Pressure on secularism

I don’t know if secularism was ever as much a consensus position as we sometimes think. But I do think it’s weaker today. Consider some recent examples of conservative religious pushback against even rather mild secularist political positions.

First, the United States. Take a look, if you can, at “In Defense of Religious Freedom A Statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” There’s an awful lot of theological blather in it about justifying “religious freedom,” which tries to make it to be an obvious order of God, setting aside the history of Christianity as a religion notoriously intolerant of the freedom of non-Christians. But they still don’t subscribe to the same notion of religious freedom as secular liberals, as paragraphs like the following make clear:

While the Supreme Court has protected the right to determine religious leaders, the capacity of religious believers to form and sustain distinctive institutions is threatened today. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has proposed “preventive services” regulations that require provision of FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacients like Ella, and sterilization. These regulations threaten the religious freedom of insurers, employers, schools, and other religious enterprises that conscientiously oppose contraception and abortion. Limiting conscience protections to those in religious institutions that serve only their own members, as some have proposed, criminalizes the public witness of religious organizations such as Catholic universities and other religious social welfare institutions.

Administrative and regulatory policies pose further threats to religious freedom. Christian doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health-care providers are being put at professional risk by policies that compel all health-care workers to undertake procedures and provide prescription drugs that many of them regard as immoral.

We also note that the attempt to redefine marriage through coercive state power has already brought pressure to bear on Christian ministers, despite exceptions provided in legislation. Further, in no state where the redefinition of marriage has passed the legislature has the religious institution exception provided all the religious freedom protections needed for individuals and groups that oppose the legalization of same-sex unions in those states.

Such statements suggest that “religious freedom” as understood by conservative Christians should be interpreted as protecting their ability to impose their views about morality on a large scale, including where many people who do not belong to their religious tradition are involved. Public policy, in other words, should be solicitous of conservative Christian notions of moral purity, otherwise the freedom of Christian communities to live fully according to their religious conscience will be violated.

This is not entirely implausible—people who identify first and foremost with their religious community or institution will naturally be concerned when a broadly applied public policy fails to align with church-supported views. It may even be true that if they don’t get their way, their purity of religious living will be compromised. (Treating the hell-bound equally has a way of doing that.) But at the least, this notion of “religious freedom” conservative Christians are defending is then something quite different from an individual freedom of conscience. It seems closer to a desire for religious communities or institutions to be free of constraints that derive from secular public policy.

Here are a couple of Islamic examples as well.

In Egypt, there’s a minor crisis going on while drafting a new constitution. The secularist minority in the relevant commission is boycotting the Islamist-led process which is leading toward a stricter application of Islamic law. Some Islamists now accuse the boycotting liberals of attempting to impose a Western liberal ideal on a Muslim country—charging them with a tyranny of the minority. Many conservative Muslims genuinely feel that their religious freedom is violated by secular policies, as it interferes with their ability to fully live in compliance with Islamic ideals as a community. Hence, according to their concept of religious freedom, it is secularist interference with their ability to impose their moral ideals through public policy that constitutes a violation of religious freedom.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, conservative Muslims in power see provision of religious education in state schools as a duty. Fatma Şahin, the Minister of Family and Social Policies, says that an elective course on  the Quran and the Holy Prophet is appropriate, since “humans don’t just have material and physical needs; they are material and spiritual wholes.” Apparently “a social state [their watered-down notion of a welfare state] has the duty to meet humans needs in order that they live happily and in peace,” and this includes meeting spiritual needs as understood by a dominant majority of the population.

Secularists typically confine legitimate public policy to meeting the worldly needs of citizens. But then, why should not a democratically affirmed religious government not recognize “spiritual needs,” declaring that the strict separation of material and spiritual needs is an artificial imposition?

Again, I should emphasize that views that demand recognition for the “rights” and “needs” of people in the context of religious communities they are attached to do not merely coopt secular liberal language about religious freedom and so forth. Religious conservatives have developed, under the influence of liberal political language, partly overlapping but also partly rival and incompatible notions of freedom. Those of us who prefer secular, liberal, and individual conceptions of rights and needs have a significantly different view about religious freedom.

None of these notions of freedom are necessarily more genuine—we have, I think, to take this seriously as a political rivalry. If the political environment I live in recognizes and protects my version of liberty, this will be at least in part at the expense of conservative religious people who will not be able to fully live their religious commitments as a cohesive community. And in an environment that favors their version of religious freedom, people like me will be more easily pushed around by religious institutions.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis said…

    But at the least, this notion of "religious freedom" conservative Christians are defending is then something quite different from an individual freedom of conscience. It seems closer to a desire for religious communities or institutions to be free of constraints that derive from secular public policy.
    ==========
    Comment:

    Amen.

