Archive for March, 2012

What is religious freedom?

2012/03/15

Religious groups and Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul, are claiming that the recent health care reforms in the US amount to an attack on religious freedom.

It seems that employers who offer health benefits cannot choose to omit “objectionable” services on the basis of religious dogma. Specifically, they cannot exclude coverage for contraceptives. Opponents of the reforms assert that, by being forced to contribute to health plans that cover these services, their religious freedom is being tossed aside.

First of all, let me say that I understand their objection. While I don’t share it, I understand that if you believe contraceptives are evil, it must be galling to be in a position where you may be financially supporting their use.

On the other hand, does this policy really net out as an attack on religious freedom?

Let me share a couple of reasons I think it is not.*

First, let’s look at parallel cases. What about a church that takes literally the old testament injunction about punishment for disobedient children? Is it religiously intolerant for the civil authorities to prohibit stoning them? No.

What about people who come from a culture where an man’s honour is more important than his wife’s or daughter’s life? Is it religiously intolerant to treat him as a murderer for satisfying his (often religiously-motivated) sense of honour? No.

Why are these not cases of religious intolerance? Because the rights of the victims not to be beaten or killed trump the rights of their attackers to satisfy whatever code of ethics they are following.

And, whether you agree with it or not, modern developed societies have decided that individuals have rights to reproductive freedom – to decide whether to separate acts of sex from acts of reproduction, through the use of contraception, and to not allow an embryo to develop into a full human being, through abortion. So far, it seems to me that the current issue is parallel with these other, less controversial issues.

Also, remember that individuals, not organizations, have rights. They are human rights, not corporate rights. So, when two “rights” appear to be in conflict – on the one hand the individual’s right to reproductive choice; on the other hand the employing organization’s right to express religious prohibitions – it is always going to be the individual’s right that triumphs.

Note that, in most cases, these will not conflict. Employees of Catholic hospitals will tend to be observant Catholics, for example. But there are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (Just as there are Jews who eat non-Kosher. I think this observation refutes William Lori’s very clever “ham sandwich defense“.)

Nothing in the law requires anyone to use contraception (contrary to the shrieks of some self-perceived victims of this law). So the question in my mind is this: should a person be free to choose contraception, as they would other (covered) medical services? Or should the employer be given veto right? If the relevant human rights laws assert a right to reproductive health services (such as contraception and sterilization), then that’s that. Rights are rights. If you disagree, try to get the rights legislation rescinded.

It is more complicated than this, of course. If health care in the US were a universal, socialized operation – as it is in most of the developed world – then these conservative religious employers would have no reason to worry. It would not be their money, but general tax money, paying for the services. (Yes, there would of course be taxpayers who would object to supporting these procedures – but that’s a different kettle of worms.)

The point is that, yes, as things stand, it looks like employers – even those affiliated with particular religious beliefs – are required to offer comprehensive health insurance. They don’t get to opt out, any more than religious educational institutions would get to opt out of child abuse laws just because they “sincerely believe” that lashes are the only appropriate, god-sanctioned way to enforce discipline.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean that you can use sincere religious belief as a loophole to ignore laws you don’t like. It means that laws cannot be created solely to discriminate against particular religious groups. It means that laws must be applied equally to all people, regardless of religious sentiment.

Is the current solution imperfect? Sure. Even more enlightened, socialized health care systems are imperfect.

Is the “Obamacare” solution eroding religious liberty? Of course not.

I’ll close with a quote from a very well-written editorial on the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this is the core:

The courts have consistently held that freedom of religion is not absolute. Religious actions have been regulated throughout American history to preserve or promote the public good. Providing health care, including contraceptives, is a public good. Religious practices have been banned when they are contrary to the public good. Freedom of belief is absolute; freedom to act on the basis of belief is regulated and must not injure others.

Footnote:

* Of course, it may be that these attacks over-state what the law demands of employers. See here for another perspective.

New snow

2012/03/08

One evening not long ago, I took the garbage and recycling out to the curb. A gentle snow was falling, drifting down through the orange glow of the street lights.

I stood in the serene silence, contemplating the scene. The marks of vehicles and feet, grit and grime, were all disappearing beneath a pristine orange-white blanket. My subconscious gently whispered a single word to me:

Forgiveness.

It was a forgiving snowfall.

It was a peaceful sensation, standing at the curb, watching the forgiving snow fall, feeling the cool night air against my cheeks. It suffused me with an unlooked-for sense of relief, of release from the stresses and worries of the day. I began to reflect on the appeal of forgiveness (a concept that seems to be a central, motivating element in more than one religious system).

I saw how someone in my position, feeling what I felt right then, might infer a divine forgiver behind the emotion (rather than dismissing it as simply coming from their own mind*). After all, forgiveness is normally granted by someone else.

