Environmentalism Gets Religious Status Protection in Britain

November 17, 2009

A recent ruling qualifying environmentalism for legal protection as a philosophical position within the British Religion and Belief Regulations raises interesting questions about religious accommodations. While the ruling is correct, it might be indicative we should rethink the accommodation paradigm.

Non-religious worldviews ought to be granted equal protection to those of religious faith. Mr. Justice Michael Burton concluded that philosophical views based on science were no less authentic than those
based on religion. That is as it should be. Would it make sense that protection be granted in reverse proportion to the significance of the science behind a philosophical position?

Atheism and skeptical positions should be accorded equal protection to religious worldviews if being faith-based or science-based are not deciding factors. After all, one thing atheists and most religious believers have in common is a claim that their views are backed by science, or at least are consistent with the facts of the universe.

We can imagine that if Justice Burton had ruled against the equality of science-based and faith-based philosophical positions, the courts would then be deciding which philosophical views were based on science and more fundamentally what difference exists between philosophy on the one hand and science and religion on the other. Good luck.  Philosophers themselves haven’t established that.

So the courts are going the more sensible direction of accepting any philosophical worldview. This is the only direction open to them given the accommodation paradigm that holds sway. But since the courts can not accept just any belief, they still need to invoke a test, and so now we have an even more complicated and contorted five-fold test to qualify for protection. According to Justice Burton, a belief "must be genuinely held, must significantly impact behaviour, must attain a certain level of seriousness and cohesion, must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, and cannot simply be an opinion based on current information."

In order to make a fair ruling, I imagine judges will now have to arm themselves with a panel comprising a psychologist to judge the genuineness of a belief and its level of seriousness and cohesion, a psychiatrist to determine if the belief has impacted a person’s behaviour, experts on current affairs to determine if the opinion is based on current information, and perhaps a citizens’ group to judge whether the position is worthy of respect in a democratic society. Do we really want judges making these decisions? I don’t find that notion to be worthy of respect in a democratic society.

How can anyone tell if a belief is genuinely held. I suspect there are some science fiction fans out there who legitimately believe in Jedi Knights. Then there are new religions and religions that are poorly understood and which could seem to the average person to make some fairly ridiculous demands on its believers (as opposed to the good old religions that do much the same but to which we are accustomed). What if someone asks for protection for a well established religious worldview in which they happen to be born but in which they’ve never actually shown the slightest conviction until it was convenient? Have fun with that one Justice Burton.

Even if these matters are resolved, the design of this rigorous test meant to block philosophical positions that are racist or homophobic is doomed to failure. Visit White Power or Nazi websites and, distasteful though they are, they advance a worldview that encompasses various aspects of economic, social and political consideration. It is consistent, genuine, serious and unfortunately, guides behaviour.  The only ground on which such vile positions could be weeded out is through the clause regarding worthiness and respect in a democratic society.

But ought individual judges be deciding that? Here we come to my central concern. Once the door is opened even slightly to religious accommodations that door ends up swinging so far it breaks off its hinges. There is no intellectually coherent rationale for privileging religious over non-religious claims for accommodation. At some point the government needs to decide what constitutes a religion, what separates religion from philosophy, or where to draw the line around philosophical views. Scholars themselves are still working away on these matters.

I don’t have an easy solution to this mess but I do believe the only longterm consistent position is to begin curtailing special accommodations for everyone to only the most harmless matters. Rules should be as near universal as possible. To grant an exemption or accommodation to universal laws is to defacto endorse a particular worldview.