24 January 2013


Leicester’s need for civilised discourse on religion and belief

A criminal prosecution was recently brought by Leicester’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) against a man who publicly demonstrated his opposition to religion by ripping up a Koran in public and throwing it to the ground. The case ended with a hung jury and a decision by the CPS not to pursue it further.  The failure of the jury to reach a verdict reveals a problem with the law.  

Tearing up a holy book is not an effective way to take issue with religion but the right to free expression valued by jury members is so fundamental to our way of life that it must be protected even when its exercise involves bad taste or insult.  

Many religions take it on themselves to seek to persuade people of other religions or of no religion to convert.  Dire consequences of failing to believe in this or that god are often cited in these attempts.  Likewise, atheists sometimes seek to expose the fallacies in religion, hoping to persuade people to give it up.  They can all do this because what they are seeking to change is a matter of personal conviction.  With race, gender, sexual orientation or disability the position is completely different.  You cannot persuade someone to change these characteristics.  

The legislation that rightly protects people in these categories from being harassed and abused or put in fear of their life on account of their characteristics has been developed over recent decades.  But the addition of protection on grounds of religion more recently has brought with it a threat to the right of free speech because the police and the CPS have not got clear in their minds the qualitative difference involved.  It is because of this that a broad coalition, including religious opinion, is currently trying to get Parliament to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act as it has been used by the police in several instances to silence critics of one or other persuasion.

There is no special protection from insult or abuse on matters like politics, vegetarianism, astrology, homeopathy, and so on, beyond that which ordinary citizens expect purely in virtue of being a citizen.  The same should apply to religious belief and non-belief.

Leicester Secular Society is a “Freethought” organisation dedicated to the idea that the best way to change people’s convictions is through the rational debate of available evidence.  People in Leicester who wish to show their disagreement with others’ beliefs should normally do so in a calm and reasoned way, showing respect for persons even when condemning or lampooning their ideas or station.  This is common courtesy and politeness, after all, and exemplifies the kind of city and country that most of us would like our children and grandchildren to inherit from us.

But by the same token, those whose beliefs are challenged, even when done discourteously, would be best advised to ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than calling for prosecutions.

Harry Perry

President of Leicester Secular Society


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