The Fiction of Corporate Religious Freedom

A recent column by Stanley Fish concerns the relationship between believers and the state, specifically how far the state should go in accommodating the beliefs of religious communities - such as Muslims who want to live under sharia law.

Although Fish never explicitly states his own views, he gives the strong impression that he's on the side of the theists who argue that they should be allowed to have special laws. In particular, he writes that liberal societies by their nature can't defend "corporate religious freedom". That's a very strange phrase, one which he never gives a clear definition for. What could it mean?

It's not the right of individuals to freely practice their religion in their private lives. That's covered by the liberal neutrality (actually, "secularism" would be a better word) which Fish only acknowledges with a faint pucker of distaste. It also can't be the right of individuals to organize, build, and attend churches where their own view is preached. That's covered by the freedom of association that's one of those individual rights. No, "corporate" religious freedom means something different, and he tells us what: has been felt with increased force as Muslim immigrants to Western secular states evidence a desire to order their affairs, especially domestic affairs, by Shariah law rather than the supposedly neutral law of a godless liberalism...

This can't be the mere right of people to contract with each other in a way which provides that disputes, if they arise, will be settled according to religious principles. Again, this already exists; it's one of those freedoms you have under godless liberalism. (For instance, most multinational banks that do business with Muslim populations offer sukuk loans, a special kind of financial instrument invented to comply with the Islamic prohibition on charging interest). No, "corporate religious freedom" can mean only one thing: that religious communities should be free to create their own laws and apply them to everyone who lives within that community - including people who haven't agreed to be bound by them.

Islamic communities, presumably, could pass a law requiring all their women to be veiled, regardless of whether those women want to do that or consider that to be part of their interpretation of Islam. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities could pass laws forbidding men and women to mingle in public. Roman Catholic communities could forbid pharmacies to sell contraception. Laws could be passed which would require weekly attendance at religious services. And then, of course, there are the blasphemy laws forbidding the dominant religion to be criticized, which I'm sure religious communities of every kind would leap at.

This view which Fish so muddle-headedly advocates is full of huge, obvious problems. First of all, what defines a "community"? A geographic boundary? The membership rolls of a church? Baptismal records? Could I be inducted into a community against my will? Could parents commit their children, and if so, would those children be permitted to opt out?

Second, what would happen to people who break these laws? Would the ordinary police be tasked with arresting those heretics, thus putting the power of the state at the beck and call of churches? Or worse, would religious groups be permitted to create their own police, their own courts, their own prisons, their own ideas of due process that would deal with dissenters and offenders as they saw fit? And how would these laws be passed in the first place - by the majority consent of the community? Or by an unelected council of clerics?

But all this isn't just a thought experiment. We know exactly what the real-world results of the good professor's scheme would be. There are already places where religious groups have "corporate freedom", and this is what it leads to:

The United Arab Emirates's highest judicial body has ruled that a man can beat his wife and young children as long as the beating leaves no physical marks.

..."If a wife committed something wrong, a husband can report her to police," Dr al Kubaisi said. "But sometimes she does not do a serious thing or he does not want to let others know; when it is not good for the family. In this case, hitting is a better option."

This is what they are seeking. This is what "corporate freedom" always amounts to: violence, coercion and theocratic law. How could it be otherwise? For better or for worse, in a secular democracy a group of freely consenting individuals can already pledge to live any way they wish, to mutually agree to practice any religious beliefs they desire. The only other "freedom" they could possibly have is the ability to force their beliefs on people who don't consent. And that's what this talk always boils down to: the same old complaint, that respecting their religious freedom means allowing them to take away the freedom of others.

November 5, 2010, 5:50 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments

Weekend Link Miscellany

I've got a couple of links this weekend, some atheism-related, some not:

• Lost a digital camera lately? It made me smile to find out about I Found Your Camera, a website helping to reunite lost cameras with their owners.

• After the terrible and entirely preventable deaths of three people during a "sweat lodge" ceremony last year, the New Age community in Sedona is suffering a tourist backlash. Is this what it takes to make people realize that pseudoscientific gibberish is not harmless?

• "The most rapidly growing religious category today is composed of those Americans who say they have no religious affiliation." An excellent piece on the rise of atheism among young people, due in part to obnoxious evangelicals insisting that conservative politics are a prerequisite for believing in God. (Thanks, guys!)

