Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from The British Humanist Association


  1.1  The British Humanist Association (BHA) strongly supports the abolition of the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, and related religious offences that distinguish between church premises and/or consecrated areas and other places. The blasphemy law is anachronistic, uncertain, lacks credibility and, even in the absence of recent prosecutions, places unacceptable restrictions on free speech. Since it protects only one religion, it is also discriminatory, but the BHA would strongly oppose any extension of the law to protect other religions and beliefs, believing that this would constitute the severest restriction on discussion of matters of fundamental importance.

1.2  With appropriate safeguards and a strict definition of racial hatred which clearly differentiates between hatred of individuals and groups defined by their religious belief or lack of religious belief, and hatred of a religion or belief (as given in the Attorney General's draft guidance which was prepared in the context of the proposed Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001) the BHA supports the introduction of an offence of incitement to religious hatred. The law must be drafted in such a way that it does not inhibit legitimate and robust criticism of religious and non-religious beliefs.


  2.1  The BHA is the principal organisation representing the interests of the large and growing population of ethically concerned but non-religious people living in the UK. It exists to support and represent people who seek to live good and responsible lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. It is committed to human rights and democracy, and has a long history of active engagement in work for an open and inclusive society. The BHA welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Select Committee on Religious Offences on behalf of its members and supporters.

  2.2  The BHA's policies are informed by its members, who include eminent authorities in many fields, and by other specialists and experts who share humanist values and concerns. These include a Humanist Philosophers' Group, a body composed of academic philosophers whose purpose is to promote a critical, rational and humanist approach to public and ethical issues.

  2.3  The British Humanist Association is deeply committed to support for an open society, with individual freedom of belief and speech, and with the government and official bodies maintaining a disinterested impartiality towards the many groups within society so long as they conform to the minimum conventions of the society. While we seek to promote the Humanist life-stance as an alternative to (among others) religious beliefs, we do not seek any privilege in doing so but rely on the persuasiveness of our arguments and the attractiveness of our position.

  2.4  Correspondingly, while we recognise and respect the deep commitment of other people to religious and other non-Humanist views, we reject any claims they may make to privileged positions by virtue of their beliefs.

  2.5  We oppose the present privileged position of the Church of England and of Christianity in general. Despite the valued liberties and democratic rights enjoyed by people in the United Kingdom, and the rapid increase in the numbers of people with no Christian or other religious beliefs, our unwritten constitution remains a residual theocracy, with the establishment of the Church of England, the reserved places for bishops in the House of Lords, the privileged position of religion—and Christianity in particular—in the school system and curriculum, the law on blasphemy, and a long list of minor privileges.

  2.6  We deny that this privileged position of the Christian religion and of the Church of England in particular can be defended by extending similar privileges to a limited list of other religions.

  2.7  It is against this background of our beliefs about society that we approach Lord Avebury's Bill "To abolish the common law offence of blasphemy and certain other offences; and to create an offence of religious hatred", and the questions posed by the Select Committee on Religious Offences.


  3.1  As long ago as 1985, the Law Commission recommended abolishing the law on blasphemy and rejected its replacement by any new measure. The failure over so many years to implement this recommendation is deplorable.

  3.2  The BHA strongly supports abolition of the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, for the following reasons:

    3.2.1  The blasphemy law is contrary to the principle of free speech. The law, although now restricted by various safeguards, fundamentally protects certain beliefs and makes it illegal to question them or deny them. While it may be offensive to some Christian believers to hear their beliefs mocked or denied, that is equally true of people of other faiths, and of unbelievers, who repeatedly hear atheism equated with a lack of values or immorality. In an open and pluralist society there should be no inhibition to free speech without the very strongest justification, and robust debate should be expected and accepted in religious as in political and other spheres.

    3.2.2  The blasphemy law is uncertain. As common law, with a very limited number of cases, it is impossible to predict how the courts might interpret the law in any putative case. This is contrary to the principles of good law, and unacceptable in practice.

    3.2.3  The blasphemy law lacks credibility, having not been used by the public prosecutor since 1922 in England, and 1843 in Scotland, although it was resurrected in the private prosecution of Gay News and its editor, Denis Lemon, in 1976. Although no-one has been imprisoned for blasphemy since 1921 (Denis Lemon's nine month prison sentence was suspended and later lifted on appeal), and private prosecutions are no longer possible, the possibility of a prison sentence remains, and a law that is only enforced at intervals of many years is an indefensible lottery.

    3.2.4  The blasphemy law allows no defence of merit of lack of intent, which is contrary to the principles adopted in other areas, for example, obscenity.

    3.2.5  There is considerable evidence that the blasphemy law restricts free speech even in the absence of recent prosecutions. It undoubtedly influences the behaviour not only of individuals and the media, but also of bodies exercising official functions. A notable example of this is the British Board of Film Classification whose ban on Nigel Wingrove's video "Visions of Ecstasy" was based on the blasphemy law and was upheld on that basis by the European Court of Human Rights.

