This week I have been arguing against the association between religion and morality by arguing that religion does not provide the kinds of evidence that is required to justify policies that costs others their lives, health, or liberty. When it comes to doing harm to others, whether by flying airplanes into sky scrapers or by banning embryonic stem-cell research, the claim, "My faith justifies this action," is not morally sufficient.
One needs the type of evidence that would be admissible in court.
Furthermore, the instant that anybody starts testifying in favor of policies that will deprive others of life, health, or liberty for any reason, then he or she must be prepared for a vigorous cross-examination. They cannot morally be permitted to sit there and assert that others may be deprived of life, health, or liberty, and at the same time assert that nobody may challenge their testimony on the grounds that doing so is “insulting”.
Consistent with this argument I want to throw in the principle that the accused in this case – those who would be made to suffer the loss of life, health, or liberty – have a moral right to the presumption of innocence. It is never the duty of those who would be harmed to prove that harming them is wrong. The burden of proof is on those who argue in favor of doing harm. They must not only present evidence, but they must present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
This means that the morally required default attitude to take towards any religion-based claim that people may be made to suffer a loss of life, health, or liberty is the attitude that they are mistaken. They need to prove their point. It is not sufficient that they offer evidence for their claim that harms are justified. It is necessary that they offer evidence that is beyond a reasonable doubt.
If this requirement is not met, then the presumption that no harm be done wins out, and the faith-based call to do harm to others must be rejected.
Notice that I am not talking about faith-based calls to help others. Helping others requires no justification – so it does not matter how poor the reasons are a person has or being helpful.
It is still consistent with this view that people can argue where these moral requirements come from. It is still consistent with this view to say that God created a universe in which there is a moral obligation to presume that harm should not be done to the life, health, or liberty of another human being, or if it arises as a natural property. I would describe it in the latter terms – that desires are reasons for action that exist for promoting an aversion to doing harm to the life, health, and liberty of another person – an aversion that requires ore and stronger reasons to outweigh.
This is true in the same way that people can dispute where trees came from – whether it emerged through evolution or through intelligent design. Different beliefs about the origins of a tree are not relevant to its existence, its height, its mass, or its chemical composition. The tree is equally there, and equally solid, for both participants.
The obligation not to do harm to the life, health, or liberty of another without good reason – the presumption against doing harm - is equally there as well.
"It is written in this book that I consider holy that people such as yourself shall suffer a loss of life, health, or liberty," is not a good enough reason. If it were, then we all should be dead. I do not care who you are, there is a religious book out there that calls for your death.
Faith that one may do harm to the life, health, and liberty of others is also not good enough. Nor is the assertion, "I know it to be true in my heart with a certainty that could only have come from God that people such as you may be harmed."
None of these have sufficient weight to outweigh the presumption that no harm be done without good reason to do so.
And for the sake of any religious readers who might want to dispute this principle, I simply ask you to consider all of the equally religious people out there who hold beliefs calling for the sacrifice of your life, health, and liberty.