Thursday, April 23, 2015

There is no such thing as religious freedom

I will freely admit that my personal experiences make me less than objective when considering the question of the truth or falsity of the Catholic faith.  But I also insist that those same experiences make me particularly knowledgeable about what religion actually is, how it functions.  And I'm fascinated by it -- how it works, how it fails to work, how it works excessively well at times.

Too often Catholics narrow it down to a list of propositions: Catholics believe these things, that's our religion.  If you can sign onto the dogmas, you should sign up for the religion.  But any religion is a great deal more than that: it is relationship to the divine, ritual framework, community tie, law, mythic structure, shared history, and moral indoctrination.

I say moral indoctrination because our morals are something we learn long before we have a good sense of why.  And yet I don't think that conscience is necessarily innate.  Sure, we naturally have a sense of empathy, which gets us as far as, "I should seek the benefit of others," but other rules beyond that vary widely between times and cultures.  [Note: "people's moral assumptions vary" isn't intended to imply "no one set is correct."]  That variation explains the sense of moral outrage I feel on reading ancient history (how could people attend hangings and treat them like parties?!), Greek epics (why the heck is Athena praising Odysseus for lying?!), or the Old Testament (.....you know THAT story already).  I am seeing people do things which are morally wrong (from my viewpoint) but which they seem to assume are right -- and which they don't bother defending because everyone knows they are right!

I can't imagine how a discussion on morality between me and, say, an ancient Babylonian might go.  What shared principles would we start from?  Heck, I am not sure how I could explain to some of my quite near ancestors why it's so terrible to be racist.

The only reason we think that morality exists apart from religion is because most religions (and philosophies) we normally come into contact with have very similar moral codes.  Not only that, but the religions practiced in America all seem to have mutated somewhat to be accepted today.

Think about it: what are a few ethical standards Americans, in general, agree with?  "It's okay to do what you want so long as you don't hurt someone else."  And, "People should be able to believe and worship how they want."  And, "We should be nice to people who are different."  What religion do these ideas come from?

The Catholic Church used to be rather touchy about religious freedom; now it accepts it and points out that God himself seems to let people believe what they want.  Aggiornamento, I suppose -- this progressive idea is just what people think nowadays; I suppose the cardinals felt as I do about it, that it's just morally right and therefore the Church has to be okay with it.  So Catholics can now -- as they could not so easily before Vatican II -- sign onto the secular ideal without compromising their own faith.

Tolerance, freedom of religion, etc. aren't from a religion at all; they are from the philosophy that America is founded on.  (And most other modern nations -- it's a pluralist, secularist, progressive sort of creed,  developed in the Enlightenment.)  Religions that are accepted in America are all religions that are able to sign onto this philosophy -- or at least are willing to coexist with it.  We can have Catholics, but not Inquisitions; Puritans, but not witch trials; Islam, but not jihad.  You're welcome if you're willing to live and let live.   But if your religion commands death to the unbeliever, you're not welcome.

This seems like it would go without saying, but it only seems obvious because you're used to it.  The ancient Romans and ancient Jews shared the common belief that failure to worship properly would lead to punishment, not only on the unbeliever, but on the whole nation unless it punished them.  That is why the Romans threw the Christians to the lions, and why the Old Testament has a little bit about stoning to death anyone who even suggests worshipping other gods.  It really was a part of their religion -- it was just as sincerely held as any belief you hold today.  But just try explaining that to the judge, as you plead First Amendment protection at your murder trial!

And honestly it makes good cultural sense, in a very dangerous world, to defend your cultural standards with violence.  If you are part of a tribe/culture/religion (because those almost always go together) that believes in the sanctity of human life, and some stranger wanders in whose beliefs you don't know, you can't just trust him.  His religion might mandate cannibalism.  Tolerance comes in second to self-preservation.

