Should there be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression?

16 08 2015

Last week, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion hosted by the Victoria University Religious Studies Department on the topic of whether there should be limits to absolute media freedom of expression.

Prof Paul Morris provided an opening statement. Joining me on the panel were Tayyaba Khan, Jenny Chalmers, Tom Scott, Selva Ramasami, and John Shaver.

Here’s what I had to say.

You can download the audio, or play it below.

I would like to begin my talk with a quote from Leviticus 19:18, containing what is one of the simplest yet most important commandments in the Torah: Love your neighbour as yourself.

The question posed tonight is: “Should there be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression?”

My short answer is “no”, other than the limits associated with existing legislation pertaining to defamation, incitement, and the like.

Why not?

We live in an increasingly diverse society. Religion is only one aspect of diversity. If you impose religious limits, you would have to consider imposing limits on other aspects, such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, political philosophy, and so on.

We can’t expect the rest of society to embrace, or sometimes even understand the same standards as we do. Example: The Third Commandment forbids us for taking the name of The Lord in vain. As Jews, uttering the name of God is very offensive. And yet, there is a significant quasi-Christian religious group whose very name incorporates this ineffable name of God. How can we manage this conflict? We can’t – It wouldn’t be right for me to demand that they change their name to God’s Witnesses or something else – it’s an integral part of their identity.

Freedom of expression is essential for the function of democracy. Allowing any authority (other than Parliament as interpreted by the courts) to determine the limits of freedom of expression would potentially be chilling, and the temptation for the authority to cross the line into political suppression could be irresistible. On balance, limiting freedom of expression would likely do more harm than good.

We are free to ignore offensive material, and when we can’t ignore it, we can brush it off. We’re adults. Sometimes we need to endure this pain for the greater good of society, and pray that the offenders might become more aware of the consequences of their actions.

So my short answer is, no, there should not be religious limits to absolute media freedom of expression.

But.

There is a longer answer. And that answer is that we’re asking the wrong questions.

The questions we should be asking are:

What self-restraint should the media exhibit when discussing religion and other personal beliefs?

and

As a society, how do we educate and encourage people to empathise with each other, so that they feel no desire to offend or hurt each other?

When I say “the media”, that’s just about everyone nowadays. Blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and other social media provide a virtual megaphone to anyone who can gather an audience.

It is emphatically wrong to deliberately seek to offend or hurt others.

It is emphatically wrong to ridicule people’s strongly held beliefs or practices.

It is emphatically wrong to drive a wedge between different religions and ethnic groups by saying or implying that they are unfit to live among the rest of society.

It is emphatically wrong to blame an entire religion or culture for the actions of a tiny minority of their members.

All of these things are terribly wrong, and completely unnecessary.

These things are wrong and unnecessary, but legislating against them would create more problems than it would solve for the reasons I discussed earlier.

Unfortunately, as a society, we have not evolved very far beyond the 17th Century European proclivity for burning cats for entertainment. Pain and humiliation gets people’s attention, and sells newspapers in an increasingly competitive market. Shocking people is a lot easier then providing intelligent analysis, easier to understand, and sells more.

I would like to close with two quotes from the Talmud:

From Baba Mezi’a 59a, R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: “Better had a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”

From Shabbat 31, quoting Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”

Thank you.




Religious Instruction in NZ state schools

15 02 2015

Should our children be taught Christianity (or any other specific religion) in state schools?

If this is of interest to you, read on…

I’ve been invited by David Hines to join the Secular Education Network’s mediation at the Human Rights Commission, in which they are lodging a complaint against the Ministry of Education in an attempt to remove Religious Instruction in state schools. The scheduled date for the mediation is Monday 23 February.

The objectives of this campaign are to:

  • Promote an inclusive school curriculum, which does not require any student to withdraw from class on account of different religious beliefs.
  • Cease the practice of volunteer-run religious instruction during school hours.
  • Treat all religious organisations who wish to use the school facilities outside of the school day with transparent and equitable policies.

