The Fiction of Corporate Religious Freedom

A recent column by Stanley Fish concerns the relationship between believers and the state, specifically how far the state should go in accommodating the beliefs of religious communities – such as Muslims who want to live under sharia law.

Although Fish never explicitly states his own views, he gives the strong impression that he’s on the side of the theists who argue that they should be allowed to have special laws. In particular, he writes that liberal societies by their nature can’t defend “corporate religious freedom”. That’s a very strange phrase, one which he never gives a clear definition for. What could it mean?

It’s not the right of individuals to freely practice their religion in their private lives. That’s covered by the liberal neutrality (actually, “secularism” would be a better word) which Fish only acknowledges with a faint pucker of distaste. It also can’t be the right of individuals to organize, build, and attend churches where their own view is preached. That’s covered by the freedom of association that’s one of those individual rights. No, “corporate” religious freedom means something different, and he tells us what:

…it has been felt with increased force as Muslim immigrants to Western secular states evidence a desire to order their affairs, especially domestic affairs, by Shariah law rather than the supposedly neutral law of a godless liberalism…

This can’t be the mere right of people to contract with each other in a way which provides that disputes, if they arise, will be settled according to religious principles. Again, this already exists; it’s one of those freedoms you have under godless liberalism. (For instance, most multinational banks that do business with Muslim populations offer sukuk loans, a special kind of financial instrument invented to comply with the Islamic prohibition on charging interest). No, “corporate religious freedom” can mean only one thing: that religious communities should be free to create their own laws and apply them to everyone who lives within that community – including people who haven’t agreed to be bound by them.

Islamic communities, presumably, could pass a law requiring all their women to be veiled, regardless of whether those women want to do that or consider that to be part of their interpretation of Islam. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities could pass laws forbidding men and women to mingle in public. Roman Catholic communities could forbid pharmacies to sell contraception. Laws could be passed which would require weekly attendance at religious services. And then, of course, there are the blasphemy laws forbidding the dominant religion to be criticized, which I’m sure religious communities of every kind would leap at.

This view which Fish so muddle-headedly advocates is full of huge, obvious problems. First of all, what defines a “community”? A geographic boundary? The membership rolls of a church? Baptismal records? Could I be inducted into a community against my will? Could parents commit their children, and if so, would those children be permitted to opt out?

Second, what would happen to people who break these laws? Would the ordinary police be tasked with arresting those heretics, thus putting the power of the state at the beck and call of churches? Or worse, would religious groups be permitted to create their own police, their own courts, their own prisons, their own ideas of due process that would deal with dissenters and offenders as they saw fit? And how would these laws be passed in the first place – by the majority consent of the community? Or by an unelected council of clerics?

But all this isn’t just a thought experiment. We know exactly what the real-world results of the good professor’s scheme would be. There are already places where religious groups have “corporate freedom”, and this is what it leads to:

The United Arab Emirates’s highest judicial body has ruled that a man can beat his wife and young children as long as the beating leaves no physical marks.

…”If a wife committed something wrong, a husband can report her to police,” Dr al Kubaisi said. “But sometimes she does not do a serious thing or he does not want to let others know; when it is not good for the family. In this case, hitting is a better option.”

This is what they are seeking. This is what “corporate freedom” always amounts to: violence, coercion and theocratic law. How could it be otherwise? For better or for worse, in a secular democracy a group of freely consenting individuals can already pledge to live any way they wish, to mutually agree to practice any religious beliefs they desire. The only other “freedom” they could possibly have is the ability to force their beliefs on people who don’t consent. And that’s what this talk always boils down to: the same old complaint, that respecting their religious freedom means allowing them to take away the freedom of others.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • bbk

    There is only one way to make this work for them: once you join, you can never leave. Or else you could just say “I don’t believe in this anymore” as soon as your husband and the other villagers decide to stone you to death.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I know. I threw up in my mouth a little as I read Fish’s article.

    Let’s call a spade a spade.

    He is advocating for religious communitarianism, which implies the sexual slavery of women and the psychological torture of children.

    Not to mention the demise of the United States.

    He is basically advocating for a repudiation of our Constitution.

    But, he doesn’t want to say this, or admit it, probably least of all to himself, so he frames it as a “freedom”, instead of admitting what it is:

    religious communitarianism and cultural/moral relativism

  • Sarah Braasch

    Nice sophistic use of the word corporate too.

