Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order

  Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Religious Offences Bill.

  1.  We would very strongly support the proposal to abolish the offence of blasphemy. We would argue that in an open society, religious ideas should be subject to the same scrutiny and debate as any other idea. Peoples' religious beliefs are precious to them, but from the point of view of Buddhism, they have a purpose, and they have a test to meet: are these ideas true, and are they spiritually effective? The ideas and beliefs of religion need be examined through philosophical debate, in art and literature, in individual practice and in the ordinary discourse of society. Traditionally Buddhism has always engaged in rigorous, tolerant debate with other religions in the cultures in which it has been practised. Whether or not an argument causes offence is not a sufficient test of whether or not it is true. A famous Zen Buddhist aphorism says: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him". Such a statement is meant to be shocking to the devout Buddhist, but its intention is serious, to challenge any lapse into mere dogmatic belief, and to encourage the receptive, inquiring attitude into truth of that Buddhism considers to be the foundation of spiritual experience. It is sometimes precisely where beliefs are most passionately held that they need to be most rigorously examined. Buddhism applies the same test to itself. The Buddha said that his words should be tested as a goldsmith uses fire to test gold. The special protection afforded religious ideas by the blasphemy laws, we believe, are not helpful or appropriate in an open, pluralistic society.

  2.  We are sympathetic to the circumstances that have led Lord Avebury to ask whether incitement to religious hatred should be made an offence, and we are aware that some faith communities might feel a need for a more explicit protection by the law.

  Our concerns with such a proposal would be similar to our objections to the blasphemy law. We would be very concerned if the effect of any legislation even inadvertently inhibited the legitimate debate and discussion of religious beliefs. Some famous examples of recent artistic/religious controversy come to mind, the relatively innocuous "Life of Brian" by the Monty Python team; Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Serrano's Piss Christ, (a serious piece bringing together an image of Jesus and the artist's urine, the spiritual and the physical, in a way that some Christians found shocking). We would be concerned if such intelligent but controversial explorations of belief, and the emotions of faith, were made more problematic, or more vulnerable, by new legislation.

  We would completely support the protection of faith communities from hatred and violence. If it is possible to do that within the powers of existing legislation, we believe that would be preferable. If it is judged to be necessary to introduce new legislation, we believe it is important to include the safeguards that would allow the widest possible freedom of expression and debate.

8 July 2002

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