Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fake history from the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition

By Mathew Goldstein

Reacting to the recent publication of an Air Force cadet handbook that omitted those words from the oath, the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition has sponsored a billboard near the entrance to the Air Force Academy that features the Mount Rushmore carvings of four presidents with this question and their response: "Are you free to say So help me God?  They did."  Chaplain (COL) Ron Crews, USAR Retired, executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, one of the organizations in the coalition, is quoted as saying "The presidents Americans admire all solemnly uttered these words when they took their oaths of office. Our Air Force cadets should be encouraged to follow their example.”  There is a problem with this.  No one with personal integrity who is genuinely knowledgeable about presidential oath history can assert that all presidents added those words to their oaths of office.

Let's start with Theodore Roosevelt's second inauguration.  The Lowville, N.Y. Journal and Republican, March 9, 1905 (PDF), the Indiana Evening Gazette, March 4, 1905 , the Newark Advocate. March 4, 1905,Weekly Kentucky New Era, March 3, 1905 (March 4 revision), and others quote the oath recitation and details Roosevelt's immediate before and after actions with no mention of shmG.

First hand accounts of Theodore Roosevelt adding the phrase "And thus do I swear" during his first inauguration [September 14, 1901] can be found in The Illustrated Buffalo Express - Sunday, September 15, 1901, The Washington Post, September 15, 1901 (PDF), The Pittsburgh Press, September 15, 1901, The Last Days of President McKinley, by Walter Wellman published in The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Volume XXIV, New York, Review of Reviews, 1901, page 414-426, and Theodore Roosevelt, patriot and statesman the true story of an ideal American, by Robert Cornelius V Meyers, Philadelphia, Pa. and Chicago, Ill., P. W. Ziegler & co. [c1902], page 388. Roosevelt also did not use a bible during his first inauguration. Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-six president of the United States. A typical American, by Charles Eugene Banks and Leroy Armstrong; c1901, page 377 quotes the oath recitation without shmG as does American Boy's Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward Stratemeyer, 1904, Lee and Shepard, Boston, Chapter XXV. The Executive Register of the United States, 1789-1902: A List of the Presidents ..., by Robert Brent Mosher, 1903, Friedenwald, Baltimore, MD, page 284, shows the certificate signed by the president with the words of oath as recited without shmG. The Authentic Life of William McKinley, by Alexander K McClure, New York : W.E. Scul, 1901, page 494 quotes the oath recitation without shmG. Executive Register of the United States: 1789-1902. Compiled by Robert Brent Mosher, Washington, DC. (Baltimore, MD: The Lord Baltimore Press (The Friedenwald Company); 1903), page 284 quotes the oath recitation as certified by "JOHN R. HAZEL, U. S. J."

Chapter XXXIV of A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay, 1904, The Century Co., New York quotes the oath recitation without "so help me God" for the first and second Lincoln inaugurations. Also quoting the oath for the second inauguration is Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, by T.B. Peterson, 1865, T.B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia, p. 192. Abraham Lincoln : the true story of a great life:, by William Osborn Stoddard, 1885, New York, Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, p. 448, says "The oath of office was administered by Chief-Justice Chase; the President looked out for a moment, silently, over the multitude, and then he addressed them ...." A similiar depiction is found in The every-day life of Abraham Lincoln; a biography from an entirely new standpoint,1886, by Francis F. (Francis Fisher) Browne, New York and St. Louis, N. D. Thompson Pub. Co., p. 680.

