The Myth of Religious Obligations

2015-07-03

There is no such thing as a religious “obligation” because religious belief is not an innate characteristic.

Sommaire en français
Les soi-disant « obligations » religieuses n’existent pas, sauf dans le cas où la personne est la cible de coercition, c’est-à-dire victime d’abus. Mais en l’absence de coercition, le comportement religieux d’une personne (comme le port d’un signe par exemple) relève toujours de son choix personnel. Plusieurs croyants, dans le but d’obtenir un privilège ou un accommodement, veulent nous faire croire que leur pratique religieuse serait une « obligation », c’est-à-dire quelque chose d’inné, d’intime et d’immuable. Mais c’est un leurre, car c’est toujours un choix, le résultat d’avoir choisi d’adhérer à une tendance religieuse qui impose ce comportement. Cette prétention est une tentative d’élever la croyance au niveau d’un attribut inné comme la race ou l’orientation sexuelle. Nous ne devons pas, comme les multiculturalistes, nous laisser duper.
Par une stratégie inverse, les homophobes religieux essaient de délégitimer les droits des gais en rabaissant l’homosexualité au niveau d’un simple choix. Comble de l’ironie, c’est la croyance qui n’est qu’un choix, tandis que l’orientation sexuelle est plutôt innée. Donc, le port d’un symbole religieux — qui a généralement une signification politique aussi — comme le voile islamiste (un symbole de misogynie et d’islamofascisme), ou le crucifix chrétien (aussi un symbole de fascisme), ou le turban sikh ne mérite pas davantage de déférence que tout autre choix vestimentaire ou toute question de mode.
À lire aussi : Blogue LPA 015 : Obligations et choix

As explained in a previous article (AFT Blog #15: Obligations and Choices), there is no such thing as a religious “obligation,” except, of course, an obligation resulting from external coercion. To be precise, a person who participates in religious activities, or who has specific behaviours based on religious belief, or who wears religious symbols, is in one of two possible situations:

  1. the person freely chooses his or her religious behaviour; or
  2. the person is coerced into that behaviour.

In the second case, the person is a victim of abuse, and it is the secular state’s duty to help end that abuse, especially if the person involved is a minor. In the first case, where there is no coercion, the person always has a choice, because they can choose whether or not to respect the “obligations” of the religious tradition which they have chosen to adopt.

There are Muslims who drink alcohol, just as there are Catholics who have sexual relations whose goal is not procreation, even though they are thus disobeying core “obligations” of their respective religion. Countless other examples could be given. Among Muslims, the “obligation” for women to wear the veil is not even a core tenet, being promoted only by fundamentalist and Islamist tendencies. So a woman who freely chooses to wear the veil has chosen to follow a particular form of Islam, whether or not she is fully aware of the significance of her choice.

Accommodation

Sometimes, in order to get special treatment or privileges — or, in more familiar language, in order to obtain a “reasonable” accommodation — the religious believer will insist on the so-called “obligatory” nature of their religious practice or dress, as if they had no choice, as if their religious belief were something immutable, non-negotiable, as if their religion were like race or sexual orientation or some other innate characteristic. Some people — in particular, multiculturalists — will foolishly acquiesce without further reflection, saying “Oh, of course, you have an obligation to do that, no further questions asked.” That is why I say that multiculturalism should really be called ethnoreligious determinism because it treats religion as innate and unquestionable.

But secularists will say something like, “No, that is your personal choice, you may do it on your own time, but please refrain during working hours, especially if you work in the public service.” If the person in question is a Muslim, Islamists will then scream “Racists! How dare you impede their religious ‘freedom’!” where the word ‘freedom’ really means privilege (and no-one knows what ‘race’ they are referring to, but, no need, slander need not be precise). And the multiculturalists will cheer the Islamists along, enabling them, and working against secularism just as they did during the debate over the Quebec Charter of Secularism.

Innateness

Consider for example the strategy of Christian fundamentalist homophobes in their efforts to de-legitimize gay rights. They oppose gay rights for religious reasons of course, because their bible and their entire worldview has a distorted view of gender and sexuality. The book of Leviticus in particular condemns homosexual behaviour. But in the arguments which Christian homophobes present to others who may not care what the bible says, they insist on the idea that homosexuality is just a personal choice and not an innate characteristic. Of course this is contradicted by both research and by the personal experience of countless people which indicate that sexual orientation must be largely innate and, among men at least, practically immutable. Given the intensity of social disapproval of homosexuality, especially in many more traditional societies (including our own not so long ago), it seems absurd that anyone would “choose” to be gay.

The irony is that even if these Christian fundamentalists were right and sexual orientation could be readily changed, it would not justify legal repression or discrimination against gays and lesbians based on Christian dogma because the bible would still be irrelevant. Nevertheless, if sexual orientation really were a matter of choice, that would tend to weaken the case for gay rights because it would move gayness from the status of an innate or static characteristic such as race or physical attributes or other hereditary factors into the realm of more fluid matters of choice such as fashion or tradition.

