Now even most of you atheists out there are probably thinking that this is over the line, so let me be perfectly clear about what I mean. I am very much against the idea of government institutionalization of atheism. I am not saying that we should ban religion. I am not saying that churchgoing, prayer, or even street corner proselytization should be illegal. And I am certainly not saying that we should have any kind of thought-police, anti-religion or otherwise.
But Zaq, you say. Isn’t churchgoing and prayer and public proselytization what religious freedom is all about?
To which I respond no. These are not religious freedoms. They are normal freedoms which just happen to be used to further a religious goal. And this is a very important distinction to make. It’s the difference between saying he’s allowed to do X because he’s religious, and saying he’s allowed to do X because he’s human.
When I ask myself whether a corner proselytizer has the right to express his view of the world on a street corner, I don’t care that what he’s presenting is religion. I think that everyone has the right to present their view of the world on public property, whether that view is about religion, alien abductions, or recent politics. The fact that the man has the right to express his opinion on a street corner has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he’s presenting religious material. Anyone presenting nearly any material has exactly the same right. (Though I draw the line at least at incitation to murder, and probably a bit before that.) It isn’t a religious freedom, it’s just a regular freedom the proselytizer happens to be using in a religious fashion.
So when I ask whether a Muslim has the right to wear a turban when getting their driver’s license photo taken, I ask myself whether people in general have the right to wear non-face-covering headgear when getting their driver’s license photo taken. The fact that the headgear is religious is unimportant. Either all people have a right that covers the practice, or nobody does. The fact that the man is Muslim shouldn’t give him more rights than non-Muslims.
This is the key to a religion-neutral system of freedoms, which is crucial for secular governments. The problem with the way things are currently done is that governments will grant more freedom to religious people in the name of religious tolerance. But this actually creates a situation in which religions receive preferential treatment. Most of the time, like with Muslims wearing turbans, it’s not that big a deal. But the widespread idea that some practice deserves extra protection just for being religious can lead to some clear abuses of religious freedom, such as people who claim that polygamy is in their religion, or religious groups trying to avoid their university’s non-discrimination policy.
The fact that there is even debate over whether religious groups should be allowed to discriminate when others aren’t strikes me as completely missing the point of human rights. Why should we allow a Christianity club to discriminate against gays if we won’t also allow a white supremacy club to discriminate against blacks? And where do you draw the line? If Muslims can wear turbans, do we let Pastafarians wear pasta strainers? If we allow Quaker’s to dodge the draft, shouldn’t we also allow atheist pacifists the same right?
People say the there’s a fine line between what should and should not be covered by religious freedom. To me, this is bullshit. This kind of thing only comes about when you’re trying to figure out how much extra freedom to give religious people. And that’s just wrong. People have freedoms. All people. So when someone tells you they want multiple wives, that’s either covered by regular old freedoms or it’s not. And when someone tells you they want to pass out fliers about the abortion issue, that’s either covered by regular old freedoms or it’s not. I see no reason to include some special “But it’s religious!” clause. In fact, in the name of equal treatment I see every reason not to allow people to break the rules just because they’re religious. I see no reason to lower our standards just because someone mentions the word faith.
The line between what should be allowed for religious people and what shouldn’t is exactly the same as the line between what should be allowed for all people and what shouldn’t. I’m perfectly okay with people exercising their regular old freedoms to perform religious functions. But when someone tries to use religion as an excuse to get special treatment, to be allowed to go beyond the limits that apply to everyone else, I just have to say, fuck that!