Religious accessories bans are wrong: Summary

Every time I think the idea of a religious accessories ban has finally been defeated and consigned to the dustbin of history, it rears its ugly head again. Frustration has driven me to write this series.

My hope, probably fanciful, is that I can finally stamp out the depressingly popular belief among atheists that religious accessories bans are “necessary”, or that they even make sense at all. And, failing that, I’ll at least have something I can direct future advocates to. Either way, I can finally be done dealing with this offensively stupid idea.

This article is a summary of the extensive argument I’ve made over 10 instalments, covering every aspect and detail of religious accessories bans that I’ve heard come up over the years. RAB proponents have been vocal, persistent, and exhaustive over the decade and change they’ve been agitating for a ban, and there have been multiple, disparate – often mutually contradictory – arguments that they’ve come up with. In this series, I have tried to tackle them all.

Because this article is just a summary, I’m going to be glossing over a lot of the points previously made. So if you want to dispute any of it, don’t just read the summary, go back and read the full article with the point you want to dispute. Don’t worry: where it is not obvious which article contains the full argument, I will point it out.

So let’s get started with the summary of why religious accessories bans are wrong.

What are they?

First let’s start by figuring out what religious accessories bans are. Turns out that’s already problematic.

That’s because supporters of RABs can’t seem to agree on:

  • which accessories should be banned
  • who should be banned from wearing them
  • what the consequences of defying the ban should be; or
  • how to justify any of this, legally or rationally.

At one extreme you have people calling for the banning of all religious symbols everywhere in public. You might think these are fringe extremists, and that nobody really takes the idea seriously. You’d be wrong. Bans of this form have actually been implemented, even in otherwise progressive countries. The most infamous example is probably the burkini bans in France.

The most limited, most conservative form of ban would see only people in certain positions banned from wearing only “ostentatious” religious accessories. The positions would be limited to positions that wield the “coercive power” of the state – positions whose holders are authorized to violate the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens (in certain circumstances), such as judges, police officers, and MLAs. There is no support for this form of RAB that I’m aware of, though it is similar to the Bouchard–Taylor recommendation.

[A chart created by Andy Riga that shows the positions of the various Québec political parties on religious accessories bans. Details at: https://montrealgazette.com/news/quebec/breaking-down-quebec-parties-positions-on-religious-symbols-crucifix ]
A chart created by Andy Riga that shows the positions of the various Québec political parties on religious accessories bans as of the start of 2019.

There are a few commonly proposed forms of religious accessories ban:

  • All public sector employees should be banned from wearing all (visible) religious accessories. This would cover everyone from judges, MLAs, and police officers, to passport office clerks, museum curators, and bus drivers. This is probably the most popular form of RAB among proponents, but – as far as it is possible to suss out their intent – no political party in Canada seems to support this kind of ban.

  • Public sector employees in “positions of power” should be banned from wearing all (visible) religious accessories. “Positions of power” is defined oddly. It is not the same as the “positions of coercive power” described by Bouchard–Taylor. It includes judges, police officers, and usually MLAs, just like Bouchard–Taylor… but then it also includes school teachers… who have no state power over anything. This form of RAB is very popular.

  • Public sector employees in “positions of power” should be banned from wearing “ostentatious” religious accessories. The only difference between this form of RAB and the previous is that “un-ostentatious” symbols would be okay. That would allow people to wear (regularly-sized) crucifixes, but not hijabs… because somehow a simple scarf over the head is more “ostentatious” than a piece of jewellery. This appears to be the most popular form of RAB among political parties, promoted by both the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec… maybe; it’s impossible to say for sure, because they’re rarely clear about their position, and they often contradict themselves when they are.

  • Public sector employees who wield the state’s “coercive power” should be banned from wearing all religious accessories. This is the Bouchard–Taylor report recommendation, but it is not supported by any political party except Québec solidaire at one point, and they have since abandoned it.

And then of course there are the face-covering bans, that, while not explicitly religious accessories bans, are almost always RABs in practice.

Not only is there no agreement on what should be banned and for whom, there is no agreement on what the consequences for defying a ban should be. For a while, the CAQ was insisting that anyone who refused to remove their religious accessory would be fired… but then they changed their tune to say that they wouldn’t, and would be offered “behind-the-scenes jobs”. Then they changed their position again, saying employees who refuse to remove their religious accessory wouldn’t before fired, but new employees who wear them wouldn’t be hired. (No word on what happens once someone is newly hired and converts later, and then starts wearing a religious accessory.)

