Legal protection for irrationality

November 5, 2009 at 8:11 pm (climate change, Jim D, religion) ()

This week’s Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling in the case of Grainger Plc & Others v Mr T Nicholson is surely a landmark decision.

Mr Justice Burton decided that, “A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.” 

While it was good to see Mr Nicholson (who claims he was selected for redundancy because of his environmentalist views regarding man-made climate change) win the right to bring his claim to an Employment Tribunal, using the 2003 regulations, the ruling opens up some bizarre possibilities. As one legal expert told the Guardian: “It’s a great decision. Why should it only be religions which are protected?” Why, indeed? The problem is that the way the 2003 Regulations are worded is, in fact a recipe for irrationality, dogmatism and superstition. Protection can only be granted to religions and (now) beliefs that are founded upon a similarly irrational basis.

In his written judgement Mr Justice Burton outlined five tests to determine whether a philosophical belief could recieve protection under the 2003 Regulations:

1/ The belief must be genuinely held.

2/ It must be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available.

3/ It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life.

4/ It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

5/ It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Humanism was cited as an example meeting the criteria, while belief in a political party or Jedi knights, apparently, do not. But why? As has been pointed out in some letters to the Graun today, this ruling creates an “epistemological nightmare”, encouraging dogmatism and (see especially point 2 above) irrationality.

I fail to see how points 3 and 5 can be consistently or objectively applied or how (for instance) members of the BNP or Hizb ut Tahrir can be denied legal protection for their beliefs as a result of this ruling.

Mr Nicholson’s environmentalist views may be admirable, and his selection for redundancy by nasty property developers, unfair (that last matter will now be decided by an Employment Tribunal), but this decision is a nonsense. It’s true that it never made any sense to give religion protection under the 2003 Regulations, while denying protection to political and philosophical beliefs. This ruling has ironed out that inconsistency, but in doing so exposed the 2003 Regulations as ridiculous, irrational nonsense . They were, of course originally motivated by New Labour’s desire to appease religious fundamentalists who were campaigning to get religion placed on a par with race in the eyes of the law and society as a whole.

There is only one way out of this “epistemological nightmare”: get rid of the Religion and Belief Regulations altogether.


  1. Matt said,

    My reaction on hearing this news on TV was the same: it demeans the scientific evidence for climate change to have it bracketed with the irrational religious beliefs protected by this legislation.

    My view wasn’t changed by the Christian woman who came on stamping her feet saying ‘this is our law, how dare he use it’ but I did enjoy her petulant performance.

    I think the law was at least partly motivated by pressure within New Labour to combat ‘Islamophobia’ (in fact anti-Asian racism which is already unlawful of course). Unsurprisingly, however, mad Christians saw it as a chance to assert their now ‘legal right’ to wear large crosses or discriminate against same-sex couples at work.

    It’s the same as when some Muslims argued for extending the blasphemy law to Islam when Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ was published in the late 80’s: the only answer as Jim says is to scrap the whole thing – now achieved in the case of blashemy, thank God -:).

  2. voltairespriest said,

    I agree that the regs need to be dropped – it’s ludicrous to give legal protection to “beliefs”. That having been said, I think it’s important to note that man-made climate change is a scientific fact and not a belief.

  3. Rosie said,

    Good piece by Catherine Bennett.

    it seems likely that his achievement in getting climate change classified with the supernatural will do more planetary damage even than a 6,000-mile trip in a 50-year-old Morris Oxford. Some wonder if St Tim has not been possessed by the spirit of Christopher Monckton. For short of the collective apostasy of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is hard to imagine a more rewarding episode for sceptics who have always said that environmentalism is a matter of faith, not facts. For them, the most effective way of discrediting the movement is to depict it as an alliance of gullible consumers and doomy, secular preachers, who rant about sin, self-scourging and the apocalypse because they can’t produce any evidence. Disparaging analogies with religion, implying that it has no science worth challenging, have followed the movement almost since it began, finding their most elegant expression in a well-known speech made by the late Michael Crichton. “Environmentalism is the religion of choice for urban atheists,” he said in 2003. “Increasingly it seems facts aren’t necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief.”

    But even without Nicholson, this dismal outcome was predictable once the Labour government had chosen to enhance the place of religious faith in public life, instead of making a stand for secularism. Once it had encouraged religious people to believe that workplaces should take account of their myriad spiritualities, it had, in spirit of fairness, to extend a similar right to cause mischief to people who strongly believe in non-religious stuff.

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