Atheists and Religious Garb

September 16, 2009

Some government officials in France, a self-proclaimed secular state, have called for a ban on the burqa, the head-to-toe garment worn by some Islamic women. Not only did President Sarkozy state in July that the burqa was not welcome in France, but recently one of his ministers, Fadela Amara, called for a complete ban on the burqa, arguing that the garment both constitutes and represents oppression of women. Hearings are being held on this issue.

This debate reminded me of the internal discussions we had at CFI when we recently revised our mission statement to state explicitly that CFI aims "to foster a secular society." Some thought this wording would be perceived as anti-religious, in the sense that we want to eliminate all public expression of religious beliefs.

No, that's not what we want or mean. A secular society is perfectly compatible with the free exercise of religion. A secular society shows equal respect for the religious and the nonreligious. Moreover --and this is my personal view, not necessarily CFI's position --we should not ban the burqa or any religious garb (except for safety concerns or similar reasons).

I understand that the burqa, the hijab, and other special garments for women are often imposed on women against their will and to a certain extent represent the view that women are lesser beings, who should not have the same rights to participate in society as men. Nonetheless, some women, especially in Western countries, voluntarily don these outfits.

And if we ban the burqa or hijab, how about habits for nuns, seventeenth century clothing for the Amish, monks' robes, bow ties for Black Muslims, or the black hats and untrimmed side curls of Hassidic Jews?

I say let the different religious groups wear their costumes if they want. If they want to look silly because they think Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, or whoever wants them to wear distinctive clothing, that's fine with me. Among other things it makes religious fundamentalists easier to spot.

Moreover, it underscores one major advantage to being nonreligious. We have no dress code.