    This is why any acknowledgement of group rights necessarily entails civil / human rights violations.

    Groups do not exist. They are illusory social constructs.

    Only people do.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Sorry to keep commenting.

    But, this is my issue. It just makes me so upset.

    This is already happening — all over the US.

    Our much vaunted individualism is a national myth.

    Especially for women and children.

    Religious communities all over the US are de facto, if not de juris, sovereign nations.

    I really can’t think of anything that would be more of an Establishment Clause violation than the federal government turning a knowing blind eye from religious communitarianism.

  • http://Godlesspoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Really Sarah? I’m more in favour of letting everyone do what they want. Libertarianism! Churches have money, they can buy up assassins, police, and create their own regulations as much as they want, we wouldn’t want Big Government interfereing with their right to ruin the world. If its a problem, other people can buy their own mercenaries to protect against their vast sums of wealth. There’s no objective morals stating that women and children are equal or that anyone deserves to live, after all.

    PS: I’m being facetious here. I hope people would realize that, but then I remembered the “morals” commentary earlier.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Zietlos –

    Nice.

    Yeah. The morals thread went a little off the rails. And, I deserve some of the blame, I’m sure.

    But, it was fun while it lasted.

    I think I just described every relationship I’ve ever had.

    Whoever said that if you decide to impose your stupid ideas upon the rest of the world, then you should be prepared to have them misunderstood, was a genius. And, that goes double for internet communication.

  • paradoctor

    Corporate religious freedom is the freedom to oppress; corporate economic freedom is the freedom to swindle.

  • Jormungund

    “Liberal principles,” declares Milbank, “will always ensure that the rights of the individual override those of the group.” For this reason, he concludes, “liberalism cannot defend corporate religious freedom.” The neutrality liberalism proclaims “is itself entirely secular” (it brackets belief; that’s what it means by neutrality) and is therefore “unable to accord the religious perspective [the] equal protection” it rhetorically promises. Religious rights “can only be effectively defended pursuant to a specific and distinctly religious framework.” Liberal universalism, with its superficial respect for everyone (as long as everyone is superficial) and its deep respect for no one, can’t do it.

    Does this guy understand what the word ‘freedom’ means? He seems to be defining ‘freedom’ as a thing that results in violations of individual rights. That is a 1984-style definition of ‘freedom’. That article is just disturbing. I think I’m a little sick to my stomach after reading it.
    What on earth does Stanley Fish have to gain by attacking the concept of a liberal democracy? Does he want to regress so far back as to have a pre-enlightenment style of government? I can’t imagine many people seriously wanting that. Looking at his “Religion and the Liberal State Once Again” article written as a follow up to “Serving Two Masters: Shariah Law and the Secular State,” I can’t quite tell what he is advocating (other than that “the question of plural legal jurisdictions … [is] by no means settled”).

  • Wednesday

    We don’t even need to go to the very rare (in the US) fundamentalist Islamic and Jewish groups to get some serious problematic consequences of Fisk’s vision. In the US, conservative protestant Christians would do the bulk of the damage by enacting a number of restrictions that are less extreme than “no mingling of the sexes in public” but still hugely damaging. I can see them using Religious Community Law to make abortion, contraception, HPV vaccines and many other things like pap smears inaccessible to poor people; making employment and housing harder to get for LGBTs and other social undesirables like brown people who aren’t Christian; making it even more difficult for victims of domestic abuse to get away because “women should submit to their husbands”; prohibiting the teaching of evolution (and maybe even climate change) in schools; ensuring that schools do not have to intervene when it comes to LGBT youth being bullied…

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the rising influence of the antichrist prophecy folks, we would see groups who would want to be able to somehow opt out of the UN (whatever that would mean) and anything else they see as a One World Government/Currency/Economy, and who knows what kind of damage they would wreak that way.

    This would also open the door for anti-abortion terrorists, who claim religious justification for their acts.

  • javaman

    This is what happened with the catholic church and pedophile/child rape early reports, the local police/DA, and civil authorities wouldn’t investigate because it was an “internal” church matter and best be left alone because the church would correction the problem as, a closed door matter, we all know how well that went

  • L.Long

    Agreed! the only reason for any form SorriArse Law is to allow the (insert BS) to use violence on the members and on others so as to enforce their BS.
    The ability to enforce SorriArse Law is already in place here and most places.
    Need to beat some ADULT for some reason, No problem!!!!
    You both go to the local S&M place and one beats the other.
    But touch a CHILD or a NON-CONSENTING ADULT and tough schite on you cuz the law & the constitution is #1.

