The issue of the relationship between church and state is always controversial, and arguments about it tend to generate more heat than light. Much muddled thinking can be seen on this topic. But that tends to be true of most important issues being debated in the public arena.
In days gone by, a proper education would include some courses in basic logic. Students would have been taught how to think clearly and spot logical fallacies. One suspects that this is not being taught very much nowadays. Almost on a daily basis, one can find plenty of examples of sloppy thinking and illogical argumentation.
Consider the morning newspapers for example. The letters to the editor page is a good place to begin. What passes for rational and logical discussion there is often something to behold. Most of the things that we were told to avoid in our logic classes seem to predominate in these pages. There is plenty of attacking the person instead of the argument (the fallacy of ad hominem); lots of wild goose chases (red herrings); and so on.
One very common logical fallacy found here – and elsewhere – is the category mistake. Simply put, this fallacy consists of comparing apples with oranges. It mixes two ideas that don’t belong together. Examples abound.
Consider the debate over same-sex marriage for example. Homosexual activists will often throw out a claim such as this: “Just as South Africa had apartheid, so you will not allow same-sex marriage.” But this is simply apples and oranges, pure and simple. Skin colour and race are innate characteristics, while sexual preference is not. A person born black cannot change that fact, but a person can and does change his or her sexual preferences. Many thousands of people who were once homosexual are now heterosexual. Many of them are also married with children. So to compare past and unjust racial discrimination laws with arguments against same-sex marriage is simply to commit a category mistake.
Consider another example, this time found in one of today’s papers. Over the weekend I had a letter published on the Rowan Williams controversy. The Anglican Archbishop had called for the introduction of sharia law – or at least parts of it – in the UK. I suggested this would not bring about harmony and integration, but disharmony and segregation.
I said – in this context – that to make special laws for religious and ethnic groups, or to grant them exemptions, would in fact work against the rule of law and social cohesion. Such a remark is uncontroversial enough, in the context of the debate over the Archbishop’s comments.
But of course some secularist jumped on the bandwagon and attacked me, claiming that no religious groups should get any exemptions, and implying that I was being hypocritical here, because I may think that Christians should get certain concessions or exemptions.
But we have here a major category mistake. This chap is trying to compare apples with oranges. The issue raised by the Archbishop really has to do with the major overthrow or revamping of a millennium of English law, by setting up an alternate or parallel system of law. No country can have two different systems of law, especially if they are in so many respects mutually exclusive.
That is a different issue altogether as to whether a nation allows certain limited exception, concessions or exemptions for various groups for various reasons. There are all sort of acceptable reasons why a largely secular democracy may see the need to allow certain exceptions for religious bodies. And no one – except the hard core secularists and God-haters – has a problem with this.
For example, in some Western countries, certain religious groups can get tax concessions for the charitable work they perform. Most people do not have a problem with that. If a Jewish or Muslim or Christian group is doing great welfare work or running charitable programs which benefit the whole nation, they should be entitled to some tax relief. They in fact will be performing a community service while saving taxpayers money because the work is being done by non-profit charitable, volunteer organisations. I see no problems with helping them out with small tax breaks.
That has nothing to do with running two parallel law systems in the same nation. My critic also mentions how I or others might favour exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, and so on. But again he is showing some confused thinking here.
Let me illustrate with this scenario. The Geelong Football club only hires certain particular types of people to play footy for them. They do not hire women as players. They do not hire 60-year-olds as players. They certainly do not hire someone like me who has never played a game of Aussie Rules footy in his life.
Now no one complains about that. No one cries discrimination. No one says people’s rights are being violated. Club memberships are always selective. And there is nothing wrong with that. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with a particular religious group or church only hiring someone – say, as a teacher – who adheres to their statement of faith. They would expect to have someone faithfully teach the doctrines of that group or denomination.
If an Islamic Mosque were forced to employ secular or Jewish imams to lecture young Muslims, there would rightly be an outcry. There is clearly a place for groups, clubs, charitable bodies and religious groups to have certain ground rules as to membership, teaching, and so on.
Such exemptions have nothing to do with having two competing systems of law operating in one nation. That is the issue I was addressing, not whether there is a place in a secular democracy for religious groups to be allowed to practice their faith freely, even if that means being granted a few exemptions now and then.
And bear in mind that a committed Muslim wouldn’t want a two-tiered law system anyway. He would not be happy with a half-Western law, half-sharia law situation. He wants everyone to be under sharia law. It is all or nothing for the dedicated Muslim.
Thus the critics who think they have caught us out here have done nothing of the sort. One can be fully consistent in warning about the introduction of sharia law while also acknowledging that religious freedom is important, and certain public allowances for it can be safely made.
I of course acknowledge there is always the need to carefully express oneself, and I might have worded my short letter a bit better in order to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. But at the end of the day, these really are two quite different matters, and both can be argued for – or against – on their own merits. Confusing the two issues is simply not helpful.