Sunday, 16 February 2014

Imagine No Religion

     Months ago, I made what I thought was a good-natured jest about the so-called Wiccan Rule of Three, which posits that every good deed is returned threefold upon the doer, and how it implies an instability incompatible with a law of conservation of good/evil. That is, even if good and evil are both returned threefold, any inequality in the amount of good and evil in the universe would quickly multiply to the extinguishment of the lesser.  While I meant this to provoke some playful thought and analysis, the person I was talking to instead took offence at my making fun of her religion.

     I have been reminded of this episode recently by a couple of recent Canadian human rights controversies and also a bill before the Kansas state legislature, purportedly aimed at protecting the religious freedom of people to discriminate against same-sex couples. From the bill itself:

Section 1. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender:
(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement;
(b) solemnize any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement; or
(c) treat any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement as valid.
     Now, I should acknowledge that the bill is badly drafted, in that it seems to say that one can withhold ANY services, when the stated intent of the bill's sponsor was that it was really meant only to apply to services etc. related to the marriage or the celebration of marriage. However, the modifying clause comes after the semicolon, which kind of implies that the modifying clause is only meant to apply to employment or employment benefits. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt, though, and suppose they really only meant to protect wedding photographers, caterers, and justices of the peace from having to be exposed to Teh Gay. (And who can blame them for being afraid of that? Certainly not me!) Surely they didn't mean to allow paramedics to refuse to provide first aid at an accident scene where both occupants of a vehicle with a "JUST MARRIED" sign were female.
     And also, while the motive of the bill's authors almost certainly was to grant an exception to that subset of Christians who oppose same sex marriage, obviously specifying Christian beliefs would run afoul of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, so no no no no of COURSE it isn't only about Christians. It equally protects Jews, Muslims and Scientologists from being forced to tolerate homosexuality, as well. In principle, it could also protect religious polygamists from being forced to recognize monogamous marriages, or, I don't know, latter-day followers of the Sacred Band of Thebes from having to recognize heterosexual marriages, even.
     Fine, it's a silly law on so many levels, but the particular bit of silliness I want to address is this: why does it have to be a religious belief that justifies violating what would otherwise be a legal duty? It isn't just the Kansas bill. In the U.S., various employers are seeking exemptions from having provide health insurance if such insurance covers contraception, on the basis that contraception is against the employers' religion. In Canada, it's well-established that employers must make "reasonable accommodation" for the religious beliefs of their employers, dating back to a case involving a Seventh Day Adventist wanting shifts that didn't involve working on the Sabbath. Last month there was a big controversy about York University ordering a professor to accommodate a Muslim student's wish not to have to work on a group project with female classmates.

