The Social Equality of Religion or Belief

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Alan Carling
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , March
     279 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his introduction, Alan Carling clearly states that this volume is not a work of advocacy for the social equality of religion and belief that is currently found in much legislation. Rather, the work is intended to critically debate the legislation and conceptualisation which underlies notions of how, as a human right, religious and other belief systems may be seen to be on a par with other rights. Like many edited works The Social Equality of Religion or Belief is patchy in terms of the overall quality of chapters, but taken as a whole, it is a welcome and commendable addition to the literature and theorization of the role and place of religion in the public sphere.

This book consists of fourteen chapters in three sections along with an extremely substantial introduction by the editor. The first of the three sections is “Religion, Equality and the Law” which looks at the way religious equality is built into various legal and political systems. It includes, for instance, a discussion of the way in which the US and Europe have framed these debates somewhat differently, and the way the Scottish Parliament has used the notion of “proportionality” to decide which traditions are included in prayers within that legislative assembly. Part 2 is “Religious Identity Amongst Others” and looks at issues including the way Muslims are included yet feel excluded from British culture, as well as the problem of addressing caste in diaspora Sikh communities. The final part, “Separation and Establishment” looks at the concordat between the Vatican and Brazil, and Canadian state neutrality amongst other issues. There is global coverage, though the UK is the most discussed legal system, and a significant range of legal and political matters are discussed, including some landmark legal cases. This certainly gives value to the book.

The introduction itself needs to be particularly mentioned: as well as framing the issue of social equality of freedom of religion and belief—which Carling argues is the most appropriate terminology to speak about the mainstream modern consensus for addressing this issue in Western jurisdictions—substantial summaries of the chapters are offered. With a fifty-page introduction, these summaries are not simply brief notes of what is in each chapter but often a major survey of the main arguments that the other authors put forward. Indeed, after reading the introduction, this reviewer found that reading some of the chapters afterwards seemed hardly worth-while—every major point had already been made here. This could be seen as a virtue in that simply by reading the introduction the reader already has a very good idea of all the major ideas and concepts in the book, and so it serves as a very admirable summary of key debates. However, as noted, it can make some chapters seem somewhat redundant, although it would also indicate to many readers whether they want to read more.

Another issue that might be picked up is that some chapters seemed rather thin treatments of issues that wanted more comprehensive discussion. Indeed, several chapters are simply potted versions of more substantial publications by the particular authors–which is noted at the beginning of the relevant chapters. More seriously, a number of chapters seem poorly researched, or be more journalistic than academic in nature. For instance, in discussing female genital mutilation it was stated, or strongly suggested, that this is a specifically Islamic practice—which is of course not the case—and in many parts of Africa is found more commonly amongst Christians than Muslims. Indeed, the authors of the chapters dealing with Islam seemed the worst offenders in these terms. One chapter sought to show that Muslims do not integrate well into Western societies, but in fact, seemed to primarily rely on social surveys, suggesting that a significant number of non-Muslims in those countries held this perception, rather than actually looking at the attitudes or practices of the Muslim community themselves. Again, when discussing Islam, the distinction made was between people who believed in the “equality agenda” and “true believers” (134), suggesting that committed Muslims could not see others as equals. That this is presented as a specifically Muslim issue ignores the fact that many Christians, amongst others, do not believe in equality in terms of gender or sexuality. The mysterious category of “true believers” seems to function as the author’s presumption of what Islam actually is, rather than particular interpretations of those traditions.

Overall, while there are some individually excellent chapters in this book, and Carling’s introduction provides a very comprehensive survey that many will find useful, this book is certainly not a definitive or entirely satisfactory survey of these issues. I would certainly commend it as a useful addition to the literature, but with the proviso that quality across the chapters is far from even and some fall below the standards that I would expect to see in academic research and writing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Hedges is associate professor of interreligious studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dr. Alan Carling, previously of the University of Bradford, UK.


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