Friday, July 23, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 09

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

Today: Proposition 9:

We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.

I have a question.

Is it legitimate for me to consider my doctor's beliefs when choosing a physician?

If a doctor believes that malaria is caused by exposure to foul-smelling air, or that the best way to treat a patient who has a high fever is through bleeding, or that blood transfusions result in the mixing of souls which causes further medical complications, am I engaging in some sort of illegitimate bigotry on the basis of belief?

I can understand how it would be wrong for me to choose a doctor based on race - there is nothing about race that entails any particular medical decision. Similarly, there is no inference from gender, class, caste, and sexual orientation, and medical opinion either. If I use these items to evaluate doctors then I am being unfair and unjust in appealing to qualities that are entirely irrelevant to the practice of medicine.

However, to claim that there is no implication from belief to medical opinion is fundamentally absurd. Medical opinion is nothing but belief. In choosing a doctor, I am interested almost to the exclusion of all else how the doctor will come to her beliefs about my health and that she has beliefs that are accurate.

Beliefs are important. There is no sense to saying that one race is better than another, or that one gender is better than another, or that one sexual orientation is better than another. However, when it comes to beliefs, true beliefs are better than false beliefs. It matters that a belief is true in ways where it doesn't matter if one is white, or female, or lesbian.

Imagine a rule that says that, in the next election, it would be wrong for you to base your vote on the beliefs of the various candidates. In the same way that it is wrong for you to allow skin color or gender to influence your vote, your vote cannot be based on the candidate's beliefs. If he believes that the Holocaust was not real and evidence for it is a Jewish hoax, that isn't relevant. He is entitled to his beliefs and we may not discriminate against him on the basis of those beliefs.

There is a problem in that atheists in the United States are almost entirely prohibited in holding public office due to widespread bigotry (propagated through such things as the national motto and pledge of allegiance). One of the popular responses to this is to say that voters ought not to consider a candidate’s beliefs when casting a vote. Yet, the bigotry is not found in considering the candidate’s beliefs. The bigotry is found in having a prejudicial attitude towards what the atheist believes, and about how those beliefs affect the atheist’s ability to judge and act as a moral agent.

Beliefs matter.

The objection to voting against an atheist candidate and in favor of a religious candidate is not that it is wrong to base a vote on the candidate's belief. It is that the theist candidate is flat dead wrong on a lot of issues that are of deep social significance. He's getting his political and moral advice from a bunch of substantially ignorant and bigoted tribesmen who have been dead for centuries, and that is a very poor foundation for 21st century social policy.

The task is not to convince voters that it is wrong to discriminate based on beliefs. The task is to convince voters that the beliefs that the opposition candidate will base their votes on are flat dead wrong, and to the degree they are flat dead wrong is the degree that his votes will deviate from sound social policy.

Now, the theist could well be right on other things, and the atheist might have a substitute belief system that is even more wrong than the theist alternative. Some theists push the superstitions and prejudices of people long dead far into the background and base their decisions instead on modern evidence, and some atheists have adopted philosophies that are more bizarre and distant from reality than the most fanciful religions. Each candidate needs to be judged on his or her merits.

Yet, I would suggest that the second most important quality to use in discriminating between two candidates is their beliefs (the most important quality being their desires).

I suspect an immediate objection that will jump into some minds is, "Why are you talking about choosing a doctor or a legislator? The principle does not concern choosing a doctor."

The fact is that whether I choose a doctor, a plumber, or an employee, I am choosing somebody whose performance as an employee is going to be heavily influenced by his or her belief. If I am hiring a secretary, am I to disregard the beliefs of a secretary who thinks that all words end in the letter 't' (because it represents the cross and, as such, is an attack on Christianity)?

I will grant that some beliefs that an agent may have are not relevant to their job performance. The laborer who believes that there is a race of gremlins who live in attics need not have a belief that concerns me. If I fired her on discovering that she believes there are gremlins that live in attics, one could reasonably ask how I can justify the termination based on this quality.

However, if we imagine that I am in the business of sending laborers out to clean attics, or that the employee tends to share this belief in attic gremlins with customers, I may be hard pressed to come up with an employment-related justification.

One employment-related justification I can come up with is that, if a job requires that an employee examine the evidence and come to reasoned conclusions, I would have reason to ask how well the employee does that. If the employee has a long history of reaching unjustified conclusions, then I have reason to worry whether he can reach reasoned conclusions in the performance of his job. In this case, while a particular belief need not have job-related implications, they may call into question the employee's ability to come to a reasoned conclusion.

More important than any of these considerations, however, is the nature of the job that I am hiring a person to fill.

Let us say that I am a religious leader, and I want to hire a secretary and a receptionist. It is an undeniable fact of the matter that secretaries and receptionists are better for my business if they can establish a casual relationship with existing and potential clients. It is also an undeniable fact that secretaries and receptionists can better establish a casual relationship with existing and potential clients if they have certain things in common - if they share certain beliefs and desires. As a religious leader, I would insist that every member of my staff share those beliefs that would allow for casual interaction between themselves and potential clients.

If I had jobs in a back room for people who never talk to potential or actual clients, I may be less concerned with their beliefs. However, I have legitimate reason to be concerned with the beliefs of others, even if they are not religious leaders.

The same principle applies here as would apply to hiring a salesperson. I have good business-related reason to hire salespeople who love the product and who sincerely think that the customer will be better off buying the product, then one who hates it and thinks she is doing a disservice to every customer she convinces to buy it.

This is no less true when my product - what I am trying to sell - is church memberships.

And every employee who comes into contact with actual and potential customers - which means every employee - must be considered a potential sales person.