    But I believe this to be hypocritical. As soon as some child of a Christian couple dies because a Jehovah's Witness doctor or nurse refuses to give the child a blood transfusion, Christians will demand that the government step in and force such doctors and nurses to provide blood transfusions contrary to the freedom of conscience of the doctor or nurse.

    So, they don't really care about religious freedom or freedom of conscience.

    As secularists we should be very supportive of individual freedom and religious freedom for individuals. If there is a way for Jehovah's Witness doctors and nurses to avoid giving blood transfusions without putting anyone's life at risk, then we should support that religious freedom.

    But obviously that will be tricky, and might well be expensive. Do we want to pay for an extra nurse or physician to be available for every shift at a hospital where the primary physician or nurse is a Jehovah's Witness? As a big-government liberal, I might be willing to pay more taxes or for medical insurance to increase the religious freedom of doctors and nurses, but are small-government conservatives willing to pony up the extra money that such freedoms will cost? I don't think so.

    If conservatives are unwilling to pay the costs required to increase the religious freedom of Jehovah's Witness doctors and nurses, then why should liberals be willing to bend over backwards to provide the same sort of religious freedom to Catholic doctors and nurses?

    Furthermore, if an entire institution, such as a college or hospital wants to refuse to provide blood transfusions, because the institution is run or owned by Jehovah's Witnesses, then are conservatives willing to pay to setup duplicate colleges and hospitals with the same quality of services in the same geographical area that will provide blood transfusions? There is no way that a small-government conservative would even consider such an idea. So, why should liberals even consider shelling out huge sums of money to provide duplicate colleges and hospitals to ensure that contraception and abortion services are readily available to non-Catholics and to Catholics who, like most American Catholics, pay no attention to the teachings of their church on sexual issues?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis said…

    None of these notions of freedom are necessarily more genuine—we have, I think, to take this seriously as a political rivalry. If the political environment I live in recognizes and protects my version of liberty, this will be at least in part at the expense of conservative religious people who will not be able to fully live their religious commitments as a cohesive community.
    ==============
    Comment:

    A modern secular/liberal conception of freedom does impact the ability of a religious community to impose its moral and religious rules and practices on its own members as well as others outside of the religious community.

    However, in the USA, I think most conservative Christians hold inconsistent and hypocritical views on freedom. They want modern secular/liberal freedom in some contexts, and they oppose it in others, not based on some deeper principle or value, but based on egocentrism, sociocentrism, and self-interest.

    So, when a Jehovah's Witness doctor deprives the child of a Christian couple of a blood transfusion in order to live in keeping with his/her religious beliefs and conscience, a conservative Christian will insist on modern secular/liberal freedom, and demand that the Government refuse to allow such doctors to practice medicine and/or to imprison such doctors when they fail to provide needed blood transfusions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Here is a hypothetical situation: Let's suppose that A and B are legislators in the Muslim-majority country Uzganistan. A wants a law to be passed that will require all women to wear burkas when in public. B wants a law to be passed that will allow women to choose whether to wear burkas or not. So, if A gets his law passed, the condition will be imposed by law on all women that they must wear burkas in public. If B gets his law passed, the condition will be imposed by law on all women that they get to choose whether to wear a burka or not. So, is it six of one, half a dozen of the other? Is it equally a matter of the imposition of moral values on women whether or not A or B gets his law passed?

    No.

    A's law limits the choices you can make for yourself. B's law only limits the choices you can force on other people. This is a crucial difference. Freedom to make choices for myself is indeed a more genuine form of liberty than freedom to impose my choices on others. At the very least, it must be admitted that the right to make choices for myself and the "right" to make choices for others are two very different sorts of things, and must receive very different sorts of justification. This fact alone should disabuse us of the facile relativism behind the idea that imposing no choice and imposing choice are equivalent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith,

    You're right in terms of individual liberty. But I think many religious conservatives are trying to assert the autonomy of religious communities and institutions. They want, you might say, the freedom not to be a liberal individualist. And that depends on others also not being liberal individualists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Taner,

    I think that most liberal secularists–like me–have no problems with collectives that wish to form illiberal communities. Our objection comes when they wish to use the coercive power of the state to impose their strictures on everyone. They may use any informal, non-coercive means at their disposal. Besides, it is really contrary to their interests to attempt to enforce a religious regimen with police power. As John Locke observed long ago in his Letter Concerning Toleration, the most force can do is to create hypocrites. Outward conformity masking inward rebellion should be even more offensive to religious sensibilities than honest defiance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Taner,

    I just noticed that your latest post makes the same point about hypocrisy that I note above.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    KKK members would also like to have the 'freedom' to establish communities in which the liberty of individuals was constricted by various communal values and practices, such as lynching black people without legal charges or trials, and generally treating black people as subhuman.

