Freedom from religion foundation, Inc | Subscribe
Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Jim Curtis: The problem with ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’

Jim Curtis
Don Addis cartoon

By Jim Curtis

A recent claim being made by litigants and lawmakers as a legal justification to deny rights to certain minorities is that the claimants’ “sincerely held religious beliefs” give them an exemption from equal-opportunity laws. Two of the most visible cases in the public eye involve denial of services to gays and denial of health care to females by their employers.

Thus far, courts have accepted claims of “sincerely held religious beliefs” on their face without any challenge to the sincerity of the belief, any examination of what beliefs in particular are so offended as to warrant legal exemptions, and whether such beliefs are reasonable.

During the draft for the war in Vietnam, many targeted inductees applied for Conscientious Objector status. In order to have the application granted, the U.S. government required that the applicant’s reasoning was sincerely religious, and instituted standards of evidence for such a claim. The standards were biased toward the self-described religious, and made a fallacious correlation between sincere beliefs and membership in a popular religion and a history of public displays of piety. The government required evidence for a religious claim, and did not accept claims of sincerity without challenge. That is precedent.

The claims that participating in a gay wedding would violate a cake baker’s religious beliefs is perhaps the most famous case where this claim of sincerely held religious beliefs was made to excuse the baker from equal opportunity laws. This claim and the case of Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis over the issuing of a marriage license for a gay couple are coming almost exclusively from self-proclaimed practitioners of Christianity. They cite as the basis of their beliefs an ancient book larded with contradictions, errors and absurdities (or fictions) called “The Holy Bible.”

What makes the baker’s claim so dubious is the indisputable fact that the same book (and chapter!) that forbids the “laying of a man with a man as one would a woman” (Leviticus) has at least another dozen “abominations to the Lord” that are not enforced by the baker or doesn’t bother the county clerk enough to motivate them to be fastidious enforcers of morality.

Do the baker or clerk violate any of the other written rules in Leviticus? Do they eat shellfish? Wear mixed-fiber clothing? Work on their Sabbath? Have they been divorced? Further, do the baker or clerk bother to question all their customers on their eating habits, wardrobe choices, work schedule or marital status?

Actions follow beliefs

If you believe a snowball is headed for your face, then you will likely duck. If you believe there may be a coyote or mountain lion lurking in your shrubs, then you will likely take some precaution. If you believe your significant other is cheating on you, then you will likely investigate. Actions follow beliefs, and most beliefs are usually backed by some sort of evidence, unless the believer is prone to delusions. Religious believers actually do use logic, despite popular skeptics’ claim they have abdicated their power to use it. However, fallacious logic is still logic of a kind.

If there were a malicious all-powerful judge who would sentence your afterlife self to an eternity of torture if you didn’t follow the rules, then it would be logical to always behave as if violation of these rules would have that result. A person who claims that baking a cake for a gay person would doom his or her afterlife existence should behave consistently and avoid enabling any action that would brand him or her as an accomplice to “sin.” He or she would not “participate” (their term) in adultery, divorce, fraud, lust, greed or envy (coveting, the lubricant of capitalism) or offenses against their claimed deity, including blasphemy. He or she would never serve a customer who exclaimed, “Oh, my God!” (“taking the Lord’s name in vain”).

If there truly was a place of eternal torture where fatuous infractions such as a failure to believe a dubious proposition was actually true, then it would be the moral obligation of every compassionate believing person to try their utmost to convince everybody they encountered to accept the same proposition. It would be as if one of their neighbors was about to drink a glass of poison. A moral person would expend every effort trying to stop a potential poison drinker.

Why aren’t all Christians totally hyperaggressive about trying to convince nonbelievers not to poison their souls? Wouldn’t that be a requirement of any “good Christian?” Wouldn’t that crusade never end until all nonbelievers are convinced otherwise?

The evidence shows that most Christians are lackadaisical in regard to their evangelism, even the ones who specifically call themselves “evangelicals.” Do their actions comport with what they claim to believe? Since actions follow beliefs, we can conclude that a fair percentage of people who claim to believe certain things actually don’t.

Under “Delusional Disorder” in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), many of the behaviors described are in line with claims and actions of the religious. However, it’s worth noting that the APA gives religious adherents a pass because religion is popular. That’s a shameful professional breach, but peer pressure can be immense, even to those who study peer pressure. The fears, flights of imagination, beliefs in zombies, magic, ghosts and other-dimensional worlds would scrupulously lead to a diagnosis of “delusion,” the antithesis of “reasonable.” The political pandering by psychiatrists is also practiced by judges who’ve abandoned objectivity because they’re also indoctrinated members of a religion. Resultingly, having a delusion currently may qualify one for a legal exemption. That is pernicious, offensive and invidious.

What can be done?

I have some suggestions for the government. It could quiz the applicants on which specific beliefs they’re claiming to get the legal exemption, why they think that belief is justified, and whether is it reasonable. For example: “Explain how it is reasonable to conclude that baking a cake for a gay couple is likely to land you in a place of post-life eternal torture. Describe why it’s reasonable to believe in a post-life place of eternal torture. Establish a pattern of evidence that shows you act consistently in accordance with your claimed beliefs along a range of doctrines. Show that the beliefs you are citing to get a legal exemption are exclusively religious, and not in any way based on ignorance or bigotry.”

Do we award exemptions for sincerely held racist, flat-Earth, anarchist or libertarian beliefs? Religious beliefs should not get treated differently from any other fringe beliefs. Until such a time that anybody can provide conclusive scientific evidence of a deity or any other uniquely religious claims, they reside in the domain of fringe, and, no matter how popular, do not deserve a scintilla of special treatment.

Lawyers engaging in litigation should challenge claims of sincerely held religious beliefs in cases and on appeals. The Supreme Court made a huge error by accepting Hobby Lobby’s claim of corporations having sincerely held religious beliefs without a single challenge to its sincerity, what beliefs specifically were offended, how that offense squared with other prohibitions (imagined or specified in their book of magic) to which it managed to avoid offense, or most importantly, how any corporation can have religious beliefs. In an egregious instance of judicial delinquency, the Supreme Court erred in Hobby Lobby by not reversing the ludicrous finding of a previous court that corporations are people. An insightful joke goes, “I won’t accept that corporations are people until Texas executes one.” Courts ordinarily respect stare decisis, but have made notable exceptions for rectifying prior mistakes.

Since litigation and prosecution hinge on “reasonable doubt,” “reasonableness” and “reason,” we must ask whether it’s reasonable to believe in zombies, virgin birth, magic, demons, talking flora and fauna, all powerful super-beings, otherworldly dimensions, and indecisive, inconsistent and ambiguous rule-makers, and whether the book that contains these elements is reliable enough to cite as justification for those beliefs and the rules it conveys, and whether a self-claimed role of public enforcer is ever justified or reasonable.

Jim Curtis is an FFRF member who lives in Texas.