Freedom of Religion in 2016
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As is often the case, over the last few posts you may have lost track of the fact that this is ostensibly a religious blog. Well it is, though it might be one of those, if someone accused you of being a religious blogger would there be enough evidence to convict you? I’m sure one of the points which might be used against me is the fact that, before my last post about the election, I spent two posts talking about the first amendment, without any discussion of freedom of religion. What kind of religious blogger is more interested in freedom of speech than freedom of religion? Well in this post I intend to correct that. I think part of the reason why I tackled speech first is that it’s easier. People may disagree with my argument that it’s the best defense against authoritarianism, but the argument is not unreasonable on its face. Also there is not a group of people who feel that free speech is at best a collection of superstitions which should be gutted, if it’s allowed to survive at all, and at worst the cause of all the bad things that have ever happened. Those arguments have been used with respect to religion, which makes defending freedom of religion an entirely different endeavor. Basically it’s hard to argue that the existence of atheists and to a lesser extent agnostics doesn’t complicate things. For example you’ll note (speaking of atheists and agnostics) that there are no similar terms for people who don’t believe in free speech, except maybe dictator.
Even for people who aren’t atheists or agnostics, part of the muddiness comes from what people consider freedom of religion, and along with that, what counts as an attack on that freedom. True freedom of religion can include things far more concrete than the right to say what you want without fear of censorship. As the old children’s rhyme goes:
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
This is largely true, especially from a legal standpoint, if a group of people surrounds someone and yells at them, you might find that behavior annoying, you might even find it appalling, but you’re unlikely to think that those people should be arrested, and if they are, you would be surprised if they were held for more than a day or two. However, if a group of people surrounds someone and stones them to death (as recommended by at least two religions) you would expect a lot of arrests. Now obviously not all examples of religious freedom involve stones and dying, but even a comparatively mild example like not baking someone a cake involves something more concrete than just words. Putting freedom of religion in a significantly different place than freedom of speech.
I’ve mentioned the negative opinions of atheists and agnostics, and maybe someday they’ll succeed at eliminating religion entirely (similar to the Soviet Union and we all know how well that worked out.) But is freedom of religion currently under attack? Unlike with freedom of speech, where you need look no farther than a college campus to see things that, while technically legal, meet no one’s ideal of free speech, freedom of religion is trickier. One commonly cited example of freedom of religion being under attack is the persecution of Christians. (See the aforementioned reference to cake baking.) But there is disagreement on how prevalent or consequential this persecution actually is. With some people going so far as to declare the entire thing a myth. I don’t think it’s a myth, and this post will largely be an argument in favor of it’s existence.
When considering whether freedom of religion is being restricted, two things should be kept in mind. First, to refer briefly back to the Constitution, what it actually says is that the free exercise of the religion shall not be prohibited. The term “free exercise” strikes me as a higher standard than making sure religions aren’t persecuted. Second, it’s important to clarify that religious persecution can take many forms and operate on many levels. If my examples of persecution just took the form of hard-core atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, saying mean things about Christians, then this wouldn’t be much of a post. Dawkins, in particular, has been so abrasive recently that he has started to alienate even his fans. If I was going to write a post built around outrageous things Dawkins said, I’d be joining a pretty crowded field, and I would have to share whatever sympathy I could muster with thousands of others.
But I think that persecution is broader than just hard-core skeptics and atheists, and I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t think it existed, in fact I not only think it exists, but I think that it’s a bigger and more widespread problem than most people realize. This is not that uncommon, lots of times big problems aren’t that obvious, or at least their obviousness is frequently not directly correlated to their severity. Some people will claim that lead exposure explains nearly all the social ills that have afflicted America since the time of Columbus (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration). For my part I’d be surprised if lead exposure was quite as consequential as all that, but I would definitely agree that it had an impact far out of proportion to its obviousness. The persecution of religion is in a similar category. A non-obvious problem that’s bigger than people think. Which is not to say that it’s non-obvious to everyone. In the same way that some people have been warning about lead for decades, other people have been warning about religious persecution for just as long.
Maybe you are one of these people, perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but if you’re not, and religious persecution isn’t apparent, what should you be looking for? How am I going to convince you that it’s as big a problem as I say it is? These are all excellent questions, but before we get to them it would help to establish some background by looking at three theories of religion:
Theory number one: God exists and religion is how we interact with him.
This theory of religion was dominant for most of human history. It hypothesizes that there is a God (or Gods) and that one or more of the religions on the earth reflect some greater or lesser portion of God: his divinity, his unchanging truths, or his eternal plan. Most adherents to this theory also believe in some form of afterlife, of infinite duration and happiness, meaning that whatever we do that doesn’t qualify us for this afterlife is a waste of time. Under this theory we shouldn’t be merely promoting freedom of religion the whole point of man should be religion. Freedom of religion, and by extension giving people the ability to find God, isn’t a nice policy it’s the only policy worth having period. Of course there is an alternative to freedom of religion under this theory, if you’re certain that you have the correct religion, then (if God doesn’t object, which he might) you can just make everyone be that religion. This particular scenario of dictating a single religion will be discussed in more depth later.
