<preform>Faith & Reason: The law is not the way to tackle religious hatred</preform>

You cannot legislate against ignorance. A better solution might be to look to BBC Charter Renewal
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This week David Blunkett announced his intention to bring in legislation to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred".' It is not difficult to see why such a law is being proposed at this juncture. Yet it is possible to be in general sympathy with the tenor of this proposed legislation, and still harbour severe doubts as to its wisdom.

This week David Blunkett announced his intention to bring in legislation to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred".' It is not difficult to see why such a law is being proposed at this juncture. Yet it is possible to be in general sympathy with the tenor of this proposed legislation, and still harbour severe doubts as to its wisdom.

Government spokespeople have taken great pains to assure us that such a law was not intended to inhibit religious and theological debate, which are seen as important features of an open democratic society that prides itself on the notion of free speech. Nevertheless there is a very real danger that the proposed law will do just that - and bring about a stifling of religious debate or, worst still, feed the very hatred the Home Secretary seeks to eliminate.

Part of the problem is that so much religious debate turns on definitions, and definitions are notoriously difficult to pin down. What seems justified or reasonable criticism of someone else's religious system to one person can seem, to another person, incitement to hatred and intolerance. This is an extremely tricky and delicate arena into which to bring the black and white definitions of the law.

The idea that this can successfully be done highlights a wider tendency in contemporary society. Modern governments have a growing tendency to think that they can invoke legislation as a means of dealing with difficult and complex issues. The net result of such an attitude is that we have become an increasingly bureaucratised society hemmed in by large masses of legislation.

What might make more sense would be to focus on what lies behind religious hatred in contemporary British society. Legislation can, at best, effect certain changes in both attitude and behaviour. But what we need are mechanisms which ultimately transform the deeply held prejudices which lie behind the intolerance.

From a Buddhist perspective it is not individual manifestations of hatred that are the problem. Of course religious hatred can give rise to the most appalling forms of prejudice and abuse. But Buddhist teaching looks deeper - at the hatred which is a primary malaise in the human existential condition and thus needs tackling at its root. Buddhism perceives the root of hatred as being a fundamental and almost all-encompassing ignorance that blinds individuals and societies.

It is, of course, difficult if not impossible to legislate against ignorance. All a society can do to lift the veil of ignorance is to educate its people so that there is the possibility of a dawning understanding that can learn to appreciate cultural, racial and religious difference. It is education and not legislation that can bring about a lessening of intolerance and prejudice. It is odd that a government which highlighted "education, education, education" from the very moment it took office seems not to understand this.

To lessen, if not eradicate, religious hatred and intolerance will require a mammoth programme of education. That this has to be done in our schools is obvious. However to reach to the wider population we need to go beyond our system of formal education. One key area in this is the media, and most particularly the broadcast media. At a time when the BBC, under a new Director-General and in the run-up to Charter Renewal, is reflecting on what it means to be a "public service broadcaster" in the 21st century, there is clearly a place for much more comprehensive coverage of the role that religion plays in the lives of millions of modern Britons. That means going beyond the simplified and homogenised portraits of the various religions - religious traditions are complex phenomena and need to be appreciated as such.

Many will argue that people simply do not watch such programmes. But there is a vicious circle here. People will not watch them if they are not intelligently, imaginatively and creatively put together. Nor will they watch them if they are aired, as so many religious programmes have been, very late at night. But there is clearly scope for broadcasters to do an important service to the common good here. It may be that the Government should emphasise to them, as part of the Charter Renewal process, that they have a duty to broadcast such programmes.

It may well take an enormous amount of time, and a not inconsiderable amount of patience, to attain results. But then patience is considered to be a key Buddhist virtue - and one which is perceived to be vital for the overcoming of hatred and anger. It is a merit conspicuous by its absence in contemporary life, but employing it will almost certainly in the long run prove a more effective antidote to religious hatred than any amount of legislation could.

John Peacock is Director of Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry

Comments