As I’ve previously said, I try not to concern this blog, which is more focused on my personal interests, with my professional work at the Center for Inquiry. However, there is some overlap between my personal interests and professional work, and every so often I share Center for Inquiry-related things on this blog based on the idea that I think my readers would find them interesting. I think this symposium on freedom of religion and conscience, to be held this April 27 in Washington, D.C., fits the bill:
Should a corporation operated by religious believers be exempt from a federal rule mandating contraceptive coverage for employees, while an organization run by nonreligious persons is not? Should an employee who objects to performing certain tasks on the basis of their religion be accommodated, while objections by a nonreligious employee are ignored? Should a religious organization receiving government funding be allowed to hire only adherents of their particular worldview, while a secularist organization cannot do the same?
In cases like these, religious conscience has traditionally been considered to provide a legitimate exemption from standing laws, whereas nonreligious commitments generally have not. But in his controversial new book Why Tolerate Religion? philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter argues that governments are wrong to single out religion and religious demands as deserving any special legal protection. Leiter contends that the reasons for tolerating religion are not specific to religion, and instead apply to all claims of conscience—and that governments are not required to grant exemptions of anykind, religious or otherwise, from laws that promote the general welfare.
To examine this contentious issue, the Center for Inquiry is proud to host a day-long symposium on April 27, 2013, at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Threatre. Speakers include Brian Leiter, Jacques Berlinerblau, Caroline Mala Corbin, Wendy Kaminer, Ronald A. Lindsay, Barry Lynn, and John Shook.
You can find more information, including registration details, here.
Ethics blogger Tauriq Moosa has a new post up on Big Think in which he discusses several major problems with one defending his or her moral views with his or her religious views. I particularly liked this passage:
To be free, you must not be able to point to the whims of another individual as your moral justification. One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, by then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute: not the Creator of Universe, who I think suffers from the minor problems of inconsistency and non-existence, who you cannot dispute because by definition he “is good” or “must be obeyed”. The circularity traps everyone, not just you, in a prison of moral myopia: where we mistake the bars for protective fences.
You can read the whole thing here.
By Michael De Dora
Recently there has been a prominent public debate between Congressional Republicans and religious figures over the new federal budget authored by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. In case you haven’t heard about this, or you’ve only given it slight attention, here’s a short rundown.
On March 20, Rep. Ryan proposed a budget that would drastically cut government spending by slashing social programs and lowering tax rates on corporations and the wealthy. Several faculty members at the Georgetown University soon condemned Ryan’s budget as immoral – inconsistent with Catholic teachings on ethics:>/p>
“We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. … In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was also critical of Ryan’s budget, arguing that it conflicted with the tenets of his (Ryan is a Catholic) supposed religion.*
Ryan responded that, on the contrary, his plan would create the necessary economic growth to lift people out of poverty, as well as manage the government’s crippling debt:
“The Holy Father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations, and living in untruth.’ … Our budget offers a better path consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith. … We put faith in people, not in government.”
Now that we’re up to date, let’s take a step back.
This is a familiar debate for anyone who pays attention to American politics. Politicians — along with other public officials and social figures — often use their religious beliefs to justify legislative action. Yet, once again, few people are stating the obvious: that it is completely inappropriate for a public policy debate to center on the religious reasons for or against a proposed law.
Before moving any further, let me state that I’m rather sick of hearing Jesus’ name mentioned in policy debates, if only because it is impossible to know what a person who lived several thousands years ago, and about whom very little is known, would have thought about specific political issues in the year 2012.
I fully admit here that the Catholic Church has, for once, taken a decent moral stance. But that’s not the point. While religiously based political efforts sometimes turn out well, and secular liberals ought to at least consider working with such groups on these issues, the religious method is susceptible to awful consequences (think: marriage equality, reproductive rights, stem cell research; the list goes on). The method is as important, if not more so, as the consequences.
Contrary to what many people think, secularism is not the atheistic position that religious belief has no place in society whatsoever. Secularism is the idea that you can believe what you would like, but your religious beliefs have no place in public policy debates. It asks that laws be based not on faith, which is private and accessible only to believers, but on reason and scientific evidence, which are public and accessible to all. This helps to ensure that our laws are as rational as possible and don’t harm people who practice a different faith, or no faith at all.