  • Nathaniel

    Its really quite simple. Stanley Fish believes that if religious groups were able to impose their beliefs on other people, his group would come out on top. Just as the self presumed Randien Supermen who think themselves Galtian billionaires if only the damn government would get out of the way, he never considers what would happen if he was part of the disfavored group.

  • kennypo65

    It seems to me that more religious freedom would actually mean less freedom for everyone else. There should be more restriction on religion not less. Religion poisons everything it touches, and has no place in the modern world. I submit that the rise of fundamentalism is the backlash from faiths that are realising their irrelevance to society. This fundamentalism does not appeal to younger people(especially when it comes with conservative political views) so they will have trouble recruiting new members, and eventually die out. (I admit that some of this is just my fantasy, but I can still hope, can’t I?)

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    Thanks for writing this. I think your last paragraph sums it up perfectly.

    This is what they are seeking. This is what “corporate freedom” always amounts to: violence, coercion and theocratic law. How could it be otherwise? For better or for worse, in a secular democracy a group of freely consenting individuals can already pledge to live any way they wish, to mutually agree to practice any religious beliefs they desire. The only other “freedom” they could possibly have is the ability to force their beliefs on people who don’t consent. And that’s what this talk always boils down to: the same old complaint, that respecting their religious freedom means allowing them to take away the freedom of others.

    It is extremely frustrating that people seem to conveniently forget about what really happens, how horrible people’s lives really are, when religions are in power (despite the numerous examples of this in history and in recent events around the world). Somehow, religious people manage to convince themselves that it really wasn’t all that bad and that, even if it was, it won’t be that way this time around. It’s also maddening when people conveniently forget that not everyone wants to stay in the religion that their parents are in. Why is it that so many people listen exclusively to Muslim women who claim that they want to follow the discriminatory rules of their religion and ignore those who want to leave (or are being threatened into staying)? Articles like this one by Stanley Fish make me wish that those movies in which people switch bodies could happen in real life. I wonder if Fish would write the same article after living life as a female in a strict conservative Islamic home.

  • Wednesday

    Articles like this one by Stanley Fish make me wish that those movies in which people switch bodies could happen in real life. I wonder if Fish would write the same article after living life as a female in a strict conservative Islamic home.

    My concern there is that someone like Fish would come out of that concluding that only Islam is the problem, and not his idea of “corporate religious freedom”. We’d do better to put him in an Assemblies of God home after the body-swap. Or maybe even a fairly typical conservative American protestant Christian home, if the body swap left him still thinking of himself as a heterosexual male. Although in that case he might not be spending all that much time in that home, and be learning more about pray-away-the-gay abuse camps and/or life on the street…

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    @Wednesday: I’ve also noticed this tendency to only notice the problems within Islam and deny the problems in other religions, and it irritates me to no end. Somehow, almost identical horrible teachings in the Bible and Qur’an don’t seem to get the message across. The question seems to be this: What is the most effective way to convince a person to support secularism as opposed to just seeing one religion as the solution to the problems in another? Another question, more related to this post, is: What is the most effective way to get the message across that freedom of religion is for every individual and not a means for the hierarchies of various religions to gain special privileges?

  • Wednesday

    @Sharmin — Ask an easy one, why don’t you. Maybe you’d like to ask how we can end racism and achieve world peace while you’re at it? =P

    I’m inclined to think that sort of blindness to one’s own religion’s flaws is rooted in the same things as US-centrism, casual racism, etc etc. One way to counter that can be education about other cultures and religions, but that alone doesn’t guarantee they’ll turn a critical eye to their own culture. I think that, eg, many Americans knows that women who go about in public without a veil in some parts of Pakistan may be subject to stares from strange men, but don’t make the connection to American street harassment, where women in some parts of America who go about in public while being dressed the wrong way or being the wrong shape or color may be subject to verbal harassment from strange men. The former is Strange and Foreign, and so it’s easy to see what’s wrong with it, but the latter is an unquestioned part of life for many people in the US. (I don’t mean to say the problems are of equal severity, but they’re both about men creating a hostile environment to women who want to participate in society.)

    I really don’t know how we can get people to draw these connections between ills in other cultures and ills in our own, short of repeatedly and publicly making these comparisons ourselves so they can’t ignore the parallels.