The Baltimore Sun, March 5, 1861, page 1 (PDF) shows Chief Justice Taney reciting the constitutional oath of office to Abraham Lincoln without shmG and then "Having administered the oath, Judge Taney congratulated Mr. Lincoln amidst the loud applause of the assembled spectators, and the stirring music of several bands." Similarly, the Weekly Standard, March 13, 1861 quotes the oath recited without shmG. Also, American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Inaugural Bible, 1861 quotes the recitation of just the constitutional oath. The Life of Abraham Lincoln; from His Birth to His Inauguration as President by Ward Hill Lamon, 1872, Boston, James R. Osgood and Company, page 536, quotes the 1861 oath recitation without shmG. Ward Lamon was one of Lincoln’s few close friends. An eyewiteness account of the oath recitation is provided by a lawyer, Wilder D. Wright, who campaigned for Lincoln. Immediately after the ceremony he wrote this in a letter to his father: "When the address closed, and the cheering subsided, Taney rose, and, almost as tall as Lincoln, he administered the oath, Lincoln repeating it ; and as the words, i preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution came ringing out, he bent and kissed the book." Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, By Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, page 33.

Christ the King, by Reverand James Mitchell Foster, 1894, James H. Earle, Boston, page 277 makes the following observation about Lincoln's inaugurations:
Every President, after George Washington and before RB Hayes, took the presidentail oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take tthe presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God's name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument.

The Gazette of the United States, March 10, 1801 (PDF) quotes Thomas Jefferson taking the oath without saying shmG as does the Connecticut Gazette, March 18, 1801, (PDF) and the Impartial Register, March 19, 1801, (PDF).

The Maryland Gazette, Thursday March 14, 1793, page 2 (PDF) provides a detailed account of the swearing in of George Washington during his second inauguration, including a quote of the oath recited without mention of shmG being spoken. An image of the same article from The Diary, March 7, 1793, page 3 (PDF) and the New York Daily Gazette, March 8, 1793, page 2 (PDF). The New Jersey Journal, March 13, 1793, (PDF), and The Vermont Gazette, March 15, 1793, (PDF), also quote the oath recitation.

William Ferraro, Assistant Professor and Assistant Editor of The Papers of George Washington, wrote (email January 25, 2008) "Like my much more experienced colleague at the Papers of George Washington, Senior Editor Phil Chase, I have come across no contemporary or eyewitness accounts of George Washington's first inauguration to support the tradition that he added the words "So help me God" to the presidential oath."

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation saw that the billboard was double sided and had a vacancy on the other side.  Their billboard asks "Are you free NOT to say So help me God? George Washington DIDN'T in his officer's oath."  The MRFF is an advocacy organization that is run by people of integrity who know American history.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

About Violence Against Women and Girls

No matter what you thought of President Jimmy Carter she he was in office, there is little doubt that he is one of the most active Presidents in recent history, having gotten involved in human rights, helping the homeless, various diplomatic ventures at the request of sitting Presidents, and so forth.

His latest venture, and one he recently called his greatest and most important venture in an interview on Public TV today, is all about the prevention of violence against and the advancement of the rights of women worldwide.

He cited some amazing statistics.

Worldwide, over 800,000 women and girls are traded as slaves internationally.
In the US, over 600,000 women and girls are traded as sex slaves.
In this generation, over 60 million female babies have been killed, either in abortions or as born babies, because their parents wanted a boy.  Most of those in either China or India.

There was more, but I got kind of overloaded at that point.

He is promoting a new book of his, just released, entitled, ""A Call To Action", which urges the end of discrimination and abuse against women, calling it the number one challenge in the world today. The book builds on the work of faith leaders and courageous human rights defenders who met last summer at The Carter Center to mobilize faith groups worldwide to commit to advancing women's rights. Religion, they said, should be a force for equality and human dignity not oppression.

Obviously, I disagree with them on that point - while it should, it rarely is, and I think the ones who are implicitly involved in oppressing women aren't likely to join any efforts in bringing their activities to a halt.

There is no doubt he is correct, and this country is one of the worse of the First World industrialized nations in the oppression business.  It is also getting worse, as the Republican Party does everything it can to make it worse.

Go visit the links.  One is to the website of The Carter Center, where the book and the subject it is written about are detailed, and the other is the amazon page where you can buy it, right now.

I fully support his efforts, as I am appalled every single time I read about this subject and remember how hard the Republicans in this country are working to set women's rights back as far as they can.

