Religious tolerance: can we keep the faith?

Sunday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Cinema 1, Barbican Keynote Controversies

Islamist extremists in Bangladesh have hacked to death several atheist bloggers in recent years. In the territory it controls, Islamic State takes non-Muslims as slaves. Today it seems the greatest threat to freedom of conscience is religion itself, especially in the form of radical Islamism, which seems every bit as intolerant and tyrannical as the Inquisition in its pomp. In contrast, the modern, secular West prides itself on tolerating all religions and none, Islam included; despite fears of a misdirected Islamophobic backlash against terrorism, most people believe Muslims should be free to practise their religion without hindrance.

We like to think we have learned the lessons of the Inquisition and the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and now value religious tolerance as the key to a peaceful and harmonious society. More than that, in the liberal tradition that has dominated Western thought since the Enlightenment, freedom of thought and speech has been seen as essential to the dignity of each individual. The philosopher John Locke argued in his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration that the authorities had no right to tell people what to think or believe; it was unacceptable that people should ‘quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly resign themselves up to the will of their governors’.

Nevertheless, there are signs today that this liberal tradition is waning. It is not only Islamists who want to tell people what to believe, and nor are swords and suicide bombs the only means used to silence unwelcome ideas. Of all places, it is university campuses that pride themselves on a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to speech and beliefs deemed harmful to students, with sanctions on religious societies for holding anti-abortion events or imposing sex segregation at their own meetings. Meanwhile, there is pressure on academics to keep tabs on potentially ‘radicalised’ students. Beyond the universities, the government is increasingly seeking ways to clamp down on extremism, with complaints from Christian groups that aspects of the Prevent and British Values agenda in schools undermine values promoted in faith schools.

At the same time, equality legislation has led to demands to circumscribe religious groups’ rights, with prosecutions of those whose alleged discrimination for religious reasons against gay people, such as the recent controversy around the Christian-run Northern Irish bakery Ashers, which refused to make a cake with the slogan ‘Support gay marriage’. Meanwhile, earlier this year a family court judge ruled that the seven-year-old son of a Jehovah’s Witness should be taken into care because his mother caused the child ‘emotional harm’ by ‘immersing’ him in her ‘religious beliefs and practices’. Meanwhile, of course, many religious people themselves are not above demanding censorship to protect their own sensibilities from hurt.

So are the Enlightenment concepts of freedom of conscience and tolerance no longer relevant to the modern world?

Watch the debate


Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Dr Eliza Filby
visiting lecturer in Modern British History, King’s College London; author, God and Mrs Thatcher: The battle for Britain’s soul

Dr Humeria Iqtidar
senior lecturer in politics, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London

Christopher Jamison
director, National office for vocation, Catholic Church of England and Wales; author, Finding Sanctuary and Finding Happiness; featured in BBC TV's The Monastery

Leszek Jazdzewski
editor-in-chief, Polish liberal journal Liberté!

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Recommended readings
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The British State’s silent war on religion Frank Furedi, spiked, June 2015

The British State's silent war on religion

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Pope Francis calls for religious tolerance at mass in Sri Lanka – video

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Reuters, 14 January 2015

Religious intolerance on the rise worldwide, says US report

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Peter Beaumont, Guardian, 20 September 2012

Don’t shout at the telly: Tolerance

Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas is the guest expert on this fascinating in depth, on the sofa discussion on tolerance.


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