’m sure you’d agree with this no?

    After all there really is no “religion” but individual ideas with or without real behavioural consequences – replace the word “Religion” with “belief in the merits of honour killing” in the sentence quoted above and you’ll pretty much understand my view on religion. It’s all fun and games until it’s really just not.

    Re your point about your clever colleagues – of course you respect their right to hold whatever beliefs they hold – just as I do. But just how silly would their beliefs have to be for you to challenge them? Sometimes the morally right thing to do is to challenge other people’s beliefs. It’s not about thinking you “know all the answers” as you put it or “thinking you’re perfectly rational” but acknowledging that we have come so far and we at least know some answers i.e. not knowing everything does not mean knowing nothing.

    Of course there’s a time and a place and I’m not suggesting that anybody should become that guy who relentlessly berates their friends/colleagues/fellow bus passengers about how utterly moronic they are for believing in the ancient healing power of crystals. Please don’t anybody be that guy. That guy can get stuffed.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Dawkins does a great job for theists like myself, as his stridency is offputting. The key to understanding him is that he is a controversialist; he was a controversialist in his own field of evolutionary biology with his Selfish Gene approach long before he began ranting about other things.

      • “Dawkins does a great job for theists like myself, as his stridency is offputting.”

        Surely you don’t mean this? If you believe that Dawkins makes bad arguments against theism then his bad arguments are his undoing – not his stridency. The only reason you’d have for being thankful for his “offputting” tone is if you thought Dawkins was talking too much sense but you’d rather people didn’t hear it.

        I guess Einstein was something of a ranting controversialist when he used to storm on and on about GR?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Some of his points about religion are good, some are bad, but I’m talking about his personality, and it is not the same as Einstein’s.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “The thing that winds me up (and perhaps Richard Dawkins) is when the actions on the basis of those beliefs harm other people or perturb their right to do what they themselves want to do with their own freedoms. Then I’m afraid your beliefs need some sort of rational justification for my respect, or otherwise keep it entirely to yourself, thank you very much – I’m sure you’d agree with this no? “

      Indeed. It is only recently that governments have started to crack down on FGM, even in countries where it is not a tradition among most of the population. For a long time, it got a pass because it was religiously motivated. (Whether or not it is in the Koran is beside the point. Religion is more than what is in the main book, otherwise no Catholic would care what the Pope says.) MGM, i.e. circumcision, is still allowed almost everywhere, at least if it is religiously motivated (but also in many places where it is not). One might argue that it is not as bad as FGM. In general, this is true, but no sensible person would say that torture is OK since death is worse. Also, there are forms of FGM which are less problematic than male circumcision. Not long ago, there was a suggestion to allow physicians to perform this “ritual nick” in a drive to avoid the more serious forms. This was retracted after universal protest, but male circumcision is still allowed, even though it is more than a ritual nick.

      That some people are circumcised and don’t mind is beside the point, as is the fact that some adults opt to have it done. The point is that it is irreversible and is done without consent. If underage people can’t consent to, say, sexual intercourse or other kinds of “adult sex”, then there is no way they can consent to genital mutilation. If it were done by some sect, then it wouldn’t be allowed. It is religion being allowed exceptions to the law because of religion, and for no other reason, which justifiably angers Dawkins and others.

  5. “Peter, I’d consider myself to be more or less aligned with Dawkins on this topic and think perhaps you treat him unfairly by describing him as fundamentalist.”

    Yes, it’s just an incantation that scientists feel the need to say, based on the 4% of things where they’d disagree with him.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Sadly, there is no reference to pogonophobia in the Code of Conduct. The Beard Liberation Front has been informed.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      On a more serious, but still similar, note, if you want to know what it feels like to be rejected by society for something which is harmless and should be just an individual decision, if you are a woman, try not shaving underarms and legs in some countries.

  7. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “Then my attention was drawn to the following Code of Conduct for lecturers at the forthcoming STFC Summer School for new Astronomy PhD students. I’m one of the invited speakers, actually:”

    I was also a speaker there once, back in the day when it was called something else.