• NPR covers the founding of a secular student group at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. (See also).

• The FFRF stops Christian proselytizing at a Tennessee public school. One board member complains that anyone who didn't want to hear the prayers could just "put their fingers in their ears".

• A wonderful meditation on atheist spirituality. (HT: Unequally Yoked)

• And lastly, any female readers want to advance the course of science? My brother is working on his graduate thesis, and he's looking for volunteers to take this study on female sexual response. It's completely anonymous and doesn't collect any personal information.

October 23, 2010, 7:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Attention, Legal Scholars: Is This Constitutional?

In my recent post on creeping fundamentalism in Israel, I included a picture but didn't explain why. I wanted to talk about it some more, because it seems to me that what it depicts is a possible constitutional violation, and I was hoping I could get opinions from people better versed in constitutional law than I am.

This was taken in upstate New York, near where I used to live. The sign stands at the entrance to Kiryas Joel, a village founded by ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews in the 1970s. For years, the village has been clashing with the surrounding towns on one issue after another: KJ's rapid population growth and attempts to annex surrounding land; the high proportion of residents on welfare; their tendency to vote as a bloc; their refusal to put their children on a school bus if a woman is driving (yes, really), and worse. One case, in which the state effectively created a separate school district just for the village, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against it.

And now, there's this sign. I saw it while I was visiting family a few weeks ago and took this photo with my phone.

So, my question is this: Is it constitutional to put a sign like this on public land? (I'm not positive whether the land under the sign is privately owned, but it's just off to the side of a public road - and it certainly appears to be speaking on behalf of the village itself.) Can any community really tell visitors how to dress or request that they "maintain gender separation in all public areas"?

Obviously, this ridiculous demand doesn't and couldn't have the force of law behind it. But is it legal even to ask? You'll notice that the sign makes this request "in keeping with our traditions and religious customs", which is basically an admission that there's no secular purpose for it, that it's being requested to placate the beliefs of a religious sect. How could a sign like that not transgress the separation of church and state?

September 13, 2010, 12:49 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments

Creeping Fundamentalism in Israel

Israel, like America, is a modern secular democracy with a noisy religious minority that desires the creation of a theocracy. And as in America, religious fundamentalists in Israel exert political influence disproportionate to their numbers. But Israel's fundamentalist minority, the ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews, have had some worrying successes lately in imposing their vision on the country.

First, there's this article, about the construction of a light rail in Jerusalem. Yair Naveh, the CEO of the transit company, is proposing that some cars on every train should be "kosher cars", reserved for the use of the ultra-Orthodox and segregated by gender as their sexist laws demand. (There are already bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in which women are forced to sit at the back, but that isn't enough for haredi men who are too holy to have to come in contact with women.)

The ultra-Orthodox are fighting for segregation not just on public transportation, but everywhere else as well. Witness this story about a religious court which sentenced an Israeli singer, Erez Yechiel, to a symbolic "whipping" for performing before a mixed-gender audience. This quote from the article says it all:

Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, who heads the Shofar organization for the distribution of Judaism, has been waging a war against religious singers who perform to an integrated audience of both men and women...

At least for now, this court had no legal authority; the singer submitted himself to its judgment voluntarily. (Why he did that, I have no idea - probably because of the widespread delusion that members of the clergy have some unique moral wisdom, when their bigoted and sexist actions show that, if anything, the opposite is true.) But history shows that religious groups which have the opportunity to enact their beliefs into law rarely pass up the opportunity - and one could be forgiven for wondering, if these rabbis had the power, whether those floggings would always be symbolic.

And the power of the ultra-Orthodox may soon be much more than symbolic, depending on this bill currently being debated in Israel's parliament. It would grant authority to Israel's ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate to recognize or deny conversions to Judaism, effectively invalidating all conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Since conversion to Judaism grants Israeli citizenship, this would be a very significant matter in determining who can be a citizen of Israel. It would potentially give the ultra-Orthodox a major advantage in elections, granting them the power to deny citizenship to more liberal Jews who might disagree with their views.