Now, returning to the issue of religious choices and obligations, we can readily understand what the religious are trying to do when they insist on the “obligatory” nature of their behaviour or dress. By pretending that such choices are not choices but rather compulsory, they are attempting to augment the legitimacy of those choices by elevating them to the status of something innate and immutable such as race. And if anyone dares to question that strategy, they will quite likely be met with accusations of “racism” as a further attempt to assert the innateness of religious behaviour.

We must not be duped. Religious belief is not innate. It may be difficult to change — after all, childhood indoctrination, which is the main vector for spreading belief, is very effective and tenacious — but it is not immutable. It can and does change.

It is indeed ironic, and rather amusing I think, that religious bigots attempt to deny gay rights by claiming that homosexuality is low on the innateness scale, when in reality it is religious belief which is “inferior” to sexual orientation on that scale!

So we must not be duped, and we must learn to say, “NO! Your religion is not some innate, intimate part of you that must be accommodated by others!” Religious practices are NOT on a par with, for example, the health needs of a handicapped person. They need not be accommodated. We must not fall into the multiculturalist trap of acquiescing to every whim (a.k.a. “obligation”) of the religious.

Bad Fashion Choices

The above considerations are very important when deciding how to deal with the wearing of religious symbols by public servants in state institutions. Religious symbols generally have a political meaning. The crucifix, for example, is usually a symbol of loyalty to some Christian church, often (but not necessarily) the Roman Catholic, or of fidelity to Christian values. Even if the crucifix has little meaning in the mind of the person wearing it, it will be perceived by others as significant.

The Islamist veil is considerably larger than most crucifixes worn as adornments, and its political significance is more obvious, especially if the veil covers the face completely as do the niqab and the burqa. So what does the Islamist veil mean? At least two things:

  • It is a symbol of female purity. It reflects the mentality that women are responsible for men’s sexuality. It indicates that women, especially Muslim women, who do NOT wear the veil are impure, and impure women, if sexually assaulted or raped, probably deserve what they get.
  • The veil is a flag of Islamofascism. Although not the only flag, it is the flag of choice for proselytizing non-Muslim societies because the women wearing the veil are themselves primary victims of the Islamist ideology whose symbol they wear. (In this context I am using the word “proselytizing” to refer not to the conversion of individuals, but rather to the gradual conversion of spaces and societies.) In that way, criticism of the veil can often be neutralized by playing on sympathy for the victims and hypocritically accusing critics of oppressing the wearers of the veil, when in reality it is the Islamists who are oppressing them. This is a rather clever strategy on their part.

The Islamist veil is loaded with very negative meaning — especially if worn by teachers or child-care workers who spend extended periods of time with children. It transmits a set of values incompatible with modern human rights and freedoms. Again, the woman wearing the veil may or may not herself be fully aware of the message she is transmitting.

To summarize, the Islamist veil is a symbol of misogyny and fascism. The Christian crucifix is also a symbol of fascism; after all, the Roman Catholic Church has generally been a faithful ally of fascist regimes in Europe and Latin America. That is why the crucifix must be removed from the wall of the National Assembly in Quebec City.

Thus I repeat: We must not fall into the trap of accepting the myth that wearing a crucifix, veil or turban, etc., is somehow “obligatory” because it is supposedly the reflection of some innate characteristic of the bearer. On the contrary, it deserves no more deference than any other fashion choice. It can be removed.


Next blog: “Secularism Versus the Multicultis

4 thoughts on “The Myth of Religious Obligations”

  1. I was with you right up to “bad fashion choices” but then you went somewhere I can’t follow.

    Yes, it is true that a woman can choose to take off the veil or I can choose not to have my child baptized. The question is really weather it is the state’s job to insist that they do so.

    A truly neutral state wouldn’t do so. To insist that they do so is really to deny them the choice. There may be times when the states does need to violate this freedom of choice (e.g. requiring fire brigade HAZMAT workers to shave their beards so breathing masks will seal) simply so that the job can be accomplished. But the state should impose as few such strictures on its employees as possible.

    Your comment about baptism is also very worrisome to me, personally. I am in a mixed marriage (Atheist-Catholic) and I consented to have my daughter baptized because it is was more important for my wife to have the baby welcomed into her family with a rite of passage traditional to her culture than it was for me to protest against it. I concluded that if the rituals are powerless (which they are) then they cannot harm my daughter in anyway. I will still raise her to be a freethinker and she will make her own choices as adult, as we all do anyway. I am no more condemning her to a “religious destiny” then I am when I give her a Christmas present. That you think state should have stopped me is preposterous and worrying. What other rituals of childhood should we ban because you dislike their religious associations? First Communion? Bar mitzvah? Vision quests? A neutral state should leave parenting to parents to the maximal extent possible, and intervene only the minimum required to keep the peace.

