John Roughan: The distinction between hating a belief and an individual is a difficult one


It has always struck me as odd that the holy trinity of identity politics, protected against free speech and discrimination, are race, gender and religion. One of those does not belong.

Race and gender are biological facts, apparent from birth in bodily characteristics that are not easily changed by chemistry, surgery or university gender studies. To be hated or suffer prejudice simply because you have those characteristics is simply unjust and the law of a humane society should do everything possible to prevent or punish it.

Religion is different. People may be born into a religion and become so deeply ingrained with it that it forms an important part of their personal identity. But it is not a physiological identity. It exists entirely in the mind. To adhere to a religious belief beyond childhood is a conscious decision and like everything human beings think and believe, it should be open to criticism.

The discussion paper on “hate speech” issued by the Government last week, aims to further restrict, even criminalise, speech that is hurtful to racial, religious and many other groups listed in the Human Rights Act 1993.

I don’t know why religion was ever put in with race and gender in human rights legislation. I was a Catholic kid in the 1950s when a certain amount of antagonism to Catholics still lingered in predominantly Protestant communities and I don’t recall anyone at that time suggesting it should be against the law.

Prejudice against religion, or at least Christianity, is most evident these days in the people who profess identity politics. You see this in debates on subjects such as abortion and euthanasia.

To hold human life sacred is not something I would have thought peculiar to religion. I’m sure it is a fundamental human value. Yet whenever a known Christian argues for the sanctity of life, you can bet someone on the other side of the debate will cite the religion as reason to dismiss their view.

You see it when a conservative Christian contributes a newspaper article on any social issue. Their religious affiliation usually has to be footnoted, like a health warning. And indeed, religion in extreme forms can be a communicable disease, particularly for people who were not inoculated with milder forms in childhood.

The point is, people should be allowed to hate a religion and say so. Religions do cause wars, they can be intolerant, adherents do not always live up to their moral codes, which can be stifling. But people who hate religion have probably had no familiarity with it.

Unfamiliarity breeds fear and fear breeds hate. In that sense religion does have something in common with race and sexual orientation. If you get to know individuals of a different race, religion or sexual attraction, you seldom dislike them.

After the massacre of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch mosques we got to know them as people like any other, people who had said or done nothing to deserve the atrocity done to them. We realised, I think, that to blame Islam for jihadism was as unfair as it would be to blame us for the fact than an individual in our midst went berserk.

Out of sympathy for the victims, a royal commission recommended a law against “hate speech” though there was no evidence the killer had been incited by anyone else. The difficulty with prosecuting “hatred” is that speakers can always claim it is the religious beliefs they detest, not the believers personally. That is a distinction religious people understand perhaps better than others.

Some beliefs deserve to be hated. My mother often recalled with disgust that when she was at high school, priests and nuns used to tell the girls that it was their responsibility to keep boys safe from sin. Boys were susceptible to temptation and girls should dress and behave modestly for their sake.

She also hated the church’s refusal to admit women to the priesthood and, to her dying day, she campaigned for change. But she taught me quite early it was possible to hate something said or done without hating the person who has said or done it.

It is a distinction that is not easy to see and I’m not confident courts will make the distinction if hate speech becomes a crime.

The Government’s discussion paper notes that it is already a crime to publish words that are “threatening, abusive or insulting”, “likely to excite” and “intended to excite” feelings of “hostility, ill-will or bring into contempt or ridicule any group on grounds of race”.

It intends to extend that protection to religion and substitute “hatred” for “hostility, etc”. which seems hardly worth the exercise. Like most things this government is doing, the proposal looks poorly considered, unnecessary and unlikely to proceed – just a gesture to grief.

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