I will add my own point as well.  You know what is coming, don't you?

While I applaud his efforts to involve religious groups in this, and it is obviously the fastest way to get established groups actively involved, I am somewhat disappointed that he seems to have left out secular movements or simply groups which have no religious affiliations.

Obviously, I believe that religion is the prime mover in the oppression of women. As his page noted briefly, religions do employ specific texts in their holy books to justify such oppression, and the ones who do such are not likely to join his efforts, and will, in fact, do everything they can to resist.  It is valuable for him to try to enlist the more liberal religious groups in his efforts, as they can employ their own theological counterpoints in fighting this terrible scourge, but I see it as a temporary fix.  These efforts will not bear widely recognized fruit until religion worldwide begins to be pushed back and denied the political influence to continue this oppression.

Nevertheless, to have as public and as widely respected (worldwide!) figure as Jimmy Carter get behind this issue and begin to push for progress is impressive indeed, and very, very welcome!

As many people as possible need to get on board with this.  Women everywhere need to begin to push back.  Push against governments, push against churches, push against the politicians who back this backwards agenda of oppressive nonsense.

And don't let up.

Robert W Ahrens
The Cybernetic Atheist

Monday, March 10, 2014

E.O. Wilson and The New Enlightenment: A Call to Understanding

by Gary Berg-Cross

Biologist Edward O. Wilson’s new book is called ‘The Social Conquest of Earth.’  It’s largely provides a biological perspective on 3 grand philo-cultural questions (famous questions, inscribed by Paul Gauguin in his giant Tahitian painting of 1897):

    ·     “Where do we come from?
  •      What are we?
  •      Where are we going?” 

 Unlike traditional philosophy or religion Wilson wants to incrementally advance on these from scientific understanding and theory.  He speaks in terms of the relatively rare, eusocial nature of humans and how this might have develop as part of pre-adaption. (Eu-Social means the highest level of organization of animal sociality, and is defined by 3 characteristics: cooperative brood care (including brood care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups).
 While it takes a while to make a scientific case Wilson argues for this approach as better than what we are handed by religion approaches.  It’s of no real help at all  he argues aside from making us feel like we know:
          “mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity”
Contemporary philosophy  also comes up with a backhand irrelevant, having as Wilson argues
 “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.”
Well maybe and maybe at Harvard, but there are relevant, contemporary folks in philosophy I think.

I largely agree that the most likely approach to answering the 2 above foundational questions is to follow the scientific method as applied by the proper and emerging disciplines.   So we have Biology, Psychology, Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology along with newer disciplines like neuroscience, epigenetics and evolutionary biology.  It’s a wonderful matrix of expanding understanding and especially nice when a master of one or two of these spends the time to synthesize a view understandable to non-experts.  Others in this senior synthesis of ideas worth reading and listening to are Jared Diamond whose last 3 or 4 books are enlightened warning that touches on our eroding environment in an historical context. They are wake up calls such as we have heard too from Richard Dawkins, of course, whose latest book An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist  is autobiographical.

