I have a friend who is a teacher and works in a secondary school. The head, who is known to have little sympathy for those of a religious persuasion, made it clear a while ago that this individual is banned from discussing their faith or mentioning God. My friend is anything but a proselytising zealot, but he is confident in his beliefs and happy to discuss them openly in appropriate situations. Sensing that there is someone who is not afraid to disagree on such matters, the head has decided that it is much easier simply to shut that area of conversation down, and to emphasise his position of authority further, he has given this particular teacher the cold shoulder. Understandably, my friend is demotivated and desperate to leave, and his health is suffering too.
This is one story among many of the struggles associated with expressing religious beliefs in the workplace. Anyone who has a religious faith has to deal with this issue on a daily basis. How much do we allow our faith into those public places we inhabit? When do we deem it appropriate for our faith to guide our actions and words, and when for the sake of keeping the peace do we keep it hidden? Workplaces have rules, either explicit or unwritten, which necessarily regulate our behaviour to a certain extent. But religion does not fit neatly into little boxes however hard we try. This is all too apparent in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC’s) latest report, which has been given the rather functional title of Religion or belief in the workplace and service delivery.
Anyone who knows more than a handful of people with jobs will most likely be aware of at least one story similar to that of my friend’s. Workplaces are rarely benign when it comes to public disclosures of faith or deeply-held convictions. The EHRC appears to be belatedly waking up to the fact that everything is not entirely well on this front, despite all of the equality legislation that has been enacted over the last few years. Sadly, from the report’s wording, it would seem apparent that this desire and drive to see all of us fully equal is actually doing more harm than good. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said a few weeks ago, “Equality as an aim in itself through government action is doomed not merely to defeat but to totalitarianism.”
The fundamental problem is that many aspects of life are just not comparable. In particular, by dumping religion together with sexuality and all of the other protected characteristics, talk moves from mutual respect to protection of rights. Tolerance becomes enforced and equality gives the presumption of equal weighting. Your views and beliefs become just as valid as mine, and if I perceive that you are forcing them upon me, I have the right to demand action through the law to remedy the grievance. Equality has become a weapon to beat down anyone who I see as being treated preferentially, even if there are justifiable reasons for this.
The 2,483 submissions contain plenty of legitimate concerns, fears and examples of mistreatment, but they also demonstrate the shallow and loaded complaints that can be raised when legalism combines with a persecution mentality:
- Claims of unwelcome ‘preaching’ or proselytising, which can be little more than mentioning religious beliefs.
- Religious colleagues using spaces (eg meeting rooms) that were not meant solely for religious purposes. This is no different to any other workplace group holding a meeting.
- Faith school admission policies considered to be advantageous to people with a particular religious belief – eg favouring those who regularly attend a church.
- National holidays, which are a distinct part of our national makeup, coinciding with Christian festivals and therefore requiring many non-Christians to be off work and schools at these times.
- Restricted opening hours of shops for religious reasons (Sunday trading laws).
- Christians having preferential treatment in town centre parking on Sundays.
- Complaints that the media is too religious (really?)
- Hospital chaplains provided on a religious basis and therefore not being accessible to humanists and atheists (it’s hard to imagine this ever being the case).
- Humanists and atheists feeling excluded in workplaces which held prayer meetings or events in religious buildings.
- Atheist professors concerned that university graduation ceremonies had religious elements.
Equality has not only had the inevitable effect of some ‘rights’ trumping others when they come into conflict, but also self-generated offence trumping respect. This is then used by some groups to push their agenda through force, instead of reasoned persuasion. The dream of full equality can only come about when everyone conforms to a single paradigm and religion is marginalised. This is the secularist approach to toleration, and our equality legislation is giving it traction.
Faced with an ever expanding range of competing demands and the ease by which some complain of victimisation, the report understandably finds that many employers are aiming for social harmony by prohibiting all forms of religious expression. Censoriousness might solve some disputes, but grievances will inevitably continue to simmer beneath the surface, storing up resentment for the future. It also conflicts with human rights legislation and is not a model that should be encouraged.
If people who have a religious faith are having to suppress a big part of their lives, and others have become so ultra-sensitive that they find ways to be offended, then we have a problem. And we do.
Tolerance is increasingly an excuse for intolerance, and equality legislation is proving to be of little help. Indeed, it is causing widespread intimidation, confusion and fear. It has done next to nothing to increase religious literacy and mutual understanding, which is the key to lasting progress. Inevitably we all lose out, and the end result is division and mistrust.
This report contains overarching truths which throw light on a situation that has been shunted into the darkness for far too long. Faith is not a dirty word, and religion is never going to go away. We need to build new channels of discussion and openness rather than shutting down existing ones. Nor can we allow those who have an anti-faith agenda bully everyone into submission. If we are going to have responsible, healthy and productive workplaces, the last thing we need are intolerant whingers with axes to grind calling all the shots.