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An interesting piece of news came out of New Zealand over the last few days. Here is the NZ Herald:

A university lecturer is under fire after implying employers should not hire Muslim workers because they stop to pray five times a day.

Dr Raymond Richards, who teaches American history and religion at the University of Waikato, made a comment on Friday on a Z Energy Facebook post about diversity in the workplace.

The post shows a photograph of a bearded man wearing a turban. Richards wrote: “Who needs employees if they stop work five times per day to talk to an imaginary being?”

The comment drew immediate criticism with responders saying Richards confused the Sikh in the photo with a Muslim….

But Richards said he stood by his comment and that it had nothing to do with his job as a university senior lecturer.

He is also denies confusing Sikhs and Muslims.

“Religion is fair game. Religion is an enemy of education. I’m speaking as an individual, expressing my own personal opinion.”

Richards said he made comments on all kinds of religion and that it was his right to do so through freedom of speech.

“I think it’s very important people exercise their freedom of speech and not be intimidated.

“Islam is not a race, it’s a religion. Some people say racism when you criticise a religion and they need to understand religion is an idea. It’s superstition, it’s not a race.”

Stuff.co.nz added:

“I did not confuse Sikh and Muslim. My comment was on the original post, which was about diversity, not on the photo.

“I did not advise discriminating on the basis of religion. I asked if employers would want to hire someone who stops work five times per day to talk to an imaginary friend.”

Richards said he had deleted his Facebook comment himself, “because I do not want extremists coming after me”.

That fear may be well founded. In 1998, the university hired a security guard to protect Richards while he was on campus after two death threats were made against him following a lecture he gave on the Mormon Church’s history of violence and polygamy.

I think there is much to be admired in his approach because he is really challenging the privilege that religions and religionists give themselves. We already have tensions concerning moral practices that religions take: Halal meat, approaches to homosexuality and so on. What if my religion stated it was mandatory to appease my god by drinking alcohol five times a day, or some such other thing that would clearly interfere with my working responsibilities. Now, for sure, work can be accommodating and flexible, and should be. But how far does this go?

I think claims of racism are always misguided when dealing with religion. Religions are worldviews that essentially require all of humanity to adhere to their diktats; they are not racial things even if there are often correlations.

I attack religion routinely and could easily get into trouble, potentially, for what I say if everyone connected to my work knew everything I wrote. I shouldn’t get into trouble because freedom of thought and speech in this domain is vital for a healthy democracy and society.

So the question I would like to pose to you is exactly what the lecturer asked:

“Who needs employees if they stop work five times per day to talk to an imaginary being?”

Do you think this is a fair question to ask, and if so, what about the answer? I’ll then post a follow-up looking at some of the discussion points.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...