But as hard as they fight to gain control of the Israeli state, the fundamentalists contribute little to its upkeep. As many as two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox men don't work - they do nothing but study the Torah and get welfare payments from the government to do so. In effect, they expect liberal and moderate Jews to work to support them, even as they lobby to take away the liberals' rights. And the justification one of them offers for this is laughable:

"Some people drive a taxi, others pray," said Robert Zwirn, 63, a former doctor from Brooklyn who moved to Israel 20 years ago and gradually gave up his practice to adopt an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. "But the Messiah won't come on the merit of you driving a taxi. It will be on the merit of our prayer."

Because of the delusion that endless prayer and scripture study will bring about the messianic age, these people have convinced themselves that their selfishness is actually a good deed - that they have the right to free-ride off society, taking its resources without giving anything back in return. It's the same delusion, that they're the future saviors of the world, that inspires all their other theocratic demands.

September 6, 2010, 7:58 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink45 comments

The Ingratitude of American Theocrats

When America's founders ratified the Constitution, they created something that arguably had never existed in the world before: a republic where freedom of religion was explicitly enshrined in the charter, where toleration wasn't just the whim of a benevolent ruler but the immutable law of the land. As George Washington wrote in his famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

This was a radical break with history. At the time America was founded, all the great powers of Europe had state-supported churches and monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right, and religious wars and persecution were the order of the day: Catholics persecuting Protestants, Protestants persecuting Catholics, and both Catholics and Protestants persecuting those within their own sects who strayed from established dogma. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition was still executing heretics at the time of Thomas Jefferson's presidency.

In Great Britain during the Elizabethan era, the houses of prominent Roman Catholic families were known for having secret rooms, called "priest holes" (see also), where Catholic priests could be hidden away at a moment's notice when inquisitors came calling. Can you imagine what living in that society must have been like? Can you imagine living in a country where your freedom of belief hung by a thread, where the whim of a king made the difference between being grudgingly tolerated and an enemy of the state, and where literally at any moment you might have to abandon everything and go into hiding for your life - and that this happened so often that people planned for it?

Although America has seen (and practiced) its share of religious persecution, we've never had horrors like these. Instead, our founding document offered all comers a wonderful bargain: the freedom to live in peace, practice your beliefs as you see fit, even preach them to others. And in return we asked only, as President Washington said, that believers of all kinds be good citizens and obey the law of the land. We modern Americans have gotten used to this freedom, but that shouldn't blind us to how truly unprecedented it was, nor how liberal and generous it is to theists of every denomination.

But for members of the modern Christian right, it isn't enough. It's not enough for them that they have the right to practice their beliefs as they see fit, free of government interference. It's not enough for them that they have the unlimited freedom to fundraise, pray and preach as much as they like, in whatever media outlets they choose to publish. It's not even enough for them that they can stud the landscape with churches and staff and maintain them tax-free.

No, these dominionist believers want more than freedom: they want a special, privileged place in the laws of our country. They want the government to obey them, to issue official proclamations reminding everyone of their superiority, and to underwrite their evangelism with tax money from nonbelievers. They want their dogmas and only their dogmas to be taught in public school science classes, enshrined on courthouse lawns, and used as the basis to decide who should be allowed to marry, divorce, be born and die. In short, they want to be what our founders specifically sought to prevent: a state-established church, an arm of the government, with special rights and privileges granted to members and nonbelievers relegated to second-class citizens.

What selfishness! What ingratitude! All American believers, Christian or not, were given a priceless gift by the founders, and these ones throw it on the ground and spit on it. They don't want to be one religion among many; they want special privileges and special recognition. They think that freedom is worthless if it's granted to people they dislike - like a spoiled child who wants a toy because no one in his class has it, and then throws a temper tantrum when other kids get them because he's not the only one anymore. It's telling that these fundamentalists apparently can't just practice their religion on their own - they need constant hand-holding and head-patting from the government to stroke their egos and reassure them that they're better and specialer than everyone else. It's a clear sign of insecurity.

Benjamin Franklin had their number over two hundred years ago:

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

Think of this the next time some obnoxious theocrat is on the news, arguing that it's unfair to him if his sect doesn't get special rights. These people want us to think of them as proud, pious defenders of America's Christian heritage (a claim which is, needless to say, utterly false). Instead, we should think of them as spoiled and petulant children, ungratefully rejecting the pledges of liberty that our founding generation purchased in blood, all because they want to be treated as if they were better than everyone else. Keep that image in your head, and it may help you put the theocrats' demands in their proper context.