And of course, if one is forgiven, it is generally in response to a transgression of some sort. You are forgiven for something. A sin.

And the forgiver must have had some alternative (or else what’s the point?). If forgiveness were not granted, then what? Punishment. Retribution. Some sort of supernatural gulag. Hell.

I noticed that, in a short series of very natural steps, I had been led from a remarkable experience to imagining the invention of a religion – a religion with a very familiar structure. I felt, as I don’t think I have felt so strongly ever before, how appealing are those belief systems that hold up forgiveness as a central reward of participation. I could see why someone might want to believe. Why I might want to believe.

I don’t know. I don’t know whether my chain of imagination in any way reflects the birth sequence of any actual human religion. I don’t know if any individual person has ever come to religious belief through such an experience.

Though it was powerful and moving, the sensation and the thoughts it inspired did not make a believer out of me. It was wonderful, memorable. It begins to give me a little more insight into how my mind works, how I process things emotionally.

But it does not look to me like evidence of a supernatural realm, of a divine forgiver.

I think – I hope – that the experience has given me a new sympathy for believers, a new ability to see why they find their beliefs so attractive. We shall see.

Footnote:

* It is both curious and telling that, in response to atheists’ skepticism, believers often challenge them by asking if they think these experiences are simply in their heads. As if anyone with even a passing familiarity with neural physiology or human psychology could ever describe the physical mind as “simple”. Your brain is incredibly powerful, and is doing so much more work processing the input of your senses and curating your memories than you are ever conscious of.

Maybe I’m missing something here.

2012/03/01

“Mommy! John said I like tomatoes!”

“Do you like tomatoes, Tim?”

“No. But he said I did!”

“Well, nobody believes him. Just ignore him – he’s only wasting his own breath.”

“But he keeps saying it!”

“I know, sweetie. And if you ignore him, he will keep wasting his own breath.”

Kids are so strange – I’m sure many parents have had to deal with similarly bizarre claims of injury to one child by another. Fortunately, they tend to grow out of such things as they grow up, and learn a little perspective. Usually …

Several Jewish organizations and individuals are upset that some Mormon individuals continue to perform (remote) baptisms of dead people – including Jews who died in the Holocaust. They seem to see it as an intolerable attack on the religious identity of the dead. (CBC, BBC)

Maybe I’m missing something here. The Jews don’t believe the Mormons have any actual access to the spirits of dead Jews; the Mormons are not doing anything to the physical remains of people; and the historical record remains unchanged. What exactly is the nature of the injury?

The Jews do not believe the Mormons have special access to God’s will or the souls of dead people. (If they did, I would think they’d call themselves “Mormons” rather than “Jews”.) So they don’t think the Mormons are actually stealing their loved ones’ souls for their non-Jewish god. Besides, even if they believed, the Mormon posthumous baptism is an invitation, not an initiation. According to Mormon belief, the soul of the deceased can accept or reject the baptism as they choose. So even if you believe there is something to Mormon posthumous baptism, the deceased is, at worst, voluntarily converting.

The baptisms are performed in absentia – a volunteer from the church stands in for the person being baptized. So no violation of physical remains is taking place.

The only evidence that anything happened is in the LDS records; so there is no chance that the historical records of people’s identity, or of the numbers of Jews that died in the Holocaust, will be distorted by these actions.

So all we’re left with is that the Mormons are performing rites in the privacy of their own homes and temples that express their belief that Joseph Smith’s revelation was a genuine message from God, and that all other religious messages are inferior.

So how is that any worse than, you know, being Mormon? How is it (for example) any more religiously insensitive than the orthodox Jewish prayer thanking their god for not making them a gentile? (Or, to be nice and ecumenical, is it any different from the traditional Catholic prayer for their god to convert the Jews?)

I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not surprised at the outrage. After all, I’m accustomed to hearing people complain that atheists are “militant” because they lay out, clearly and without apology, their reasons for not believing in any gods, and because they wish to live in a society where they are not treated as second-class because of their personal beliefs. The Jews are understandably sensitive about their religious identity.

It’s rather insensitive of the Mormons conducting these baptisms to publicize them in such a way that Jews can learn about them. (Yes, if they did them in private without telling anyone, I would see no problem beyond the fact that they’re expending energy on false beliefs.) And it should be remembered that Jews aren’t being singled out. Various others, from Adolf Hitler (and family) to Obama’s mom, have also been named in this ritual. This doesn’t make the practice less offensive, but it does suggest at least that anti-Semitism is not a motive.

So, to sum up my understanding: Nobody – real or imaginary, living or dead – is being coerced into anything by these “baptisms”. Nobody except the Mormons themselves believes that the dead are in any way affected by the baptisms. No physical remains are disturbed. No historical record is being altered.

Why is it that so many Jews think this is worth shouting about?

Please let me know what I’m missing.