Religious Symbolism and Discrimination
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Liverpool
Unit of AssessmentPhilosophy
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Philosophy, Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
The Religious Symbolism and Discrimination project consists of a
body of research in the philosophy of religion that has effected changes
in practice and awareness among religious practitioners, legal
practitioners, and policy makers both within the North-West of England and
nationally. This case study describes changes in users' awareness of the
issues involved in religious-discrimination legal cases; changes in their
religious literacy; and changes in their practice (particularly with
regard to professional equalities training). The project delivered impact
on civil life and public discourse through (a) a philosophical analysis of
the concepts of symbol and belief in religious-discrimination cases; (b) a
participatory research methodology that involved users in the construction
of research right from the beginning; and (c) community-engagement
activities devised to ensure that the research findings influenced users.
Religious Symbolism and Discrimination was undertaken as an AHRC Connected
Communities project between February and October 2012, when both
Whistler and Hill were lecturers at the University of Liverpool (since
2010). In the light of recent public and media controversy over the rights
of individuals to wear religious symbols (such as crosses, niqābs, karas,
and chastity rings) in the public sphere, its core research question ran,
`when, if ever, is it acceptable to prohibit the use of religious
symbols?'. This question was answered by means of a two-fold research
methodology: a philosophical analysis of the concepts underlying debates
on religious discrimination (for example, the concepts of symbol and
belief), and participatory research into how these concepts are employed
by religious and legal practitioners and policy makers. The project
consisted of two elements, and the resulting monograph, The Right to
Wear Religious Symbols (Palgrave 2013), contains:
(a) a detailed account of the analytical research underpinning the
(b) evidence of the participatory methodology carried out with research
Formulation of Participatory Research Methodology
The project's innovative combination of theoretical methods and
participatory research follows the programme set out by Whistler in his
contribution to the Speculative Philosophies and Religious Practices
issue of Political Theology (2012), which develops a conception of
philosophy of religion as community-based research. On this model,
user-participation is not an extrinsic end-process conducted once research
answers have already been formulated, but an intrinsic component of the
philosophising. This research contributes to a reconceptualisation of the
practice of philosophy of religion, making it more responsive to lived
religion, and is now being further developed in Whistler's AHRC network, Philosophy
and Religious Practices (in collaboration with the University of
Chester, Liverpool Hope University, and local faith groups), which runs
from January 2013 to May 2014.
The underpinning philosophical analysis of concepts in Article 9 of the
European Convention of Human Rights found in The Right to Wear
Religious Symbols derives in part from research undertaken by
Whistler, particularly Schelling's Theory of Symbolic Language
(OUP 2013; the majority of the research carried out since Whistler joined
the University of Liverpool in October 2010; some background research
carried out at the University of Oxford prior to this date). Redeploying
the philosophical material collected in Schelling's Theory of Symbolic
Language, the research finds that a proper understanding of
symbolism would provide, significantly, a better theoretical framework for
the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. In particular,
Whistler and Hill argue that this jurisprudence has recently turned away
from interpreting the various uses of symbols solely in the light of
high-level, antecedent beliefs manifested by them to seeing them as
practices in their own right. This is developed in two ways:
(i) through a reading of the philosophical literature on symbols that
focuses on their capacity to create meaning independently of
(ii) through a move away from looking at the uses of symbols in relation
to high-level theoretical belief systems (such as religions) in favour of
seeing them as expressions of low-level practical beliefs.
Against the background of public unease at the task of balancing the
rights of the individual to wear religious symbols and the rights of
others, culminating in the recent Strasbourg court case Eweida v UK,
the significance of the project as a whole lies in its use of the tools of
philosophy of religion to engage with the anxieties of specific religious
and secular communities, something which UK philosophy of religion has
rarely done. Evidence of this lack is how little work has been undertaken
on the way in which analyses of core religious concepts might benefit
policy and public debate. Trigg's Religion in Public Life (OUP
2007) and Equality, Freedom and Religion (OUP 2012) are alone in
doing this; however, the Religious Symbolism and Discrimination
project differs from Trigg's in its methodology.