    To take another tack: I can choose whether or not I speak with the accent I grew up with. If my accent makes me incomprehensible to colleges and the public, then maybe my employer, the state, has grounds to force me to change or leave. But they should police this characteristic to the minimum degree possible. Otherwise you have bureaucratic apparatus set up just to check every employee’s accent to make sure it’s the “right” one. And who is to say which is the right one?

    It’s the same with displays of religion in dress and appearance. Which ones are noticeable enough or have enough association with “fascism”, as you put it? If a Native man grows out his hair, an Orthodox Jew his sideburns, or a Sikh his beard, is this noticeable enough? Is it as “fascist” as the veil or the crucifix? What about a Buddhist monk who shaves his or her head; is the absence of something also a noticeable enough display of “fascism”? Our employers need to, as much as possible, stay out of the business of policing our choice of dress, even if we work for the state. It is an unnecessary impingement on our liberties. And promotes what? The image of the state must be grey people in grey suits, and no others need apply? I prefer my state agents to be representative of the population they serve, and that includes all kinds of cultural dress, “obligation” or not.

    1. @Kevlar

      Your comment is full of irrelevancies and at least one big error. You write that “Your comment about baptism is also very worrisome to me, personally.” What are you talking about? This blog never even mentions baptism.

      Religion should be an adult thing and must not be forced on children. This means, for example, that:

      • The state must refuse to recognize any religious affiliation for children. When they go to public school, they are not “Christian children” or “Muslim Children” or “Jewish Children” or etc., rather they are just children. Their parents may have a different attitude, but the teachers and administration should see just children.
      • Mutilation of the body without consent and without valid medical reason is unacceptable. Therefore, circumcision of boys for religious reasons must be banned.
      • Imposing the Islamist veil on young girls, before they are mature enough to choose for themselves, is a form of child abuse.
      • There must be no compulsory religion courses in public schools. Religion should be covered only in context, for example in history or social studies classes. So this means that Quebec’s “Ethics and Religious Culture” program is unacceptable for reasons well explained in other articles (for example, Seven Good Reasons to Oppose Quebec’s ERC Programme).

      As for state employees, you miss the point completely. In Quebec there is already a rule which imposes political neutrality on public servants while on duty. We need religious neutrality as well (and indeed that is one of the conclusions of the Supreme Court decision of 2015-04-15 about prayer at Saguenay city council). Employers often impose dress codes. It is only reasonable that a government should impose a ban on blatant political or religious symbols when their employees are on the job. There must be no religious favouritism. If some people are allowed to wear a particular article of clothing, then all must be allowed. If a particular form of dress is required or banned, then the rule must be applied regardless of the religion of the employee.

      1. After rereading, I think you are right; I seem to have argued against a policy you never advocated. This is what happens when you read ten similar articles in a row and then respond to one. My apologies, I will try to comment only on what is plainly in front of me.

        Let me try again.

        You said:
        “The state must refuse to recognize any religious affiliation for children.”
        I agree, insofar as I don’t think Catholic schools should (uniquely) get public funding, for example. However, if I child tells her teacher that she can’t eat lunch during Ramadan, telling the teacher to force her is another mater.

        You said : “Mutilation of the body without consent and without valid medical reason is unacceptable.”
        I concur, 100%.
        “Therefore, circumcision of boys for religious reasons must be banned.”
        Perhaps. I would worry that we are singling out only one type of body modification. If we also banned parents from piercing their child’s ears, etc. Religious motivations or not, the rule on bodily autonomy should be consistent.

        “Imposing the Islamist veil on young girls, before they are mature enough to choose for themselves, is a form of child abuse.”
        Again, perhaps. But you set yourself up for difficulties in practise. How do we know it is “imposed”? How do we know when they are “mature enough” to dress themselves, 18? I let my 1 year old pick which shirt to wear each morning because I believe she needs to have maximum autonomy and choice possible appropriate to her age, but within parameters. Parents always do this and if their particular parameters include covering their their daughter’s hair, I think they are very misguided. But is it “abuse”? We should reserve that word for something more damaging I would say. What would be “abuse” is turning away veiled children from state-funded schools. That would be punishing them for their parents’ choices. Asking agents of the state to physically force them to take off their veils is a non-starter. It is too close to the disturbing history of residential schools cutting native boys’ long hair.

