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Attacking religion vs. attacking religious people?

When does freedom to criticise religion cross the line and become an impermissible attack on religious people? Three panellists answer audience questions about this issue.


Recorded 26 September 2020. Posted 23 March 2021.

Freedom of speech is vital for a free and democratic society.

However, speech can also be used to attack vulnerable people and at its worst can lay the foundations for genocide by asserting that some people are less human than others.

One challenging question is the boundary between:

This question is increasingly important in modern European and North American societies where many people now regard religious belief as an aberration.

The video below discusses that question.

How the video came about

I joined the Liberal Democrat Party in October 2019 during the general election campaign. Ever since, I have been expanding my connections within the Party.

On 8 January 2020 I received an email via my website (which deliberately makes it easy to contact me) from Toby Keynes, Chair, Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats. ("HSLD")

I have since joined HSLD, for the same reason that I joined the National Secular Society. See my quote for the NSS reproduced below.

"I joined the NSS because I believe in religious freedom and freedom from religion. I want Britain to be a forward-thinking, fair and rational place to live for everyone and for future generations."

Toby explained that he had tracked me down via the Lib Dem Muslim Forum. He was organising a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem Spring Conference scheduled for 14 March 2020 in York, and wanted me to speak at it.

I readily agreed. However, the entire Spring Conference was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fringe meeting eventually took place during the Lib Dem Annual Conference on 26 September 2020.

The entire conference was held online and the fringe meeting was recorded.

Recording "Criticising Religious Belief in a Hostile Environment"

Below I have reproduced the blurb from YouTube, embedded the 47-minute video for watching, and also produced a navigation guide to help you find particular segments in the future.


"In an environment of widespread hostility to some faith groups, especially Muslims, what criticism of religious institutions, beliefs and practices is acceptable?


Chaired by Christine Jardine MP

A Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrats event for Liberal Democrat Federal Conference 26 September 2020."

Video of Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrats event

Navigation guide

00:00 Christine commences the event by listing the speakers, being me, Rajin, and Pragna who at that time is trying to get online.

Christine asks the panellists present, me and Rajin, to introduce themselves which we do.

Toby also appears in the video as he was handling the technology.

Prepared remarks from the speakers

03:21 My prepared remarks. As well as watching the video, you can also read my prepared remarks lower down on this page.
07:28 Rajin’s prepared remarks.
14:23 Pragna’s self-introduction and prepared remarks.

Question and answer session

23:25 Christine recounts how she met Salman Rushdie shortly after the Satanic Verses controversy.

25:00 Two questions are taken together:

  1. How do we mitigate criticising some religious elements which are quite conservative towards women and women’s rights to wear what they want, such as the veil?
  2. What about religions which treat women as second class citizens? Surely we can criticise this?

All three speakers respond to the above questions.

25:28 Pragna
29:52 Rajin
33:06 Myself

35:46 Christine reads out a question and an observation.


The question is from Sally Burnell who is an RSPCA officer. (I assume that she is the same Sally Burnell who is mentioned on my website page “My petition to protect religious slaughter”.) The question is directed to me.

“You referred to criticism of shechita and halal slaughter as ‘atheistic bigotry’, but the science shows that slaughter without stunning causes animal welfare harm. For those of us who campaign on animal welfare but also respect the importance of religious freedom, how can we have an open conversation about these important issues?”


The observation is: “I think the biggest danger in all this is confusing criticising religion with criticising a culture that happens to be of a particular religion.”

36:43 I respond to the question.
37:43 Rajin responds to the observation.
40:40 Pragna responds to the observation.

44:00 Christine conveys the audience question “Given that the latest attack on Charlie Hebdo in France has brought issues of press freedom vs. offence back onto the agenda, what approach should Liberal Democrats take on this?”

44:28 My response.
44:36 Rajin’s response.
44:49 Pragna’s response.

45:40 Christine’s closing remarks.

My prepared remarks

I always speak from a written text, to ensure that I will fit within the allotted time. The text below has been checked against the video.

What criticism should be acceptable?

I want to cover what I regard as two key principles. Then I want to briefly cover what I call a boundary issue.

The first key principle

You are free to say what you want about a religion. If that upsets some people, that is their problem.

When it comes to freedom of speech, I totally support the first amendment to the United States Constitution, which I think sets it out better than anywhere. More strongly than even the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politeness is a test for you. I think it is childish to go out of your way to upset people. Let me give you an example.

Over the last decade, I’ve become a great friend of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have come to know many senior Mormons.

They know that I am a Muslim, and that I don’t believe in Mormonism. I know that they don’t believe in Islam.

Since both of us understand that, we don’t talk about the other’s religion being wrong. Instead, we celebrate the positive aspects of each other’s religion.

The second key principle

We should only intervene in the religious practices of other people if they cause demonstrable harm to third parties.

For example, if a religious group believes in human sacrifice, we should prevent that. We should prevent human sacrifice, even if the humans are volunteering to be sacrificed!

As a real-life example, although the law, quite rightly, does not force adult Jehovah’s Witnesses to have blood transfusions, the law does intervene where children are concerned.

Children cannot give consent by themselves, so the state will give consent on behalf of the child of a Jehovah’s Witness for a blood transfusion, overruling the religious wishes of the parents.

Similarly, female genital mutilation clearly causes tangible harm. That’s why it is banned. As an aside, I believe it is clearly wrong in Islam, although you get some Islamic scholars trying to justify it.

However, there’s no evidence that male circumcision is harmful. Indeed, all the evidence is that male circumcision is either neutral, or even positive in health terms, for example in reducing the likelihood of HIV infection.

Occasional attempts to ban male circumcision are a pure infringement of religious freedom as I see it. In my view, being blunt about it, they are motivated by atheistic bigotry.

The same goes for attempts to ban kosher and halal slaughter.

Now I want to turn to the boundary issue

To start with, [I want] to illustrate it from a different context. Some critics of Israel are not antisemites. Other people are antisemites but try to disguise their antisemitism in the language of criticising Israel.

In the same way, some people who are really anti-Muslim bigots trie to disguise their hatred of Muslims by wrapping it in the language of criticising Islam.

Now how do you distinguish this from genuine critiquing of the religion? The answer is — it all depends on the evidence.

You need to look at the whole of what this person says, how often they say it, what else they say, what else they do, and the company they keep.

Frankly, if someone can see nothing good in Islam, and keeps banging on about the sex life of the Prophet Muhammad, that person is almost certainly an anti-Muslim bigot.

And that is all I want to say at this stage. Thank you.

Other resources

See my website article "Criticising Islam as disguised anti-Muslim hatred" which discusses the same question with specific reference to Islam.


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