Religious Liberty & Religious Tyranny

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The adjective “religious” is unlikely to sound strange when modifying either liberty or tyranny.  Neither combination has the ring of oxymoron. Why? Because, religions and the belief systems that undergird them have been used throughout human history both in the cause of  freedom and to justify all manner of social tyranny.

In the United States, what is called “freedom of religion” is enshrined in our Constitution.  People are free to believe as they choose to believe and worship as they please to worship.  People are also free to express those beliefs as long as the mode of that expression does not burden other citizens too heavily. We make some accommodations for one another’s beliefs; e.g., respect for one another’s religious holidays, prayer discipline or the like, in order that we all be able to go about our daily lives in comity.

Our society is pluralistic and governed by laws that are the product of civic debate and legislative action.  This societal debate is engaged in by individuals of various religious convictions.  The debate, however, is secular, hopefully rational and in pursuit of the common good; i.e., the good of all.

revelationThe three major Western religious traditions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are all, what is known as, revealed religions. A revealed religion is a religion the tenets of which can only be known by being revealed to human beings by the Divine.  Put another way, the content of these religions is not accessible to the human mind and its experience of the finite world without Divine revelation.  Once spiritual truth is revealed to us, we can, according to these traditions, use the God given gift of reason to deepen our understanding of the revelation and its importance for human life.

All of these traditions therefore require the belief in a God who reveals him/herself to us and communicates with us in various ways:  most often through classic texts like the Torah, the Gospels or the Koran.   These traditions all see humankind, without revelation, as walking in a kind of darkness which can never be sufficiently illuminated by the light of reason or the intuition of the human heart on its own.

Moral and ethical debate can and does take place in the public square without reference to revealed knowledge.  Generally, there is little difficulty in agreeing about things like the undesirability of random killing or stealing without reference to the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.  Consequently, we can enact laws against murder and grand theft essentially using reason alone.

Religious people may refer to their belief systems in the process of secular debate and identify instances in which their belief and secular reason coincide.  This coincidence even makes it easier for the Western believer to feel comfortable in our pluralistic world.

There are occasions, however, when reason and revelation seem to come to different conclusions.  At the moment, the rights of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people are being placed in opposition to the rights of religious believers who feel that living as a gay, lesbian, bi or transgender person is sinful and contrary to the will of God.  These believers declare that it offends their conscience to normalize what they see as Divinely proscribed behavior and that consequently they should not be required to provide services to these people and thereby demonstrate tacit approval of sin.  They see any such requirement as an infringement of their religious liberty.

For religious believers, at least in the three main Western traditions, God is the supreme authority and arbiter of what is right and wrong. For non-believers there is no God to function as a supreme authority or to reveal what is right or wrong to humans.  In a pluralistic society, believers and nonbelievers have equal standing and if there is to be social debate on appropriate social regulations the interlocutors must  be able to address one another in terms that are understandable and meaningful.

For a believer to declare that this or that is right or wrong because God says so may be understandable to the nonbeliever in terms of what the words mean. However, such a statement lacks real meaning for the nonbeliever because it attributes authority to something nonexistent. Nonexistent beings do not do, say, think or feel anything. They are nonexistent.

The nonbeliever can, for her part, ground her conversation in a rational inquiry into the question at hand without reference to any data outside of natural experience, scientific knowledge, rational thought and respectful concern for other human beings and the natural world in general.  These very same sources of knowledge and processes of thought are available to believers.

Believers and nonbelievers therefore share access to the language of reason, science and human solidarity.  They can converse meaningfully with one another in these terms.  Believers can think that there is “more going on” and hold onto notions of the Divine; but, at the level of meaningful social dialogue in a pluralistic society the only conversation to be had between all parties is the secular one.

This secular conversation is the one that concluded that religious belief should be respected because it meant so much to those who believed not because any particular Divine revelation was in fact true.  We therefore make those accommodations alluded to above even in serious matters like the defense of the nation to which we allow citizens to conscientiously object.

We accommodate for religious belief as long as that accommodation does not overly burden citizens who do not share that belief and as long as that accommodation does not infringe on the rights of others.

Indiana SymbolThe State of Indiana has recently passed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the State of Arkansas is following close behind.  This law makes it possible for individual believers to refuse to provide business services to individuals who because of their sexual orientation offend the conscience of these believers.  These believers argue that to require them to treat gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people like anyone else is to require them to violate their religious convictions.  In short these believers seek an accommodation.Arkansas_WikiProject

As with any other religious belief accommodation, the question is whether granting this accommodation would be reasonable and nondiscriminatory in the sense of treating fellow citizens with inequity–as not equals.  In our society, we have decided that there is no reasonable grounds for discriminating against others on the basis of race, creed, gender or national origin.  From a secular perspective, sexual orientation is no different from any of these other grounds upon which people are not to be discriminated against. Believers remain free to believe what they want and it may offend the conscience of some to have to have normal business dealings with same-sex oriented individuals.  But, the offense to the conscience of these individuals grounded, as it is, on a sectarian belief the objective truth or falsity of which is unascertainable via natural reason cannot trump the rights of any citizen to equal treatment in the public square.