    3.2.6  The blasphemy law defends only Christianity (and principally the doctrines of the Church of England), which is unacceptable in a multi-faith community. Such unequal treatment naturally arouses resentment and demands for the privilege to be extended to other groups. The BHA would strongly oppose any extension of the blasphemy law to other religious beliefs, as has been demanded by some religions, or indeed to atheism or humanism. If such a law applied equally to the beliefs of all, it would constitute the severest restriction on discussion of fundamental matters of profound significance and interest. It is surely also relevant that some religions would almost certainly demand a far more rigorous application of the law than the Church of England has in recent years, as witnessed by demands for the prosecution of Salman Rushdie, and any extension to the law would inevitably lead to a number of test cases designed to test the boundaries.

    3.2.7  The blasphemy law protects beliefs, not people. It is right, subject to safeguards, for society through its laws to protect individuals and groups within it from hatred and attack. It is quite wrong to extend the protection of the law to propositions, creeds and truth-claims.

  3.3  The BHA believes that various other associated religious offences, notably those that distinguish between church premises and/or consecrated areas and other places, should be abolished at the same time. There is no justifiable reason, for example, for separate offences of disturbing religious service or religious devotions, or striking a person within a church or churchyard, which are adequately covered in other laws.


  4.1  The BHA would oppose any legal constraints on vigorous debate, including satire, mockery and derision, about beliefs and doctrines, religious or otherwise. We see a clear distinction between this and incitement to religious hatred, ie, hatred of individual persons on grounds of their religious or other beliefs. The distinction between beliefs and persons is fundamental.

  4.2  We accept that in an open and inclusive society the government has a duty to protect groups and individuals that are subject to hatred and violent attack. Incitement to violence is of course already illegal, but hatred stopping just short of violence is inimical to the values of a civilised society and the principles of reciprocal tolerance and cooperation, and can be devastating to the lives of individuals and communities.

  4.3  We see the recent campaigns by racist groups such as the British National Party, which attack Muslims as a surrogate and currently legal method of targeting their racial hatred, as justification for a suitable amendment of the law to protect their victims.

  4.4  Thus, the BHA accepts in principle the proposal for a new criminal offence of "incitement to religious hatred". The case for the law is reinforced by the inequity of the present state of the law, which anomalously protects Sikhs and Jews under the Race Relations Acts but offers no protection to other belief-groups.

  4.5  It is vital, however, that the new law is not drafted in such a way that it inhibits legitimate discussion and robust criticism of religious beliefs and practices. A badly drawn law about incitement to religious hatred could operate as a new and much wider blasphemy law, extending the same protection to all religions, including dangerous cults. On the other hand, if the law were confined to "the six major world religions" (in line with developing and objectionable official practice) it would offer the more established religions an unfair and unjustified privilege that would contravene the spirit and letter of the Human Rights Act, which outlaws official discrimination based on religion or belief.

  4.6  Not only are religious beliefs and practices highly controversial, they can be seriously damaging to the wider community as well as to their own adherents. Examples are the widespread subordination of women in the name of Islam, the worldwide frustration of birth control policies by the Roman Catholic church and other religions, and the condemnation of homosexuals by several religions. A poorly drafted law intended to protect individuals and groups from violent and abusive attack could extend to protecting from criticism the extremes of fundamentalist Islam, Judaism and Christianity and the irrationality of millennial sects.

  4.7  Religion is indeed often the vehicle for preaching hatred of other people—not least of unbelievers and gays, and not only by such extremists as Jerry Falwell in the wake of the tragedy of 11 September. Such preaching, and related religious doctrines, must remain open to fierce criticism.

  4.8  An analogy is often drawn between incitement to racial hatred and incitement to religious hatred, but there are vital differences between race and religion. A person's race is irrelevant to what sort of person they are, whereas religion can determine behaviour and attitudes. People can and do examine and repudiate or change their religious and other beliefs. In a free society, contentious beliefs and practices must be open to debate and criticism, and in the nature of free speech that must extend to what may be seen as unfair, ill-informed and extreme statements. Much that was seen as extreme criticism in the past is now widely accepted as true, and freedom of speech that extends only to that which no-one finds offensive is no freedom at all.

  4.9  The BHA emphasises these points because we wish to underline the importance of the safeguards suggested by the Government in their original attempt to legislate on incitement to religious hatred, and now by Lord Avebury in his present Bill. As we see them, these safeguards (as outlined in the Attorney General's draft guidance on the offence of incitement to religious hatred and its application to conduct comprising or involving the expression of legitimate religious beliefs, published under the proposed Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001) are:

    —  the requirement that the offending speech be threatening or abusive or insulting;

    —  the requirement that the person used the words with intent to stir up religious hatred;

    —  the requirement that "having regard to all the circumstances, hatred is likely to be stirred up against…a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief";

    —  the exclusion of putative offences committed in private dwellings; and

    —  the requirement for the Attorney General personally to consent to any prosecution as being in the public interest.

  4.10  We are disturbed at one detail of the Bill, namely that possession of "religiously inflammatory material" (to quote the Attorney General's draft guidance at Annex 1) will be an offence without any safeguard (see Annex 2) for possession for legitimate purposes of study, for example, the British Library holding a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

  4.11  Subject to these safeguards being included in the Bill, the BHA supports the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred.

18 June 2002

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