No matter your belief system, there is one thing that we can all agree with; that we all have a belief system. Some of us have a traditional religious faith backing our belief system, while others may lean on more secular teachings or experiences to guide their beliefs. Constitutionally, in the US we are allowed to practice religious freedom so far as it doesn’t negatively impact the common good or safety of others. Within those confines, from a religious standpoint we can generally do whatever we want. Notice however, that we can generally do what we want from a religious perspective, but cannot if we do not claim to be practicing a religion. This caveat is a subtle societal issue that threatens all freedom.
Religion and the Law
Time and time again there have been interesting cases regarding religious freedoms. In 1972, a supreme court ruling (Wisconsin v. Yoder) determined that Amish children could not be forced to go to school due to their religious beliefs. It maintained that not all beliefs are covered with the first amendment, but in the case of the Amish it did. What would it take for a non-religious family to exempt their child from school?
A supreme court case in 1993, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, found that it was unconstitutional to forbid animal sacrifice. Animal fighting rings are considered animal abuse, but animal sacrifices under a religious context are ok?
Another case in 1995, (Capital Square Advisory Board v Pinette), allowed for a KKK cross emblem to be displayed during Christmas on the lawn of the Capital Square in Columbus Ohio due to their right to religious expression. We’ve ruled in several states to take down confederate statues, but we have a supreme court ruling allowing public display of KKK emblems?
And in our final example, Gonzales v Centro Expirita Beneficente (2006) enforced the right to use the illegal substance Ayahuasca. Similar religious exceptions exist for other substances like Peyote. We acknowledge the freedom to take drugs for religious rituals, but not for personal enjoyment. What’s stopping anyone from starting their own religion that requires a regular ritual of taking certain drugs? Or better yet, just joining an existing religion that already does?
Time and again, there are interesting religious freedoms we are ok with on the basis of religion, but if we don’t have a religious basis, we are not afforded those possibilities, that seems a little strange does it not?
Religious Beliefs vs Personal Beliefs
The laws we’ve reviewed underscore that once something is deemed religious, we don’t really question the purpose of the religious actions and more interestingly we give them freedoms that are not afforded to someone who doesn’t claim religion as a backing. KKK, which has in the past been deemed a hate group has seemingly more protection than a historical confederate site because of the religious context it has. In general, it doesn’t matter what the tenets or beliefs of the religious group is.
What this leaves us with is in a somewhat strange space that allows animal sacrifice rituals, less educated children, groups that promote discrimination and drugs for those who are religious. But not for those who simply choose to do so on their own accord. Since we’ve only looked at relatively negative-sounding issues, it’s easy to write this off as not a big deal, maybe it even sounds like a good thing.
Yet, in reality this is somewhat of a veil. The reason this feels reasonable is because most laws and rules are already somewhat in line with our personal views. What happens when they are not? The Amish are exempt from most (if not all) insurance requirements and even social security due to religion. But if we’re just a family that doesn’t believe in using government social security and takes care of our elderly, without religion we cannot be exempt.
If we get technical, all religious beliefs would be included in a larger set of personal beliefs. But traditionally, religious beliefs are supposed to link to some sort of higher power, supreme being or worship. Some court cases have been more lenient, allow for anything that appears to be a ‘sincerely held belief’, while others have required that the religion be more publicly comprehensive, with a pattern of worship and public display, although noted as not required.
Some argue that the laws of “man” are identifiably separate from laws of a higher power, but unfortunately there is no agreed upon proof. If we lean on religious texts, we could at least try to eliminate following known living humans. Yet, to what end when we follow their teachers, preachers or other religious leaders? Would we accept a religious text from 10 years ago versus 100 years ago versus 1000 years? And more importantly, at what point is all of the wisdom and teachings over time just incorporated regardless of our religious perspective?
If we stick to supreme beings and higher powers what about concepts like the “Tao”, the “universe”, “nature”, etc? The problem is that we put religion on a seemingly untouchable pedestal that can only be described and observed through the words and actions of humans, which creates a nasty circular reasoning. Even if there was only one true religion, because it is only observed through the words and actions of humans, we could never prove it to each other, but only to ourselves making “personal beliefs” and “religious beliefs” appear the same.
Godless or Godlike Facts?
We’re at a point in society where it is becoming clear that facts are subjective. Similar to how we would never be able to prove any religion, we also cannot prove facts anymore. We can only prove that which has agreed upon rules. 1 + 1 = 2 isn’t a fact because we ‘know’ it to be true, it’s a fact because we’ve agreed upon the conventions. We’ve agreed that 1 is a ‘base 10’ number, that the “+” is for addition. What this means is that, true facts, those that are universal truths that cannot be denied may exist, but can never be proven through the lens of human observation, only assumed.
We can build and do a lot of amazing things with repeatedly and independently confirmed observations, but those facts are still subjective to our own experience and what we agree upon as shared experiences. Imagine two ancient cave dwellers looking upwards towards the sky, one of them asks “do you see that big bright orange thing?” By agreeing, they establish an observable “fact”, a convention that there is this big bright thing in the sky. But what happens if they don’t agree? One of them denies they see any bright thing in the sky. What then? Ideally they’d use that information to discern what the difference is between the two perspectives to come as close to “real truth” as possible.
But we often do not go through the trouble of discerning the difference in perspectives. It’s a fact that the sun exists, unless we believe we’re in a simulation. It’s a fact that the earth is round, unless we think we can observe that it is flat. These arguably unreasonable but none-the-less valid perspectives is simply because facts are only agreed upon conventions.