What made modern religions give up this sort of attitude?  Was it Jesus and his talk of loving your enemy?  Possibly.  Or perhaps it's just an idea whose time had come; things had gotten safer and one didn't need to be quite so careful.  Even despite this, though, there was an Inquisition, and religious pluralism wasn't accepted until fairly recently.

But don't be deceived: pluralism itself is something you don't really have freedom to deny.  Well, maybe you could, if you lived in an area with a religious majority, and it was just understood that you would have to abide by its rules if you lived there.  Here in America, it's a fact -- there is no religious majority that agrees on all ethical standards.  So law cannot be derived from religion, not without causing all kinds of chaos as people refuse to follow a law they don't believe in.  Instead, we've just agreed -- our standard is something different, it's the idea of human rights, of freedom so long as you don't harm others, of a secular public sphere so that no one religion dominates.

Even the whole concept of majority rule is an enlightenment idea.  Before that it was cuius regio, ejus religio -- everybody has to follow the religion of the prince.  Because for people to live together, there has to be some rule as to how they interact.  Is forced conversion okay?  Is blasphemy okay?  What about heresy?

This stuff comes up all the time.  If Doctor Joe is against abortion, but Susie believes it's one of her human rights, does Doctor Joe have to perform one for her, or not?  Is a pharmacist allowed to refuse to dispense birth control pills?  What about poison, or a drug he knows will cause a dangerous reaction?  Does a diabetic child's right to receive insulin trump his parents' right to raise their child in a religion that forbids medical treatment? We wrestle with these and argue them out as a society -- but in the end, we can't even have a conversation about them without a shared set of moral principles.  We have all agreed on rights that people have, and that's what makes it possible to weigh one right against another in the first place.

  America has a nice little balance -- majority rule is a general principle, but everything decided by the majority has to abide by the constitution, which respects individual rights.  We decided that the majority should rule, but it couldn't infringe some basic rights the minority gets.  Those rights are carefully enumerated and they have to do with harm -- if you can demonstrate you are being harmed, you have a claim to stop someone from doing what they are doing to you.

But when all the fuss goes on about "religious freedom," meaning freedom to opt out of the laws everyone else is obeying, I think .... well, this is what you get when you are a minority religion in a country with shared ethical principles that differ from yours.  When there is no conflict, you're fine.  When there is one, you have to acknowledge that your morals aren't the standard the country is run by. What will you do, pay the jizya or leave?

Well, I guess you have more options than that.  You could withhold consent from the reigning establishment, refusing to vote and biding your time to overthrow the state and set up a Catholic theocracy.  (Because if you don't believe in majority rule it's a little silly to vote.)  You could come up with a different sort of shared philosophy which involves voting but has Christian values enshrined in the constitution, and try to get people to sign onto it and vote for your ideals.  You could try to find a secular argument for the thing you want -- for instance trying to prove that you are harmed more by being forced to bake a cake you don't want to bake than a gay couple is harmed by having to ask someone else.

But you can't say "everyone has the right to do what they think is moral," because that would be chaos.  If you thought stoning gays was morally obligatory, you would be out of luck.  Turns out the shared Enlightenment philosophy that says you can't impose your beliefs on others trumps religion.  It has to, or else you wouldn't be allowed to practice your own religion, because guaranteed, your religion isn't allowed by somebody else's religion.

In this country, we have freedom of belief and freedom of worship.  Freedom of conscience, though, is bounded by the rules of our shared philosophy.  You can have the freedom to do some things, which can be demonstrated not to hurt others -- refuse medical care, affirm instead of swearing on the bible, be a pacifist.  And not to do other things -- things that might hurt others, like child marriage, female genital mutilation, or human sacrifice.  No one cares if your religion requires it, that's tough luck because it contradicts our shared moral grounding.

