Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Widespread Permission to Do Harm in God's Name


In many parts of the law, if you believe in God, the state will grant you special permission to do harm to fellow citizens and benefit yourself that others do not have - but only if you justify this harm as God's instructions.

People can use the claim that God wants them to do harm have greater permission to beat their children - or kill them (or bring about their death).

They can block others from getting health care and other health benefits.

They can use the state to tap the bank accounts of other citizens to pay for certain goods and services, and reserve taxpayer dollars for members of their sect - excluding all others.

They insist in being able to dictate who may marry and who may end a marriage, and to dictate who lives and who dies.

They have special permission to poison the air and water.

They can close businesses, and dictate employment in a community - giving sect members economic opportunities denied to others.

In some parts of the world, they claim a special permission to treat women and children no better than property – where house pets have more freedom and can expect better care.

The second principle in Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy – which I have been writing about since the start of the year - is that secular and atheist organizations need to demonstrate the pervasiveness of religious special treatment.

This, when combined with the first principle (that secular organizations should focus on stories with a human impact) points to the massive number of ways in which religious organizations are given special permissions and powers to lower the quality of life for others.

It really is shocking how many ways a person still has permission to act so as to lower the quality of life for others as long as they invoke the name of some deity in defense of that harm.

In some cases, we can well expect that this special permission to do harm if one invokes the name of God or quotes scripture is a strong inducement towards religion. Are you interested in some policy or practice that harms or threatens others? Then I suggest you find some interpretation of scripture or discover some gold tablets (that will soon be lost) that claims divine permission to perform those actions. Then, you can invoke a special permission to “practice your religion” to justify your harms.

However, we already recognize limits to this argument. When I assert that there are limits to the freedom of practicing one’s religion, I am not presenting some radical new philosophy. I am stating something that is already widely accepted and agreed upon with respect to some behaviors.

Let a person go around killing apostates or burning witches claim that the government may not interfere with his religious practices, and we see instantly that there is a line that religious freedom may not cross. Let him claim that God sanctions marriage to a seven year old girl and let's see him (at least in this country) try to make a first amendment argument in defense of that marriage. Let's see him make a first amendment defense for killing those who charge interest, or who work on the Sabbath, or in defense of stoning a rebellious child.

The thing to do is to define the principle – define the line – that religious freedom may not permissibly cross.

It would seem that the most obvious place to draw that line is in where religious practice does harm to others who are not a member of the church or who cannot give informed consent to belonging to the church. A child's ability to join a church should be as limited as a child's ability to enter into a marriage - and for the same reasons – the capacity to give informed consent is required.

There will be no killing of apostates, Sabbath breakers, or bankers. There will be no marrying of young children even if the children are of parents do belong to the church, or the killing of disobedient children deemed rebellious by their parents – or who are thought to have “dishonored” the family.

There will be no childhood genital mutilations for reasons other than health. There is no special permission to bring about the death of or injury to a child through faith healing or by denying the child medical treatment. Religious arguments shall not be invoked to dictate who, outside the church, may marry or may divorce. Nor shall religion be used to dictate end of life choices or other forms of medical treatment for non-members. There will be no special power to take property from others who do not give explicit informed consent, or to force non-members to pay for goods and services and the church buys. This includes police, fire, and military defense – except in ways that are granted to all non-profit organizations, secular and sectarian.

We will no doubt hear the protest, "But what of all the good the church does? You mention the harm, but you ignore the good?"

By all means, continue to do good.

However, go you think that doing good buys you moral credit giving you special permission to do harm? For example, do you think that a person who has saved two lives earns a moral credit, giving him permission to murder one person of his choosing at a later date? After all, he will still have a net moral balance of +1 life saved. That makes him a hero, right?


Well, then, do not use the good that a church may do as justification for its harms. Good deeds do not buy a special permission to inflict harm on others or to treat others unjustly.

While I am on the subject, we can inquire as to the moral character of a person who attempts to strike a moral bargain like the following: "I will cease to do good unless I am, at the same time, granted a special permission to do harm." An example of this would be a person who says, "I will save these two lives only if you grant me permission to murder a person of my choosing at a later date and time."

Personally, I would grant the permission, only to revoke it after the lives are saved - because a permission to treat others unjustly is not mine to give.

This principle applies to religious organizations that attempt to blackmail the state into giving them a special power to harm other citizens or to treat them unjustly. An example of this is a religious organization that will take state money to help orphaned and foster children only if they are, at the same time, given special state permission to act with prejudice against homosexuals.

A person, or a church, is free to discriminate with its own money. For example, an individual may refuse to patronize a store ran by a gay couple. However, nobody has a right to discriminate with government money or when acting as an agent of the state. In those cases, they have an obligation to treat all others with the equal respect that equal citizenship demands.

The point of this exercise, of course, is to point out the fact that we are not talking about some minor part of the culture or law that affects only a few people in extremely rare circumstances. Our culture is steeped in examples where religious people are given special permissions to engage in behavior harmful to others – or even call upon the state to harm others - just because their god is supposedly jumping up and down with glee at the knowledge that such harms are being inflicted by his followers.

It is not the case that just a few people in rare circumstances are harmed. In fact, in some parts of the world, the harms are extremely wide spread and severe - applying to well over half of the population and threatening the whole of their liberty and, in some cases, their very lives. There is a lot of work to be done to improve the quality of life on earth by battling these harms.

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