The problem of non-believers

The Muslim veil argument rumbles on, with some good articles in the Guardian (see e.g. David Edgar:,,1892543,00.html). However there are also some articles that confirm David Edgar’s view that some liberals’ tolerance is limited to what they approve of. Take the article by Catherine Bennett (,,1920279,00.html). Bennett’s main comparison is with the Victorian movement for dress reform, which complained about such irrational dress for women as corsets. This is certainly one argument against the niqab and burka; that its restrictions limit what women can do. The problem is, that if rationality in dress is the main thing, more British women ought to be going round wearing the shalwar kameez. (south Asian dress of loose trousers and long shirt). By any reckoning this is a far more practical and less restrictive garment than e.g. miniskirt and high heels, and if global warming continues, might prevent a lot of skin cancer cases.

Bennett’s discussion of Victorian views on dress lead her into her main point: the problem of false consciousness (though she doesn’t specifically use this phrase, the implication is clear):

In common with today’s critics of the veil, Gerrit Smith, his daughter Elizabeth and their fellow clothing reformers had to contend with the fact that most of the women constricted by laced-up whalebone and petticoats insisted that they wore their absurd skirts and corsets gladly, just as readily as they embraced dependency on men as their own free choice. Most women, Smith noted, “are content in their helplessness and poverty and destitution of rights. Nay, they are so deeply deluded, as to believe, that all this belongs to their natural and unavoidable lot”.

This, according to Bennett, is why religious restrictions on clothing must be rejected:

All this free choosing, according to Straw’s critics, we should accept, uncritically, at face value, because – here’s their trumping argument – what does freedom mean, if it doesn’t mean being free to oppress yourself? What does freedom mean if you can’t feel comfy in a niqab? Or happy to shave off your hair and wear a wig instead? Or comfortable – if you so choose – with footbinding? Or keen – if that’s what you want – to have a clitoridectomy?

As David Edgar wrote in this paper yesterday, true tolerance requires that we defend to the death people’s right to oppress themselves. In all kinds of unappealing, even – you might think – barbaric ways.

Bennett doesn’t make clear what she wants to do on these issues; I’ll take the generous view and presume that she doesn’t actually want wearing the niqab or sheitel (the wig worn by some married Othodox Jewish women) banned. [Footbinding and clitoridectomy are a) permanent procedures and b) normally performed on children, so these are very different issues]. If she wants to argue against them and try and convince women not to wear them, she’s free to. But it is patronising to assume that women in the UK who adopt religious restrictions or other behaviour seen as ‘oppressed’ by some liberals are necessarily doing it because they are deluded. For example, it seems to be the case that the niqab (which is rare in Britain) is being adopted by some young Muslim women as a deliberate religious statement (see e.g.,,1889871,00.html).

I think there is a problem here for some liberals (and particularly some ‘missionary atheists’); they possess no adequate framework for dealing with those who choose not to accept liberal views. The opposite of the Enlightenment must (by definition) be the unenlightened. If those who do not accept liberal views do not respond in the correct way when properly informed, they must either have particularly acute forms of false consciousness or be mad (or evil). It is noticeable how often the idea of ‘brainwashing’ comes up in discussions by atheists of child-raising by the religious, as if seeking to inculcate one’s beliefs and values into one’s child was not common practice by all parents. Many religions, of course, have a long tradition of poor treatment (and sometimes immense cruelty) to unbelievers. But, at least in Anglicanism, there is, I think, now an acceptance that people can reject religion without necessarily being evil or deluded. There needs to be some thought among liberals about how they (we) treat the non-believers in liberalism.


4 thoughts on “The problem of non-believers

  1. In July this year I wrote on this subject – note before the present polemic, more recently I wrote a blog entitled ‘veiled smiles’in which the reference to the earlier blog can be found.

    Whilst all sorts of clever sociological reasonings can be propounded, the bottom line at the end of the day is, that as with everything else, with all rights and that includes rights to tolerance, there are responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities are for 2-way sensitivity and for the ‘natives’ not to feel consrained in reasonable debate for fear of a heavy call of ‘foul’.


