Green religion on the march

Interesting development!

Last week a UK High Court gave the green light for a green activist to sue his employer, who had sacked him for refusing to do an errand because it conflicted with his green beliefs. For intellectual ballast, the judge quoted no less or, should I say, no more? than Bertrand Russells A History of Western Philosophy, a work whose authoritativeness matches that of Bill Brysons A Short History of Everything in the history of science discipline. But thats not really my point.

My point is to draw attention to the five criteria that the judge offered to expand the definition of religious discrimination that may be invoked by others in the future in similar cases:

The belief must be genuinely held.

It must be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available.

It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life.

It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Humanism was given as an example meeting the criteria, while belief in a political party or the supreme nature of Jedi knights, from the Star Wars movies, were offered as ones that do not.

The general response to this ruling has been positive, with some lawyers seeing it as opening the door to the re-classification of stances like feminism, humanism and vegetarianism as protected religious beliefs. Even New Atheism might count!

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14 years ago

The requirement that it be a belief and not an opinion or view based on the present state of information available could have the strange consequence that if information subsequently becomes available that supports the belief, then the anti-discrimination protection could be lost.

Ken Parish
14 years ago

The litigant in question here certainly hasn’t done the environmental movement any favours. You can see where he was coming from in a purely self-interested, pragmatic sense, however. Discrimination on the basis of religion is proscribed in many countries including Australia, and for obvious and sound reasons in my view, whereas discrimination on the basis of adherence to a particular set of scientific or even ethical beliefs isn’t.

However, the fact that religious belief is protected in that way creates a perverse incentive to rebadge as “religion” beliefs/opinions that clearly aren’t religious at all, although they may encompass strong moral or ethical elements.

I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who self-identify as environmentalists would insist that their beliefs are evidence-based rather than faith-based (the UK judge’s second dot point). Similarly with humanism and probably feminism; I’m not so sure about vegetarianism. Thus this litigant, if sincere, is part of a tiny minority who see environnmental beliefs as grounded in religion/faith rather than science/evidence. Should that make a difference to whether the litigant’s beliefs are classified for legal purposes as religion? I suggest the answer must be in the affirmative, otherwise the word “religion” loses all meaning and coherence.

However, strong environmentalists seem to diverge from mainstream pragmatism through application of a significantly stronger form of the Precautionary Principle than many people would regard as workable. There may well come a point at which positing a sufficiently high evidentiary hurdle that any new development must clear before being deemed to have satisfied the Precautionary Principle would make environmentalism of itself a thinly disguised religious belief system, in that the hypothesis that serious environmental harm may result from any developmental change is practically unfalsifiable.

The UK judge’s formulation of religion does not appear to require that most of the adherents to a particular belief system see it as a religion, or indeed even see its beliefs as faith rather evidence-based. Positing any general definition of religion is fraught with difficulty, but Justices Wilson and Deane attempted it in Church of the New Faith v Commissioner for Payroll Tax (Victoria) (the Scientology case) (1983) 154 CLR 120, where they proposed a 5 part test which IMO is more satifactory than the one proposed by the UK judge:

1. belief in the supernatural;
2. ideas relating to man’s nature and place in the universe;
3. acceptance of these ideas and their implementation by requiring adherents to observe particular standards of conduct or participate in specific practices having supernatural significance;
4. a requirement that adherents constitute an identifiable group or groups;
5. That the adherents themselves see the collection of ideas and practices as being a religion.

Note that the UK litigant’s claim that his environmental beliefs constitute a religion would not survive the test of Wilson and Deane JJ.

Incidentally, some High Court Justices already seemingly accept that atheism may be a belief system protected by the constitutional freedom enshrined in s116 of Australia’s Constitution, even though it would seemingly not meet Wilson and Deane JJ’s test in the Scientology case. In Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) 190 CLR 1 Gummow J said:

Action in pursuance of a particular religious belief that is both monotheistic and eager to proselytise may conflict impermissibly with toleration both of religion and of an absence of religion.

14 years ago

Greens may find that being a religion isn’t all to their advantage.

For a start in the USA, people would now have grounds for preventing all government support for environmentalism.

Secondly, and more generally, public acceptance of environmentalism as a religion is sure to drive a wedge between people who like trees, but are strongly Christian (for example) and any more religious greens.

Lastly, the ever present distaste and contempt for all religions that is present in some parts of society (and the media) will now either become opposed to Engironmentalism (previously a natural ally of such groups) or compromise their stance to make it more explicitly anti-SOME-religions (which weakens their case).