  • colluvial

    Fish seems to have never considered that it is the secularism of societies that allows multiple religions to co-exist. I don’t know how it is in Islam, but there is a strong current of feeling among Christians that God has bad aim and can’t help but punish the innocent when he’s smiting the wicked. This certainly provides motivation to try to purge their communities of dissidents.

    Which religion – other than for the ones that thought they could win the bloodbath – would want to initiate the practice of imposing their laws on those who don’t follow their religion? For someone living in the relative safety of a society where most religious divisiveness is defused by a buffer of secularism, perhaps the naïveté of his position hasn’t occurred to him.

  • Jerryd

    Colluvial said, “Which religion – other than for the ones that thought they could win the bloodbath – would want to initiate the practice of imposing their laws on those who don’t follow their religion?”

    With Islam, in particular, and Christianity, as I see it spreading in the U.S. today, it isn’t a case of imposing their laws on those who don’t follow their religion. They simply want to eliminate those who don’t do so.

    Consider this for Saudi Arabia as one example of a country that is 100% Islamic as described in “Faith at War” by Yaroslav Trofimov:

    “Freedom of religion, in the concise words of the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, ‘does not exist’ in Saudi Arabia. Only Muslims can be Saudi citizens, and any public expression of other religions–even by the six million or more foreign workers who make the Saudi economy run–is a crime. Saudi authorities have been known to bar companies from using the letter X in their names, on the grounds the X looks too much like a Christian cross. Unrelated women and men cannot socialize–even McDonald’s restaurants keep isolated male and female sections, with separate entrances. Crimes like sorcery, adultery, apostasy, blasphemy, and witchcraft are still punished by death–often by stoning or beheading on a Riyadh plaza ringed by cafes and toy stores, and popularly known as ‘chop-chop square.’ Nor is there freedom of the press, speech, or assembly.”

    Think this only happens in Saudi Arabia? Take a look at the number of countries in the world that have 100% Muslim populations, or are very close to that figure. A religion that teaches death is the required punishment for leaving it, relentlessly brainwashes children almost from birth in the religion’s dogma, requires five times daily prayers, etc., has found the secret to overcoming other believers or non-believers in their country. No need to rush, in time they will control everything as the gullible non-Muslims stand aside, leave the country or convert permanently. This isn’t a tsunami, it is a slow, relentless loss of freedom–religious and otherwise. It is un-American or un-Canadian, etc., to deny people their religious freedoms. Our Founders wrote that into the U.S. Constitution, a great mistake IMHO. The government can’t allow complete freedom to a virus whose goal is to topple that government. But it does so, and the virus goes unrecognized as long as the words “God” or “religion” attach to it.

  • Eurekus

    I was about to write a large comment but, all of a sudden, I feel like a headache is coming on after thinking about this post.

    I’ll only say this. I was once a fundamentalist who may have thought Fish’s ideas were good. What changed my mindset? The theory of evolution and the subsequent reasoning which concludes there is no god. I believe we should be pushing for TOE to be compulsory in all schools, public or private, and then we take over with reason. Nothing will break any desire to introduce Sharia Law than that.

    I didn’t mean to change the subject too much.

  • Eurekus

    I just want to correct my second last sentence. ‘Nothing will break any desire to introduce Sharia Law more than that.’

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It is un-American or un-Canadian, etc., to deny people their religious freedoms. Our Founders wrote that into the U.S. Constitution, a great mistake IMHO. The government can’t allow complete freedom to a virus whose goal is to topple that government.

    I disagree. The savor of freedom is enticing, which acts to moderate the religion. Additionally, the rights granted women in the Western world act as a wedge between Islam and half of its population. Finally, who in government would you nominate to determine which religion should be repressed and which tolerated? What would be their standards? How would they receive their positions?

    To abrogate the freedoms of one is to abrogate, potentially, the freedoms of all, and on this basis this approach should be rejected.

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    I do take consolation in the fact that most of the comments I’ve read through so far on Fish’ original article seem to be fairly sensible…

  • Jim Baerg

    “It is un-American or un-Canadian, etc., to deny people their religious freedoms. Our Founders wrote that into the U.S. Constitution, a great mistake IMHO. The government can’t allow complete freedom to a virus whose goal is to topple that government. But it does so, and the virus goes unrecognized as long as the words “God” or “religion” attach to it.”

    The most crucial freedom we must protect is the freedom of every child to learn about religions (& non-religions) other than that of their parents.