August 26, 2010, 5:50 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink21 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• Despite the good sense shown by the British Medical Association in lambasting homeopathy at their annual conference last month, the UK National Health Service has announced that it will still pay for water and sugar pills passed off as medicine.

• A court in Utah has thrown out the rape conviction of Mormon cult leader Warren Jeffs, due to a legal technicality, and ordered that the case be retried. Texas is still seeking to have him extradited to face similar charges, so it seems likely that he'll ultimately face justice.

• I was shocked to read of some ultra-Orthodox Israeli communities that are so extreme, they demand that their women wear burqas so as not to arouse the passions of men.

A Liberty University graduate defends the separation of church and state.

• In more welcome news, the U.K. education secretary has said he's interested in proposals for atheist schools, after Richard Dawkins made such a proposal in response to a law allowing faith-based and community groups to open their own publicly funded schools. And why not? If every church in England has its own schools - the article mentions Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu - why shouldn't there be atheist schools that teach students rationality and critical thinking?

July 31, 2010, 5:13 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments

Britain Defends the Enlightenment

Despite the ongoing schism of the Anglican church, which I wrote about in my last post, I'm happy to see that there's still plenty of good sense and reason in the U.K. One outstanding example is this story from last month, where the British Medical Association voted to stop funding homeopathy in public hospitals. (UK readers, do you know if is this a binding vote or just advisory?) There's been some trenchant commentary on the decision, like this column from Ed West:

The most outspoken supporter of the motion, Dr Tom Dolphin, had earlier compared homeopathy to witchcraft, but then apologised to witches on the grounds that this was unfair. Homeopathy, he said, was "pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method".

And from Martin Robbins, responding to a supporter of homeopathy:

Apparently 'thousands' of people - including Peter Hain's son - get better after taking homeopathy. This is absolutely true, but the problem is that most people get better anyway, whether you give them antibiotics, homeopathy, or a slap to the face. Humans tend to be quite good at healing themselves. Once you control for this sort of variable, the outcomes are much clearer.... the more rigorously we test homeopathy, the more it fails.

By way of response, defenders of homeopathy are reduced to reading from a by-now-familiar script:

Apparently... I'm displaying what Dr Le Fanu describes as "Dawkinsite arrogance", but there's nothing arrogant about researchers collectively testing ideas and accepting the results. What's arrogant is to ignore evidence when it doesn't produce the result you expect. Particularly when that evidence has been accumulating for two centuries – a period of time in which homeopaths apparently haven't even managed to agree on how much you have to shake the vial.

Yes, that's right - in two hundred years, homeopaths haven't gotten around to figuring out how many times a homeopathic remedy has to be "succussed" (i.e., shaken) in the course of dilution to activate its supposed curative powers. Do you really want to take medicine from people who can't be bothered to perform even the most basic tests on their own ideas? And what does it say about the homeopaths' level of devotion to scientific rigor that they've never even tried to determine this?

And this isn't the only good news out of England. It seems that Colin Hall, the recently elected mayor of Leicester, is a nonbeliever, and he's taken some commendable steps toward ending Christian privilege in his town:

Writing in this month's edition of the Leicester Secularist, the journal of the city's Secular Society, Cllr Hall, who will serve as Lord Mayor for the 2010-11 municipal year, said: "Contrary to the myths that certain organisations like to promote, the practice of observing prayers at the start of council meetings is a relatively recent one.

"I am delighted to confirm that I will be exercising my discretion as Lord Mayor to abolish the outdated, unnecessary and intrusive practice.

"I personally consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business... This particularly applies in Leicester, where the majority of council members, myself included, do not regularly attend any particular faith service."

Although Hall's decision appears to have gone over smoothly with the majority, there was some predictable squawking from pushy Christians who are unhappy that their special rights are being taken away:

A Fellowship Pastor, Ian Jones, said: "I find it deeply sad that anyone would want to suppress the rights of others to pray.

"If someone has a problem with this practice, could they not simply join the meeting once it is over?"