References to the research
Daniel J. Hill and Daniel Whistler, The Right to Wear Religious
Symbols. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013. ISBN: 113735416X. Listed in REF2
The above monograph emerges out of the report: Daniel Whistler and Daniel
J. Hill, Religious Discrimination and Symbolism: A Philosophical
Perspective. AHRC Connected Communities Scoping Study Report
(October 2012; Liverpool
The quality of the research is evidenced by the fact that it is
substantially underpinned by the following peer-reviewed publications:
(a) Daniel Whistler, Schelling's Theory of Symbolic Language.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. ISBN: 019967373X. Listed in REF2.
(b) Daniel Whistler, Chris Baker, and John Reader, `Speculative
Philosophies and Religious Practices' in Political Theology 13.2
(2012; ISSN: 1462-317X), pp 141-55. [The section, `The Impact of
Philosophy of Religion' (pp. 149-51) is the relevant contribution by
Whistler to this piece.]
The report, Religious Discrimination and Symbolism: A Philosophical
Perspective, has also been cited in the peer-reviewed articles:
Alice Donald, `Advancing Debate about Religion or Belief, Equality and
Human Rights,' Oxford Journal of Law and Religion 2.1 (Spring
2013), DOI: 10.1093/ojlr/rwt002, and Mark Hill QC, 'Religious Symbolism
and Conscientious Objection in the Workplace', Ecclesiastical Law
Journal 15 (May 2013), DOI: 10.1017/S0956618X13000215.
This research has been supported by AHRC grants awarded both for its
production and on the basis of its success:
(a) Philosophy of Religion and Religious Communities: Defining Beliefs
and Symbols, AHRC Connected Communities Scoping Study,
01/02/2012 - 31/09/2012. Principal Investigator: Daniel Whistler;
Co-Investigator: Daniel J. Hill. Value: £24,935.45.
(b) Philosophy and Religious Practices, AHRC Connected
Communities Research Network, 01/01/2013 - 31/05/2014. Principal
Investigator: Daniel Whistler (along with formal partners: University of
Chester and Liverpool Hope University). Value: £27,512.72.
Details of the impact
Users benefited from this research through two mechanisms: (a) the
participatory research method by means of which the report (Religious
Discrimination and Symbolism: A Philosophical Perspective) was first
generated; (b) the community-engagement activities devised to ensure the
research findings influenced users.
(a): The report was written in consultation with significant stakeholders
in local faith-based communities (such as the Hindu Cultural Organization,
the Liverpool Muslim Society, Education Islam, the North-West Zoroastrian
Community, Chaplains at local universities and Coventry Multi- Faith
Forum) together with other local and national religious practitioners (the
former Anglican Bishop of Rochester, the Roman-Catholic Archbishop of
Liverpool, a council member of the National Secular Society, a member of
the British Humanist Association and representatives from Christian
Concern, the Evangelical Alliance and the National Council of Hindu
Temples), as well as legal practitioners (such as leading religious-rights
barrister Mark Hill QC) and key policy makers (including Charles Clarke,
the former Home Secretary, and employees from the Equality and Human
Rights Commission). It was then reviewed by leading policy makers,
including several members of Parliament, pressure groups, and legal
counsel involved in some of the key cases (Eweida v British Airways
and Chaplin v Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital), and revised in the
light of comments received.
(b): The findings of the report were disseminated through interviews
given by Hill to local radio stations, a public debate in Manchester and
in the City public blog. Whistler and Hill also held meetings
with key participants in the high-profile Eweida, Chaplin,
McFarlane, and Ladele cases to further the reach of the
report. These participants included Paul Diamond (representing Chaplin and
McFarlane), representatives from the Christian Legal Centre, and the
applicants, Shirley Chaplin and Gary McFarlane.
Impact on Public Discourse: Participatory Research
The monograph, The Right to Wear Religious Symbols, is itself
evidence of the involvement and investment of users in the construction of
the research findings. In accordance with the participatory-research
methodology devised in Whistler and Hill's research, interactive
discussion of the core research question and the report's contents
provided a means not only to engage non- academic users in discussion, but
also to promote philosophical skills, such as analysis. This model is
currently being redeployed and expanded in the Philosophy and
Religious Practices research network.