If I were to create an organization dedicated to promoting desirism, I would want the liberty to discriminate in favor of employees who embrace desirism. I would want employees who are enthusiastic about desirism. It would be essential to the success of my organization that this be the case.

The reason for religious tolerance ultimate is as a safeguard against violence. Human history is filled with one religious group taking up arms against another religious group. Where belief is based on faith and there is no independent evidence to appeal to, there is no other form of persuasion available other than the force of arms.

So, we adopt a rule, "You cannot use violence against people who do not share your religion." This is already captured in the principle I discussed earlier that a right to freedom of speech and of belief is a right to immunity from violence. But it is NOT a right to immunity from criticism. Nor is it a right to condemn people whose private acts reflect their own beliefs - people who hire and fire based on the competence of the employee.

This includes state violence. This includes a prohibition on calling on the people with guns to close down churches or to close down organizations devoted to atheist philosophies (communism, Objectivism) that one disagrees with. To get people out of those organizations, we are not going to use the force of arms. We are going to limit our tools to words and private (peaceful) actions instead.

So, we will allow freedom of religion. But we will preserve and protect the right to criticize peoples' beliefs using words as well as private actions - that is, to discriminate based on beliefs in their non-violent choices.

Previous Episodes:

Proposition 1: We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

Proposition 2: We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.

Proposition 3: We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.

Proposition 4: We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.

Proposition 5: We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.

Proposition 6: We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.

Proposition 7: We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce [6]. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.

Proposition 8: We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.


Unknown said...

First of all I'd like to admit and apologize that I did not read your posting word by word. Once I thought I got the drift of it I felt I'd like to post a few short comments as the subject is dear to myself (see So if my comments are a bit (a lot) off tangent or superfluous here and there, that is the reason. Here goes:
A belief is like paper money. It is important because many people believe and accept it. Never mind if it is false or true. The moment we know for a fact it is true then it is no more a belief but a fact! Like the earth is flat or two plus two makes four. To pacific islanders or flat earth believers any amount more than two is many and a flat earth is most reassuring. So whether it is false or true does not matter and a belief in facts is absurd. You can only believe when there are two competing claims or when there is uncertainty but once you cross the line and make a choice and feel certain then the question of belief or hanging on to the belief is absurd. I believe Holland will lose to Spain is only valid until the final whistle. After that it is meaningless. The problem arises in the case where the final whistle is still acoming, like the end of the world or the answer to the question is Jesus human or god or both or a triad. Here's the paradox. Billions of people for 2000 years are CERTAIN in an uncertainty! So here it goes to show the possible falsity of the belief is immaterial. What is decisive and influential is the belief itself. You might as well believe in a frog as the son of god. Literally, utterly meaningless, but symbolically, it'd give millions meaning to their otherwise dreary and directionless lives. Now atheism - not-believing - is as much a belief as any good old fashioned religion. " I believe there is no god but virtue is its own reward," says the good atheist while the crackpot one would say "since there is no god and therefore no final afterlife accounting/auditing/accountability, I'm going to rob and kill my fellowmen as long as I can get away with it." The hardcore might even say, "To hell if I get caught ... I'm going to die with guns blazing." History, I'm afraid, is full of the latter example. Hitler, Yamamoto, Suicide bombers ... Ma Baker ... My conclusion (it is a no brainer actually) Life is one long delusion full of uncertainties but in order to survive we kid ourselves with the pacifier of beliefs. Men cannot survive without delusions. Hence mythologies and religions and their counter arguments such as atheism. All we do is expend a lot of words over nothing! What is the word ... yay, logorhea (sorry, spelling). All the toandfroing, all the ball kicking, all the wars is to stanch (?) the slow bleeding of death and hold the terrifying sound of silence at bay. Another belief? Guilty as charged.

dbonfitto said...

1. Atheism isn't a belief. It's a lack of one. I'm pretty sure that the old saw is "Atheism is a belief like not collecting stamps is a hobby."

2. So an 'ought' based on an 'is' and an 'ought' based on an 'is not' are equally valid? Moral Calculus? Man, that's not even Moral Long Division.

3. I don't know much about Yamamoto's beliefs, but Hitler was no atheist. I'm pretty sure that suicide bombers who are looking for a reward in heaven don't fit the bill either.

4. If all delusions are equally valid, then why even bother to care what others think? Just believe your thing harder and make your own little reality bubble.

5. You need to read Alonzo's posts word by word. They're dense. They're precise. They're built carefully on previous posts. You might also try reading those previous posts.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

1. Atheism isn't a belief. It's a lack of one. I'm pretty sure that the old saw is "Atheism is a belief like not collecting stamps is a hobby."

I disagree with this one.

When I say I am an atheist - when (almost) all competent English speakers use the term atheist - I (they) use it to mean "a person who holds that the proposition "At least one God exists" is certainly or almost certainly false.

I know that a number of atheists are into saying that atheism is not a belief. However, I find that they can score rhetorical points by either eqivocating on the meading or just muddying the water.

However, referring back to the earlier comment, Zaharan Razak lost me at the start.

A belief is like paper money. It is important because many people believe and accept it. Never mind if it is false or true.


It doesn't matter whether the plant is poisonous or not. It only matters whether you believe it is poisonous.

It doesn't matter whether shooting somebody will kill them, the belief that the bullet will pass through his body without doiong harm is good enough.

It doesn't matter whether you are sober enough to drive, if you believe you are sober enough to drive, that is all that matters.

True beliefs matter. They are the method by which our actions become successful or unsuccessful. You can try to ignore reality - you can assert a "will to believe" whatever you want, but reality is always going to win. It will not yield to mere belief.