All this variation makes it difficult to seriously debate religious accessories bans. Proponents often hide behind vagueness, or use vagueness to create alliances with other proponents whose positions are wildly different, giving the impression their position is more popular than it really is.

The only way I can have a serious discussion about religious accessories bans is by assuming the lowest common denominator – the most conservative, minimal form of religious accessories ban. That limits the effectiveness of my criticism, because I’m not able to directly address the more ridiculous forms, no matter how popular they are. But it doesn’t really matter in the end. Even the most conservative, minimal form of religious accessories ban is still wrong.

Wrong before they even start

Before you can begin to discuss the details of a religious accessories ban, there are a few hurdles you have to overcome.

First you need to acknowledge that what you are really asking for with a religious accessories ban is to put a limit on people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

You’d think that would be an obvious and easy thing to ask. There are not many types of laws a government can pass that don’t limit fundamental rights and freedoms in some way. We usually accept those limits in the name of a functional and peaceful society. We’re okay, for example, with a law that bans people from just getting in a car – without a licence – and driving anywhere they please, because we’ve considered the balance between restricting who can drive and where versus public safety, and decided that safety trumps freedom in this case.

But you’d be surprised how adamant many RAB supporters are in insisting that no one’s rights would be infringed by such a ban. The “reasons” why vary and are all incoherent, but largely stem from a refusal to acknowledge that freedom of religion is a real fundamental freedom.

The other thing you need to justify before beginning to talk seriously about a RAB is the use of the state’s power.

[Scan of a 1926 newspaper article describing the Eugene Sterry blasphemy case. There are drawings of Sterry and his lawyer, Elliot Cross. The visible text reads: “Sterry committed for trial. The larger picture, above, shows Ernest Victor Sterry, publisher of the Christian Inquirer, as he appeared in the police court to-day, when he was committed for trial on a charge of blasphemous libel, arising out of statements contained in his paper. In the smaller picture at the left, is shwon E. Lionel Cross, negro barrister, who defended Sterry. In addition to the blasphemy charge, Sterry is accused of stealing $200 from a Chinese laundryman. This allegation will probably be heard in police court next week.]
A 1926 article about the Eugene Sterry case.

Whether you agree with it or not, whether you like it or not, the state has enormous power – power to take away peoples’ rights and freedoms… even to the point of killing them in certain circumstances. If you’re going to enable and use that awesome, dangerous power, you need to provide a damn good justification.

But RAB proponents never do. They hand-wave vague explanations about how certain religious traditions are oppressive elsewhere in the world, and tell heart-wrenching stories about victims of religious oppression. But they never get around to explaining why religious accessories are so bad, or dangerous that they’re a problem we need to fire up the state’s awesome power to deal with.

On the same topic, you also need to acknowledge the enormous risk that comes with instituting a law. If it’s not done very carefully… it can absolutely destroy lives. And it can take decades and even centuries to fix.

Yet, again, you won’t find any RAB supporters taking it seriously. And why should they? They aren’t the ones who are going to be targeted by an RAB, and they don’t give a fuck about the people who would be. (Or worse, they’re pleased at who is going to be victimized by an RAB.)

The secularism lie

“Religious accessories bans for public service employees are necessary for a secular state.”

You’ll hear that claim asserted over and over by RAB proponents, in various forms. Some won’t go quite so far as to claim that a RAB is necessary for secularism; they’ll simply say that a RAB is at least compatible with it, and maybe even the ideal or “right” way to do secularism.

What you’ll never hear, though, is a clear, coherent explanation of why.

In fact, religious accessories bans not only are not “necessary” for secularism, they violate the core principles of secularism.

One of the games RAB supporters like to play is pretending that the definition of secularism is a matter of opinion… except when it’s not. You’ll hear claims that there is such a thing as “American-style secularism” that contrasts with “French-style secularism” – the latter demands religious accessories bans while the former does not. Yet from the same people, you’ll hear that anyone who doesn’t insist on a religious accessories ban is opposing secularism.