What does this have to do with religious freedom you ask? Well if all universal truths are actually unprovable, then wouldn’t that make everything we believe ultimately a matter of faith? Faith in our agreed upon conventions at the least? Ultimately, all personal beliefs end up in the same realm of being unprovable to others, but knowable to ourselves and subject to whatever the universal truth actually is (e.g. a higher power).
Safety, Religion and Responsibility
At times, religious beliefs also override safety such as with vaccine exemptions. While quickly much more controversial, the real issue becomes more clear. Should we allow a religious freedom be allowed to be held higher than freedom in general? Or to rephrase, should we deny personal freedoms unless they are on the basis of religion? I say no to both. A religious exemption should not result in allowed actions that normally would not be allowed. If we allow someone freedom to exempt themselves based on their religious beliefs, that same freedom should be afforded to anyone regardless of their religion. Exemption is the state of being “free” from obligations opposed by others. A hall pass to do something everyone else cannot do based on beliefs that cannot be proven or agreed upon.
Which then begs the question, when is safety more important than freedom? Safety advocates will say “screw your freedom, stop being selfish”. Freedom advocates will say “screw your safety, stop being ignorant”. The middle ground is simple, no one wants their family and friends dying senselessly. Yet, the implementation of the two sides are completely different.
We seem to separate activities influenced by ourselves primarily (hiking a mountain) from activities more influenced by others (driving a car). If grandpa died walking up the street, we wouldn’t likely be pushing too hard for walking requirements, since it’s all on grandpa. As much as we’d want someone to to take responsibility, there is no one else that could. Yet, when it comes to driving there are lots of areas of responsibility. The car company would be responsible for making the car safe, providing seat belts. Once there are seat belts and a safe car, we can see it as the law’s responsibility to enforce making use of safety features, like wearing our seat belt and speed limits. But we’re not done, it’s also everyone else’s responsibility not to hit each other, and if they do have a means to take responsibility for damages, hence insurance.
Since the physics of cars ramming into each other is pretty observable, we can spread responsibility and blame easily. If 16 year old Tommy ran into the back of grandpa, we can force Tommy to pay for the damages and determine what Tommy did or didn’t do enough of to save grandpa. Since it was Tommy’s fault we can envision reasons a 16 year old may have made mistakes, enacting education and requirements before allowing a 16 year old to drive. But what happens when instead of a traffic accident, it’s Tommy’s sneeze near grandpa that we think did him in? The science can’t be proven (yet), but we can argue with statistics that the sneeze from an un-vaccinated person has some higher chance of transmitting COVID than a vaccinated person. If we continue down the safety isle, it only makes sense to require everyone to be vaccinated. If we take the freedom isle, it makes sense that even if grandpa was susceptible to sneezes that we cannot make everyone else cover up on his behalf. Everyone would protect themselves and not depend on others to every extent possible.
If it isn’t obvious yet, both concepts are clearly needed. We should always be taking responsibility for ourselves as well as the impact we may have on others to every reasonable extent. Again, no one on either side of the equation will likely argue against that point. It’s the implementation, the extent to which we take responsibility that is in question and will always be in question.
Forced Moral Responsibility
It would be nice if we could close the debate with a simple “yes we agree that we should take responsibility for impacts our choices have on others as well of ourselves”. But unfortunately, the very next step is forcing everyone to take responsibility. We began with religious beliefs, because everything seems to boil down to faith, whether that is faith in our own logic with unprovable facts, or faith in an unprovable higher power.
Doesn’t forced moral responsibility sound a lot like religious requirements? We are telling everyone that we are morally obligated to do something the collective “we” have deemed is right and for the greater good. But can we not choose what greater good we believe in?
The problem is that despite being a border line religious belief, there are cases that forced moral responsibility feels like the only rational option. Abolition, civil rights, women’s rights; there have always been cases that emphasize moral responsibility for others, and many who are thankful these issues were forced. There is a simple trick to solving this problem, by answering two questions: who is directly responsible, and who can prevent the situation? If both answers are the same person or group with no other responsibilities on anyone else, then forced responsibilities might be a viable solution.
1. Religious beliefs and personal beliefs should not be segregated from a legal standpoint. Doing so undermines those who don’t have traditional faith systems and ignores that facts and beliefs are merely agreed upon conventions. Following a belief regarding a higher power should not be held more special than following a belief using logical conclusions. Which means that any religious exemption should be afforded to anyone who wants that same exemption regardless of their religious beliefs.
2. Everyone agrees that we want the best for our friends and family and we don’t want them dying; that we all want to do what we think is right. Everyone agrees that taking responsibility for our actions includes impacts our actions may have on others as well as ourselves. One significant caveat is that when we emphasize responsibility for ourselves, we can’t really blame someone else, only ourselves. And because of this, to every extent feasible we wouldn’t consequently require someone else to do anything for us or on our behalf.
3. There is a time and place for forced moral responsibilities. The trick is to ask the questions: who is directly responsible and who can prevent the situation? In our Grandpa and Tommy sneezing situation, because Grandpa also could protect himself with a mask, we cannot reasonably require forced responsibilities on everyone in the world who may get near Grandpa. In general, most things are not completely a single persons responsibility, which is why ideally forced moral responsibilities are only applied when it has to do with ensuring freedom.
Bottom line is that freedom is not separable from moral responsibilities, it includes them. To have freedom for ourselves, is to ensure freedom for everyone else. If there comes a time where we must force responsibilities on others, we better be sure responsibility is only able to be applied one way. Let’s not forget the fallacy of the greater good.
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” -Nelson Mandela