The impact of such active research participation, as well as of the
research findings themselves, on public discourse by enriching both users'
awareness of the concepts specifically at issue in legal cases concerning
religious discrimination, and their religious literacy more generally, is
attested by an end-of-project questionnaire (completed in November 2012).
100% stated that participation had improved their understanding of recent
legal debates; 100%, that it had improved their understanding of public
discussions surrounding religious discrimination; and 100%, that their
understanding of the role of symbolism in faith communities had been
improved. Participants spoke of gaining "a much better knowledge of the
law and the practices of various faiths", of gaining "a greater depth of
understanding of the reasons for different religious practices in the UK"
and "better insight into the reasoning of the courts". For many users,
this change in awareness also had transformative significance: 63%
maintained that participation in the research project had "changed the way
they thought" about issues surrounding religious discrimination.
Impact on Civil Life: Practice and Policy
After engaging with the disseminated findings, many new users recorded
changes in their religious literacy in connection with the project's
research findings, e.g. its identification of a `practical turn' in recent
European case rulings and conceptual analysis of that turn. 88% of those
responding to the end-of-project questionnaire found that the project had
significantly "made a difference to their understanding" of debates
surrounding religious discrimination.
This figure includes representatives from all the beneficiaries of the
project: religious practitioners, legal practitioners, and policy makers.
Of the religious practitioners, Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of
Rochester, spoke of the report as a resource to "be widely used to promote
religious literacy in our common life" and furthermore hoped that it would
be "available to the employers, the employment tribunals and the courts"
making decisions on the protection of religious symbols. Representatives
of a leading organisation for the raising of awareness of Islam in the UK,
Education Islam, also said that the report had been extremely
helpful for their future work. Of the legal practitioners, Mark Hill QC, a
leading barrister at Francis Taylor Buildings Chambers, spoke of being
"delighted" at the legal significance of the report, which, he added,
would be "a matter of great interest" to lawyers in the UK. And from the
policy makers involved in the project, Charles Clarke, the former Home
Secretary and Secretary of State for Education, described the report as
"extremely valuable" for rethinking policy in this area, and David Perfect
of the Equality and Human Rights Commission called the report "very
useful" for two policy projects on religion or belief being undertaken by
the EHRC in 2013. (All of these testimonials were collated in
Only three months after the project finished, already a quarter of those
completing the end-of- project questionnaire claimed that they had put
the findings into practice outside the project. That is, the
project, having accomplished its aim to raise awareness, and offer new
understanding, of key concepts underlying the debate around religious
discrimination, also led to changes in practice in civil life on the basis
of its findings.
One significant example of such a change in practice took place at
Network Rail's Professional Equalities Training for Workforce-Development
Specialists in York in July 2012. A presenter at this meeting, who was
also a religious-practitioner participant in the Religious Symbolism
and Discrimination project, made substantial use of the findings of
the project in both the oral presentation that he gave on religious
symbolism in the workplace and also in printed material that he produced
for the team members. His presentation on this component of equalities
training was significantly altered through engaging with the research, and
he was subsequently asked to join the Inter-Faith Network at Network Rail.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Philosophy in the City blogposts
on Religious Discrimination?!' and `Strasbourg's
Latest Judgment on Religious Discrimination') provide
corroboration of the impact regarding community-outreach activities.
- Corroboration of end-of-project questionnaire (cited section 4): questions
of responses demonstrates changes in understanding and practice
occurred as a result of the research.
- A member of the North-West Zoroastrian Community can be contacted to
corroborate the claims regarding the end-of-project questionnaire.
- The former Home Secretary to the UK Government can be contacted to
corroborate the impact on civil life from the perspective of national
policy in accordance with the quotations in section 4.
- The former Bishop of Rochester (Church of England) can be contacted to
corroborate the impact on civil life from the perspective of a national
faith community in accordance with the quotations in section 4.
- A member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission can be contacted
to corroborate the impact on civil life from the perspective of national
policy in accordance with the quotations in section 4.
- A Workforce Development specialist (Network Rail) can be contacted to
corroborate the claims relating to the National Rail's Professional
Equalities training in section 4.