I have just done a spot on Talk Radio, being interviewed by Mike Dickin, as is my occasional wont. From time to time, it is arranged that he and I will take it in turns to mouth off about some issue of the day.
Today what Mike Dickin was complaining about, and inviting me to complain about along with him, was this:
Business leaders have criticised new rules that require companies to provide prayer rooms and give religious holidays to non-Christians as “unacceptable and ridiculous”.
In a 99-page document published last week, the Commission for Racial Equality set out draft guidance on how companies should prevent discrimination against religious and racial minorities.
The most controversial proposal is that employers should have to provide prayer rooms and give time off for non-Christians to mark their own religious holidays.
Obviously commenters may want to say their thing about that, but I want to discuss something somewhat different. I found myself in partial but severe disagreement with Mike Dickin on this matter.
In particular, I think I observed an extremely common syndrome which does much to explain why proposals for intrusive laws have such an annoying habit of becoming intrusive laws. An intrusive law is proposed, concerning, e.g. (as in this case) religion.
The Mike Dickin tendency then opposes this proposed law, but does it incompetently, indeed counter-productively. The Mike Dickin tendency opposes this proposed law not by saying that these are matters that people should be left to decide amongst themselves, but by insulting religion. The idea of compulsory prayer rooms is stupid, because religion itself – the phrase Dickin used was “getting religion” – is stupid. Personally, if you force me to answer such questions, I also think that religion is stupid, but this is not the basis of my objection to this proposed law about prayer rooms. I will only insult religion in a public debate if the debate is about the truth or wisdom of religion, and if others are allowed to insult my atheist beliefs. Meanwhile, I don’t think that any religion, or atheism, should be either compulsory or illegal.
Nor do I think it at all silly for a company to have a special prayer room for a few, some, most, or all of their workers, if they think that this is a good idea. After all, religious people must in many circumstances have considerable attractions as employees. What if the religion in question makes it far less likely that the employees who believe in it will show up for work drunk, and then mishandle dangerous machinery or insult important customers or colleagues, perhaps in other countries over the telephone? No, daft as I think religious beliefs to be, it makes a lot of sense to me that a company might want to make it extremely easy for their workers to be religious. But my point here is: this is a decision that individual firms should be allowed to make for themselves. And while we are about it, individual firms should be allowed to be as prejudiced as they like either in favour of or against a particular religion, or religions generally.
In short, my reaction to proposals like these ones from the CRE is to frame this as an argument about freedom versus compulsion. Yes, it might well make sense for a business to have a prayer room, but no, it should most definitely not be compulsory for all businesses to have prayer rooms if they do not see any need for one, or simply do not want one, think that they cannot afford on, … whatever.
The trouble with the Mike Dickin line of argument is that it turns this into an argument which at least sounds like one about which kind of compulsion to have. It also turns the argument into a political beauty contest which the Mike Dickin tendency is going to lose. After all, Mike Dickin is the one who is now insulting other people’s beliefs, and the Commission for Racial Equality is, approximately speaking, sticking up for their version of religious freedom.
So it is that the Mike Dickin argument is all too liable to snatch defeat from the jaws of what could and should have been a victory. It is bad enough that the opponents of freedom try relentlessly to paint the freedom argument as an argument in favour of different (and unappealing) compulsions, and to say that those who favour freedom have insulting opinions about whoever or whatever (Europe is a classic example of this syndrome) is supposedly being helped by the compulsions being proposed. It is especially depressing when the opponents of the compulsions being proposed collude with the compulsion tendency, and fall right into the trap that is being set for them by themselves proposing (or at the very least implying) compulsions of their own, and launching insults at third, fourth, tenth and twentieth parties who have yet to make up their minds.