Theory number two: Religion is stupid
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that God doesn’t exist, and not only does he not exist, but religion is superstitious garbage created by the brain’s over-active pattern matching and it’s garbage that should have been cleaned up a long time ago. The most visible adherents to this theory are the every-bad-thing-which-ever-happened-can-be-blamed-on-religion people, who feel that religion is similar to drinking, something they probably can’t prohibit (and attempts to do so have turned out badly), but which at best is a necessary evil and if we can get people to not do anything important while under it’s influence (to continue the drinking metaphor) everyone would be a lot better off. But in addition to these people we should also include those people who may even have some belief in God, but believe religion to be a waste of time and an annoying topic of conversation; not actively harmful, but not beneficial either, perhaps in their minds it’s similar to World of Warcraft, potentially an amusing diversion, but otherwise pointless.
Theory number three: Religion is just the accumulated culture and traditions of a given society.
Under theory three religion is neither the primary point of our existence, or a vestigial remnant of a superstitious past, and despite being neither of those things it is nevertheless unavoidable. If you have a society you’re going to have a religion, perhaps many of them, but ideas and traditions, taboos and beliefs don’t exist in isolation. They’re always going to end up bundled into a package of some sort. Some people want to label the packages which have been around for a long time as religions, and more recent packages as science, but not only is that division arbitrary, it gives unfair precedence to the science side of things, when, if anything it should be reversed. Societies don’t accumulate culture and traditions as a hobby, they accumulate them because they work. Science works as well (replication crisis aside) but even the best results in social science (the closest parallel to religion) have been arrived at by testing a few hundred people over the course of a few months. Religion is the distilled results of testing millions of people over thousands of years.
I know there are people who will reject this assertion outright, but if you take a moment to engage in some hard thinking, than this idea makes more sense than saying religion is stupid. If that were the case why isn’t the world dominated by non-religious societies and civilizations? Instead, not only is religion universal, but certain taboos, like the taboo against extramarital sex, turn out to have been present in most religions. I discussed this in far more depth in a previous post. But in short you can either accept that religion is universal and useful, or you can assert that all cultures went slightly mad in a very similar way.
Interestingly accepting theory number three doesn’t necessarily preclude theory number one, religion could exist as an extension of God’s existence, at the same time providing a useful store of accumulated wisdom (in the ideal case this would be God’s wisdom). However theory three is incompatible with theory two. For adherents of theory two their modern ideology is an entirely different thing than an ancient religion like Christianity or Islam. But if you believe theory number three, then modern ideologies are just another religion, one that could be better, but also could be a lot worse than the traditional religions.
Of course outside of these three theories, there are obviously many people who hold no theory of religion. Without being able to access people’s deepest thoughts it’s difficult to know how many people there are who truly have no opinion, but there are almost certainly people who really don’t give it much thought one way or the other, except to be annoyed when the Mormon missionaries show up at their door.
With the three theories of religion in place, let’s look at religious persecution through the lens of each theory. Examining persecution by way of the first theory is fairly straightforward. If there is a God and he’s commanded us to do X, and if we do we’ll receive some manner of infinite reward, anything which keeps us from doing X is essentially infinite harm. Now I personally think things can get screwy once you start tossing around infinities, and also I certainly believe that there is a continuum of acts. Preventing someone from praying in school is obviously less egregious than preventing them from praying period. And destroying all the LDS temples would be of greater harm than just banning the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. But still, in essence, any infringement on religious rights under theory number one is pretty bad, and while you may not see same-sex marriage or abortion as an infringement on anyone’s rights, in fact you might view it as a huge expansion in rights. It is certainly conceivable that a religious person might nevertheless view it differently. The same could be said for widespread acceptance of extramarital promiscuity, and the deluge of pornography. The standard argument is that no one is forcing you to engage in same-sex marriage, have an abortion, be promiscuous or view pornography, but all of these things make it much more difficult to for people live their religion and make it particularly difficult for them to raise their children to be religious. Which under theory number one is the whole point of life, meaning that religious persecution is pervasive, ongoing, and unlikely to do anything but get worse if you view things through the lens of the first theory.
To be clear I’m not advocating that this theory should be the dominant theory for interpreting freedom of religion under the first amendment, though it’s arguable that it was the dominant theory for most of the country's existence. I’m just illustrating how, if this is the theory you’re operating under, persecution and infringement are everywhere.