    • I am always very wary about the claim that with rights go ‘responsibilities’. It is too often used as an excuse to claim that only ‘nice’ people should have rights and that anyone we disapprove of shouldn’t have them. But let’s suppose for a moment that in order to have the right to be ‘tolerated’ (what does that mean – not to be physically or verbally attacked, not to be looked down upon?) members of minorities (ethnic or otherwise) have to behave ‘responsibly’. That still leaves a big problem. Who decides what is responsible behaviour?

      Do we, for example, decide that vegetarians (still a minority) should be allowed to expect a vegetarian option on menus, provided that they don’t go round saying ‘meat is murder’ (which many people feel distasteful)? Some people object to mixed-race marriages: should we say that people are allowed to do this as long as they make sure they don’t flaunt their offspring in public places? Should gays be allowed to have sex legally as long as they don’t hold hands in public? How do we decide at any point exactly what responsibilities any tolerated group should be expected to fulfil? A poll by the Sun? A government decree?

      I also think the idea of the ‘two-way street’ in sensitivity, however seductive the idea, is dubious in practice. The number of times I have chosen my costume so as to not to upset the sensibilities of a minority ethnic group is negligible; I presume the same is the case for you. On the other hand, those saying that women shouldn’t wear the veil are saying that every day they should ensure they dress so as not to upset the ethnic majority. What is two-way about that?

      You are right, however, that the veil can hamper communication. But lots of other things can as well. People who mutter, listen to music on headphones, those with strong accents etc. Is Jack Straw saying these people must change their behaviour as well? Does he ask people who slouch when in his surgery and address their remarks to their boots to sit up straight and try and talk properly? (I might actually support a Campaign aginst Muttering). If not, you start wondering whether this is partly prejudice. I think there was probably some over-reaction by Muslim groups to Jack Straw’s initial comments, but it hasn’t taken long for the discussion to gp beyond reasonable debate and bring out the British bigots. This confirms the worst fears that this is simply being used as another excuse to bash ‘lack of assimilation’. (Note that Jack Straw specifically mentioned that one of the women who came to see him talked with an entirely English accent).


  2. Your arguments are persuasive in an extreme kind of way but as a first generation Brit myself, I would be wary of accepting them as offered. You are no doubt attempting to play devil’s advocate. It is certainly deliberate as is much provocative behaviour.

    There is a backlash, whether you choose to admit it or not. It may be orchestrated by a bunch of suspect manipulators but it was ready to be sparked.

    I believe tolerance has its limitations, and in the current global climate, that point has been reached. We, the ordinary plebs have tip-toed through PC pitches to the point where a glance or a multi-definitioned word can be interpreted to suit many ‘foul communications; debate has been stifled as a consequence. Sure, our language has layers, nuances, many subtleties, that’s what makes it so rich. Do we now have to deny ourselves the ability to freely communicate in our own language because of our friends’ ethnic origins or their religious senses, or their family backgrounds, or their regional differences etc?

    Whether the various groups integrate or not (therein lies many fears) we have to learn to live together. Effective communication is just a start.


    • But the problem you come back to is, what should be the limits of tolerance, and who decides? My take on it is that, although I’ve lived in Britain all my life, I have seen extremely varied social mores (between rural and urban areas for example). I don’t think there is a single sense of what is acceptably British behaviour anymore.

      If you go simply by popular approval, for example, then homosexual acts might well still be illegal; there was no widespread public support for legalisation in the 1960s, it was a decision by a relatively liberal parliament. I don’t know what would happen today if there was a popular vote on whether Hassidic Jews should be allowed to wear their distinctive costumes. (In the 1930s, I suspect there’d have been strong opposition to that). If you decide that everyone can only wear clothes/behave in ways that the majority/’ordinary plebs’ approve of, then you can easily get back to mob rule. (I’ve just been reading about medieval claims that Jews carried out ritual killings of children or poisoned wells, so I’m feeling particularly conscious how minorities can easily be demonised).

      The argument for allowing wearing the veil is essentially a negative one: that people shouldn’t be banned from wearing what clothing they want. Your point (and Jack Straw’s) about it impeding communication is the strongest argument against it (which is why I don’t have a lot of sympathy with the recent case of the teaching assistant who may lose her job). But you get onto a very slippery slope if, as many people do, you start saying that people must assimilate or mustn’t wear anything that upsets someone or must only do what ‘everyone else’ thinks is OK. My analogies and arguments are trying to examine some of the principles behind the cases; if you think there are reasons why these analogies are not appropriate you’re welcome to suggest better ones.


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