Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Human rights: limit religious action, not belief

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-11-18

The "Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century Discussion Paper" got me thinking that while it is reasonable to grant as a right the ability to genuinely hold a religious belief, this does not necessarily extend to the ability to act (including speak) upon that belief.

The laws of most civilized countries recognize that certain actions are illegal, such as "hate speech" (usually motivated by religious belief, sincere or otherwise).  The scope of religiously-motivated acts to be considered illegal should be expanded.

It is fairly easy to demonstrate a range of religiously-motivated utterances that a reasonable society considers illegal.

  • Hate-speech, especially if it promotes violence (such as "Killing unbelievers is not a bad thing").
  • A cult leader who advocated sex with minors

Such statements are patently anti-social, and (especially in an audience prone to uncritical acceptance of irrational statements) can often lead to frank violence against individuals.

But what about statements about one race being inherently less worthy than another?  Such statements at the moment are severely frowned upon, unless the statement asserts that one race is more beloved by a deity than another, and the speaker is Jewish.

And what about statements that are patently counterfactual, make to those will few defences to irrational statements of authority figures, such as children?

We can argue about what is, and is not, counterfactual for days and make little progress – for surely no statement as silly as "2+3=7" would never be used to indoctrinate children, or force this counterfactual on society?  Well, actually, you’d be wrong, as even US legislatures bills were tabled that defined the ratio of a circle’s circumference to diameter (which is pi) to 3, exactly.  (See the "30-cubits round, 10-across" bit in I Kings 7:23-26.)

I’d say that indoctrinating children with patent counterfactuals (let’s say to a 5-sigma confidence level) should be a crime, as it infringes the rights of a minor to an education and diminishes the capability of the child to participate fully in society.

If so, then what about teachings of many US religious zealots that dinosaurs and humans existed on earth at the same time?  This is an assertion that is false to an extremely high confidence level.

What about teachings that an adulteress, condemned to be stoned to death, can be a minor who was raped (and never mind about the adulterous rapists!)?  This is an inhuman teaching, and should be prohibited.

What about the huge threat of climate change, mainly due to a population too large to support?  Doctrines prohibiting contraceptives or limiting access to important health information inevitably exacerbate the main contributor to harmful climate change, so should those doctrines be banned as a threat to society?

What about assessing the harm done since the founding of a religion as a means of assessing whether that religion is irredeemably toxic?  The "show me the body count" rule would certainly result in a very poor evaluation of the Abrahamic religions and Hinduism.  The general empirical truth is that only secular viewpoints (including pure Buddhism and Taoism) qualify as socially desirable.

So, I’d permit a right to any adult to belief whatever they want, but keep the "hate speech" laws and prohibit proselytization of any counterfactual, or almost certainly false, to any minor.

Of course, innocuous and non-falsifiable statements should not be prohibited ("only 100 angels can dance on the head of a pin"), if only because 90% of cosmologists wouldn’t be allowed to publish.

Mind you, when even an economic theory is held as inviolable truth, and the result is harm to millions of people… naah, better not go there… yet!

Notes/See Also:


2 Responses to “Human rights: limit religious action, not belief”

  1. Raf said


    Keep going with the economic truth. My 14 yr old recently decided he wants to take economics next year at school. Every sinew in my body screamed nooooo……am i going to spend the next few years dismissing what he’s being taught or talking to his teacher about the lack of focus on the structure of money and how the economy actually works.

    Academics are supposed to be the critic and conscience of society…that hasn’t quite filtered through in some parts of campus!

  2. Dave Bath said

    Actually, I think some economics basics should be covered in early to mid secondary school: it isn’t much more different in scope than ecological principles taught as part of mandatory science curricula. That’s the topic for another post.

    On a more positive note, various “Chistrian” schools are worried that new science curriculum from the fed gov because they’ll lose their funding if they teach “intelligent design”:

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