      I have no problem allowing for exemptions from legal obligations for various reasons, because it is unjust to impose obligations without consideration of the circumstances, but when considering the circumstances, why should religious belief be treated differently from other beliefs? Is it okay for a Christian to refuse to cater a gay wedding, but not for an agnostic?
      I suppose one possible rationale for extending special protection to religious belief is that, at least in certain forms of Judeo-Christian belief, there is an overriding extenuating coercion involved. That is, however much one might like to obey the law, one faces infinitely more severe consequences for disobeying divine commands. This is the same rationale for why the courts had trouble with allowing atheists as witnesses; they worried that atheists, not fearing any divine retribution for perjury, would lie with impunity.
     But upon closer inspection, this doesn't really support making a special distinction for religious beliefs. A more robust approach would be to apply a general principle that evaluates the reasonableness of the decision under the circumstances, sort of like we do when someone pleads self-defense or duress. We try not to punish people for things they do when they have no realistic alternative. And the belief that they face some much worse fate for obeying the law than for breaking it does not even have to be objectively true; it just has to be reasonable.
     I'm not choosing this reasonableness standard as a sly way of ruling out religious beliefs; it can be reasonable to believe what everyone around you has taught you since birth, however ridiculous others outside of the tradition might consider it. What I'm objecting to, rather, is the special exemption we give beliefs that call themselves religious from the standards of reasonableness we expect from everyone else.
     In fact, I'm not even demanding that everyone should be held to a standard of reasonableness. There are all sorts of things we can be unreasonable about, but which are our own business. I, for example, utterly refuse to eat mushrooms. There's no rational reason I can cite for my mycophobia; I'm not allergic to them, and I can't even say I just don't like them since even as a child I refused to even try one. I just don't ever want to eat a mushroom, to the point that I've developed a strong personal taboo about it.
     But my personal refusal to eat mushrooms is my choice, regardless of its reasons or lack thereof, and I expect my autonomy in this area to be respected, just as we respect the right of a Jew or Muslim to abstain from pork. The only difference is that I do not believe some supernatural being has commanded me to avoid fungus. I take no position on the reasonableness of avoiding pork, because it's none of my business why someone else feels obliged to do something.
     And that should be our general principle for law, to respect individual autonomy as much as possible. We ought to try to schedule work shifts to accommodate people who want a particular day of the week off, regardless of whether it's to attend church or to take their kids to the museum, not because churches or museums are important but because individuals should be treated with respect, as "ends in themselves" as Kant put it.
     Yes, there will be times when we need to impose an enforceable legal duty that overrides the right to personal autonomy, but we should limit such impositions to where they are necessary to protect human safety and autonomy. We have laws against murder, for example, because the loss of freedom to murder is less than the loss of freedom to do everything else that being murdered prevents. It doesn't matter why one might want to murder someone, even if your god demands human sacrifice; our law-abiding society is still entitled to prevent that. That someone's reasons are "religious" should give them no special weight.
     Sometimes, this means people are going to be caught in difficult moral dilemmas. Their religion demands what the law prohibits, or vice versa. I'm sympathetic to that plight, of course. But it's not a special problem that only the devoutly religious face. Atheist and agnostics, too, are often caught between the demands of conscience and those of law. The hard truth of this world is that morality is often very difficult, and there isn't always an easy answer. That's the curse of free will. Is it unfair that Christians may have to choose between defying their god and defying the state? Sure. In exactly the same way it's unfair to everyone else that the law sometimes demands things of us that we don't want to give. The demands of conscience should not be respected more just because they're given the name of religion.

     Neither, though, should religious reasons be treated with less respect, which is the mistake the Quebec secular charter makes in trying to ban public employees from wearing religious symbols. Identifying symbols as "religious" in order to ban them is just as silly as doing so in order to promote them, and just as much an affront to human autonomy. It should make no difference why someone wants to wear a crucifix or a hijab or an ankh or a swastika; their decision to wear a symbol or not should only be reviewable if it is demonstrably harms a legitimate public interest.
     There might well be good reasons for prohibiting or requiring certain symbols. Government employees are sometimes required to wear badges or uniforms, which perform a valid function in identifying them to the public. They may also be obliged not to wear certain symbols, as the swastika example demonstrates. It doesn't matter why you might want to wear a swastika, and maybe you have perfectly valid personal reasons, but wearing one will almost certainly be interpreted as a hostile sign by most members of the public, however kind and tolerant your actual intent. Likewise, the fact that you were joking or being ironic when you called in a bomb threat isn't a defense agains the criminal charges that will rightly follow.
     But the fact that someone's reasons for wanting to do something are religious should be completely irrelevant to the decision to prohibit or require it.

     So I'm not advocating the abolishment of religious belief. Rather, I'm just saying that we should abandon "religion" as any kind of special category of belief. With respect to informing human choice, the belief that there's an infinitely powerful and morally authoritative God who really hates it when men marry men is no more and no less privileged than the belief that no such God exists.


  1. I appreciate how towards the second bit of your article you spoke of defending beliefs regardless of if they fall under the umbrella of "religion." Too often people use religion as an excuse for treating others unjustly. In my experience the majority of the religions claimed by these same people while teaching that these things are against God's or said higher power's will, it is important that we distinguish the sin from the sinner and continue to love and serve those around us. As you said in your article, it is important to respect the beliefs of the individuals so long as those beliefs do not cause fundamental harm to the society such as rape, murder, theft, to name a few. It would be difficult at best to create a law to encompass the ideology of protecting beliefs while protecting society in a way that the courts could accept and others would not find a way to abuse. Sadly we live in an imperfect society and there will always be people who use the umbrella of "religion" to justify great atrocities.

