What is happening in Europe is an interesting example of the tension between religion and liberal democracy. The countries in western Europe are only nominally religious. As Dan Barker, co-chair of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said recently in a talk at CWRU, people in those countries usually enter a church only three times in their lives, and on two of those occasions they are carried in. It is surely no accident that these countries are also stable liberal democracies.
I think that a strong case can be made that lack of religious fervor is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for liberal democratic values to flourish. The US is perhaps the only country in which fairly strong religious beliefs co-exist with liberal democratic values and this is because of the existence of the first amendment to the constitution which has at least partly managed to keep any single religious group from imposing its will on everyone.
But even the western European countries face threats due to the rise of overtly religious practices. The introduction of blasphemy laws in Ireland is one example and the growing Islamic population and their increased adoption of overtly religious practices like wearing full body coverings for women is causing stress to their secular societies, many of which do not have many overt signs of public religiosity. The most recent Dutch election results saw gains for political parties that seek to ban further immigration of Muslims because the immigrants are strongly religious and the Dutch see this as a threat to their secular way of life.
It is clear that France especially sees the rise of overtly religious practices as a threat to its secular principles. For example, it has taken a strong stand against the wearing of religious veils. A French parliamentary committee has said that “requiring women to cover their faces was against the French republican principles of secularism and equality.” The French parliament condemned the Islamic full face veil, saying that it is “an affront to the nation’s values of dignity and equality.” Meanwhile a French Muslim woman was fined for driving while wearing a veil on the grounds that since the veil restricted her view it prevented her from driving safely. France has even refused to grant citizenship to a man because he forced his wife to wear the full Islamic veil.
France is not only targeting Muslims. The French parliament passed by (276 to 20) a ‘secularity law’ in 2004 that banned the “wearing of Muslim hijabs, Sikh’s head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes, etc. Small Christian jewelry is permitted.” France has also banned the wearing of Sikh turbans in schools
Meanwhile Belgium has banned the burka.
Switzerland has also started taking steps, such as banning the construction of any new minarets.
While I personally dislike of overt symbols of religiosity, I think that such actions are going too far. I think the US constitution has it just right, requiring the government be strictly neutral is relation to religion, neither supporting and promoting it nor actively undermining it. Going by that principle, banning a form of dress purely because it is religious seems to me to be wrong.
Of course, strict neutrality as required by the constitution is often violated. In practice, the US government does provide considerable support for religion by granting religious groups tax-exempt privileges, allowing religious symbols (especially those associated with Christianity and Judaism such as crosses, menorahs, and ten commandment plaques) on government land, praying at government functions, and the like. The Supreme Court decision on April 10, 2010 allowing the Mojave Cross on public land is one such example. (One month after the verdict the cross was stolen and has not been found so far.)
As a result of treating religious beliefs as deserving of special treatment, religious people think that they have the right not to do anything that is against their religion. So for example, we have some pharmacists in the US claiming that they should not be forced to dispense contraceptives or other medications because they feel that that is going against god’s will.
So what should we do about this? A good start is to not give religions any special privileges at all. Religious beliefs and religious organizations should have exactly the same status as any other beliefs or organizations. The fact that you have religious reasons for something should not count in the slightest. Behaviors based on religion should get no special treatment at all, either positive or negative.
In the UK, a High Court judge has done a great service for this cause by upholding the dismissal of a relationship counselor who refused to give sex therapy for a gay couple because of his religious beliefs. The dismissed person, so used to having religious beliefs pandered to, whined that, “because of my Christian beliefs and principles, there should be allowances taken into account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles.” But why should the fact that he has ‘strongly-held Christian principles’ be at all relevant or be more significant than strongly held principles that are not based on religion? If he had strongly held tribal allegiances against some ethnic group, should they be accommodated? Of course not.
If his Christian beliefs are so meaningful to him, he should get a job where they are not violated. He has no right to expect society to accommodate his private beliefs just because they happen to be religious. Once you allow that exemption, then you are faced with the impossible task of determining which religions and which religious beliefs should be accommodated.
The problem with religious people is that they want society to grant their beliefs special status. The judge rightly said in his ruling that legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds cannot be justified, adding that to do so was irrational and “also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.” The judge rejected a plea by the former Archbishop of Canterbury that judges should be sensitive to religious issues, saying that “this appeared to be an argument that the courts ought to be more sympathetic to the substance of Christian beliefs and be ready to uphold and defend them.”
Rules are often bent to accommodate purely religious beliefs, which strikes me as wrong. Any exemption to a rule should be such that it is based purely on secular grounds. So for example, if the US military has a rule that requires all soldiers to wear certain headgear, Sikhs should not have been given an exemption simply because it violates their religious beliefs. If any exemptions to standard headgear are given, they should be based on reasons that make sense apart from religion and provide options that are available to everyone, Sikh or not.
The less we accommodate religious beliefs the better.
POST SCRIPT: Resurrection of Touchdown Jesus?
I don’t know if this is a wise move. I would have thought that to religious people, a direct lightning strike would be seen as a sure sign from god that even if he does not actually hate Jesus, he really dislikes tacky and ostentatious statuary. They are risking really ticking him off by building a replica and inviting maybe a plague of frogs next time.
My advice to them would be to build something small and tasteful, like a statue of Baal or a golden calf or something. I hear that god likes those.