When you actually try to suss out what secularism entails – the core concepts underlying the idea – you come up with a list something like this:

  1. Secularism is about the government.
  2. Governments should not be influenced by religion.
  3. Governments should be neutral about religion.
  4. Governments should not enforce or prohibit religion.
  5. Individuals should be free to practice their religion (or lack thereof).

These core concepts are compatible with the definitions of secularism used by every major secularist organization in the world. Even Canada’s Supreme Court, when tasked with considering government prayer, came up with a definition of secularism in line with those concepts (although they used the term “neutrality” for reasons related to this issue).

When you try to see how a RAB might align with those core concepts… it doesn’t:

  1. If secularism is about the government, then it doesn’t make sense to “secularize” individuals. What they believe or how they choose to express those beliefs has nothing to do with what the government “believes”, and that doesn’t magically change when they start taking a government paycheck.

  2. There is no way a reasonable person can seriously entertain the idea that when an individual in the public service wears a hijab (for example), they are somehow “influencing” the government to be more Muslim. That’s absurd.

  3. Being neutral about religion is quite literally the opposite of proactively eliminating publicly visible signs of religion simply because they’re religious.

  4. Everyone understands that government should not force religious practice; few seem to understand that the corollary of that is that government shouldn’t inhibit religious practice. Unless there is a rational, nonreligious justification for it – which in practice, means a justification based on health or safety, or the infringement of the rights of others – banning a religious practice simply because it’s religious is a clear and direct violation of secularism. And despite extensive efforts, RAB supporters have failed to provide any rational, nonreligious justification for banning religious accessories.

  5. I mean, a RAB is a blatantly obvious violation of this principle.

So religious accessories bans are completely incompatible with secularism. And that conclusion is supported by observation: virtually no major secularist organization – Canadian or global – supports general religious accessories bans.

Despite this, RAB supporters cannot give up on using “secularism” to justify their position… because they’ve got literally nothing else that isn’t blatant bigotry.

Desperate assertions

As I’ve mentioned, there is virtually no rational, coherent argument for a RAB. What supporters offer instead are jingoistic assertions, repeated over and over ad nauseum. If you say it enough, and loud enough and insistently enough, apparently that makes it count as an “argument”.

“Religious accessories are advertisements/political statements/promotions”

The claim is that religious accessories are functionally identical to advertisements or political slogans. People who wear an advertisement or political slogan are doing so for a public purpose: they are trying to send a message to others. For that reason, we generally ban people from wearing them on the job, because it would be inappropriate to use an employer as a platform to sell your own shit (the only shit that should be sold on an employer’s platform is the employer’s shit). Thus, the “logic” goes, we should ban religious accessories, too.

The problem is that reality doesn’t jibe with this claim. When people who wear religious accessories are asked why they wear them, they virtually never say that it’s for the benefit of others. Instead, they offer private justifications – “it makes me feel more in touch with the divine”, “it’s how I practice my convictions”, and so on. That other people notice is not the point. They’d still wear it even if they were working in a position where no one could see them, and it would still serve the same purposes.

So religious accessories are not advertisements in any sense. Insisting that they are despite the evidence is not making an “argument”.

“Wearing religious accessories is proselytizing”

This is the stronger form of the previous claim, where religious accessories aren’t just “advertising” someone’s religion, they’re actually working as encouragements to convert.

This sounds like a ridiculous claim, but it’s quite popular. It usually comes up in the context of a “secularism” argument: governments cannot promote religion, and religious accessories are promoting religion, thus they should be banned.

Again, when people who wear religious accessories are asked why they wear them, they never say “to convert others”. Never, never, never. In addition, no reasonable person who’s reached the concrete operational stage can seriously entertain the notion that when they see a random stranger going about their own business while wearing a religious accessory, that means that stranger is targeting them and sending a message to them about what they should believe. That’s… fucking hell, that’s batshit ridiculous.

“Religious accessories are symbols of oppression”

This is one of the more transparent cases where an “argument” for RABs is obviously nothing more than someone’s opinion.

It may be a popular opinion, or it may not. You may have good reasons to justify holding that opinion, or you may not. Someone else may have equally good or even better reasons for holding a contrary opinion. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we shouldn’t be using the law to ban things merely because they’re disliked. You don’t have a right to not be offended. I mean… that’s so obvious, it’s even a slogan used… often by people who support religious accessories bans!

