Archive for Freedom of Speech

Religion is a Diversity Issue

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 22, 2015 by telescoper

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.


Scientology and Stupidity

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by telescoper

The first bit of news that caught my eye this morning as I ate my toast was a local item about Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff City Council. I’m not a big fan of the Council, particularly their bizarre Highways Department which, on the one hand, is narrowing all the roads in the city centre causing ridiculous levels of traffic congestion and, on the other, has completed an appalling road into Bute Park for the purpose of promoting its use by heavy trucks and lorries. When I saw a councillor was in trouble and that the word “stupid” was involved, I assumed I knew what it would be about …

However, that turns out not to be true. The Councillor was on the receiving end of a complaint by the Church of Scientology because of something he posted on Twitter. The message was

I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.

The notoriously litigious “Church” complained to Cardiff City Council that this comment impinged on their right to religious freedom. The main point of the Scientologists’ argument was that offending tweet came from “CllrJohnDixon”, implying that he was acting in an official capacity. Indications are that Councillor Dixon has indeed transgressed the Council’s code of conduct and the case will be referred to their disciplinary committee.

This is an interesting situation that brought a number of questions to my mind. First is whether Councillor Dixon actually did anything wrong. I think it’s obvious that his comment wasn’t a criminal act. I doubt if it was actually defamatory either, so it’s unlikely to be involved in a civil case on that basis. However, he was identified as a Councillor and may well have acted contrary to the code of conduct that forms part of his terms of employment if the code of conduct says something about religious belief. That is a matter for the Council to decide and I don’t think it’s helpful to comment here, primarly because I don’t know what the Code of Conduct says.

The second question is whether one’s reaction to a quip that Scientologists are stupid should generate any different reaction to a similar remark about Christians. Or Muslims. Or any other religion. I’ve run into Scientologists myself and read a bit about their religion, which I regard as a hilarious  hotch-potch of laughable fantasies cobbled together by a tenth-rate Science Fiction author with the express purpose of duping the gullible and the vulnerable out of their cash. I believe that anyone caught up in it must indeed be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but does that give me the right to say they’re “stupid” in public?

Actually, I think it does. And I think I should have the right to say such things about other religions too. For their part they also have the right to protest if they’re offended. But they do not or should not have the right for any form of legal redress simply because I expressed an opinion. I don’t have a problem with this, any more than I have a problem with lampooning people like Simon Jenkins for the stupid things they say.

I suspect there are atheists who think all religions and religious people are stupid, as well as religious people who think all religions are stupid other than the one they believe in. Then there are people, like me, who don’t follow any religion but also don’t think that all of them are totally silly. I think it’s a reasonable principle that the right to hold and to espouse religious beliefs should be respected, unless, of course, the religious beliefs in question contradict common law or basic morality. Should we consider racism or homophobia to be acceptable if motivated by religion but not if such views stem from an atheistic political philisophy?

Although I don’t have any particularly objective yardstick for judging how silly different religions are, and therefore find it quite difficult to be entirely even-handed in my attitudes to religions, I do find Scientology particularly ridiculous. But then looking at the Church of Scientology’s track-record I don’t feel the need to apologize for that.

Behind this is the whole issue of freedom of expression and the extent to which it should be limited, either by the law or by employment contracts. For a start, I know that nobody likes to be on the receiving end of abusive comments, but I can think of much worse examples than “stupid”. Abuse related to an individual’s beliefs also belong to a different category to those related to, for example, race, gender or sexual orientation. People choose their religion (as they do their political views) and while one must respect another’s right to have different opinions, that doesn’t mean those opinions should be immune from challenge or comment. That’s why I disagree with all laws, such as those relating to blasphemy, that put religious beliefs in some special category compared to other kinds of thought. I’m not so sure about laws relating to racist sexist or homophobic abuse. Part of me says that in a free society you have to put up with the freedom people have to be nasty. Another part says that people deserve legal protection from extreme forms of verbal abuse, especially when it becomes threatening to them or if they are in a vulnerable situation.

However, all this about laws is really irrelevant in this case (I think). Whatever the legal situation in the big wide world, employers have a right to decide on what sort of behaviour they will accept from their employees in their office. In many cases – especially, but by no means exclusively,  in the public sector – such things form part of the contract of employment. If an employee transgresses they should face disciplinary action. If that doesn’t happen, or it is done in a discriminatory way, then the whole system starts to look grossly hypocritical. Better surely not to have rules at all than to have them but use them only as window-dressing?

I think what I’m saying is that I think it’s at worst a bit impolite for a private individual to call Scientologists “stupid” but nothing more than that. It’s also perhaps a bit different for a Councillor to do so in their professional capacity than as a private individual. However, I myself would not say that the Church of Scientology itself is stupid. I think it’s much worse than that. I think it knows exactly what it’s doing.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now in this case. I hope Councillor Dixon gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I fear, however, that the media spotlight will compel the Ethics committee to take more drastic measures. That would be a shame, especially when I can think of other examples where much worse and much more obvious  transgressions than this have gone completely unpunished by public bodies who have indeed also connived with the miscreant to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.