Wilson draws on all these sources to explore the development of human society and some objective self-awareness needed to understand our collective selves. The path has bounced from ancient art, primitive religion, the founding of philosophy, and finally an integrated science perspective. As a Biologist Wilson sees a tipping point in these various views of human nature and such with Charles Darwin's 19th century theory of evolution by natural selection. Together with other sciences this theory can be applied to understand human behavior and deal with some age old controversies.
Wilson outlines the broad human story and fills in some details to illustrate our new understanding.  Wilson does this, for example, spinning a more complex story than a simple genetic basis for shared individual- and group-level selection factors.  Both selfish and group favoring factors exist. As a result there is intense inter-group competition along with unstable group composition that results in:
 "an unavoidable and perpetual war ... between honor, virtue, and duty ... and           selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy..." 
A payoff is the later section of the book called “A New Enlightenment.” In a sequence of chapters he covers the topics of language (pre-adapted cognition evolved into the ability to create abstractions, and later to use arbitrary symbols for communication, thus leading to the evolution of language)., culture, morality ("The naturalistic understanding of morality does not lead to absolute precepts and sure judgments, but instead warns against basing them blindly on religious and ideological dogmas," p. 252)., religion and art. These provide a much different and nuanced view to approach an answer to the earlier question - “What are we?”,
His warning about the tribal aspects of religion are a meme that one hopes is widely heard. Organized religion, Wilson argues, is a simple expression of an evolution favored tribalism. So the "illogic" of religious belief is not a weakness in traditional human cultures, since it serves a social role of binding a group's members together to the exclusion of outsiders.  You may get to be part of a group by abandoning your differences and converting to the group’s core beliefs. In pre-scientific days creation- genesis stories & myths employed by the early Big religions are all explainable as cultural relics. Wilson does a back hand refutation of "phantasmagoric elements" as the result of hallucinogenic drugs.  This natural explanation, he argues, is a much more plausible as the basis for things like John's “visions” recorded in the Book of Revelation than the idea that god intervention actually happened. The same goes for nomads wandering in the desert.
“.. you can see this especially in the difficulty of harmonizing different religions. We ought to recognize that religious strife is not the consequence of differences among people. It's about conflicts between creation stories. We have bizarre creation myths and each is characterized by assuring believers that theirs is the correct story, and that therefore they are superior in every sense to people who belong to other religions. This feeds into our tribalistic tendencies to form groups, occupy territories and react fiercely to any intrusion or threat to ourselves, our tribe and our special creation story. Such intense instincts could arise in evolution only by group selection—tribe competing against tribe. For me, the peculiar qualities of faith are a logical outcome of this level of biological organization.
Yes, it is a good explanation and a warning too.

For a good interview with Wilson on this see the Slate article.

For a video interview see BookTV’s Social Conquest of the Earth.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Maryland state bonds would fund sectarian religious activity

By Mathew Goldstein

Churches and masonic lodges are privately owned and operated religious facilities, they are not places of public accommodation. They have a first amendment right to close their door on anyone who tries to enter their facilities for any reason or for no reason.  A church or masonic lodge that opened their door to the public yesterday could abruptly change their policy and close their door tomorrow.

The state of Maryland nevertheless is granting itself the power to decide to provide loans to such religious facilities by issuing state bonds backed by taxpayer money.  The text of the bond bills declare that any facility being funded this way not be a place of sectarian worship or instruction.  This non-sectarian standard is interpreted narrowly by some lawmakers as exemplified by two pairs of bond bills being considered by this year's General Assembly. House bill 1498 and Senate bill 498 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Baltimore City – SS Philip and James Church Hall Renovation and Repair.   House bill 1477 and Senate bill 965 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Prince Hall Grand Lodge.  

The church hall is utilized for "LEARNING FROM THE BIBLE: Biblical Talks" by Fr. Stephen Ryan that covers topics like “AS CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH: BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON MARRIAGE”.  It is the meeting place for KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS COUNCIL #14102 and for SSPJ PRO-LIFE.  The Mason lodge states on its web page that "no atheist can be a Mason". There is no evidence in the online calendars of either group that either building is utilized by the general public or is intended to be utilized by the general public.

Furthermore, Senate bill 22 and House bill 1387 is titled Creation of a State Debt – Anne Arundel County – Calvary Food Bank. Pastors at the Calvary Food Bank give a religious sermon to the people who are waiting to receive food.  Despite the Calvary church blatantly mixing their religion with the charity, the state Department of Human Resources gives the food bank grants to buy food.

The non-sectarian standard, even if it were to be enforced, is too weak.  Government cannot discriminate or proselytize, and it is inconsistent for government to bypass these restrictions by assisting with funding of building repair, renovation, and improvements for private organizations that discriminate or proselytize.  The prohibitions on government sponsored discrimination and proselytizing are bypassed when government funds "non-sectarian" third parties to do indirectly what government cannot do directly.  Yet in Maryland it appears that even the current weak non-sectarian standard is not being fully respected.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Bible Stories for Skeptics

a review by Edd Doerr

Bible Stories for Skeptics, by Richard Trudeau. Abigail Rogers Publishing, 2013, 163 pp, $14.95.

