March 24, 2014

Sincerely Held Beliefs, the Law, and Non Believers

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Recent news on religion reminds me of one of my favorite non-fiction books, The Year of Living Biblically. Author A.J. Jacobs does his best to abide by the rules of the Bible to see just how hard it is to hold sincerely held religious beliefs in everyday contemporary life.

I think of Jacobs’ personal journey in regards to the wave of “religious freedom” laws that have been proposed in several different states. These laws use the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act to make the case that parts of the Affordable Care Act (e.g., providing birth control coverage) and servicing customers with different values and identities (e.g., particularly gays and lesbians) substantially burdens the free exercise of religion for business owners who have strong, sincerely held beliefs.

Advocates for women’s health and LGBTQ rights argue these legislative maneuvers in the name of  religious freedom aim to legalize discrimination of their community members. These efforts in a dozen states stalled or failed. Perhaps most spectacularly was Arizona’s SB1062, which proposed an exemption to refuse service to anyone so long as such a denial was based upon sincerely held beliefs. Unless they are private clubs and non-profit businesses—arguments against the bill contend—businesses must abide by anti-discrimination laws. (I wonder if advocates for these bills would be comfortable with being discriminated against themselves due to others’ sincerely held beliefs?) Due to mounting pressure, including the NFL taking steps to find an alternative location for the 2015 Super Bowl, SB1062 was vetoed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer on  February 26, 2014.

Laws that protect sincerely held religious beliefs may make sense at first glance, but it’s quite an interesting sociological puzzle as to what this phrase means, and how that should play out in a civil society where there are lots of divergent belief systems. The law is unclear on the matter (and the 1993 law, by the way, has an interesting history).

From a Durkheimian perspective, an incursion of the religious into the public sphere is somewhat inevitable, since religious beliefs must also correspond with actual social activity. As he wrote in chapter one of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, religion is a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” and there is no religion without a church. This is to say that there are no sincerely held beliefs without corresponding actions. (Elementary Forms concludes with a reference to struggles between religious beliefs and science, foreshadowing the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s and the recent Bill Nye vs. Creationism debate; the U.S. Supreme Court will listen to arguments against the Affordable Care Act on March 25th, 2014.)

The question is over what religious freedom allows citizens to do. Religion can give a moral warrant for all sorts of things. The Hobby Lobby’s owner, for example, wrote a much talked about 2012 op-ed in the USA

Kent barnes
Photo courtesy of Kent Barnes

coming out against providing comprehensive preventative care for women claiming he has the right to run his businesses upon the tenets of his Christian values. Hobby Lobby is, in fact, closed on Sundays as per the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11) but it is doubtful they would support putting a child to death for cursing his mother or father, or an adult for adultery. Few would argue that these sincerely held religious beliefs—as listed in the Bible’s rulebook, Leviticus (20:9; 20:10)—should be accepted one and all. Strongly held beliefs are, of course, selective.

Which brings us back to A.J. Jacobs, who tried harder than most to follow those sincerely held beliefs both commonly held (e.g., love thy neighbor as yourself, Mark 12:31) and the less followed (e.g., not wearing clothes of mixed fibers, Leviticus 19:19). He tried as many of the lessons from the good book as possible. At one point he walked around Manhattan with pebbles in his pocket to stealthily stone blasphemers. It’s a pretty entertaining read.

But there aren’t too many of us who live as biblically as possible these days. The central pivot of Durkheim’s first major work, 1893’s The Division of Labor in Society, is that as societies move from a more primitive state to a modern one, the religious influence on the collective conscience wanes and new forms of solidarity based on mutual reliance upon each other waxes.

This brings us to the second bit of news from the last few weeks: new polling shows that Americans are reaching all new levels of non-religiosity. More than one out of five Americans told anNBC/Wall Street Journal poll that religion is “not that important” in their lives. The U.S. is one of ten countries that have had a double-digit decline in religiosity since 2005, while the top ten most religious countries are (in descending order) Ghana, Nigeria, Armenia, Fiji, Macedonia, Romania, Iraq, Kenya, Peru, and Brazil.

What is, as Durkheim asks, the glue that is going to keep us all together? A Pew Research Center poll finds that richer countries are less likely to feel that religious beliefs are necessary for morality, with the U.S. as an outlier from its other economic counterparts. How can Americans maintain a sense of solidarity while religiosity decreases yet our confidence in beliefs as a moral force remains stable? The same poll shows that 68% of those not religiously unaffiliated still believe in a higher power. Was Durkheim wrong? Can there be religion without a church?


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