14 years ago


Sanitarium advises that:

The Company pays all local, state and federal taxes that apply to Australian companies apart from company profit tax. [[[.]

There is no commercial advantage to Sanitarium from its taxation status. An unlimited tax deduction is available to all companies and individuals in Australia that donate their income to an approved charity.

Sanitarium Health Food Company is 100% Australian owned and operated, all profits stay in Australia.

So you’d prefer a portion of the cost of your breakfasts to go to a Swiss multinational noted for trying to stamp out the breastfeeding of infants in the developing world, rather than to an Australian charitable organisation?

Strange choice, but it’s a free world I guess.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago


As I understand it, the tribunal judge did not conclude that environmentalism was a religion. He concluded that Mr Nicholsons belief in climate change was one that was protected by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

According to the regulations, “religion or belief” means any religion, religious belief, or similar philosophical belief.

While there’s been some uncertainty about what counts as a philosophical belief but at least one government agency advises employers that “belief could cover things like atheism and humanism.

It seems to me that some forms of environmentalism could be similar religious beliefs in ways that might be relevant.

If your beliefs were nothing more than a scientifically informed opinion that the current level CO2 emissions generated by human activity was likely to cause damaging or catastrophic climate change, then you have “an opinion or view based on the present state of information available” and no case.

For it to count as a philosophical belief which is similar to a religious belief you need something more.

Having a set of rituals and moral prohibitions attached to your opinions is one way to make environmentalism similar to religion.

Just as it’s possible for a rational person to believe that smoking leads to lung cancer and, at the same time light up one more cigarette, it’s possible for a rational person to believe in human-caused climate change and still take a plane trip to pick up their boss’s Blackberry. (One more body on a plane going to flood Bangladesh, all it will do is make your decision a small part of the cause if it happens.)

But if you argue that taking a flight (eating beef, throwing glass bottles in the trash etc) is incompatible with your identity as a practicing environmentalist then isn’t there a similarity? You are saying that your environmental beliefs (your moral beliefs not just your empirical beliefs) prohibit you from performing certain kinds of actions.

A Jew, Buddhist or Hindu isn’t required to show that eating a bacon sandwich will injure them or the planet in some material way. All they have to show is that it’s incompatible with being a good Jew, Buddhist or Hindu.

If the regulations go out of their way to include philosophical beliefs that are not religions, how can you prevent an environmentalist from making the same argument?

I think your problem is with the regulations not the judge’s decision.

Ken Parish
14 years ago


You’re right that I didn’t tease out each step of my argument, however I don’t think my disagreement is with the regulations rather than the court’s judgment. Both linguistically and as a matter of statutory interpretation the task in considering what sort of belief systems are protected under the UK regime is to ask what sorts of philosophical beliefs are sufficiently “similar” to religion and religious beliefs.

What qualities do they share? I was implicitly asserting that it’s the quality of being faith-based rather than evidence-based. That isn’t really a controversial statement, at least about Christian religions. Theologians from Aquinas through Luther and Calvin and even latter day subtle Jesuits like Karl Rahner base religious belief in faith rather than scientific proof.

OTO at least on Popperian and similar views, science is based on falsifiability and scientific method. Of course, there are other views about the nature and methods of science and religion suggesting that the gulf isn’t anywhere near as large as that formulation suggests. I found a neat little summary on Wikipedia that you’ll no doubt drive a truck through as a philosopher, but I found it interesting:

Many language philosophers (e.g., Ludwig Wittgenstein) and religious existentialists (e.g., those who ascribe to neo-orthodoxy) accepted Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne’s type II categorization of Independence. On the other hand, many philosophers of science have thought otherwise. Thomas S. Kuhn asserted that science is made up of paradigms that arise from cultural traditions, which is similar to the secular perspective on religion. Michael Polanyi asserted that it is merely a commitment to universality that protects against subjectivity and has nothing at all to do with personal detachment as found in many conceptions of the scientific method. Polanyi further asserted that all knowledge is personal and therefore the scientist must be performing a very personal if not necessarily subjective role when doing science. Polanyi added that the scientist often merely follows intuitions of “intellectual beauty, symmetry, and ’empirical agreement'”. Polanyi held that science requires moral commitments similar to those found in religion. Two physicists Charles A. Coulson and Harold K. Schilling both claimed that “the methods of science and religion have much in common.” Schilling asserted that both fieldsscience and religionhave “a threefold structureof experience, theoretical interpretation, and practical application.” Coulson asserted that science, like religion, “advances by creative imagination” and not by “mere collecting of facts,” while stating that religion should and does “involve critical reflection on experience not unlike that which goes on in science.” Religious language and scientific language also show parallels (cf. Rhetoric of science).