With a bit of a  twinkle in his eye, Richard Trudeau --  a skeptic, retired Unitarian Universalist minister, Harvard Divinity School grad and (though he doesn't use the word) humanist -- removes the supernaturalism from some of the common stories in  the Judeo-Christian Bible for the edification of non-scholars. He links them to  history as known to archeologists and serious historians and tries to salvage some things of value in the collection of diverse materials in the book. He shows how and why the contents of the book evolved and how its assorted unknown authors borrowed and modified stuff, none of which is readily apparent to the casual reader or ordinary churchgoer. Among his conclusions, that Jesus was not really a Christian and that Christianity, as Bernard Shaw put it, is not the religion "of" Jesus but a religion "about" Jesus. An interesting read.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


by Edd Doerr

"The windmills of your mind" is the title of a March 1 piece in The Economist. Mark Jacobson of Stanford proposes that wind farms off the coast of  Louisiana would "steal energy" from hurricanes, reducing  their strength somewhat and also reducing the  force of storm surges. The wind farms would also generate electricity.

Sounds like a good idea to me.  Now if only someone could devise a way to reduce the damage caused to public education and women's rights in Louisiana brought on by Gov Bobby Jindal and his Republican co-conspirators.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Atheism linked to economic innovation, productivity

By Mathew Goldstein

We can reasonably assert that philosophical naturalism has nothing to do with anything beyond the belief that the physical universe obeying natural laws is all that there is.  Nevertheless, beliefs about how our universe functions are unavoidably going to tend to influence individual day to day decisions that could, in turn, have larger implications for society.  The Journal of Institutional Economics recently published a study by two economists, Travis Wiseman of Mississippi State University and Andrew Young of West Virginia University titled Religion: productive or unproductive? that claims to have found evidence for negative correlations between religious belief commitments and some macro economic activity.

The researchers used religion data from a variety of sources: the Pew Form’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey; the Gallup Poll’s State of the States surveys from 2004 and 2008; and the Census Bureau’s Religious Congregation and Membership Study of 2000 and 2010.  Religiosity was determined by four factors: regular attendance at religious services, strong belief in God, regular prayer, and viewing one’s religion as “very important.”  “Productive entrepreneurship” was calculated using a combination of new businesses created, new businesses created with 500 or more employees, per-capita venture capital investments, patents per capita, and the growth rate of self-employment.

They found that the percent of individuals reporting as atheist/agnostic is positively associated with productive entrepreneurship.  Conversely, all of the religious variables they tracked “tend to correlate negatively and significantly” with a state’s productive entrepreneurship score. The percentage of a state’s residents who are self-described Christians in particular “robustly correlated” with a lower score in productive entrepreneurship.

Let Us Now Celebrate Emotion-Packed Civil Religions

by Gary Berg-Cross

It's another "who will win" weekend in America.  As we approach basketball conference championships, March madness and the Super Bowl fades into the distance, we can gather round our hearths and TVs to
watch the big Oscar shootout. It's a well used cliché to compare our love of sport to religion but it applies at times to other big, competitive award-events contest like the Oscars and of course political contests (stay tuned).  

People have noted some reasons for the Sport-Religion connection. Writing in the Christian Century 30 years ago, Joseph L. Price said

"[T]here is a remarkable sense in which the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth. Like festivals in ancient societies, which made no distinctions regarding the religious, political and sporting character of certain events, the Super Bowl succeeds in reuniting these now disparate dimensions of social life."

Part of this fusion is opportunistic timing.  Important games are played on the weekend when there is time away from work...Especially the Lord's Day for the Superbowl (and I guess Oscar to cross into celebrity). It may be part of this replacement of communal ritual that people seek. Part of it bubbles up in the language of metaphor.  There are "Hail Mary passes". We all understand some of this ritualistic language.  We come together over it.