Religious liberty in the service of discrimination like this turns the notion of freedom on its head and makes of religious freedom the exact thing the framers sought to avoid:  religious tyranny.









Religious Belief and Public Policy

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Recently, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a bill passed by the Arizona legislature which made it legal for the proprietor of a public business establishment, like a restaurant, to deny service to another person based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  A proprietor who believed that homosexuality; for example, was immoral would have been able to deny service to homosexual people based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  If it had become law, this Arizona statue would have legalized discrimination.

Fortunately, Gov. Brewer acted wisely and the law will not be implementedjan brewer.  This instance, among others, does, however, raise an interesting set of questions about grounding public statues on religious belief.  Those who favored the law argued that not to allow proprietors to decline to serve those they found morally reprehensible on religious grounds was interfering with the Constitutional guarantee of “freedom of religion.”  Proponents argued essentially that free Americans had the right to practice their religious beliefs in the public sphere without interference from the State.

Opponents argued such a statute would violate the principle of the equality of all citizens by denying them access to services on discriminatory grounds.  Framed this way, the situation seems to be one in which we are confronted with two sets of rights that are in conflict with another:  religious freedom, on the one hand and the equal rights of all citizens, on the other.

The question I would like to pose in this brief essay is easy to ask and a good deal harder to answer.  Is religious belief a suitable grounds for public debate on matters of public policy? Typically people belief something to be true or false based on evidence from their experience or other authoritative source; for example, a scientific study or trusted news source.  We believe the source.  We accept what the source says whether that source be our own reason or the testimony of others.

Religious belief has a unique place in the pantheon of belief sources.  Religious belief claims as its source something that cannot be proved to actually exist.  Religious belief is grounded, in one way or another, on the existence of a deity (at least in the Western tradition).  For religious belief to stand shoulder to shoulder with other beliefs, it demands that the existence of the deity (God/Goddess) be accepted.  If God does not exist, than the guidance for human behavior provided by this source, can not have the same weight as other beliefs which are rooted in scientific study and secular philosophical/political reflection on the well-being of all, including the environment.

Without setting out on a discussion of the existence of God, almost all who argue this point would agree that the existence of God can not be proven.  Some may argue that it is reasonable to believe in a supreme being while others argue that it is unreasonable.  Both groups concede that proof for God’s existence does not and will not exist while clothed in “this mortal flesh.”

Thus, to believe in God is to believe something not in evidence.  It is to trust that there is a God. We call this “the gift of faith.” It is making as Kierkegaard said “a kierkegaardleap.”

No leap is required for me to believe or trust in the observation that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or that the earth orbits the sun or that the moon is not made of green cheese.  These things I can believe without leaping–because there is tangible evidence.  Others can observe similar facts about the physical world and from these facts even reason to additional conclusions that also require no leaping. Outside of the realm of faith, evidence and reason rule.  Inside the realm of faith, both evidence and reason are subsumed and made handmaidens of the divine.

For public debate to proceed, all voices need to be heard but not all voices are equally credible.  Religious voices have no special claim in the forum of public debate at least not in the United States where we have a separation of church and state.

There are many who believe that the founding principle of religious belief (the existence of God) is false and not even amenable to empirical study.  Thus, for them, God and his/her principles, however revealed or made know, do not exist and have no authority in the public sphere. How can the non-existent have authority?

If public policy debate is to be meaningful, the interlocutors need to debate in terms that are meaningful to all.  Reason, rational argument and data must of necessity ground these discussions. There are a vast variety of religious systems of belief and, in the US, all are free to worship as they prefer and debate among themselves any topic with reference to any authority existent or not.

Once we enter the theater of public affairs, however, conversation and debate must be rooted in public, secular and not sectarian religious terms.  We must reason together using authority we agree upon in order to accept things like why lying is bad and charity is good, why mercy is preferable to vengeance and why openness of heart is superior to closed mindedness.

Evangelicals will perhaps bridle at this position.  They need not.  They remain free to seek to convert others.  But, when it comes to public debate and the passage of secular law, reason and the common good trumps belief.  Some will protest that the God in whom they believe and reason are not antithetical.  Excellent! In that case,  we can reason together without reference to God and armed with the authority of our own best reasoned judgment on each ethical questions which arises. We will not, of course, always be right but we would not have abdicated our moral responsibility to one another.