Some will counter here that religious views cannot be prevented from entering political discourse and lawmaking.** This is a point based on the simple observation that religious belief, as a matter of fact, is often used in policy debates. Yet that doesn’t mean we should encourage religious views in policy debates, or that we do not have any other option available to us.
I submit that it is also unnecessary to call on one’s religious view, as there are plenty of secular moral reasons for (e.g., Rand-style argumentation) and against Ryan’s budget proposal.
As you might recall, I have previously argued on this blog that economic debates should include a strong ethical component:
“Economic thinking cannot be divorced from morality because one’s values determine which economic structure he or she prefers. There are no such things as purely economic ends divorced from all other ends because economic decisions are made based on moral values. They also have a moral impact on other people.”
My views on how this works in method mirror those of Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking. First, we figure out our foundational assumptions. For instance, what is the nature of human behavior and desires? How do humans act and interact? What should we value? How should we influence our culture so that it fosters those values? What are — or should be — our shared moral goals?
Then we assess which economic ideas and systems to employ so that our assumptions can be taken into account and that our goals can be realized. Economics is not just about studying and applying knowledge of trends, numbers, math, and business practices. It is also about taking into account the reality of human behavior and our moral concerns before making economic decisions — and then considering the moral consequences of those decisions.
So, is there a good secular moral response to a specific situation such as Rep. Ryan’s budget?
As I’ve written before, I believe in a multi-faceted approach to morality. I believe we ought not harm other creatures capable of experience and agency. I believe people deserve certain rights and respect because of their existence, and that humans ought to help each other, where and when possible, to have a decent living situation. And I believe we ought to hold tight our duties, practice our obligations, and cultivate a virtuous moral character, and help others to do the same.
Unfortunately, Rep. Ryan’s proposal severely slashes or essentially eliminates programs that help children, the poor, and the elderly. This is both ineffective and unethical. Ryan could have lifted tax breaks on corporations and the ultra-rich — both of which are making record profits — or cut the bloated defense budget. Instead, he is seeking to shrink governmental programs that have positive moral value and impact. If you want to solve our debt problems, do you really think it best to focus on privatizing and cutting health care and other social safety nets for the worst off in this country? Would it not be better to stop giving breaks to the wealthiest and most secure in order to improve programs that help many people lead a decent — and perhaps even more moral — life?
In short, that is why I think Ryan’s budget proposal is immoral. And my argument did not require reference to any religious figure or holy book.
One can reasonably argue that public policy ought not to be based on religious belief in any way, as it would necessarily favor religious views over non-religious views, or specific religious views over others. That clearly violates the Constitution and over sixty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence. But one can also reasonably argue that we need not consider religious beliefs because there are plenty of available secular arguments at hand to deploy for and against proposed policies.
Public policy should center on secular reasons, not religious ones. And while that certainly won’t guarantee unfailingly rational government, it might bring us a little step closer to that lofty goal.
* On another note, this is an interesting intersection to ponder: when one’s religious or moral views conflict with one’s views on government, and vice versa. It’s an example of tension between conflicting values.
** Obviously many would argue that religious belief is a wonderful thing, and that Christianity is or should be the national religion, but I do not take up that argument here.
The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”
The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Should Christians be exempted from basic educational and professional standards because of their deeply held religious beliefs? That’s the question taken up in a recent article by David Moshman, professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Moshman’s article is in response to the recent case federal circuit court ruling in Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley. That case concerned Jennifer Keeton, who is seeking a master’s degree in school counseling at the public Augusta State University in Georgia. Here’s what happened:
[Keeton] describes herself as a Christian committed to biblical truth. As a Christian, she believes that sexual behavior is a choice for which one is accountable, that gender is fixed as male or female, and that homosexuality is an immoral lifestyle.
At the end of her first year, as a condition for counseling individuals in the program’s clinical practicum, Keeton was told she must participate in a remediation plan to address what faculty perceived as deficiencies in multicultural competence, “particularly with regard to working with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (GLBTQ) populations.” Instead, she filed a federal lawsuit.
Keeton argued that the remediation requirement violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. Because the law moves slowly, Keeton requested a preliminary injunction to prevent ASU from dismissing her from the program for failure to complete the remediation plan. The district court denied the injunction because, it concluded, her lawsuit did not have “a substantial likelihood of success.” She was then dismissed from the program.