Although the U.K. as a whole is friendly to reason, it seems its pastors suffer from the same disease that's endemic in America - the belief that they have the right to force their religion on others and that their free speech is being suppressed if they're denied this. I have a better idea, Pastor Jones: why don't you do your own praying before the meeting if you want to, and spare everyone else the wasted time of listening to your superstitious mumbling?

This isn't Mayor Hall's first action standing up for the rights of nonbelievers. He's hired the president of the local secular society to serve as the town's chaplain. When he took office, he also refused to take part in a service at Leicester Cathedral to ceremonially welcome him into his new role. As he wrote on Twitter, "Bear in mind though, I am Lord Mayor for all people of Leicester and not just those from the Church of England."

Hall's decision to stand up for secularism and conduct the people's business without giving special privileges to religion is a wonderful breath of fresh air, and something I wish we'd see more of in America. And for truth's sake, the U.K.'s current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is an atheist! You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren't you?

July 14, 2010, 7:24 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

Victory for FFRF!

I wrote in 2007 about the National Day of Prayer, a ridiculous ceremony created by Congress in the 1950s to urge all Americans to pray. That obviously unconstitutional objective would be bad enough, but what makes it even worse is that official National Day of Prayer events, held in city halls and government offices across the nation, are overrun by evangelical religious-right groups who claim the day as their own and don't allow members of the "wrong" religions to participate.

Well, I'm thrilled to say that freethinkers and secularists have won a tremendous victory against this blatantly illegal government-sponsored religious exercise. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has won summary judgment in a district court over their lawsuit, filed in October 2008, which seeks to bar the federal government from recognizing the National Day of Prayer.

Judge Barbara Crabb wrote a 66-page decision that lays out the history of the National Day of Prayer, exhaustively considers the precedents, and makes a clear, thorough and compelling argument for why this event is a complete violation of the constraints placed on the government by the First Amendment. The ruling is available online, and I'll quote a few of the choicer parts:

However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. [p.4-5]

[R]eligious expression by the government that is inspirational and comforting to a believer may seem exclusionary or even threatening to someone who does not share those beliefs. This is not simply a matter of being "too sensitive" or wanting to suppress the religious expression of others. Rather, as explained in a recent book by the Provost of Princeton University and the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, it is a consequence of the unique danger that religious conduct by the government poses for creating "in" groups and "out" groups.... [p.19]

If the government were interested only in acknowledging the role of religion in America, it could have designated a
"National Day of Religious Freedom" rather than promote a particular religious practice. [p.34]

The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy. [p.64]

The opinion also takes a few well-deserved swipes at the excuses that some judges have devised to sneak state-sponsored religion in through the back door:

Establishment clause values would be significantly eroded if the government could promote any longstanding religious practice of the majority under the guise of "acknowledgment." [p.33]

and especially:

One judge [that would be Judge Reinhardt, who ruled for Michael Newdow in the Pledge case —Ebonmuse] observed recently that ceremonial deism is a "hazily defined" concept and suggested that it "represents mainly the judiciary's less than courageous response" to certain longstanding religious practices. [p.44]

Crabb's decision explained something I didn't know - that the National Day of Prayer was proposed by conservative congressmen (including Absalom Robertson, Pat Robertson's father) to an evangelistic revival held in Washington, D.C. by Billy Graham which called upon the government to be more Christian. She quotes from Graham's speech to show how openly partisan and sectarian his intent was:

We have dropped our pilot, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are sailing blindly on without divine chart or compass, hoping somehow to find our desired haven. We have certain leaders who are rank materialists; they do not recognize God nor care for Him [sic]... Ladies and gentlemen, I warn you, if this state of affairs continues, the end of the course is national shipwreck and ruin. [p.6]

Graham, of course, is a private citizen and is welcome to hold the opinion that our leaders should be Jesus believers or engage in prayer - but it is not the role of the government itself to back him up. It is not the role of the government to tell people to "recognize" or "care for" one particular set of god-beliefs, nor is it any of the government's business to tell us how, when, or whether to pray. Thomas Jefferson explained why when he wisely refused to issue religious proclamations as President:

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it... every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

This is just the first step, of course; this ruling is all but certain to go to an appeals court. Even if it survives the first round of appeals, it's very likely to wind up before the Supreme Court, and there's no telling how they'll rule. Nevertheless, this is a major victory, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation deserves tremendous credit for taking on this case and fighting it out in court. If you're an atheist and you're not an FFRF member, why on earth aren't you?