  2. I always found it ironic how some homophobic Christians use the bible in an attempt to justify their desire to discriminate against gay’s by saying it is God’s desire. I enjoy watching them squirm after I ask if they have a daughter, then pull from the old testament that the Bible says a father can sell their daughter into slavery, and inquire what’s their asking price. I usually follow this up with a question about if they or anyone they knew worked last Sunday as the Bible says people who work on Sunday are to be stoned, and if they plan on stoning the person themselves or are going to contract it out to another. It’s especially fun at Superbowl time as anyone who touches something made from a pig is unclean, does that mean the football players are all going to hell… and wait a minute they are also working on a Sunday so according to the Bible, they would all have to be stoned… I’m just waiting for the day that one intelligent one responds that the Bible also says not to throw the first stone….

    David Busch

  3. Thank you for your comments.

    Aria, I agree that people often use religion to justify treating people unfairly, but my point is a little broader than that. Calling something religion does not only seem to exempt it from moral criticism, but from rational or aesthetic or practical criticism as well. I may be right or wrong about the content of my argument when I say someone does something immoral, or when I say someone's claims are logically inconsistent, or that a work of literature is amateurish self-indulgent drivel, or that a proposed course of action won't work. But the very act of doing so itself becomes taboo if what I'm analyzing bears the label of religion.

    David: Did you see the scene on West Wing when President Bartlett serves up that speech? Touches on many of the points you raise. Another one I like to point out, particularly when people insist on a literal reading of every word of the Bible as true because God doesn't lie, is that the VERY FIRST WORDS God speaks to Adam in Genesis are literally untrue.
    It's a valid approach, and sometimes an effective one, and the only one available when actually criticizing the basic premises is off limits because they're labeled "Religion".

  4. I agree, people get too touchy in the majority of cases. However, I am always open to discussing and hearing people produce satire about my own religion. In reality I think it comes down to comfort level and conviction as well as a willingness to learn and discuss new ideas. These things while rooted in faith are supported by my religion. Mostly I like your article and wanted to let you know that not all religious fanatics hide behind "religion".

  5. Tom, The very first words of God to Adam were not a lie. Being dead to God's presence in your life is worse than being dead physically, and this is the death that Adam experienced, and that he passed on to his posterity. You yourself are a partaker of this "death", as can be seen by the fact that you think without reference to the One in whom you live and move and have your being. You are a dead man lecturing on life, a blind man lecturing on color, a deaf man describing a symphony.
    We don't despise you for this, but we do not receive the force of your argument in the way you imagine we do.

  6. Anonymous, I'm going to write another post to address that question in greater detail, because although interesting, it is a big diversion from the central point I was trying to make, about how "religion" is an unhelpful category.

    But you do illustrate that point by the way you interpret the text. When the character God within the book says something, you automatically exempt it from critical reading; it MUST be true, so you will bend over backwards to find a a favourable interpretation, however laboured. Meanwhile, if some other character (Cain, for example) says something that's literally false, then you have no problem with saying he's lying. By refusing to entertain even hypothetically that the literary God might be a liar, you cut yourself off from understanding. It becomes clear that you are not trying to get me to embrace some knowledge you have that I lack, but rather you are trying to get me to abandon some understanding that you lack.

    Likewise, we cripple our capacity to understand when we declare "religion" off-limits to criticism and demand that it be treated with solemn deference. YOU can reject Islam, but you can only do so based on the fact that you have already accepted Christianity. You can provide me with no reasons why I, a non-Christian, should reject Islam, nor can you even endorse the reasons I have for rejecting Islam. Your argument, and the Muslim's argument, and likewise the arguments of every religion, are then reduced to nothing more than "Pick me! Pick me! I'm the one true religion! Honest!"