Some type of transcendent work day devotion is evident both sports and religion and there is a flavor of heartland nationalism to both. Things shut down and the cultural hive-mind gets focused on the Event and its culture. For football it can be the comfort of buffalo wings and grilled alternatives, neighbored by some dips and potables. It's probably not a festal offering, but people may have their own way of helping their "team" win. Different ethnic groups wear food as an outward sign as readily as a Yamaka. And here is atways hyphenated American comfort food like pizza.  And what could make the Oscars more American Gothic than serving pizza during the event and at the event!

Speaking of winning, sure events like Olympics has this nationalist "civil religious" feeling 
of affirmation and energy elevation too. It's a bit like a patriot war with cultural rituals to bind us to the team.  Randall Collins gets at some of the underlying emotional factors that bind people to both sport and religion in Interaction Ritual Chains. A starting premise is that human beings are Emotional Energy seekers. That goes back to our social evolution. Having evolved in small groups we are hungry for emotional group and personal experience.  In this light human activity involving social life and energy tends to be part of what Collins calls an interactive ritual chain. Collins description of ritual chains is pretty simple. They involve:

  1. feelings of belonging (yeah team), 
  2. a sense of co-presence (we are with you), 
  3. a moral feeling (atheists are evil and on the wrong side of issues), 
  4. membership symbols (got my redskins hat), and
  5.  barriers to outsiders (no Muslims need cheer for my team). 

The next time you watch a Redskins game think about these chained feelings. But think also more broadly that history and symbols of the United States have resulted in a sort of pseudo-state religion - a civic religion that includes sports and cultural heroes/celebrities in some type of ritual celebrating space along with our historical figures.

And there is other factors that strengthen the ritual chain bonds in a civic/civil religion and its celebrated events. All such games are spectacles like a 4th of July fireworks celebration and have themes that we see in mythical heroic stories. They go back to favorite players and plays of prior games. Sure we have Washington and Jefferson as historical players. In the sports celebration think Super Bowl highlights or a Duke player scoring the winning basket in the last 3 seconds. BTW, the theme for this year's Oscars?  Heroes...

These group stories include the ideas of sacrifice and toil with potentially glorious payoffs of conquest and victory. Well Bush's wars in the Middle East didn't have those payoffs, but there was certainly an effort to tell the story in heroic terms of sacrifice as part of a civil religion fusion. Our troops were just like our revolutionary war patriots...Only in the Middle East. Yeah for democracy, whether you asked for our version or not.

These fusions of victory are often celebrated in cinema as well as half-time shows. And of course certain participants like quarterbacks take on heroic, demi-god properties.  That was true of Denver's Peyton Manning.  The focus on definable heros can distort are reasoning in a team sport, but this idea of uncertainty and testing of one's betting hunches is part of the attraction to the event. We like the betting aspect of it.  It's almost a moral conviction. And team sport events are pretty
hard to predict accurately as are wars.  Luck and chance has so much to do with games and these are hard to factor in. As an example some of the folks who predicted the results of the national election in 2012 were predicting a toss up in the Super Bowl ("software projects Seattle winning 54.8 percent of the time with an average score of 23.8 to 21.5")Election prediction champ Nate Silver picked the Seahawks as Super Bowl winners, but the margin was slight.

Perhaps the chance of a first play mistake may have tipped the odds unpredictably. This idea of a gamble is part of the attraction of these events and developing a winning bracketology becomes addictive behavior.  See my earlier blog on the psychological biases in the art of Bracketology.

So sure, it is fun to celebrate a cultural event pick out winners for the Oscar, as if this is based on some obvious merit that every voting body can agree on.  Except the  Academy is quite elite and different from the national population and has Hollywood factors at play ("I just don't like him.") Rating talent for March Madness (next in our Civic ritual chain Celebration?) is probably more grounded, but the bracketology of it remains quite a distance from a science. Luck and chance are there and thus there is an opportunity for people to feel that invisible deterministic connection with events.  We will be part of the game and make our team win through faithful devotion. We will participate in the addictive rituals of a civic-sports religion. The trickle down probably helps keep some Americans in the religious ritual circle. Pass the popcorn. 

