Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician - Does It Really Matter?

Picture a woman tied to a stake surrounded by bundles of firewood and wearing a sign that identifies her as a witch.

Picture a priest standing before the witch, torch in hand, ready to light the bundles of wood.

Picture a villager standing between the priest and the witch, blocking the priest from setting fire to the wood.

Picture the priest shouting to the crowd, "Get this villager out of my way! The freedom of religion is at stake."

There really is no qualitative difference between this scenario and two political issues that the Catholic Church and religious conservatives are involved in during this election year.

The Catholic Church is filing a lawsuit declaring that the freedom of religion allows them to deny insurance coverage for contraceptives and legal abortions to women employed in organizations run by the church, but not a part of the church. They claim that their moral code demands this, and that it violates their freedom of religion to force them to act contrary to their religious moral code.

The other issue, now that Obama has spoken in favor if gay marriage, is to ratchet up the religious opposition to this - to use it to further demand that the state enforce the religious code, "Thou shalt not suffer a homosexual couple to marry." Their moral code demands this.

That moral code also demands, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

If freedom of religion implies a total freedom to act in accordance to a religious moral code regardless of what it claims, then it would be wrong to stand between the priest and the suspected witch tied to the stake. It would be wrong to stand between the Imam and the apostate that he seeks to behead. It would be wrong to stand between the father and the daughter he would kill for the imagined dishonor brought to the family as a result of being raped.

If the church's argument has any validity, then the priest in the mental image In constructed at the top of this posting is making a legitimate moral claim, and any villager standing between the priest and the witch he would burn would be in the wrong.

Or, to put it another way, if the freedom of religion does not extend to having a moral permission to burn witches, behead apostates, and let fathers kill their daughters - if the villager in this mental image is in the right - then the claim of freedom of religion has its limits.

The limits are easy to draw, once one thinks about it. The right to freedom of religion is not a right to do harm to others in the name of God.

Yesterday, while I wrote the post about excuses offered not to get involved in challenging religion, another excuse I had in mind was the excuse, 'It's just not that important."

This excuse is perfectly valid if the issue was solely belief in a God. A lot of articles I encounter, mostly from the religious side, seek to frame the issue in these terms. They bring up Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and talk about the absurdity if such shrill protest over something that is as unimportant as belief in God. Sure, it is important to the people who believe in God, but why should the atheist care? They protest, "Why is it so important to the atheist we share their belief that no God exists. In demanding that our beliefs conform to theirs, they sound an awful lot like fundamentalist preachers demanding conformity to their world view."

It is effective propaganda - and it is well funded.

It is, at the same time, a magician's trick that aims to distract people from what many atheists consider the real issues - the issues that are worth complaining about.

It is not important to convert people to unbelief.

It is, however, important to save the (accused) witch from being burned, to save the apostate from being beheaded, to save the young woman from being stoned to death.

It is important to get adequate medical care for the child that needs a blood transfusion and to properly treat his type 1 diabetes.

It is important to prevent people following a primitive superstition from acting on their belief that, "Thou shalt not suffer a homosexual to get married," or "Thou shalt not suffer a women having health insurance that covers important aspects of womens' health."

The importance does not come from converting people to unbelief. It comes from standing between the priest and the suspected witch that the priest would not suffer to live. It cones from standing between the priest and the homosexual couple whose relationship he would destroy. It comes from standing between the priest and the women seeking insurance to cover the protection of their own health.

Other religious issues - what to eat (so long as it is not real people), what to wear, the specific content and manner of prayer (so long as it does not involve live human sacrifice or similar harms), and the like - bring no harm to others, and others have no reason to interfere. These are the limits to the rights of freedom of religion. Yet, when one acts in ways that do real harm to others, the right to freedom of religion ends and the right of those others who would suffer harm begins.

On the issue of religious belief, it is consistent with what a right that no person shall be arrested merely for having or expressing a belief. Standing between the priest and the witch that he would burn does not deny the priest's right to speak or write in defense of burning witches - to have that belief and to argue for it in public. Nor does it prevent the priest from taking up a political cause and having the issue decided by public vote. However, on the latter point, it does not prohibit the rest of us from putting the issue to a vote and prohibiting the priest from burning the witch regardless of the priest's sincerely held religious beliefs.

However, the right to religious freedom is not a right to harm others with impunity. It gives you no right to deny a witch her life, to deny the homosexual couple their marriage, or to deny women her health care. The priest is free to try his best to convince the woman to abandon and renounce witchcraft, to convince the homosexual not to engage in homosexual acts and to choose a heterosexual relation or celebacy, and to convince the woman not to use contraceptives or seek an abortion.

However, the priest has to leave the torch back at the church. THAT is important.


Bookgal said...

Absolutely spot on. Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

Athiesm is too religious for me.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You seem to be suffering from a common prejudice against atheists.

See my post on June 1.

Stan said...

Comparison to burning witches is a false analogy and over the top rhetoric. The subject is people who are voluntarily employed and who are not captured or imprisoned against their will, and an employer which need not even provide insurance at all. Taking employment with an ethics-based employer must always involve respect for the ethics of the employer, if one uses even a modicum of common sense.

Further, Atheism has no ethics attached to it, no moral code. So making moral sounding noises is self-contradictory.

Using your rhetoric, the Atheo-secular government could force religions to do whatever the Atheists want it to do. This is totalitarianism, a common side effect of Atheism

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, actually, it is religion that has no moral foundation other than the ignorance and primative superstitions of a pre-literate culture.

Whereas atheism has the advantage of being able to incorporate moral findings discovered in the past 2000 years that religion ignores.

As evidence of the divide here, it does not seem to be legitimate to argue that it is perfectly legitimate to do harm to others so long as they are not captured and imprisoned against their will. It seems that there are a great many moral harms that do not have this requirement.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Serously, Stan, take a look at this "foundation" you are so proud of.

It is that foundationt that includes the claim that "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

It holds that the punishment for rape is that the victim must marry the rapist.

It condones the use of weapons of mass destruction to achieve a political objective. If somebody today were to release a biological agent into a population that killed all first-born children, we would call them a terrorist and one of the most vile and evil creatures imaginable.

It destroyes a city because an agent could not find "5o righteous men" when given only 1 night to do so. What about the children?

There are a lot of religious fanatics around today who will think nothing about setting off a nuclear bomb inside of a city - precisely because they adopt the same attitudes as those expressed by God in these lessons.

Plus he turns a woman to salt for the crime of turning around and witnessing the act of destruction.

The slaughter of a whole village for the crime of worshipping a cow?

This religious foundation you speak of is so clearly not the work of a divine benevolence. It is the invention of morally primitive human beings. Thinking that it is the first and last word in morality is utter nonsense.

The White Man said...

There's a problem with your witch-burning analogy, and I speak as someone whose ancestors were on both sides of the torch: It wasn't the church that condemned women to be killed for witchery, but the state. It was not the church that executed them, but the state. Tie up all the priests back of the chancel, and you wouldn't stop the executions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, the question of "who" is not relevant to this analogy. It is a question about the relationship between premises and conclusions. Does it follow from the fact that scripture contains a prohibition against suffering a witch to live that it is a violation of religioys feedom for the state to prohibit the burning of witches?

Answer: No.