  7. Tom,l I think you know better sometimes than you speak. The credentials for Islam as a true religion are so weak that the entire defense of the religion is that to question it is to dishonor the prophet. The Koran is full of foolishness, and simply cannot be substantiated on any terms of study. The only defense is rage at having asked a question. This has never been considered the case with the Scriptures, which have been a source of learning for multitudes of every level, socially, intellectually, and economically. Islam is a political system. The scriptures themselves declare that God cannot lie. Knowing that, we seek to understand in such a way as to hold in balance all that we know of Him. Paul affirms, most famously in Ephesians, but elsewhere inScripture, that by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins. The Scripture often speaks of our being quickened to new life, and one of Jesus most famous challenges to a religious leader was that he and his friends "Must be born again". We need new life because we are dead.
    We died in Adam, when we violated God's command concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It may be that you are very poorly taught in what the Bible teaches, but some things you have said make me think you know more than you seem to know. Google can be much help in helping you to understand. Some of the most intelligent men and women the world has ever known have also posessed spiritual insight, given them by the Holy Spirit. God gives His Spirit to those who turn from their sin and seek Him out of a sincere heart. Seek Him in such a way, and He will be found of you.

  8. Perhaps modern Christianity is a bit less violent about it, but the defense is the same, epistemologically speaking: the question of the authority of the Bible is simply off-limits. And while you may not personally react with violence to my refusal to accept that authority, you DO threaten me with eternal suffering in the next world, so the coercion is there as well.

    But to return to the main theme of the original post, do you agree or disagree that a separate category of "religion" is unhelpful? Should claims like "Mohammed is Allah's final prophet," or "Jesus is the Son of God" be subject to the same kind of standards for truth or falsehood as "It is raining" or "Ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection", or should they be exempted from close examination, and simple accepted at face value?

  9. Whether Jesus is the Son of God can be determined by an examination of the evidence. His claims are based on a real life lived in a real world, with Jesus dying on a real cross and really rising from the dead. Examined exactly the way we would examine the life of any other real person of ancient times brings one to the realization that someone of that name lived and died. Someone of that name so clearly rose from the dead, and all the best witnesses were so certain that it had happened that they were willing to live difficult lives and die terrible deaths rather than deny the truth of what they had seen and heard. Millions since that time have claimed to come to know Him personally and to find Him perfectly revealed in the Bible. Lives are still being transformed and hearts made happy by a relationship with this person, Jesus. The genius of other religions lies in politics, philosophy, and tricky thinking. The genius of Biblical Christianity is Christ, known personally and experienced in reality. The living person, Jesus Christ ,manifests Himself to those who come to Him. It puts Jesus in a position of authority that is stronger than the authority of the human scientist. Science must take Him into account.
    I am not threatening you with Hell. I am seeking to alert you to the possibility of escape from Hell. Hell is a reality, but God loved the world in such a way as to enable men to escape, because He did not want us to perish. "Religion" counts for very little in the face of reality.

  10. Okay, then. Thank you. That's the only point I was trying to make in the original post, that beliefs are just beliefs, and that there should be no special exemptions from criticism granted to beliefs simply because they claim to be "religious". We can disagree about the content of the criticism, and we can become quite enthusiastic in our argument, but open disagreement is not itself an offence.

  11. But it is with Islam.

  12. Better drop this one, Tom. You know you will be in trouble if you tell the truth about Islam.

  13. I am not defending Islam. I have already criticized on this blog the Muslims who threaten violence over perceived insults to the Prophet, but it should go without saying that threatening violence over differences of opinion is never justified. If my opinion of Mohammed is an unflattering one, the fact that someone else's more flattering opinion is their "religion" does not change that.

    I have both Christian and Muslim friends who are happy to entertain thoughtful and open discussion about religion. I still think they're wrong, but we can respectfully and intelligently disagree, because we recognize that our various beliefs are just personal beliefs of fallible humans. They may be beliefs ABOUT divinely infallible beings, but just as believing in unicorns doesn't make a horn grow out of your forehead, believing in a divinely infallible being doesn't mean you can't be wrong.