The central problem is that Section 78 of the Education Act 1964 which allows state schools to provide up to 60 minutes of RI per week, so long as it’s approved by the Board of Trustees. Much of the demand and curriculum relate to Christianity. Side effects of this policy include children being separated from their peers (with the potential for exclusion and ridicule) on the basis of their religion, the denigration of non-Christian points of view in state schools which should be neutral, and the unfair use of public property and resources for prosylitising.

SEN isn’t against Religious Instruction, it’s just saying that the appropriate place for Religious Instruction is in the places of worship of the concerned communities, not in public schools which are attended by children with an increasingly wide variety of heritages. The SEN position is that it is appropriate for public schools to teach about world religions, but in an inclusive, neutral way that respects diversity, encourages children to express their own beliefs and develops empathy about the beliefs of others.

My own personal perspective can be briefly summarised as: One of the main reasons we’ve sent our three children to state schools is so that they didn’t have to endure Religious Instruction at school, or any of the “alternatives activities” that might single them out for differentiation.

Although I’m not a member of SEN, I’ve been asked to provide a Jewish perspective at the mediation, but I’d be really interested in perspectives from others.

If you would like me to reflect your opinion at the mediation, please comment below, or drop me a line.  If you’re doing the latter, let me know if I can use your name at the HRC mediation.

Thanks in advance for your consideration, and helping Aotearoa/NZ become a more inclusive society.




Religion and science need not be at loggerheads

11 03 2013

Today is Commonwealth Day, which celebrates the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations whose values as expressed by the Commonwealth Charter include the promotion of democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance respect and understanding, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health eduction food and shelter, gender equality, recognition of the importance of young people, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states, and the role of civil society.

Commonwealth Day is marked across the Commonwealth with multifaith services.  In the UK, these take place at Westminster Abbey and are attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In New Zealand these services take place at the Anglican Cathedral in Wellington, and are attended by the Governor General, His Excellency Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae and commonwealth high commissioners, ambassadors as well as other dignitaries.

This year’s theme is Opportunity through Enterprise: unlocking potential with innovation and excellence. I was invited to speak representing New Zealand’s Jewish Community, and was allocated two minutes to do so. Here is what I said:


These days, in our high-tech world, it is unfashionable to be a religious person. The cool kids compare God to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or mockingly proclaim their religion as “Jedi” on the census form. They prefer to worship science.

The scientific method is arguably the most important development in human civilisation in the last 500 years. The cycle of hypothesis – experiment – analysis – conclusion has enabled ever accelerating expansion of the limits of knowledge and capabilities of the human species. But while science is the perfect descriptive tool and has strong application in predictive modelling, it is limited by our ability to perceive, measure, and imagine. Ignoring these limitations, unquestioning adherence to science amounts to worship.

Sam Arbesman in his recent book “The Half Life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date” describes how this ever accelerating knowledge leads us to discard yesterday’s scientific facts as today’s historical curiosity. Knowledge, as such, is inherently uncertain.

Science can tell us within its limits, to great precision, of the way things are, but is silent on the way things should be. Enter religion. The religious values of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “welcome the stranger” and “we are each created in the likeness of the Divine” provide a moral compass for how we should lead our lives. And as with science, we should continually and progressively question these values and the institutions that gave rise to them to ensure their validity and continued relevance.

Science and religion need not be at loggerheads. In fact, it is at the intersection of increasing knowledge and moral imperative where we find the most interesting opportunities for enterprise, particularly in the world of high-tech startups.

Collaborative consumption, democratisation through increased direct communication, reputation metrics, crowdsourced information repositories, and open education are all important Internet startup trends for this coming year, and all of them are creating value driven by bringing people together to do good together, as well as holding individuals and institutions accountable for their positive and negative contributions to society. And the further development of social enterprise holds promise for us to transcend the profit motive for the greater good of society and the planet.

We can be optimistic about our future. With average intelligence rising by 3.5% per decade, the global death rates due to violence and malnutrition at historical lows and falling, global life expectancy at an all time high and rising, we seem to be increasingly capable as a species of doing the right thing, improving ourselves and those around us.

So let’s work together to encourage, empower, and lend our moral compass to the next wave of entrepreneurs who will continue to make our world a better place.







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