Turns out most people in this country think that you have the right to use birth control (because it doesn't hurt others) and marry the person you like of whatever gender (because it doesn't hurt others) and  that you don't have the right to discriminate or encourage violence (because on some level that does hurt others).  If you disagree, you'll have to find an argument based on showing that following the majority will harm you, and that your opting out of the majority opinion will not harm others.  "Religious freedom" isn't an excuse for doing what our shared philosophy believes to be immoral.

And that's why I think "religious freedom," defined otherwise than freedom of thought and worship, doesn't actually exist.  You can't opt out of America's rights philosophy and still demand your own right to liberty.

12 comments:

Cojuanco said...

A rather disorganized response, apologies:

The problem is that religious freedom is not merely freedom of belief or freedom of worship. At least it doesn't seem so in the post-war conception of religious freedom. See, for example, the UNDHR, to which the United States is a signatory.

And within the past few decades, our shared philosophy has largely been broadly laissez-faire. After all, we are a country that allows a religious minority the right to not educate its children beyond the eighth grade. And at least under the law, it is the burden of the Government to come up with not only a compelling state interest, but to using the least restrictive means to achieve that interest. And sometimes that least restrictive means involves the government doing nothing at all - see, for example, the case of Santeria and animal sacrifices.

That said, I think it might be an exaggeration to say that the Church completely accepts religious freedom; a close reading of the texts of the Second Vatican Council seem to indicate that the ideal is still a Catholic people in a Catholic State. The problem is that a Catholic State (as people even in the turn of the 20th Century realized) only really works where the moral personality of the country is Catholic. I mean, there are still countries like that to a certain extent, but we, alas, do not live in them.

I think a bigger problem is that our country at present doesn't even have real shared ethical principles anymore - and I think that is what makes this latest round of anticlericalism in our country so poisonous, for everyone involved.

Finally, I think the problem is that in the conception of many Americans - I think this is due to America's not-so-distant Anglo-Protestant traditions - that freedom of religion doesn't necessarily include freedom of practice. It just doesn't know, when the chips are down, about what to do with Catholicism, which is a religion very much about doing things, including things that seem outright bizzare to Protestants and post-Protestants (It's not only Catholics, by the way; Muslims also pose a challenge to this general sentiment - witness the anti-Sharia law attempts, and the rather ridiculous attempts by prison wardens to ban pious Muslim prisoners from being anything but clean-shaven).

Sheila said...

What I mean by saying freedom of practice isn't covered in religious freedom, is to say that you don't get to choose your moral code. If your religion happens to coincide with the moral code of the nation you live in, that's grand -- and for the most part, the Catholic faith doesn't have any major conflicts. If not, you are likely to be expected -- i.e. forced -- to follow the nation's moral code above your own. This is the state of Christians in Muslim nations: they can practice their religion only so far as the government lets them. An improvement of their situation will only come when the government adopts a different moral foundation -- whether it's secularism or Christianity.

What I mean is that no matter what the moral code of the citizens is, the government needs to have one of its own so it knows what to allow. You can't actually expect it to have *none*!

Secular Humanist said...

Catholics include as part of their freedom to practice their religion placing restrictions on the freedom of those who don't follow all Catholic rules (which includes a lot of moderate Catholics).

The same situation exists with Muslims and some other Christian denominations. Muslims actually try to enforce sharia law in certain areas of some European cities and even in isolated areas in the U.S.

Belfry Bat said...

SH, there is not even one productive theory of ethics and government that does not sometimes propose restrictions on the freedom of those who don't follow Particular Rules. That is, largely, the point of Sheila's post. Even libertarians agree that there should be restitution for harms suffered (whatever "harm" might mean).

Secular Humanist said...

I agree with what you are saying. But it doesn't seem to be a response to my comment. Are you saying that religion should or shouldn't factor into our laws and regulations?

Belfry Bat said...

My point is that the existence of patterns both calling themselves "religion" and with which you disagree does not separate "religious" reason from secular reason (except in a solipsistic way).