April 17, 2010, 9:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments

How Much Good Do Religious Charities Really Do?

I just finished reading Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book on what we can do to improve the status of women worldwide. One of the book's major arguments is that, despite their opposition to abortion and contraception, religious groups often do more good than secular liberals give them credit for:

Religious conservatives... have also saved lives in vast numbers by underwriting and operating clinics in some of the neediest parts of Africa and Asia. When you travel in the poorest countries in Africa... the people you almost inevitably encounter are the missionary doctors and church-sponsored aid workers. [p.142]

Kristof and WuDunn write that both religious and secular groups do important work, and that liberals, moderates and conservatives from across the political spectrum should be able to cooperate to accomplish more. I agree! And so does Saad Mohammed Ali, a U.S. resident and former Iraqi refugee who's fluent in English and Arabic. He applied for a caseworker position at World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, for a job that involved helping Iraqi refugees resettle in America. On the face of it, he seemed ideally suited. And World Relief would have thought so too - except, it turns out, for one small, insignificant detail (HT: The Wall of Separation):

...a few days after he applied for the position last December, [Ali] got an unexpected call from the same manager at World Relief: She was sorry, she told him, but the agency couldn't offer him the job because he is not Christian.

Saad Mohammed Ali, you see, is a Muslim. And no matter how well qualified a Muslim might be to help the people World Relief wants to help, World Relief doesn't hire Muslims. It only hires evangelical Christians.

The opponents of atheism often accuse us of believing that no religion has ever done any good for anyone - a position that's obviously absurd and is held by no atheist that I know of. (Even Christopher Hitchens, atheist firebrand extraordinaire, says only that there's no good which a religious person could do but an atheist couldn't do.) The argument that atheists actually make is twofold. First, we assert that churches and religious groups' charitable work comes from the universal human sense of compassion, not from any specifically religious teaching. (This is most clearly shown by the fact that every religion, regardless of its beliefs, does work like this. Even Hamas builds schools, hospitals and orphanages.) Second, we assert that in spite of this, the religious beliefs of those groups often hamper their efforts by causing them to accomplish less good than they otherwise could have - even worsening the very problems they're trying to solve.

The clearest example is Roman Catholicism: the church does social work that helps the poor and AIDS victims in Africa and Asia, but by their hard-line opposition to condoms, they're making the problem worse by ensuring that there will be more poor people and more AIDS sufferers. A similar case is that of abstinence-only sex education. I don't doubt that the Christian evangelicals who support these programs genuinely want to reduce teen pregnancy and STDs. The problem is that their approach has been shown to be not nearly as effective as comprehensive programs that teach about contraception.

So too with World Relief. The problem isn't that they do no good at all, but that they artificially and arbitrarily limit the good they do by turning away perfectly qualified candidates just because they don't hold the right beliefs. And because atheism, as a movement, is relatively new and unorganized, we don't yet have the infrastructure to offer an alternative path to people who are rejected by religious charities that refuse to hire nonbelievers.

The major churches have been been running social programs for decades, have local branches all over the world, and have support from governments and wealthy, well-connected donors. They have a head start on us. We're working to organize and to catch up, but this takes time - and since they won't work with us or hire us in the meantime, it's more difficult to get our own efforts off the ground. This makes any straightforward comparison, of the "atheists don't do as much charitable work as religious people" sort, misguided and ignorant. (Another thought: How many current employees of World Relief are not evangelicals, but are afraid to disclose their beliefs lest they lose their jobs?)

One more point to highlight: according to AU, World Relief gets up to seventy percent of its funding from the U.S. government. That's your tax dollars and mine, American readers, going to underwrite jobs that we can never be hired for because we don't believe the right dogmas. This glaring constitutional violation would be excellent grounds for a lawsuit, if the right-leaning Supreme Court hadn't slammed the door in our faces by ruling that, due to legal technicalities about who exactly is spending the money, freethinkers have no power to compel the government to respect the First Amendment. We're at a double disadvantage: the government can take our money, use it to fund prejudiced, proselytizing religious charities without our consent, and then to cap it off, arrogant religious apologists demand to know why we aren't accomplishing as much good as those charities!

