About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Swallowing camels and straining at gnats

I've reworked the final paragraphs of my blog entry a few days ago about Jack Straw and his comments on the wearing of full-face veils.

The point I really wanted to bring out is the way we seem, these days, to swallow camels and strain at gnats: we accept the need to put up with deplorable practices that have religious support, while every day there are lamentations in the press about other practices (actual or postulated) that are supposedly harmful to our society and must be suppressed.

It seems that a warped concept of religious toleration is doing much of the damage. It is one thing to acknowledge the important principle that the state should be very reluctant indeed to attempt to suppress religious beliefs and practices by exercise of its power of "fire and the sword" - in modern parlance, by use of the criminal law, backed by policemen, pistols, and prisons. It is quite another thing to claim that any particular practice deserves the approval, admiration, or respect of reasonable people.

I can hold a practice in contempt, while still arguing that it should not be suppressed by the coercive power of the state. However, we seem to have reached a point where many intellectuals have lost sight of this distinction. There is a widespread belief, so it seems, that religious practices (or cultural practices that may pre-date any particular religion, but now have religious support) actually deserve veneration. On this view, it is not enough to refrain from attempts to suppress religious practices; we must not even cause offence by uttering criticism.

So we shut up about it, imagining that religious freedom is a freedom even from being caused offence. As has happened in the Australian state of Victorian, where I have lived for the last quarter of a century or so, we actually pass laws making it more difficult to criticise religion.

We spend our time worrying about things that are relatively trivial, whether it be advertising standards, fashion trends, Janet Jackson's exposed right (?) breast, or the supposed downside of every potentially advantageous technology that comes along. As to the latter, we have developed a fetish for scouring the implications of every new technology to identify every possible problem. Where has our confidence gone in the power of technology to ameliorate the human condition?

Now, I'm not suggesting we don't construct critiques of all these things. That's not the point. Yes, the use of ultra-thin models in the fashion industry may do some harm to the self-images of teenage girls. We should feed those models a few chocolates. I'm happy to point that out (there, I've just done it, and I feel much better for it). Yes, some prude somewhere must have had a heart attack last year at the fleeting sight of Janet Jackson's breast covered only by a nipple shield. Yes, there will be problems, as well as benefits, if reproductive cloning ever becomes a safe, readily available, technology.

By all means let's consider and discuss all these problems - but try to keep them in perspective. Our society already puts up with far worse from long-established traditional practices that we seem to be stuck with - such as the indoctrination of young children into religious beliefs, sometimes very damaging ones. Why doesn't anyone criticise that?

Let's get a sense of proportion.


Anonymous said...

It seems inadequate to say I agree. Rather, I remain somewhat bemused that the distinctions you talk about are not understood as the basis of a sensible and civilised policy.

Anonymous said...

Well said sir