Philosophy of Religion and Religious Communities: Defining Beliefs and Symbols

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Philosophy


In recent years, a number of legal cases of religious discrimination concerning the wearing and exhibition of religious symbols have received widespread media coverage and engendered much debate among religious communities. At issue in these cases has been the strength of the relation between such symbols (crosses and crucifixes, niqabs, karas, chastity rings) and core religious beliefs. For example, Nadia Eweida failed to overturn her dismissal from British Airways for wearing a cross over her uniform, because the cross was not 'intimately linked' to being a Christian, whereas Sarika Watkins-Singh did successfully appeal her expulsion from school, because her kara (wristband), while not scripturally mandated, was of 'exceptional importance' to many British Sikhs.

In this scoping study, we propose to use the tools of philosophical analysis and knowledge of background debates in the philosophy of religion to understand and clarify this disputed relation between religious beliefs and symbols. Philosophy of religion is in the business of providing definitions of religions, beliefs, and symbols; it is therefore well-placed to contribute to this issue. Working alongside religious communities in the North-West and beyond, as well as legal practitioners and other academics interested in religious discrimination, we shall review the existing research and non-academic discourse on this problem from a distinctive, philosophical perspective.

Our orienting question in this study will be, 'When is it unacceptable discrimination to prohibit the wearing or exhibition of religion symbols?'. We shall approach this question from three angles: first, and most importantly, in terms of the views and arguments of religious communities themselves, who will contribute to the scoping study at a two-day collaborative workshop in May; secondly, in terms of the legal cases and the debate they have already given rise to in legal theory and the social sciences; finally, in terms of the unique contribution philosophical methodology can make. Through this threefold approach, we hope to begin to sketch a framework for understanding the relation between religious beliefs and symbols in cases of religious discrimination.

Planned Impact

The main non-academic beneficiaries of this scoping study will be the religious communities with which we work. Stakeholders from these communities will be invited to participate in the collaborative workshop and also to provide feedback on a draft discussion paper. They will thereby engage in a sustained dialogue with the question that orients our research ('When is it unacceptable discrimination to prohibit the wearing or exhibition of religion symbols?'). In short, they will be encouraged to reflect further on the relation between religious symbolism and belief.

A second group of beneficiaries will be legal practitioners with an interest in legislation concerning religious discrimination -- they will also participate in the collaborative workshop and provide feedback on a draft discussion paper. This is a crucial means of assisting those professionals working with religious communities on legal cases on a day-to-day basis with further knowledge and skills.

Finally, the third group of beneficiaries of our scoping study will be the members of the local community and VIth-formers to whom the findings of our research will be disseminated in accessible form through a series of blog posts. The blog posts will, we hope, lead to a higher level of reflection among the general public in the North-West on the issues surrounding religious discrimination.


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Description Focusing on cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights alleging violation of Article 9, we identify in our thorough examination of the literature two major features of the European Court's treatment of cases of religious discrimination:

1. We contend that since the case of Leyla Sahin v Turkey (1995, 1997), Strasbourg jurisprudence has displayed what we call 'the practical turn'. This we analyse as the turn away from seeing actions solely in the light of the antecedent beliefs that they manifest to seeing actions and the practices that they compose in their own right alongside beliefs. We see such a turn manifest in Dogru (2009), Jakóbski (2010)
and Kovalkovs (2012). Our work here goes
further than the leading interpretation
of this material in legal theory by Mark
Hill and Russell Sandberg, who identify
a general shift in jurisprudence without
putting their finger on the precise catalyst
for change (Hill and Sandberg 2007; Hill,
Sandberg and Doe 2011; Sandberg 2011).
We discuss three ways of articulating this

i) First, we draw attention to the
Government's 'Observations' (Foreign
and Commonwealth Office 2012) on
the Ladele, McFarlane, Eweida and
Chaplin cases which is, we suggest, the
first document to reconsider (however
partially) questions of religious
symbolism in the light of this practical
turn. The Government argues that the
notion of the 'generally recognised form'
of practices should take centre stage
in order to make actions as important
as beliefs in considerations of Article 9.
This use of 'generally recognised form'
has a curious history in Strasbourg
jurisprudence: it was not until 2001 in
Zaoui v Switzerland that the European
Court of Human Rights employs it
itself for the first time. Moreover,
there are a number of problems with
giving this concept such prominence
in deliberation on Article 9, including
the protection of emerging and lesserknown

ii) Secondly, we bring to bear philosophical
literature on the concept of the symbol
in order to narrate the development of a
theory of symbolism that pays attention
to uses of the symbol in their own right
as well as to how they refer to beliefs.
In particular, we survey the work of
Paul Ricoeur (1974), Tzvetan Todorov
(1982, 1983), Paul Tillich (1987) and Karl
Rahner (1996) to provide a multifaceted
understanding of the symbol which
can account for the theoretical
underpinnings of the practical turn.
We contextualise this understanding in
terms of the history of the development
of the symbol, paying especial attention
to German theorists of the Goethezeit
such as Kant, Schelling and Goethe

iii) A third possible understanding of the
practical turn would be to see it as a
move away from looking at actions as
they relate to high-level theoretical
belief systems, (such as religions) in
favour of looking at them as expressions
of individual, low-level practical beliefs
(such as the belief that one ought to,
or it would be good to, wear a religious
symbol of a particular kind). Such is the
beginning of a philosophical analysis of
the inescapable relation between use
of symbol and belief latent in the text
of Article 9 itself. We believe that this is
another example of what philosophy has
to offer to the study of contemporary
religious practice.

2. We also consider the much-vaunted
'necessity test' that Carolyn Evans (2001)
and other legal theorists (Cumper 2001,
Martinez-Torron 2001) have argued
governs Strasbourg jurisprudence: an
action counts as a manifestation of a belief
if and only if its performance is obligated
by that belief. We have found that pace
Evans no Strasbourg case supports her
understanding of the necessity test
(not even X v United Kingdom (1974), X v
Austria (1981), D v France (1983) or Khan v
United Kingdom (1986)) and some recent cases seem to go against it (Sahin (1995, 1997), Jakóbski (2010), Kovalkovs (2012)). Therefore, when it comes to the issue of manifestation we maintain that the necessity test is a myth; it is employed only as a test for interference. This is a key finding that is not to be found in any of the existing literature.
Exploitation Route Further research on points 1 and 3 is needed.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description At Network Rail's Professional Equalities Training for Workforce-Development Specialists in York in July 2012, a presenter at this meeting, who was also a religious-practitioner participant in the Religious Symbolism and Discrimination project, made substantial use of the findings of the project in both the oral presentation that he gave on religious symbolism in the workplace and also in printed material that he produced for the team members. His presentation on this component of equalities training was significantly altered through engaging with the research, and he was subsequently asked to join the Inter-Faith Network at Network Rail.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services