        “There must be no compulsory religion courses in public schools. Religion should be covered only in context, for example in history or social studies classes.”
        I agree, but would add that “in context” could include comparative religion and/or philosophy which are not in the current curriculum (outside Quebec) but should be.
        “So this means that Quebec’s “Ethics and Religious Culture” program is unacceptable for reasons well explained in other articles (for example, Seven Good Reasons to Oppose Quebec’s ERC Programme).”
        I know very little about this course but the article that you linked to makes a compelling case that the “ERC” is not “comparative” enough in its treatment of religion and certainly does not teach logic or philosophy.

        “As for state employees, you miss the point completely. In Quebec there is already a rule which imposes political neutrality on public servants while on duty. We need religious neutrality as well (and indeed that is one of the conclusions of the Supreme Court decision of 2015-04-15 about prayer at Saguenay city council). Employers often impose dress codes. It is only reasonable that a government should impose a ban on blatant political or religious symbols when their employees are on the job. There must be no religious favouritism. If some people are allowed to wear a particular article of clothing, then all must be allowed. If a particular form of dress is required or banned, then the rule must be applied regardless of the religion of the employee.”
        Yes, I agree 100%. If Muslim employees can wear the veil, then non-Muslims should be afforded parallel treatment when it comes to dress codes. Turbans? Yes. Crucifixes? Yes. And me wearing a big fat atheist “A” on my sweater? Yes.

        One quibble, the state requires POLITICAL neutrality from its employees because it is a political creation. One job of the bureaucracy is to give impartial advice to partisan politicians (and the public). This is the reason state employees can’t wear campaign buttons on the job. Not because making political statements would be incomparable with their work, but because they occupy a neutral, referees’ role in the political game. The state has no parallel relationship to religion (in the Anglophone liberal tradition). The liberal state doesn’t provide religious services and it doesn’t follow religious leadership, so it’s need to be religiously “invisible” is not the same as in partisan politics.

        To continue the religion vs. politics analogy, what you seem to be arguing for is a non-partisan government (a state that eschews religion), and what I am arguing for is multiparty government (a state that welcomes the religious). Both require the state to be neutral, but in very different ways. One kind is a suspicious neutrality and the other is laissez-faire.

        This is parallel to a debate I heard last night on the CBC between advocate of “creativity” and one of “critical thinking”. The advocate of creativity wanted to welcome all ideas into the arena as sources of potential solutions, and only exclude ideas once they had been tried, refined, tested, discussed, etc. This is contrasted to a kind of “critical thinking” which is about tearing down bad ideas and winning arguments.

        There is a place for standing up to bad ideas and winning arguments. That is what atheists should do in interpersonal communications (in the media, online, etc.). But there’s also a place to welcome all into the arena and keep discussions going rather than trying to “win”. The workplace is a good example, as is a public school. Society needs these safe, neutral places to function. And that’s why the state best creates a neutral environment not by banning everything except that which is expressly allowed (hostile neutrality) but by tolerating everything except that which is expressly banned (welcoming neutrality or what whigs and libertarians call the “Presumption of Liberty” (http://www.libertarianism.org/columns/smiths-presumption-liberty). This second kind of neutrality is what is missing from most countries and most times in history. It is, ironically, a precious thing worth defending… with arguments and debates such as this.

        So, on that that note I would like to thank you for hosting this exchange and allowing it to continue!

  2. About Ramadan, it is a dangerous tradition, harmful to health, especially the health of children. If adults choose to do it then fine. But parents should not be allowed to deprive their children of food and drink. And roving bands of thugs (who arrogantly consider themselves to be some kind of religious “police”) who impose Ramadan on complete strangers in some Muslim-majority countries must be treated as the criminals they are.

    Forcing religious beliefs on childen is indeed a form of abuse. It is not the same as sexual or physical abuse and is often not nearly as serious as those. But sometimes it can be just as damaging or even worse. Richard Dawkins has described the example of traumatizing children with horrible descriptions of an eternity in hell. In my opinion, forcing a girl to wear a full veil from a young age and at all times when she leaves the family home is a very serious form of child abuse. On that issue, I am sure it will often be obvious when the child is being forced. I did NOT say that veiled children should be barred from school. But teachers should make it clear, repeatedly, that the veil, if worn, can be removed and that it MUST be removed for certain activities, for example most sports.

    As for religion courses in public schools, I am talking about COMPULSORY courses. Courses dedicated to comparative religion should never be compulsory because that is a specialized topic.

    As for politics and religion, you apparently promote political neutrality of state employees but not religious neutrality. Good luck trying to separate the two, because religious tenets often have implications which are very political. For example, if a person believes, for religious reasons, that abortion or homosexuality should be criminalized, or that women who do not wear the Islamist veil are not “pure,” how is that not a political opinion? In particular the Islamist veil is VERY political.

    I did NOT advocate “banning everything except that which is expressly allowed.” On the contrary, I support your idea of “tolerating everything except that which is expressly banned.” Political and religious symbols should be expressly banned in the public service, including such symbols worn by state employees (but not by citizens who are simply users of such services).

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