Thus there are some parallels between science and religion, and there may be even more between religion and a concept like “environmentalism”, which as I suggested might partake of some of the qualities of basis in faith depending on one’s approach to the Precautionary Principle. Moral principles are effectively elevated to a point where the evidentiary burden to falsify a disfavoured hypothesis is unachievable.

The same might even be true of atheism as a belief system. The unyielding anti-religious ferocity of scientific atheist proselytisers like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett has distinctly religious overtones in rhetorical and also seemingly psychological terms. These guys are True Disbelievers, qualities that are even more evident in non-scientific fellow travellers like the increasingly self-caricaturing journalistic thug Christopher Hitchens.

What sorts of philosophical belief systems would you classify as sufficiently “similar” to religious belief? What common elements make them similar?

Francis Xavier Holden
14 years ago

Reading a bit more about it – the objector guy was head of Sustainability for the real estate company – I presume this wasn’t financial sustainability.

So it seems to me that the request and the refusal carry a bit more weight than if I ask someone to chuck my e71 (Blackberrys are so try hard) in taxi and send it into the CBD and they jack up on green grounds.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago


If this judgement implied that a belief in anthropogenic climate was faith rather than evidence based, then it would be a very bad judgement.

No judgement should ever rely on this way of distinguishing between religious and non-religious beliefs. Judges should make it clear that they are not relying on this distinction.

The problem is where invoking this distinction leads.

Relying on the faith/evidence distinction risks placing courts and tribunals in a position where they have to rule whether a particular belief is so strongly supported by evidence and argument that it does not require an appeal to faith (imagine the headline: “Judge rules Jesus rose from dead!”).

In addition, it risks ruling that some religions are not, in fact, religions at all because their adherents believe that they are supported by evidence rather than faith.

Arguments about ‘scientific proof’ are a red herring. The choice is not between science or faith. Many beliefs are supported by evidence and argument without being ‘scientifically proven’.

Some fundamentalist Christians argue that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is supported by evidence and argument — so much evidence and argument that if a jury was required to decide whether Jesus rose from the dea, they would have no alternative but to say that he did.

These Christians reject the idea that their beliefs require some kind of direct revelation or act of will for support. Are they religious believers or not?

While it might be possible to distinguish between religious and non-religious beliefs there is no single quality that distinguishes one from the other. Since you mentioned Wittgenstein, I’ll appeal to his ideas about ‘family resemblance

Every religion has something in common with other religions but there is nothing all religions have in common.

One way for a philosophical belief to be similar to religious belief is for it to have consequences for the way adherents live their lives that go beyond prudence.

If you accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change this does not need to stop you from driving your car or flying in aircraft. You may decide that you don’t care what happens to poor people in small islands or to your neighbour’s grandchildren. That might be callous, but it’s not irrational.

On the other hand, imagine that you accept reality of anthropogenic climate change but believe (on the basis of evidence and argument) that governments and the majority of their citizens are highly unlikely to take effective action. As a result, no matter what you do, damaging climate change is going to take place.

But imagine also that you insist on cycling to work (in the wind and rain), refuse to fly, refuse to eat meat, and will crawl into a sleeping bag wearing five jumpers rather than turn the heater on in winter. Even though you believe climate change is inevitable, you do not want to be morally implicated when it happens.

Some religions have moral prohibitions that are not based on consequentialist reasoning. For example, prohibitions against certain kinds of food, certain sexual practices and against work on certain days of the week or times of year. These prohibitions do not need to be supported by the belief that violations will cause a wrathful god to punish us. It’s not about the precautionary principle.

I think it’s possible that some environmentalists could have prohibitions that are similar to these religious prohibitions. Practitioners would feel morally polluted when they violated the prohibitions. They would feel the need to cleanse themselves after transgressions.

In this case, a philosophical belief could be similar to a religious belief in a way that’s relevant to the intent of the UK regulations.

Joshua Gans
14 years ago

It’s time to go back to the drawing board, it seems to me.

