In light of all the momentous events currently taking place around the world, this next story might seem somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things. But it illustrates some important points that are of more general application, and more importantly to me, it concerns my own alma mater, Binghamton University, of which I am a proud alumnus.
It seems that a Binghamton sophomore, Aaron Akaberi, recently converted to the Rastafarian religion. As part of his conversion, he decided to adhere to a strict interpretation of the Rastafarian dietary rules, Ital, which entail, among other things, total avoidance of meat, of non-organic produce, and of any food prepared using metal cookware (!).
Akaberi considered the standard cuisine offered by Binghamton University’s dining-services provider, Sodexho, to be insufficient to meet his desires, and resented that, as an undergraduate living in a campus dormitory, he was required to purchase a meal plan. When he made his complaints known, a campus dietitian made a proposal in which chefs would specially obtain and prepare food just for him, tailored to meet his dietary standards. Akaberi refused this offer. The university then offered to move him from his current dorm to a room in the graduate apartment communities, where he would not be required to purchase a meal plan and would have access to a kitchen to prepare food to his own liking. Akaberi refused this offer as well. Then, apparently feeling as if his special demands had not been sufficiently catered to, he went on a hunger strike. After 12 days, the school informed him that he was seriously endangering his own health, and that he would be subject to an involuntary medical expulsion if he insisted on continuing it. Akaberi finally gave in and ceased his self-starvation, though the next step in this wrangle remains unclear. (I obtain this information from two articles in Binghamton’s campus newspaper, Pipe Dream: one, two.)
Based on the facts as they have been presented, it seems to me that Binghamton University has been more than fair. Whatever legitimate grievance Akaberi may have over the mandatory purchase of a meal plan is more than outweighed by the petty and selfish behavior he has repeatedly displayed, even when the school went out of its way to accommodate him. More to the point, the rules he claims to follow are absolutely idiotic. There are legitimate reasons not to eat meat, but a demand that food not come in contact with metal is a ridiculous and irrational superstition. Although I believe in respecting differing beliefs as far as is practical, such respect definitely does not mandate that reasonable people must go out of their way to bow down to the demands of unreasonable people.
The more general principle at work – one believed in an extreme form by Akaberi, but held in a less extreme form by much of society – is a misguided belief that any demand originating from religion should always be met, as if holding a belief for religious reasons gave one the right to bend the world around oneself, and to demand that everyone else change their ways of thinking and acting to accommodate that belief. (In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives the telling example of excusal from mandatory military service: until recently, a nonbeliever who objected to all war on the basis of profound and deeply considered philosophical reasons would have an extremely difficult time obtaining an exemption from the draft or would be unable to do so at all, while a person claiming membership in the Quakers or some other pacifist religious sect would be granted an exemption far more easily. Evidently, “because God told me to” is somehow considered more compelling than “because I personally reasoned it out”.)
Rastafarianism in general, in fact, is an extremely silly belief set, even by the lenient standards one is forced to apply when judging among different religions. Dedicated Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie I, ruler of Ethopia from 1930 until shortly before his death in 1975, was God incarnate, and the messiah who will unite all people of African descent and lead them to the promised land. His being dead is not viewed as a significant handicap in this. Notably, Selassie had no affiliation with Rastafarianism, played no role in initiating, organizing or promoting the movement, belonged to a completely different church (the Ethiopian Orthodox church) his entire life, and never claimed to be God. Rastafarians consider this further proof of his divinity, as the true God would not display the sin of pride by publicly proclaiming himself so. Next to such a laughable claim, the refusal to eat from metal cookware seems almost rational.
In reality, just because a belief is derived from religion is no reason to respect or abide by it. To the degree that such beliefs are rational, we should accommodate them; to the degree that they are not, we should refuse to do so. Some have cast doubt on the sincerity of Akaberi’s conversion, but truthfully it does not matter: whether his beliefs are sincerely religious or not, they are unreasonable, and other people should not have to make any special effort to accommodate them. Atheists are sometimes accused of demanding special rights, but in reality, we ask only for the same rights and tolerance as everyone else. This is a true example of a person demanding special rights, and most of these people, like Akaberi, do so for reasons stemming from religion.