As a society we’re scared of causing “offense”, and we’re bullied into not doing or saying anything that might offend a specific group – especially if that group happens to be defined by religion.
When someone does claim to be offended on religious grounds, everyone seems to run away scared and sides with the claimant, no matter how ridiculous. In 2004, a pub landlord in Bristol was served with an ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order, which carries a 5 year prison sentence if broken!) for displaying a sign in their new car park which read “The Porking Yard” on the grounds that it “could be offensive to muslims” who pray at a mosque in the street. Now you might think that’s ridiculous enough, but it gets worse – the sign was nothing to do with the mosque or the people who use it, but rather it was a nod to the history of the area. The street in fact used to be called Pork Alley and contained a number of butchers shops which were renowned for their pork!
In fact, the pub held a raffle, asking local people to come up with a name for their newly built car park. A number of locals entered, with one person suggesting The Porking Yard since they knew it was the site of the area’s premier pork suppliers before the bombing of the street in World War 2, and as a pun on the fact it’s a “parking yard”. Apparently the court didn’t get it, and issued the 2 years ASBO after a member of the local muslim community complained that the sign was “racially and sexually offensive” (really? Racially and sexually offensive??)
The landlord, Leeroy Trought, commented after the hearing that “To receive an ASBO for this is a joke. We had no intention to cause any offence.” and surely that’s the point – no offence was intended, but the courts seem so keen to handle religion with kid gloves that they felt the need, not only to order him to take the sign down, but to issue a 2 year ASBO.
And what if he had meant to cause offense? Would it really matter? What ever happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me”? Isn’t that what we teach kids for Christ’s sake!!! (“blasphemy” intended!)
I read another story not too long ago about a muslim salesman working for Direct Line Insurance who took his employers to a tribunal because they were in the habit of awarding bottles of wine as rewards to staff who met their sales targets. Apparently, he claimed that he felt left out because he was not able to drink the prize!
What? Couldn’t he just accept the gift, and exchange it with a friend, or donate it to a local charity raffle? But no, if religion is involved then it has to cause offence! What if, rather than being offended on religious grounds, he was offended as a recovered alcoholic? Or what if he was allergic to alcohol? Or maybe they only offered French wine, wouldn’t that be racist? Of course, the tribunal would never have happened in any of these cases, but bring someone’s belief in an invisible man who lives in the sky and all of a sudden they have a “legitimate” cause of offence!
Of course it’s not just muslims – far from it. All religions and superstitions are equally to blame. In 2010 a nurse working for the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust took her employers to a tribunal, claiming that taking off her crucifix would “violate her faith”. Never mind the fact that it wasn’t about it being a crucifix, but rather that nurses was not allowed to wear ANY jewellery while on duty as it could present a potential health risk. She wasn’t even told she couldn’t wear it – just that if she did, it had to be worn inside her clothing so that there was no risk of it getting caught in a patient’s dressing, or dangling into an important piece of equipment. Thankfully in this instance the tribunal hearing made the right decision and upheld the trust’s rule, but only after it had made headline news in every newspaper, radio, and TV station in the country.
I’ve cherry picked a couple of examples which stick in my memory, but pick up any newspaper and you’ll find this sort of nonsense day in day out. While sometimes, like in the case above, the ruling goes the right way, more often than not it doesn’t. And to make matters worse, new legislation keeps being brought in which only makes the situation worse. Employment guidelines now actually state that a Jain mustn’t be asked to work at sunset, since that is when they pray. Yet at the same time, it would be illegal not to give a Jain a job which requires them to work at that time of day, since that would be religious discrimination! So if a Jain wants to be a fireman, should they just be left to pray if a call happens to come in at sunset? Hey it’s only a burning building, it can wait right? What if they’re a surgeon in the middle of a heart transplant? What if they’re a pilot in the middle of a Trans-Atlanic flight?
I’ve even read that current UK employment guidelines state that “Important meetings should not be scheduled for 31 October” – because that would discriminate against Pagans, who celebrate the festival of Samhain on that day!!
Well I’ve had enough – I call bullshit on treating religion like it’s in some way special, on people claiming they are “offended”, and on changing the rules for the many in case it might “discriminate” against the few. I say it’s time to refuse to give special respect or treatment to people on the grounds of their personal beliefs. I’m all for freedom of expression and belief – if you want to believe that an invisible man lives in the sky granting wishes, and that he made the Universe in 6 days and then played golf on Sunday be my guest. If you want to believe that the World was created by a giant bowl of pasta, that eating meatballs in tomato sauce is sacred and that you have to sprinkle Parmesan cheese on a prayer mat facing due West 6 times a day then go ahead – I really don’t care. But start claiming special respect for those beliefs, or claiming “offence” or “discrimination” by others who don’t share your personal delusions and expect some backlash.
The Equality Act 2010 changed the laws on religious discrimination. Specifically, section 44 now includes a reference to a lack of religion, and now states that “belief include a reference to a lack of belief”. So I’m claiming offence myself – I’m offended by churches who get automatic tax exemption whether or not they actually do any charitable work. I’m offended by clergy being given protection from criminal investigations, in particular the Catholic church scandals with child abuse. I’m offended by church bells waking me up on a Sunday morning. I’m offended by the fact that there a limitations on Sunday trading hours – I mean seriously, this is 2013 FFS so why are you treating me like a child? If I want to buy a few cans of Special Brew at 9am on a Sunday morning, why should your belief in a diety prevent me from doing so? I’m offended by religious groups being exempt from the laws restricting political lobbying. I’m offended by the church being protected from discrimination laws – how come they can hire and fire at will, but if a secular business tries to fire someone they have to jump through hoops? How come a church can refuse to appoint a member of the clergy on the basis of gender or sexuality, when any non-religious employer would be whisked off to a tribunal at the mere thought of doing so?
But most of all, I’m offended by religion claiming special respect. In my opinion, to state belief in something in spite of a lack of evidence and against reason, to believe in something on faith alone, merits the very opposite of respect – I have very little respect for overt stupidity. So let’s stop giving special respect to religion, and actually treat everyone equally for a change!