1. Skip to content

Trevor Phillips’ thoughtless intervention on religious discrimination

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, headed by Trevor Phillips, has issued a report on religious discrimination (Religious Discrimination in Britain ) which struggles hard to find evidence for any large-scale discrimination on religious grounds.

Trevor Phillips

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, headed by Trevor Phillips, has issued a report on religious discrimination (Religious Discrimination in Britain ) which struggles hard to find evidence for any large-scale discrimination on religious grounds.

Even though it manages to extend to 105 pages it fails to convince us that religious discrimination is a big problem in this country.

The report was commissioned from Paul Weller, Professor of the Inter-Religious Relations Society, Society Religion and Belief Research Group at theUniversity of Derby(sic) whose methods the NSS has criticised before.

Professor Weller is very much of the opinion that more research is required in this area and more reports need to be written. He needs to prove that religious discrimination is a major problem. Does that mean he’ll have to keep pushing the sort of biased questionnaire we criticised previously?

Launching the report, Trevor Phillips gave an interview to the Sunday Telegraph in which he contradicted himself several times, gave mixed messages which left everyone thoroughly confused and, in some cases, deeply insulted (suggesting, for instance, that all afro-Caribbean Christians are homophobes).

He says: “The thing I’ve become anxious about in recent times is this – there is certainly a feeling amongst some people of belief that they are under siege, that they are often disadvantaged, that they are looked at and considered in some way different and their faith makes them less worthy of regard,” he said.

“There is a view that says religion is a private matter and it’s entirely a choice. I think that’s entirely not right. Faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual. It is a fundamental part of what makes some societies better than others in my view.

“I understand why a lot of people in faith groups feel a bit under siege. They’re in a world where there are a lot of very clever people who have a lot of access to the airwaves and write endlessly in the newspapers knocking religion and mocking God. The people who want to drive religion underground are much more active, much more vocal. There is no doubt there’s quite a lot of intolerance towards people of faith and towards belief. There’s a great deal of polemic which is anti-religious, which is quite fashionable. People can sometimes think we’re part of that fashionable mocking and knocking brigade. We’re not that.”

So, are we to take from this that Trevor Phillips thinks religion is beyond criticism? That it is wrong to disagree and argue with what are, sometimes, ridiculous religious claims? Is it wrong to criticise believers who behave intolerantly towards others just because they say they are doing it from religious motivation?

Mr Phillips hasn’t thought this through. His opinions are confused because later he goes on to criticise those evangelical Christians who are presently bringing one court case after another claiming discrimination where there is none. He says, quite rightly, that they are not doing this to defend against discrimination but to gain political influence.

The NSS has been telling him this for the past decade.

Mr Phillips also says: “Our business is defending the believer. The law we’re here to implement recognises that a religious or belief identity is, for the majority of people inBritain, an essential element of being a fulfilled human being and plays an important part in our society. Religion or belief is as much part of our identity as other characteristics such as race, gender, or being a parent. People should not be penalised or treated in a discriminatory way because of it.”

Where does Mr Phillips get the idea that “religious or belief identity is, for the majority of people inBritain, an essential element of being a human being”? A survey for the Home Office showed that Britons regard religion as only the ninth most important aspect of their life (out of ten). Everyday lived experience should tell him that what he is saying is a load of tosh. And the idea that those who don’t have a religious faith are somehow “not fully human” is a gross insult.

We agree that his job is to defend the believer. The individual believer. We don’t want to see individuals being treated unfairly because they belong to a particular religion (or because they don’t have a religion).

But it is not his job to defend their beliefs or protect them from being questioned, criticised and even mocked.

Where has Mr Phillips been during the endless arguments about religious threats to freedom of expression over the past decade? He seems to have missed them and is taking us right back to the beginning with his ill-considered pronouncements.

If someone is sacked simply because they belong to a particular religion, then the NSS will defend their rights. If they are sacked because they claim their religious beliefs will not permit them to carry out their duties in their entirety, to the detriment of others, then we will oppose them.

If this is the best Trevor Phillips and Professor Weller can come up with, then perhaps it is time they both considered their positions.

See also: Trevor Phillips champions equality by saying all black Christians are homophobes and non-believers are unfulfilled