The starting point is the recognition that: on the one hand, we live in a complex society with all manner of prohibitions and obligations — to the government, to employers, and to other parties we contract with; while, on the other hand, we have a diversity of ethical convictions. A workable social contract should allow each of us a bit of wriggle room where we have strong ethical convictions that conflict with those obligations, and even with some of the prohibitions. The ethical principles in question should be of a kind that is consistent with broader social values, or at least not promoting any demonstrable harm harm to other people.

A person who wanted an exemption could get a court order, which the relevant authority, employer, potential customer, etc., would be allowed to appeal. The judicial body would apply the following tests: Does the exemption really arise from a strong ethical conviction? Does the belief form part of a coherent philosophical system whose general thrust is in line with broader community values? Would the exemption expose the person (or his children) to some danger, or cause harm to some other part? In the case of employment, does the exemption prevent the employee from carrying out his or her core duties, or damage the firm’s busniess?

In Australia, the application of these tests should allow: a KFC employee or school student to wear a turban, a hospital worker to decline work on Sundays, an animal rights advocate to decline a Jobnetwork placement in a piggery, or a soldier to refuse an assignment to a war he or she regards as unhust. It wouldn’t allow: a man to take four wives, a parent to deny a child a blood transfusion, a school to teach ‘creation science’, or an abbatoir worker to be excused from harming anamals.

By framing the thing in terms of ethical principles and conscience, can’t we by-pass the question of religion altogether? Why does belief in the existence of a supernatural being need to play any part in the policy?

Ken, no doubt you can drive a juristic truck through that argument.

Ken Parish
14 years ago


I don’t have a problem with any of the examples you cite (on either side of the line)(though see postscript). It may be useful to take religion right out of the equation and focus on fundamental moral/ethical belief systems whatever they are grounded in.

However, on which side of the line would you place the situation that gave rise to this discussion in the first place i.e. an employee required by his boss to fly the boss’s Blackberry to Ireland by plane after the boss had forgotten it, the employee’s position being associated with “sustainability”? Clearly it’s a lawful direction at common law, and no doubt lack of access to his Blackberry was causing the boss some inconvenience. Whether one can say that the lack of the Blackberry was actually damaging the employer’s business is another matter. Somehow I doubt it. And yet my own reaction is that the employee should have followed the direction and the boss should have the right to sack him for refusing to do so. If the employee wants to embody best practice sustainability he should go and risk his own money and assets and start his own business.

Is there a clear conceptual difference between the employee’s objection to being somehow complicit in an air flight spewing greenhouse gases and another employee forbidden to wear a turban etc? I’m not sure, although the reality no doubt is that the flight in question was going to happen whether the employee was on board or not, so the connection between refusal and consequence is arguably less clear.

In more general terms, I’m a little wary of widening the categories of conscientious belief permitting refusal to carry out what would optherwise be lawful directions. In economic terms there is clearly a cost to reducing the capacity of entrepreneurs to run their businesses as they see fit. If taken too far we end up with an anarchic social state where little or no organised commercial or community activity is possible, because any crank or misfit who disagrees with it can trot off to a court and get an order exempting him/herself on the ground that his/her conscientious beliefs are being infringed.

PS On reflection, I don’t agree that a soldier should be able to refuse posting to a war he/she regards as unjust. If you join the armed forces voluntarily you are signing up to participate in a disciplined force that serves on the orders of the government of the day. If you’re not prepared to do so then don’t join the army in the first place. It may be otherwise for conscripts.

14 years ago

“I dont think religions should get tax exemptions, full stop.”


Any properly accounted-for work they do in the community which is both NOT prosyletising in nature, and NOT profitable, should be claimed as a deduction, but that’s it.

Joshua Gans
14 years ago

Ken, wouldn’t an honorable discharge be enough for the soldier?

As for the Balckberry affair, it forces me to consider how my (wonderfully sensible) principles can be applied to miriad unforeseen circumstances and emergencies rather than, say, duty statements.

14 years ago

I am not very comfortable with extensive protection for beliefs, at least in an employment context. I would completely agree that no-one should be sacked for a sincere socially acceptable religious belief (I would not, for example, extend much protection to people whose beliefs were inherently offensive, ie Nazis, Communists, Satanists, etc – maybe on a don’t ask don’t tell basis!). This would also clearly extend to protecting someone’s right to, eg, not eat pork (unless your job was food-tasting).

