Whenever I read about religious diversity these days my automatic reaction is that real diversity is going to be ignored. A big part of our true religious diversity is the fact that one third of New Zealanders declare themselves as non-religious. When these are ignored then our true diversity is ignored.
This happened with the National Statement of Religious Diversity which only gave lip service to this fact. It, for example, declared that: “Faith communities and their members have a right to safety and security.” What does this imply about the safety of the non-religious?
OK, I can appreciate that those involved in “interfaith” activity may be more concerned with participating in a wider “supernatural” beliefs community rather than the human and social consequences of true diversity. Perhaps it’s a way of defending themselves against what they perceive is the growing secularism of society. Consequently they will develop exclusive activities and policies and try to avoid contact with the non-religious that would result from true inclusive activity.
Unfortunately these exclusive “interfaith” activities can have unfortunate consequences when they get translated into policies for national organisations. This has happened to the New Zealand Police with the recently launched second edition of their religious diversity handbook (A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity).
Worthy principles inappropriately applied
The forward to the manual describes the need for the NZ Police to be aware of the diversity of our society in their day to day work. The approach sounds worthy:
“This resource provides New Zealand Police members with information about major religions in New Zealand. It covers topics such as religious background, death and related issues, gender role and family, physical contact and other sensitivities, alongside religious practices and policing.”
“New Zealand Police are committed to meeting the various needs of the ethnically and religiously diverse community it serves.
The increase in religious diversity underscores the need for police to understand how religious beliefs and customs impact on their role when carrying out standard police duties.
This resource provides information to help police frontline officers gain basic awareness and understanding of religious diversity.”
“Police are always looking for ways, such as through this booklet, to increase police members’ awareness and appreciation of rich cultures and religions in New Zealand, and improve capability in meeting the needs of modern dynamic communities.
Initiatives such as this will help police, and other agencies, contribute to the development of a cohesive and harmonious society.”
But how can this manual properly promote the “development of a cohesive and harmonious society” when it ignores one third of our society. It includes chapters on Maori Spirituality and Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Sikh faiths – but nothing on the non-religious section of our diverse society!
Exclusion bad for society
Police are helped to become aware of the different attitudes of these faith towards things like use of the Christian Bible for taking oaths, death and treatment of the dead body, identification of the dead, autopsy requirements, funeral traditions, bereavement practices, gender and children’s roles, status of women, resources such as celebrants, providing blood and other samples, handshaking, bodily contact, dietary and alcohol restrictions, appropriate comforting methods, removal of shoes on entering a house, etc.
The manual also makes clear that variations exist within these communities.
So what are we to make of the fact that the non-religious are ignored. Are Police encouraged to ignore the special customs, beliefs and traditions within this group.
Personally I am offended when authorities assume I will take an oath on a Christian Bible. Or that I should have a Christian prayer or other ceremony imposed on me. Or that a Christian celebrant or counsellor should be assumed as appropriate for me.
I insist that dead should be treated with respect, that autopsies be respectful, that women should not be discriminate against and that children be treated responsibly. I require that police, like any other visitor to my house, treat it with respect by removing their shoes.
The New Zealand Police have a motto – “Safer communities together.” Where is the togetherness, and safety, if you neglect a third of the population.