June 14

Ancient Rome and Personal Freedoms

Update: If you don’t think this is really a problem… This lady is being denied citizenship because her objection to bearing arms is based on her personal moral convictions, and not her religion.

The ancient Romans really got religion right. There was an almost iPhone-esque quality to it. Into wine? There’s a god for that. Feel spiritually inspired by the sun? There’s a god for that, too. Prefer philosophy? They can be considered religions, too. I’m not trying to say, by any stretch, that ancient Rome was a utopia of religious freedom. It does give one pause, however, to compare it to many of today’s societies. Polytheism is respected in some parts of the world, but it is widely scorned in societies with a strong Abrahamic influence.

What does ‘religious freedom’ really mean, if believing in a non-majority religion subjects you to scorn and ridicule? Belief in anything but a few major, ‘acceptable’ religions is seen as an anachronism. Try standing up in public and proclaiming that you worship Thor, Apollo, or the FSM: people will assume that you are joking, or posing a hypothetical. In fact, a person’s belief in Thetans may be more likely to be given serious consideration than his devotion to a personal moral philosophy.

As Larry Mundinger famously said, “Morality is doing what is right no matter what you are told.  Religion is doing what you are told no matter what is right.” It is perhaps unsurprising, then, to see modern law prefer religion over morality. The value of educated and considered civil disobedience is often forgotten amid efforts to give increased power to law enforcement. Simply put, religion often teaches unquestioning respect for authority – and the authorities find that attractive.

This modern duopoly on what is “right” – held by religion and law – has led to some strange concessions to the godly. In Australia today, a member of the Sikhi religion is legally allowed to carry a knife in a wide range of situations in which I am not. Discrimination is generally illegal when you are hiring staff – unless you are a religious organisation (and I should point out that the exemptions apply whether you are hiring a priest, a teacher, or a receptionist). In fact, the courts have even held that laws don’t necessarily apply to individuals if they conflict with their religious beliefs. I am not trying to challenge the right to religious freedoms; rather, I am wondering why religious people are allowed these freedoms while others are not. In the previous link about bicycle helmet laws, Transport Minister Scott Emerson was extremely explicit – the changing helmet laws are there to respect the beliefs of religions, not individuals. Somehow, we’re arrived in a place where religious convictions – however casually or hypocritically held – are treated with the deepest of reverence, while beliefs without a religious motivation – however fervently held or individually sacrosanct – are spurned.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that people aren’t asking this question. The debates seem to centre around whether this religious group should be allowed that exemption. Nobody is asking why we shouldn’t all get the exemption. I firmly believe that adults should be free to feel the wind in their hair when riding a bicycle. They should be free to enjoy the joys of cycling sans-chinstrap. My belief borders on the spiritual; the experience is religious. But because I don’t have a holy book to back up my beliefs, the law won’t respect them, and I’ll be stuck with the fine.

The deeper belief I hold, and the one which causes me to be so troubled right now, is that we should all be equal in the eyes of the law. In no situation should a law apply to some but not others, based purely on their religion. No court should respect a religious conviction, but feel free to ignore an equivalent personal conviction. I am glad that Sikhs can now ride bicycles without wearing helmets – but in a supposedly free and equal society, why can’t I?

There is another side to all of this, as well, and I alluded to it earlier. There is a tendency to hold religious convictions above criticism. Oppressive or discriminatory religious beliefs, from forcing women to cover their faces in public to refusing to employ gay people, are widely accepted, and can even seem to be above criticism. Many of the freedoms I’ve discussed previously are ones I believe should be extended to all people, rather than limited to members of certain religions. These, however – the freedom to oppress, to discriminate, to indoctrinate – should be as unavailable to the believer as the non-believer. A non-religious charity must be fair and non-discriminatory in their hiring practices; a religious charity should face the same standard.

Taxation is another wonderful example of this exaltation of religion. In Australia, the USA, and England, the advancement of religion is seen as a charitable act, and as such religious organisations are generally exempt from paying tax, or are eligible for tax relief. That is to say, regardless of whether a religion is busy feeding the poor, going on a prayer retreat to Bali, or gilding their cathedral domes with gold leaf, they are supported by the public purse. Certainly, some of the things religious groups do should be tax exempt: St Vincent de Paul, for example, is widely known for their charitable works. Many other activities, however, don’t provide such a clear benefit. Non-religious charities are held to a public benefit standard: they must show that they are providing broadly-available charitable services to maintain their tax-free status. Religions are allowed to avoid tax absent even a semblence of charitable sentiment, much less actual charitable activity.

If you boil all of this down, what I’m asking for is equality. Equality of respect for personal beliefs, whether they’re sourced from the writings of Mohammad, Nietzsche, or Dawkins. Equality of taxation, whether I’m trying to advance religion, philosophy, or fellowship. Equality under the law, whether my reasons and motivations are religious, or personal. No special treatment: not for me, neither for them.