“Feminism!!1!11!”

Bullshit.

And obviously bullshit, because 1) religious accessories bans are supposedly gender neutral; 2) taking away women’s choices, even bad ones, is a direct violation of feminism; and, 3) religious accessories bans don’t actually solve any real anti-feminist issues, and the real anti-feminist issues are being completely ignored by RAB proponents who claim to be all about feminism.

“We need to see people’s faces to communicate”

This “argument” comes up with ban types that masquerade as face-covering bans. I’ll talk about those in more detail in the next section.

But we can deal with this “argument” quickly before moving on, because of how obviously ridiculous it is. If we were unable to communicate with people who cover their faces, how in the bejeesus could we manage to use phones? How do blind people function? Clearly we can function without seeing people’s faces (and of course, we’re only talking about a tiny, tiny minority of people who wear accessories that cover their faces – a minority so small that they can’t possibly matter to the communication capability of the whole society).

Face-covering bans

Sometimes, often to hide the targeting of religious minorities, religious accessories bans are rebranded as face-covering bans. The spin is that face-covering bans are not about “secularism” or intolerance of religion, they’re about “security” and “public safety”.

The seductive hook of the spin is that face-covering bans do make sense in very limited situations. For someone who really wants to stick it to Muslims in particular, that’s enough to make face-covering bans worthy of promotion.

But while face-covering bans can work in very limited situations, they don’t work when applied generally. In fact, not only do general face-covering bans fail to improve security or public safety, they actually make it worse.

Even worse, face-covering bans have another insidious problem, and that is that they are one of the first warning signs of dangerous state overreach. The state has no need to track the movements of citizens, and if they’re doing that, it’s almost certainly something that’s going to be abused. It’s not something we should allow, if we truly believe in having a free and open society. But of course, for those people who want to stick it to Muslims, that takes priority.

The deeper problem

Whenever religion gets involved, things get complicated. Part of that is because believers usually intentionally complicate things in order to make it harder to pin down and criticize their beliefs and practices. But another part of it is the fact that most cultures don’t have the clear, bright line between “religious” and “nonreligious” that European cultures have evolved. European traditions evolved separations of power between Kings and Popes, giving each their domains, and creating rules to keep them from stepping on each other’s toes. Other cultures didn’t work that way; there was never any concept of a separation of domains – the “King” was the “Pope”, or at least there was no conflict in their authority (the “King” might be subordinate to the “Pope” or the other way around).

So for a lot of cultures, it doesn’t actually make sense to ask whether a practice is religious or not. For any given practice, you might get a mishmash of justifications for it, with some based on faith claims, some based on history, tradition, or myth (that is, “pseudo-history”), and some based on culture (“everybody does it”). How do you decide whether any given practice is religious or not out of that mess?

That’s not just a hypothetical problem, either. Take the hijab, for example. Veils (including face-coverings) were a custom before Islam. So if a woman wears a veil, is it a religious accessory she’s wearing because of Islam? Or is it a cultural accessory she’s wearing because that’s what her people have done since time immemorial? The answer depends not on the accessory, but on the woman.

Imagine if a religion were to start today that declared that the necktie was commanded by God. What would that mean for a religious accessories ban? Would we now ban civil servants from wearing neckties? I imagine most religious accessories ban proponents would say no… but if so then how could we ban headscarves? The only difference between the two cases is Islam is older and more popular. Should that matter?

But the problem goes even deeper than that. I mentioned earlier that most non-European cultures don’t have clear notions of a separation between the religious domain and the nonreligious domain. But even within European cultures, that line is often blurry, and often forgotten completely.

I presume you’re probably wearing clothes right now. Most likely you at least have your genitals covered, and probably your breasts. You may have your arms exposed, and possibly even your shoulders, your knees, and maybe even some cleavage – even if you’re at work. But if you’re anywhere in public in Canada, it’s a pretty safe bet that your genitals and nipples are covered, whether you’re male, female, or non-binary. And here’s the million-dollar question: Why?

Now, I’ll bet you’re prepared to answer with some hand-wavey justification about “cultural standards”. But that’s just passing the buck. Where do those “cultural standards” come from?

Of course the answer is that they came from religion. You cover your body because of Genesis 3:7. And the specific parts of your body you have to cover to be “not naked” are also dictated by Christian tradition.