But I can’t imagine protecting either of Ken’s hypotheticals. I think that part of believing something is being willing to stand by that belief. If, to take Ken’s hypothetical, you really can’t physically bring yourself to fly the plane back to Ireland, then in all conscience all you can do is quit. But to protect your position in those circumstances seems to me tantamount to imposing your belief on your employer.

James, your comment on the blackberry example highlights the difficulty with the entire sphere of human rights law.

James’ hypotheticals, apart from the soldier, are a bit tougher for me than for Ken. I simply don’t know where to put the hospital worker and the jobnet person. The jobnet person is, after all, taking Caesar’s coin. They should pay Caesar his dues. One difference, perhaps, between a ‘belief system’ and a religion is that the latter can usually support its most needy adherents! (which as a dividing line would serve to entrench the status quo mmore than anything else, but it was a dividing line that worked for millenia)

The hospital worker again I don’t see as clearly deserving protection. For example I don’t believe that the founders of Goldman Sachs were protected from being sacked if they refused to work Saturdays. But they prospered all the same. I expect that most hospital workers could not do find gainful (and well-remunerated) work without any protection for their refusal to work particular hours.

As for the soldier, I am not sure that an honourable discharge is enough. There is nothing inherently honourable about refusing to obey orders.

NB, I prefer the French approach of treating Scientology as a fraud. I don’t say those first five words in that sequence very often.

PS: Jacques – why does that tax exemption bother you? Is a charitable donation tax-deductible and properly so in your view? If so why should a company that donates its entire taxable income to charity not receive a deduction? What if eg Nestle decided to donate its entire taxable income for 2009 to a worthy African charity?

14 years ago

I presume it’s out of politeness that everyone steps around the real purpose of religious taboos.

Jews don’t eat pork, and Muslims don’t eat pork, but if a Jew prepares Kosher food that contains no pork, this still is not Halal enough for a Muslim to eat. That’s because this game has nothing to do with pork and everything to do with ensuring that a Jew will never break bread in friendship with a Muslim. That’s the purpose of the ritual: to isolate one gang from another and foster an “us vs them” mentality. It is useful in warfare situations for each side to believe that the enemy is less than human, and that our side is superior. We do it, everyone does it, not because it’s nice, but because it’s a technique that works.

Jews make sure their holidays don’t precisely align with common Christian public holidays so everyone knows they are different. Muslims do the same thing, and in the middle of Ramadan an employer who has Muslim labourers on staff is faced with the difficult decision of whether to expect them to work 8 hours of exertion in hot and dry conditions despite them drinking no water whatsoever (which is downright dangerous) or whether to let them slack off a bit and throw the load onto other labourers (which is downright unfair). Particular Christian sects isolate themselves from other Christian sects by being more holy in some irrelevant way, just to prove their own importance. Then there’s dress regulations, prayer times, separate banking systems, maintenance of special linguistic distinctions, often pressure concerning marriage and friendships, and of course elaborate ritual outrage if anyone should mention the slightest hint that the holy cow is merely a farm animal.

How to get ahead in a religious group?

Prove you are more extreme than the next guy.

So, why do we protect this behaviour? Partly, because we need to protect one religion from another and also protect the non-religious from being forced to commit religious ritual that they don’t believe in. The protection (when implemented properly) works both ways, so you can’t be sacked for refusing to eat pork, but you can’t be sacked for eating it either. As I mentioned earlier, religious people love to take offence, they structure opportunities where they can take offence in the most effective manner. Providing a legal outlet for this offence can at least keep it a bit under control, the alternative is a fatwa or honour debts settled in blood — usually worse than court cases.

Naturally, environmentalists need to rally the troops same as anyone does, keep their backs together, circle the wagons. Every environmentalist requires something to prove to themselves and others that they are truly committed to the cause of the good, and this ritual (whatever it may be) must be at least extreme enough to be difficult to fake.

My preference for the hard core environmentalist is to eschew the ironing of clothes. Since ironing is nothing other than deliberately conspicuous consumption of our precious energy resources, it is inconsistent for anyone to both iron clothes and attempt to save energy at the same time. Thus, should you see an environmentalist wearing pressed and dry-cleaned suit and tie, standing in an air-conditioned office, telling you to cut your energy consumption; you instantly recognise he isn’t real.

14 years ago

People who dislike religious tax exemptions would have to weigh up the relative charitable benefits of wheaty hi fibre breakfast as compared with, err, Thetans or something.