March 31, 2010, 4:43 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink19 comments

No Payment For Prayer: Christian Science and Health Care Reform

With the historic passage of sweeping health insurance reform, Americans have reason to rejoice this week. For the first time, and despite hysterical opposition from the party of conspiracy nuts and theocrats, our government has enshrined in law the idea that every citizen has a right to affordable health care. Even if the law is far from perfect, it's still a huge advance over the alternative of doing nothing - and history shows that most major pieces of progressive social legislation, including Social Security and Medicare, started out flawed and were improved over time. With this bill now signed into law, we have a foundation to build on.

Atheists and freethinkers have another reason to celebrate (in addition to the removal of the noxious, theocratic Stupak language on abortion). Namely, one of the worst provisions of the bill - a clause mandating that health insurance companies pay for prayer - was removed in committee and didn't make it into the final legislation. This clause was originally inserted at the urging of the Christian Science church, the cult which shuns all modern medicine in favor of faith healing delusions and would rather see children suffer agonizingly and die slowly than take them to a doctor.

Or at least, that used to be the party line. In the last few decades, Christian Scientists' numbers have been in steady decline, and there are signs that the church may be giving ground on its absolute stance, as the New York Times reports:

Though officials do not provide membership statistics, scholars estimate that the church's numbers have dropped to under 100,000 from a peak of about twice that at the turn of the 20th century.... In New York City, falling membership forced the Christian Science church on Park Avenue to lease its building part time to a catering service in 2006. Another Manhattan church remains open; a third closed in 2005.

It'd be easy to snark that the reason Christian Scientists' numbers are dwindling is that so many of them tend to die. But I don't think it's sheer attrition that's the cause. In the past few years, there have been more and more cases of parents prosecuted for letting their children die of completely treatable illnesses. I think it's the onslaught of bad publicity and the church's public intransigence that have been turning people off - not to mention the fact that, as scientific medicine gets better and better and its benefits become more and more apparent, there are increasingly few people willing to give it up.

Like most churches in decline, Christian Scientists have turned to the state to prop them up. The healthcare reform bill was a perfect example, where church lobbyists pleaded with the government to force insurers to pay them for praying. Christian Science practitioners charge $25 to $50 per session, but since their "treatment" of the sick consists of nothing more than babbling superstitious gibberish, anything other than zero is far too high a price to pay. And if every sect or cult under the sun could demand payment in exchange for carrying out their own magic rituals, where would it end? Why should the rest of us have to subsidize, through higher insurance premiums, the religious nonsense of modern-day witch doctors?

The American Academy of Pediatrics deserves commendation for their strong stand against treating prayer as the equivalent of medicine:

"Given the complete lack of scientific evidence of the efficacy of prayer in treating any illness or disorder in children," academy officials wrote Senate leaders in October, "mandating coverage for these services runs counter to the principles of evidence-based medicine."

But, as I said, there are signs that the Christian Scientists have started to relax their absolutist stance - the pronouncements of their lunatic founder, Mary Baker Eddy, notwithstanding. Though Eddy demanded that believers forsake medicine under all circumstances, some modern members are taking a more tolerant stance and starting to push prayer as an alternative, rather than a replacement, for conventional, evidence-based treatment.

The faith's guiding textbook forbids mixing medical care with Christian Science healing, which is a form of transcendental prayer intended to realign a patient's soul with God.... Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879 in Boston, wrote in the church's textbook, "Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures," that anyone inviting a doctor to his sickbed "invites defeat."

But faced with dwindling membership and blows to their church's reputation... Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary.

..."In the last year, I can't tell you how many times I've been called to pray at a patient's bedside in a hospital," said Philip Davis, 59, the church's national spokesman, who has been tending to the sick for three decades as a Christian Science practitioner.

This may end up being one of the very rare cases where a religion is forced to change by the sheer weight of the evidence against it. The Christian Science church is still going through a process of smoothing out the rough edges, and as the benefits of modern medicine become increasingly obvious, their leaders may no longer be able to persuade the rest to forsake it. We may wind up with a situation like modern Roman Catholicism, where the bishops and the Pope continue to preach against contraception, but the official teaching is almost universally ignored among educated followers. And the happy fact that payment for prayer was removed from the health care law - a rare triumph of rationality in Washington - can only speed that outcome.

March 29, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink43 comments

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