    I noticed that not only rock stars but even astronomers could have groupies. 🙂 Sadly, due to a meeting I had to leave early (which also meant that I had to miss Jasper Wall’s talk) and get back to Cheshire. I drove back through the Peak District (an interesting part of the Midlands).

    Would a consummation have violated any code of conduct, then or now?

  8. […] few days ago, Peter Coles, aka Telescoper, wrote a typically punchy and engaging post on the question of where religion fits within the equality and diversity programme in higher […]

  9. Phillip Helbig Says:

    So I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a Code of Conduct to remind speakers that they should refrain from making “offensive verbal comments” related to religion (or the other things listed). I welcome it, in fact. Religion is a diversity issue, in science as it is everywhere else.

    Certainly it wouldn’t be constructive to make comments on religion (or anything else) out of the blue. However, what if it comes up in conversation? Suppose one is talking about galaxy formation and the timescales involved, and some creationist asks how this can be true? Surely one should say “the scientific consensus is that creationism is wrong” without having to worry if this offends some religious sentiment.

    What if there is a question about working conditions at your institute and someone says “I would like to work for you, but would prefer a segregated environment because my religion requires it”. What should the response be?

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think Creationism is a religion, at least it purports to be a scientific theory – and as such has been refuted many times. I wouldn’t have any problem commenting on creationism from that point of view.

      As for gender segregation, that would be incompatible with the code of conduct on sexual discrimination.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Yes, there are “scientific creationists”, but this is a relatively new phenomenon, motivated by trying to get “equal time” by essentially defining creationism to be a science. However, the vast majority of religious people who believe in creationism do so because it is part of their religion like other things are part of their religion so, like with miracles, there is a direct conflict between science and religion which is real and cannot be resolved by some sort of accommodationism. (Some religions might make no statements which conflict with science, but some religions do make statements which conflict with science.) There might be some people, nominally of the same religion, who don’t see a conflict, but their opinion does not automatically apply to all believers.

        With gender (or racial, or whatever) segregation, then it might be that parts of the code of conduct conflict with other parts.

      • philipmoriarty Says:

        “As for gender segregation, that would be incompatible with the code of conduct on sexual discrimination.”

        Exactly. This is another key example of where religious faith is fundamentally incompatible with a diversity and equality agenda.

      • telescoper Says:

        It is an example of one aspect of one religion being incompatible with equality and diversity…

      • philipmoriarty Says:

        @telescoper (June 25 2015, 12:55 pm)

        It is an example of one aspect of one religion being incompatible with equality and diversity…

        Oh, I think that we can do some fairly sound inductive reasoning here…

      • telescoper Says:

        Not all religions require gender segregation, and not all gender segregation is on religious grounds.

      • philipmoriarty Says:

        Sorry, I was perhaps a little unclear because I had to rush off to my son’s sports day at school.

        My point, as I say here is that religion is, by its very nature, always going to be tribal and divisive. (Faith A reckons that their god is The One, whereas Faith B is similarly adamant that their god is the one true deity. (And that’s before we start on Sub-Faith A.1.ii and how their particular tenets and ideologies are in contest with Sub-Faith A.1.iii…))

        If it really were just “one aspect of one religion”, as you suggest, which was driving divisions and bigotry that’d be bad enough. After all, billions of people subscribe to these myths. But it’s not. As I say in that post, religion has a very bad track record in promoting inclusivity.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Both true, but obviously the first are not a problem here and the second probably unambivalently excluded by the code of conduct.

        This raises another question, though: If gender segregation is done for non-religious reasons, does that make it acceptable.

        Is “separate but equal” possible?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        What matters to soclety about a religion is not its truth-claim but how it instructs its adherents to treat others.

  10. […] haven’t posted any Jazz for a while and given the apparently controversial nature of one of my recent posts, what could be better than a track called I’m Prayin’ […]

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