Under the second theory of religion, the idea that it’s stupid, almost nothing counts as persecution. I mean if you can still meet in your special building once a week and talk about your crazy ideas concerning the existence of a supreme being, for whom no proof exists, then what else is there to complain about? I mean obviously if you do certain ridiculous things like have more than one wife we’re going to smack you down, cause that’s not freedom of religion, that’s insanity. I mean the whole thing is insane, but since we can’t outright prohibit it, we’ll continue to let you meet once a week, and I guess if you want to volunteer at a food kitchen or at a disaster site from time to time that’s cool too, but don’t give us any of this crazy bigoted stuff about same sex marriage being wrong or abortion being murder.
In other words, defining persecution under the first two theories is easy, in the first, persecution is everywhere and in the second persecution is nowhere. Understandably this has made discussion between the two sides difficult. Of course it’s a gross oversimplification to assume that there are just two sides, there are dozens, but hopefully you can see that where you stand on freedom of religion could in large part be determined by what you think the point of religion is.
It’s when we turn to the third theory that things get more difficult and more interesting. If religion is the accumulated cultural wisdom of the ages, there should be significant deference given to those points on which most religions agree (see extramarital sex above). On issues where one religion has something to say and other religions are silent (say the consumption of pork), religions should be given wide latitude since there’s a good chance that there may be wisdom in one religion which could profitably be shared with the society at large. Of course this is not going to eliminate ideological competition, but insofar as we can make it ideological and not violent competition, that would be preferable. In this respect freedom of religion bears a strong resemblance to freedom of speech, which is probably one of the reasons why they’re both in the First Amendment.
Just as speech loses most of it’s value if there is only one viewpoint, religion is subject to all manner of abuses if there is only one religion, particularly if that religion is state-sponsored. The Founding Fathers were very familiar with this potential for abuse, and had seen religion morph from accumulated cultural wisdom into a tool for the powerful to oppress their enemies (the tendency largely responsible for creating adherents to theory two.) Having some guidelines which help society run better is one thing, burning your enemies at the stake is quite another. But the founders could still distinguish between the state acting in the guise of religion and religion free from the influence of the state, and that’s what they tried to encourage.
As you can see theory three leads us to a place that looks very similar to what the founders probably intended, though possibly by a different route. And we end up with two principles for defining religious freedom. The first principle is that freedom of religion should be similar to freedom of speech, with some additional deference for tradition, and the second principle being that we should avoid dominance by a single religion, particularly a state sponsored one.
For most of the country’s history I would argue that these two principles were largely taken for granted. Which is not to say that there weren’t ideological disagreements like anti-catholicism (and that could be viewed as a reaction against domination by a single religion, rather than the opposite) but largely things went pretty smoothly. One of the biggest tests of religious freedom came with polygamy. Which the Supreme Court eventually decided was not covered by the First Amendment. We don’t have the space to jump into that briar patch, but it is important to note that it was prohibited largely because it didn’t match with what people viewed as traditional religion, particularly traditional Christianity. There’s a big debate about whether the recent ruling on same sex marriage will eventually lead to polygamy being legal, but it’s certain that if the issue does come before the Supreme Court that arguments involving what’s “traditional” will play a much smaller role than they did in Reynolds v. United States the original 1878 case which outlawed polygamy for good.
With these two principles in place we can finally consider what religious freedom looks like under theory three. Let’s start with the idea that freedom of religion should look like freedom of speech, with a bias towards traditional religious values. On this count I would have to say that things are not going very well. Regardless of where you stand on the issues I would hope that you could agree that there has never been a time more hostile to expressions of support for traditional religions particularly expressing traditional religious opposition to stuff like extramarital sex, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. Now to be fair this power balance has only recently flipped, and so it may seem like gay individuals still get more grief than people arguing against same sex marriage. In this era of flux it’s possible that both sides are getting a fair amount of censure and hate, ideally neither would.
Turning to the principle that we should be wary of having a single dominant religion, I think we’re doing poorly there as well. It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about the Religion of Progress, but I would argue that it is currently the dominant religion and de facto state-sponsored to boot. Though there would be a lot of people who would deny that it’s a religion. Combined with what I mentioned above the Religion of Progress is crowding out the practice, doctrine and even discussion of traditional religions.
I can certainly imagine that I’m wrong about all of this and all traditional religions need to be supplanted by the Religion of Progress, but even so is it really wise to have all our eggs in one basket? Is it really wise to dismiss everyone who came before us as stupid and superstitious? Are you really so confident that religions have nothing to teach us? That it’s fine if they are pounded down to the point where they barely resemble religions?
I’ve spent over three thousand words illustrating my view of how freedom of religion should be interpreted and whether religious persecution exists. But perhaps in all of the twists and turns the totality of the argument wasn’t clear, so in a somewhat glib summation, which should not take the place to the thousands of words which preceded, here is my argument:
There are three ways of looking at religion. Viewing religion as stupid and valueless (theory two) is, well, stupid. Both of the other viewpoints would strongly suggest that we treat traditional religions and traditional norms with a large degree of respect. In the last few decades we’ve decided against that. This is a mistake.