Writing this piece for TheHumanist.com helped to challenge my own ideas and assumptions about the role religion plays in the civic lives of citizens. For those who missed the news, Germany has now joined France in banning the peaceable wearing of Islamic garments in select public settings. Such censorship demands we review religious censorship laws invented by Western governments. After all, how must a government respond to those who wish to express their faith? Should there be a line of demarcation between the individual’s civil right to express their faith publically and society’s right to choose how much of anyone’s faith can be revealed in the public realm? Where do we draw such a line?
In the United States, nonbelievers will often go to the courts to stop individuals, religious entities, and governments when a marble statue of the Ten Commandments or nativity display shows up in a public square. We try to stop these same groups when they attempt to pass faith-specific laws to favor one’s religion over all others under the guise of religious liberty. We call into question the notion that this country was founded as a “Christian nation,” and we stand for the First Amendment of the Constitution, our foundational document that does not pick one faith as truer or more correct than the next.
I consulted several humanists for this article, and while my survey is not “scientific,” it was clear in terms of trends in thought. So it may seem odd to some, but most humanists are decidedly not anti-religious. Most take a “live and let live” stance regarding faith, and I place myself firmly in this camp as well.
After all, someone who is quietly expressing their religious beliefs, no matter how much we find them unnecessary on an ontological level, does not endanger our own secular humanist way of life, which looks to include all, and abandons magical spiritual forces to replace them with reason and an understanding of natural reality.
Here is Germany’s conflict in detail. A German province forbid one of their students—born in Germany and a German citizen—from wearing a face veil called a niqab in her college classes. Prime Minister Angela Merkel has gone on record noting that the wearing of Islamic dress of the kind the student wishes to wear is a form of “anti-integration.” But isn’t a citizen going to college to better her life integration enough? As noted in the Independent concerning the situation, “It is one of the first rulings of its kind in Germany to forbid the face veil in classes.” As the article notes, by national law, German states can decide rules regarding both education and religious freedom.
From the humanist perspective—backed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights—the right of this young woman to wear a veil is equal to and just as salient to every woman’s right not to wear a veil. The German government’s opposition to such a right is sadly striking to another time in that nation’s history, a time when another minority group thought they lived freely in Germany until purity laws forbid them to go to school, marry freely, own a business, and live openly as members of their Jewish covenant.
It’s hard to challenge the fact that in many cases organized faith, especially radicalized factions amongst religions, have perpetrated outright violence against the religious and secular alike. Organized faith has been historically antagonistic to believers of different religious realms as well as nonbelievers, leading to both historic and modern forms of oppression, bias laws, and state-sponsored discrimination.
But the striking thing about the French and German anti-religious dress laws is their targeting of a specific faith tradition. It can be easily argued that today it is face veils. Tomorrow it could be the burka or the cross or turban or the yarmulke, and the list could go on. Religious dress is a way to show devotion, and while we may disagree with the necessary of such dress codes (and in some cases their oppressive nature), it should not be up to any government entity to pick and choose which religious dress codes are offensive to national identity if public safety is not at stake.
From the perch of our humanist perspective, dressing as one wishes is a form of self-expression, no matter the cause. It’s about being free and unencumbered from government forces to live one’s life undeterred by racist or xenophobic legislation that limits the rights of some over others. Typically it’s a minority group that is on the receiving end of such ethnic, racial, or religious hostility. What certainly is true is that humanists stand for human and civil rights, the most cherished Western moral and legal ideals concerning freedom of choice and freedom of –consciousness—this includes the right of those who which to express their faith peacefully without government intrusion or reprisal.
Just as we are vocal then about the oppression and the use of religious doctrine to limit the human and civil rights of others, we must be equally ready to hold accountable any government that plays favorites with one religious set of ideas over another. There is little difference between secular oligarchies and religious theistic states banning a minority faith’s equal protection.
To be a secular humanist, one has to see freedom and peace as well as human and civil rights from a much wider perspective than just faith and non-faith realms of oppression. Rejecting Germany’s stance and any nation’s stance to discriminate must indeed be part of our time-honored values, our present-day reality, and future-focus consensus.