Which would mean that technically all clothing you wear are “religious accessories”.

I’m not pointing that out to argue that a religious accessories ban done properly should leave us all nude (though, that would be true). I’m pointing it out to highlight the lie behind pretending that religious accessories bans can ever be “secular”. In point of fact, all religious accessories bans proposed in traditionally Christian countries, like Canada, cannot be secular, and must always be non-Christian religious accessories bans.

In other words, what you think is a “secular” religious accessories ban is nothing more than Christian domination. When you remove a Muslim woman’s hijab, you are not “secularizing” her outfit… you are Christianizing it.

This is trivial to prove. Ask yourself why women are banned from wearing hijabs – which some forms of Islam mandate – but not skirts – which some forms of Christianity mandate. Why is a hijab a “symbol of Islam”, but a skirt is not a “symbol of Christianity”? Is it because not all interpretations of Christianity require it? Well, not all interpretations of Islam require a veil. Is it because lots of non-Christian cultures wear skirts? Well, lots of non-Islamic cultures wear headscarves. The only reason the hijab seems “different” is because our culture is traditionally Christian, and not traditionally Islamic.

Ultimately, it is functionally impossible to come up with a clear answer to whether a particular garment is a religious accessory or not. That’s because it doesn’t actually depend on the garment, it depends on the wearer’s reasons for donning it. Failing to recognize that makes any attempted religious accessories ban automatically unjust. Yet at the same time, acknowledging it means that unless you can read minds, you have to trust that a person is being honest when they give you their reasons for wearing it. (And even if they think they’re being honest, they may not be telling the truth, because religion muddies thinking so completely.)

So the bottom line is that there is no way to do a religious accessories ban that isn’t fundamentally unjust. If you’re okay with collateral damage – that is, people facing sanctions for wearing accessories that are not religious – and you’re okay with privileging certain religious traditions over others – specifically those traditions that are either historically part of the culture, or at least compatible – then that may make a ban acceptable to you. But it does not make it just, reasonable, or secular.

Summary

There is no “argument” for a general, state-imposed ban on wearing religious accessories that stands up to reason, or that is compatible with secularism.

All attempts to claim that such a ban is either compatible with secularism, or necessary, simply don’t hold water. At best, they’re misguided. At worst, they’re actively bigoted. Most are simply incoherent.

In a truly free society, one not tainted by intolerance or bigotry, religious people of all stripes would be free to wear whatever accessories they feel compelled to wear – no matter how silly – so long as those accessories do not infringe on the rights of others. (Which could only happen if they presented some kind of physical threat to health or safety, such as by having edges that could poke eyes, or being so large they block others’ vision, or something like that.) Banning religious accessories is not making society more free. It’s hard to see it as anything else but a petty vengeance taken by anti-religious people now that they have a modicum of power. Or, more honestly, as a targeted harassment of Muslims, just for being Muslim.

In this series I have tried to consider every single argument put forward by proponents of religious accessories bans, and take each one seriously… which was not easy to do when so many of them are so transparently idiotic or hateful. Nevertheless, I think I’ve done the best I could within my abilities.

While I have hopes that my attempts might reach people sitting on the fence, I have doubts as to whether there are any. This is a very emotional issue, and most people’s opinions are not based on thoughtful deliberation. There may not actually be anyone reachable by reason, because you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason their way into.

But in any case, this series stands as a resource I can refer back to, and point people to, whenever the issue comes up.

There are dark days ahead for Québec, particularly for religious minorities, but also for secularists. The threat to minorities is obvious. The threat to secularists is that they will bear the brunt of the inevitable blowback, because this intolerant and discriminatory ban has been peddled as “secularism”, rather than as “laïcité” (or “laïcism” or “laïcity” in English). The real long-term fallout of this ridiculous, unnecessary, and unconstitutional ban may be that secularism itself might become tarred by (unjustified) association. Indeed, there have already been worrying signs of that happening.

So this is not something that only religious minorities in Québec have to be concerned about. All Canadian secularists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers have a dog in this fight. We have spent decades speaking out against abuses of power by the religious. How could we now fail to speak out about abuses of power by the anti-religious.

Let’s make sure that we, Canadian atheists, really do represent a better future for this country, and that we’re not merely the next generation of abusers, or their silent enablers.

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