Select Committee on Religious Offences.
Submission on existing religious offences and on the proposed new offence of 'incitement to
religious hatred', submitted to the Select Committee on Religious Offences, 24 July 2002.
1. A number of considerations militate against a new law on 'incitement to religious hatred' and lead
to that conclusion that existing law should answer those problems raised by the Select Committee.
2. Religion is a private matter and it may be argued that others should not be expected to share, be
aware of take account of the private beliefs of others. On principle the state should not interfere in
religious matters unless constitutional principles, the rights of others or national security is affected.
Public enquiries on religious adherence, as in the 2001 census, have no place in British
constitutional tradition. In other countries, for example France, the official identification of
religious (or ethnic) identity is held to be divisive, detracting from the principle of an equal
citizenship. Hence religious questions and categories are forbidden in official statistics in France, as
in the US. The UK might do well to follow that example
3. If religion is a private matter is should preferably not be obtrusive to other citizens, or promote
social exclusion or self-exclusion. Those who wish to draw attention to their religious affiliation in
dress or emblems or diet might reflect that, in an imperfect world, by setting themselves apart they
may be potentially exposing themselves to comment. Without awareness of religious differences,
some of the problems with which the committee is concerned could, perhaps, be less salient.
4. ‘Incitement to religious hatred' is likely to be interpreted by the aggrieved very broadly,
including any criticism of their beliefs or behaviour, however warranted. But religious opinions
cannot easily be protected or denied by law. Some very dubious bodies (e.g. Scientology)
masquerade as religion; elsewhere belief can be ill-defined. Religious views derive from non-
negotiable and ultimately non-rational authority and faith. They frequently involve the
condemnation of the contradictory beliefs of other religions or of those of no faith. . Considerations
affecting the adherents of religion must also apply equally to those who are indifferent to religion or
who reject it, or believe it to be harmful, from atheist or secularist conviction.
5. The right to criticise religion is an important component of freedom of speech. Some religious
beliefs and practices are anti-social in their effects and need to be challenged. Roman Catholic
opposition to birth control, for example, is likely to have impeded improvement of the standards of
living in poor countries. The traditions widespread in Islam of secluding women, and confining
them to domestic and reproductive roles, cuts across widely agreed consensus in modern society on
the equality of the sexes. The privileges granted to Jews and Muslims to slaughter animals in ways
often held to be cruel, is of dubious constitutional propriety and have never ceased to be opposed by
animal welfare groups. The social exclusion by a few fundamentalist Protestant minorities of family
members who do not join their faith has caused distress, albeit on a small scale.
6. Over the centuries in Britain (Northern Ireland excepted), a reasonable modus vivendi has
developed between the state and religious observance. 'Heresy' has gone, legal impediments
imposed on religious grounds have gone, most 'mainstream' brands of Christianity have been more
concerned with the faith and morals of their adherents than with direct intervention in most political
matters. That is more the province of extreme sects or movements (e.g. some 'pro-life' activists or
some Muslim pressure groups wishing to introduce shar'ia). Paradoxically, political activity also
characterises some progressive elements of the Church of England who, perhaps, having lost faith
in the fundamental truths of their religion seek a new function in secular activism. Some of the
activities of the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England, and of some prominent
clergy, sometimes appear to be more concerned with political propaganda than with the salvation of
souls. Generally speaking, the position in Britain with regard to 'indigenous' religious belief does
not seem to warrant the creation of any new religious offence.
7. Religious tolerance and the quieting of harsh religious controversy has gone hand in hand with
an ebbing of the sea of faith, the 'modernisation' of the views of all but fundamentalist believers, the
growth of a non-observant majority and - just as important - the disappearance of the real threats
posed in previous centuries to national security and to the constitution by Christian religious
groups. Tolerance grows with the absence of threat. This has been helped by the tradition in
Western Europe of the separation of church and state, however imperfect it may have been.
8. In some respects old problems have been renewed, and new ones created, by the rise of religious
groups which have not evolved in tandem with British politics and society and which have only
come to prominence in the UK through post-war immigration. This has three aspects. First, a high
proportion of first-generation immigrants, especially Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in contrast with
(say) East African Asians, come from poor ill-educated rural backgrounds where religion is
universally observed, simply understood and is traditionally intertwined with all aspects of life.
New spouses (through arranged marriage) continue to arrive from such backgrounds. Secondly,
Islam in particular presents a universal prescription for society, recognising no separate secular
realm but providing spiritual and legal guidance for many everyday questions. As a total life-guide
and as a religion of conquest it has had difficulty developing mechanisms for dealing with non-
believers except as second-class citizens if the latter are in a minority, and conversely for living as a
minority itself when outside Islamic society. That is one of the reasons for the tendency of
immigrants to create a segregated Islamic world within host societies. Third are the demands
commonly associated with Islam (irrespective of their actual justification in scripture or tradition)
for the imposition of shar'ia law, on the status of women, the intolerance of unbelief or of sexual
unorthodoxy. Some of these constitute problems in British society which must be confronted and
resolved, not avoided.
9. The proposed offence would risk inhibiting the essential, if possibly painful, process of open
discussion of these issues and of negotiation, adaptation and better integration. Legislation might
attempt to distinguish between 'sincere' criticism and malicious insults. But it would be very
difficult to make a distinction to safeguard freedom of speech and the right to make appropriate
comment. Some of those who press for this legislation are not interested in objective criticism but
in silencing dissent. Pressure groups are long practised at taking offence and making complaint.
In Britain many publishers, much of the media, and some academics have a long and ignoble
tradition of censorship and self-censorship on migration and race relations matters. New religious
offences would doubtless go down the same road. Legislation against 'incitement to religious
hatred' might in practice become dangerously close to defining a ‘thought crime’.
10. Clearly it is essential to protect the public of all faiths and of none from gratuitous insult or
deceitful and malicious stories on religious as in other matters, on straightforward grounds of good
manners, avoiding hurt and keeping the peace. It would be idle to pretend that the dividing line
between that and honest comment could easily be made. But a better way forward would be to use
or develop existing legislation for example on insulting behaviour, on harassment, or behaviour
likely to cause a breach of the peace. That would be preferable to creating new legislation of which
immigrant minorities would be suspected of being the chief authors and beneficiaries.
D. A. Coleman, 25 July 2002. These comments are made solely in a personal capacity.