    Old-fashioned Mormons would like to have the 'freedom' to establish communities in which young girls could be required to have sex with the patriarch of the community.

    Christian scientists would like to have the 'freedom' to deny proper medical care to their children, since they believe that there is no such thing as illness or disease, and thus no need for medical science.

    One constraint that our modern liberal conception of freedom has placed on religious believers, is that they are no longer allowed to burn skeptics, atheists, and heretics at the stake.

    In each of these examples, I believe there is hypocrisy or doublestandards at work. If we take a KKK member, and alter the gene that controls his/her skin color, giving him/her dark skin,
    then I think we would start hearing complaints about 'injustice' as soon as a lynch mob started dragging him/her off to be hanged.

    And if we could transform the Mormon patriarch in a young girl, we would hear complaints about how girls should not be forced to have sex with old men.

    And if we break the arms and legs of a Christian scientist, he/she would probably beg to be taken to a hospital for medical treatment.

    And if we setup a commmunity of dogmatic atheists who hate religious believers and who practice burning Christians, Jews, and Muslims at the stake, we could drop some torture-inclined believers into that circumstance, and we will then start hearing complaints about how they are depreived of their freedom to believe what they wish.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    From 'In Defense of Religious Freedom…'

    "The communist project in Europe had collapsed; the commitment of Christian believers to defeat totalitarianism through the weapons of truth had triumphed;"
    =================

    Hmmm.

    These wise Christian leaders forgot to mention WWII.

    I believe that Germany and Italy were predominantly Christian countries, and that one of our most important allies was the Soviet Union- those evil atheistic communists.

    The defeat of totalitarianism in WWII was thus, in large part, the defeat of two totalitarian Christian nations with great assistance and great sacrifice by a totalitarian atheist nation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    In fact, Italy is not simply a predominantly Christian country; Rome is in Italy, and Rome is the heart of Catholic Christianity.

    Germany is not simply a predominantly Christian country; it is the country of Martin Luther, the founding father of the Protestant Reformation.

    The statement includes a confession:

    "In making this statement, we confess, and we call all Christians to confess, that Christians have often failed to live the truths about freedom that we have preached: by persecuting each other, by persecuting those of other faiths, and by using coercive methods of proselytism. At times Christians have also employed the state as an instrument of religious coercion."

    If this confession were honest and sincere, I would expect some qualification of the statement about Christians defeating totalitarianism…such as mentioning that two of the nations that attempted to bring the entire world under totalitarian domination in WWII were not only Christian nations, but were nations that are central to Catholic Christianity (Italy) and to Protestant Christianity (Germany), while one of the main allies of the USA in fighting against these totalitarian nations was atheistic communist Soviet Union.

    The failure to mention these obvious facts suggests that the confession is less than honest and sincere.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis quoted this from 'In Defense of Religious Freedom…'
    ===============

    The United States Department of Health and Human Services has proposed “preventive services” regulations that require provision of FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacients like Ella, and sterilization. These regulations threaten the religious freedom of insurers, employers, schools, and other religious enterprises that conscientiously oppose contraception and abortion.
    ===============
    Let me substitute some phrases to show the double standard here:
    ===================
    The United States Department of Health and Human Services has proposed regulations that require provision of BLOOD TRANSFUSIONS. These regulations threaten the religious freedom of insurers, employers, schools, and other religious enterprises that conscientiously oppose BLOOD TRANSFUSIONS.
    ================
    Jehovah's Witnesses oppose blood transfusions. Should we then legally prohibit Jehovah's Witnesses from becoming medical doctors and nurses? Obviously not.

    However, would the wise Christian leaders who created the statement 'In Defense of Religious Freedom…' object to regulations requiring insurers, employers, schools and other such organizations to provide blood transfusions as part of offered medical services? I don't think so.
    They would insist that the religous freedom of JWs ends where their medical needs begin.

    This is exactly my position on birth control and abortion services. The religious freedom of Catholics and Fundamentalist Christians and organizations run by Catholics and Fundamentalists ends where the medical needs of others begin.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01918818133834585386 Stew

    I completely agree with Bradley Bowen above. The position of the church on reproductive health should not be regarded in terms of legislation because this is completely a civil matter. defense lawyer san diego


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