Here's my opinion (which means very little, as I have never resided in the Fifty States of the FÅ“deral Democratic Republic); it is just as well that the First Amendment does not mention "Worship", because that would introduce TWO words to the text, on which Secular Government has no natural authority to propose Definition. Nonetheless, the authors and ratifiers certainly agreed that the word "religion" means something, and which meaning includes some praxis; and some things are indeed recognized as belonging to religious exercise (liturgy, preaching, and teaching e.g.) while others are excluded (polygamy, racial segregation in marriage, incitement to violence, e.g.).

Without understanding what you intend by "religion", I'm in no position to declare whether religion[SH] is admissible reason in government; but I can assert that authentic religion, properly understood, proposes nothing that is contrary to the common good (or contrary to Science, for that matter), while plenty of what passes for law is not so blessed.

Secular Humanist said...

"but I can assert that authentic religion, properly understood, proposes nothing that is contrary to the common good (or contrary to Science, for that matter), while plenty of what passes for law is not so blessed."

So, religion prohibits abortion or contraception and there are no examples of those being for the common good? Would China be better off if there were no birth control?

Same sex marriage does much for the common good by protecting the interests of many children in same sex parented families.

Belfry Bat said...

Be precise and complete! What is expedient for survivors need not be any charity for the dead. The particular religion I think you have in mind positively proposes self-control instead of "birth control". The same religion proposes also that, while we are by nature capable of self-control (that is, we are free creatures), such virtue ordinarily requires exercise and help. So, Yes, if China had taught self-control instead of murdering second Han children, China would be better-off. If they made the switch today, carefully, they could be better off in thirty years.

At the root of all argument in favour of contraception and the other thing is the assumption that in one particular forum, men and women either cannot or ought not exercise self-control. If you want to end the thing called "rape culture", why not: ban abortion, ban the pill, and have convicted rapists pay child support?

The thing called same sex marriage does nothing to protect children. At best, it withdraws a particular, perhaps-unnecessary threat to separate a child from one of her parents --- a child who would seem to be already separated from another parent. But there is no need to humpty-dumpty the word "marriage" for the protection of children: it requires only intelligence and charity and restraint in the exercise of government.

Secular Humanist said...

"If you want to end the thing called "rape culture", why not: ban abortion, ban the pill, and have convicted rapists pay child support?"

That's what's called a "crackpot idea". Also having the Chinese practice self control instead of birth control. That too is a crackpot idea. You don't seem to have any real solutions for today's problems.

Sheila said...

China is a rather terrible example for either of you to bring up. I mean, forced abortion is a thing there. Its problems could be much better solved with more freedom -- freedom to move elsewhere, freedom to find better work, and of course freedom to make actual decisions about how many children they want to have. I don't think most of them want half a dozen in the first place, but some would like two and I don't see why the Chinese government doesn't allow that.

My point of view is that my decision not to use birth control is a personal one which comes from my religious convictions (such as they are!) and which I have no interest in imposing on anybody else. Their duty, from my perspective, is to take care of any children they do happen to have, it's none of my business whether they have them or not and certainly none of my business how much sex they want to have. In a world where plenty of women don't even get to choose how much sex they have -- where that's considered the husband's right -- I feel there are a lot of bigger fish to fry than birth control anyway.

I suppose this is a very American idea, based on the harm principle (i.e. I don't think someone else's contraception use harms me, so I don't see a reason to oppose it) but it is what I honestly think.

The US bishop's fuss over birth control actually doesn't go so far as trying to ban it; they're more trying to keep Catholics from having to be involved in it. I disagree with the political battle they're making of it, but in fairness to them, they have not campaigned to ban birth control anyway.

Belfry Bat said...

The US Bishops enjoy the freedom to restrict their requests to those they believe might actually be granted; and there's nothing morally wrong with that.

Sheila said...

I agree with you -- my point was to Secular Humanist, that even if you disapprove of the bishops' birth control fight, you have to admit it's not the same as trying to ban birth control.

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