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Freedom from Religio-Politics

By Gary Berg-Cross

The recent dust up on Arizona’s SB 1062 provides some opportunity to discuss the idea Freedom and the phrase Freedom of Religion. But of course in most circles this isn't an intellectual opportunity as much as one framed by political and ideological differences that generate mind-numbing emotions. There is obviously a long history and associated philosophy to these terms, but increasingly there is political and legal context to them.  Conversations quickly get a bit complex and discussion gets muddled as we jump from a word sense to the history of the concept (The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson) to a philosophical perspective and then to an ensnaring political view.

As reported early in the debate SB 1062   expands Arizona's earlier (1999) "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA). That law was applied with this idea of Religious Freedom - when the "victim" of religious discrimination is either an individual, a religious assembly or a religious institution. SB 1062 would have added businesses to the list of “victims” and thus to its “protection”. But what was really allowed by the law? Sure we heard loud claims of religious rights violation when a restaurant refused to serve a gay man, and was then sued for discrimination by the man. Under existing RFRA law they could be sued. Under SB 1062, they could not. 

The arguments was that this right to refuse service is a religious freedom. But other’s point out that “Religion” is what you BELIEVE not what you impose on other people. You are free to believe in all sorts of things, but a person's religious belief,s which may be tribal and certainly emotion-laden, stop at the boundary of the next person. My beliefs should not impose a burden on others.  And they should not be imposed in the secular marketplace for society’s transactions take place.  They can be practiced in Mosques, Temples and Churches etc. but not intrude into the secular space.

The problem is that if they overflow from the personal and the temples, we can ask the old question of “where does belief imposition stop?” As a theoretical question we can ask if some employer with a fundamentalist view deny employee coverage of the treatment of cancer because they would inadvertently be using something based on stem cells?

Or we can ask if  the 
'Hijab is a fundamental human right of female Muslims since it is part of religious belief.  Can a store owner, with particular preconceived biases insist that any female who enters the stored wear one? Does a Jehovah's Witness owner who won’t employ blood transfusions get to say to an employee policy that pays for blood transfusions violates their faith and hence their fundamental freedom?

Historically we've stayed away from such Big Brother religions since they violate other values such as rights to privacy, private decisions and human dignity. In the 19th century, for example, the idea of American exceptionalism was undeerstood an assembly of special American social features.  We were a relatively free Republic based on democratic ideals and personal liberty, but also freedom from religious control.  As part of the separation idea we didn’t/don’t grant religious institutions the right to muscle into secular culture and mold it to the Procrustean bed of their preconceived ideas of society. Separating the state from religion should mean that there are no additional laws that people with religious beliefs levy upon others.  There is precedent here. We protect children from parents who won’t allow medical treatment for religious reasons. Of course, with things like abortion conservatives have argued that they are protecting a child-like unborn. Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, the conservative Christian group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and pushed SB 1062, claims that the bill is:
 "simply about protecting religious liberty and nothing else".

I'm not alone in distrusting the claim. I worry that SB 1062 was not innocently about faith or religious freedom. Rather it and similar efforts, is about political and ideological wedges and precedents. It uses a poorly formulated idea that provides a guise of preserving religious freedom.  What the advocates and activists behind it really want is some social action. In this case making discrimination against gays and the LGBT community legal.

To me it seems that we can keep religious freedom as a fundamental right, but not let it be invoked to harm others. In a proper setting we can have an informed discussion of terms like Freedom, and Freedom of Religion but behind this is a social struggle with a emotional engine driven by a hybrid of politics and religion. It helps to remember legal precedents defining the fine balance between the freedom to exercise one's religion and the civil rights of others.

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