If anyone was in any doubt that the debate over religious freedom(s) and law needed a calming and clarifying influence – such as is attempted in the latest Theos report, How to think about religious freedom – then the recent debate over religious slaughter should have settled the matter.
That dispute, for those who missed it, was triggered by John Blackwell, President-elect of the British Veterinary Association, putting forward the opinion that Britain should follow the example of Denmark and ban the religious slaughter of animals without stunning. The subsequent debate was not marked by much in the way of moderation.
On one side, some responses, both within the Muslim and Jewish press, but also Christina Odone in the Telegraph, went straight for the jugular, braking short of declaring this the start of another Holocaust (but in some cases not by very far).
On the other side, words like “barbaric”, “bronze age myths” and the idea that religious groups were somehow “un-British” in allowing their beliefs to trump a culture of animal rights got thrown about with equal reckless abandon. Dr Blackwell himself seemed incredulous at the religious response calling it “very emotive” and defending his position.
It is into this polarised and unpromising context that the new Theos report speaks. Against those who imagine otherwise, it points out that religious persecution is hardly rampant in the UK, and hysterical reactions are both overblown and unhelpful. Conversely, in laying out seven principles for religious freedom, it challenges some of the assumptions that plague the debate from the other side, addressing the idea that religious rights are somehow uniquely problematic, eccentric or harmful..
In defending his position, Dr Blackwell stated that "We have tried to keep it out of the religious sphere. It is not an attack on religious faith, it is a view that we have taken on animal welfare." The underlying assumption, that such an approach is even theoretically possible, is one that urgently needs addressing. It is, as Spencer points out, a conception of religion that is “all but unrecognisable in most other places and times on earth [and] moreover, it is also firmly at odds with both the biblical and ecclesiological witness within Christian history”. Religious belief simply cannot be so easily detached from religious practice (in this case the practice of religious slaughter).
Religious slaughter is only one pressure point of many. Not so long ago there was a controversy over religious dress. A previous Theos report on faith schools looked in part at the potential problem caused by religious admissions procedures. The controversies over the status and “privileges” of the established Church of England show little sign of abating either. The list goes on, but what connects each of the debates is a high degree of – to borrow Dr Blackwell’s terminology – “emotive” responses and a lack of appreciation for a basis to laws concerning religious freedom.
The complexities and tensions surrounding these disputes are increasing and the public debates show little sign of cooling off, so it’s important that we do not fall into the trap of angry tit-for-tat exchanges on each issue. Real progress will require a careful and moderate approach not by throwing around clichéd and ill-thought through accusations. The Theos report, if not necessarily providing a starting point for consensus (it is unashamedly Christian in terms of the building block principles it outlines) might at least provide a starting point for a more honest and thoughtful debate in which principles are clear and can be debated openly and honestly without resorting to exaggerated or hysterical claims.