Thursday, January 25, 2007

Contradictions of "conscience"

Good article here in Pink News pointing out some of the contradictions in the "rights of conscience" argument put forwards by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York as well as a report on germane comments by John Reid.

And I do think it needs unpicking because of course freedom of conscience is an important doctrine on which Western democracy is built and forms part of the political landscape of political liberties (freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association) to protect us from an authoritarian state (or an over bearing church).

Of course it is worth stating that the Church hasn't always believed that the conscience is free and the Roman Catholic Church still isn't totally convinced of that (see an article here in the Guardian on the very point). Notably the Church developed the theology of compulsion evidenced in such atrocities as the Inquisition (nobody expects the Inquisition!), the burning of Michel Servetus in John Calvin's Geneva and the persecution of the Anabaptists - not to mention the (in some countries still ongoing) compulsion of the consciences of LGBT people.

Taking a very simplified overview, talk of freedom of conscience started surfacing in Europe at the time when there was a move away from the principle of each country adopting the religion of the prince (referred to as cujus regio, ejus religio). This obviously resulted in catastrophic persecutions (eg the massacre of French Protestants and persecutions in England, Scotland and Ireland), the legacy of which still scars today.

Freedom of conscience started therefore as a concept that the State didn't have to force people to adopt a religion and didn't have to force people to worship in a certain way and ironically some of the key players were the English Puritains (e.g. John Owen and even Cromwell) who developed the idea all Christians didn't need to agree on everything and most people agreed that burning someone at the stake because they saw the doctrine of the Trinity differently was not a good thing.

Notably the Protestant Reformation introduced the concepts of 'Christian Liberty' and the phrases toleration and freedom of religion came to be used for the first time and it came to be seen that maybe this was the best way for us all to be able to live together peacably. Later picked up by secular voices such as John Locke, Voltaire and Spinoza and in more recent times Bentham and J.S. Mill (good wikipedia sites on all of these).

After the horrors of the second world war the idea that a humane state had limits and that citizens had human rights that needed protecting came to be widely shared.

So (in modern times) the human right of freedom of conscience and religion is described by the European Convention on Human Rights as follows:
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
  2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Which in my way of interpreting it means everyone can have a religion, have no religion or change religion. The state can't outlaw a religion or try to settle disputes internal to the religious community (and that does of course include some rather - to me at least - odd ideas like 'the sole purpose of sex is procreation' or 'the Bible is a set of laws sent by God').

A limitation on how a religion is manifested is however allowed (most of the rights in the Convention are balanced in some way) by measures prescribed by law that meet the test of being necessary for a number of things including public safety, public order, health, morals and "the protection of the rights and freedoms of others".

And of course a religious view that LGB people are not equal in dignity and rights does lead to a society where their fundamental freedoms are infringed - the broader freedom of living an open life without violence, without fear and without discrimination. And it seems that the reduction of stigma where it is shown how toxic (as opposed to merely the trivial exchange of ideas) discrimination really is for young people for instance that the state has a positive burden to reduce it.

It seems to me that the state may lawfully respect a person having a view about homosexuality being wrong, respect the right of their church conmmunity to hold such a doctrine and make decisions about membership on that basis but to state that publicly funded services and services open to all members of the public should do so without discriminating on any grounds including sexual orientation.

No-one is forcing churches to accept public money or do charitable work - that's not the essence of the religion and that's the point at which equality law should intervene. It seems to me that if the state were to agree to exempt religious adoption agencies but only provide public funding where they serve all communities then we would be interesting territory, because these are (in part at least) publicly funded services and would vanish even if an exemption were allowed, because they are publicly funded (in part at least).

To accept the logic put forward by the Archbishop of Canterbury, any and all acts of discrimination are acceptable whatever the context - including in the public sector. You would not be able to prevent nurses and doctors discriminating because according to the Archbishops "you can't legislate over the conscience of the individual". I'm a GP and my conscience is telling me not to have patients or provide support for patients who may be LGB. My conscience tells me to tell homosexuals to reprent if they come to my surgery with depression or anxiety and the individual conscience is supreme.

Well of course it isn't supreme in the many other countries where homosexuality is still illegal not to mention the countries where the death penalty applies, so far is the reign of 'freedom of conscience' such a universally important thing.

Yes, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said:

“It is imperative to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage..."

In spite of this very little work has been undertaken to deal with the issue of respect of LGB people's freedom of conscience (or indeed in some cases freedom of religion when there are attempts to outlaw same sex ceremonies).

In summary whilst religious folk can always avail themselves of the European Convention on Human Rights under the Human Rights Act, little is done to promote freedom of conscience from the religious sphere - where it gets attacked the most often in today's world.

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