What does Moshman make of this ruling?
Students, the court was clear, have a right to believe whatever they believe, regardless of whether they believe it for religious or other reasons. They also have a general right to express their beliefs, including a right to express them in classes when they are relevant to the topic of discussion. It would have violated Keeton’s First Amendment right to free speech if the remediation plan was imposed on her because of disagreement with her views or to punish her expression of those views.
But the circuit court, like the district court, found that the remediation plan was imposed because Keeton had specifically and repeatedly “expressed an intent to impose her personal religious views on her clients,” which would have violated the ethics code of the American Counseling Association (ACA). It was a legitimate curricular requirement that Keeton be able to “counsel GLBTQ clients in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics.”
It seems to me like the court struck reasonable balance between freedom of belief and academic freedom. A person is entitled to believe what he or she wants, and to promote his or her beliefs to the public in a number of different ways. However, if a person would like to pursue a certain line of work, he or she should be prepared to follow the rules (within reason), or else face termination.
A private university in Georgia is forcing its roughly 278 employees to sign a statement that rejects pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and drinking in public — or risk termination. Shorter University’s “personal lifestyle statement” says that the school will only employ Christians who closely follow the Bible and regularly attend church.
Said President Don Dowless to local news outlet WSB-TV:
"I think that anybody who adheres to a lifestyle that is outside of what the Biblical mandate is — what the board has passed, including the president — would not be allowed to continue here."
Dowless told the Christian Post that the policy is legal, and meant to clarify the school’s position as a Christian university.
“We love Jesus Christ, and we want people who serve here to love Jesus Christ and be willing to not just sign the document, but enthusiastically endorse that in every aspect of their lives. We are an institution that wants to foster a Christian environment…and that’s done by all employees who we hire, not just the faculty but also the staff.”
"As a private institution we have a right, just like organizations have the right, to set expectations of their employees. We have a right to hire only Christians."
Of course, whether the policy is ethical is a different matter. If you are interested, there is a public petition here.
From yesterday’s edition of the British newspaper The Guardian:
Victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests have accused the pope, the Vatican secretary of state and two other high-ranking Holy See officials of crimes against humanity, in a formal complaint to the international criminal court (ICC).
The submission, lodged at The Hague on Tuesday, accuses the four men not only of failing to prevent or punish perpetrators of rape and sexual violence but also of engaging in the “systematic and widespread” practice of concealing sexual crimes around the world.
It includes individual cases of abuse where letters and documents between Vatican officials and others show a refusal to co-operate with law enforcement agencies seeking to pursue suspects, according to the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a US-based organisation that represents the claimants.
Pam Spees, human rights attorney with CCR, said: “The point of this is to look at it from a higher altitude. You zoom out and the practices are identical: whistleblowers are punished, the refusal of the Vatican to co-operate with law enforcement agencies. You see the protection of priests and leaving them in the ministry and because of these decisions other children are raped and sexually assaulted.”
This is not a publicity stunt, nor is it another example of the so-called liberal war on religion. It is simply a case of decent human beings standing up for justice. As I have previously written, and as detailed in CCR’s article, the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI have committed terribly unethical and illegal acts, and should not be exempted from the law simply because they are religious.
You might recall that last week I agreed with Pope Benedict XVI, who had argued that ethics should play a major role in economic policy making. My position is that economic policy decisions are — or should be — guided by moral values, and also have a moral impact on others.
The Pope’s sentiment was echoed this week by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, who discussed the relationship between morality and politics. Here are Bagnasco’s comments:
"The moral issue in politics, as in every area of public and private life, is serious and urgent not only regarding individuals but also structures and organizations. …
We need to have a major cultural and social debate. … Those with particular responsibilities, at whatever level, and those with powerful economic interests, have a compelling duty more than others through their work to put forward cultural models that are certain to become prevalent.”
Once again, I agree. Public policy, like economic policy, should often be based on moral values, and most certainly has moral consequences for others. In fact, sometimes political values and rights are actually moral values and rights. Of course, I’d likely disagree with the Pope and Bagnasco about the content and basis of morality. But that’s a topic for another post.