Can Religion Ever Be Free?

A variety of responses rang out last week after Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The SCOTUS’s decision to allow companies to deny employees access to certain forms of birth control was rooted in bad science: abortifacients they are not. 


The divide on social media was clear. Most anyone responding in defense of the decision was male. In my network not one female agreed with the decision, which is easy to understand given the beating women’s rights has taken over the last decade in national courtrooms.

None of the Court’s female justices agreed with the ruling. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent,

Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community.

Religion seems to have played little in the actual lawsuit. After the decision it was revealed that Hobby Lobby invests in abortion- and birth control-related companies in their employees’ 401k plan—more than $73 million worth. If the company’s owners truly had a religious problem with abortifacients, such investments never would have been made in the first place.

The ‘minefield’ that Ginsburg evoked was already being stepped on. More than 50 lawsuits in lower courts involved companies demanding the right to deny employees access to any form of birth control.

As predicted, the floodgates have opened. The day after the Hobby Lobby decision, Michael Wear, who directed President Obama’s faith outreach campaign in 2012, requested that companies be exempt from partaking in Obama’s upcoming legislation banning discrimination against the LGBT community. If said companies receive federal contracts they cannot use sexual preferences as a gauge for hiring. The grounds, of course, were religious.

In the letter Wear and other signers reminded the president that the country’s greatness resides in diversity. Apparently this means the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. What Wear should have written, then, is that America’s legacy is rooted in intolerance, something that religious organizations and ‘faith communities’ are well versed in. 

The whole ordeal made me wonder: Is there something fundamentally engrained in our evolutionary history to be adverse to homosexual relationships outside of religious conviction? Paul Bloom thinks so.

As the Yale professor of psychology and cognitive science writes in his book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, disgust has long played an important role in our species. Over time the emotion that helped us navigate the treacherous terrain of poisonous and spoiled foods made the cognitive leap to apply to human sexuality.

Disgust was not only a response to food; it also applied to pathogens and bacteria. The smell of an unclean person disgusts us, Bloom writes, because it points towards disease. In biological terms, avoiding that which could kill us makes sense. It’s different in regards to sex. He continues,

The mystery for moral psychologists isn’t why we would engage in certain types of sex while avoiding other types; it’s why we should be so concerned with the sex that other people are having.

He goes on to say that homosexual activity should not disgust us. If anything, only women should be upset by two men having sex, as it pulls them out of the gene pool. The same applies to men and lesbians, but given our many sexual double standards, this is rarely the case. Considering the way men have long attempted to control the sex lives of women—right up to Hobby Lobby—it’s surprising that lesbians are not the sole focus of LBGT outrage.

In research that Bloom conducted with colleagues, he found that aversion to topics like abortion and gay marriage were more often associated with people that express a range of politically conservative ideas. Yet another study showed that even among liberal thinkers, having strong disgust sensitivity in general equates to expressing revulsion to homosexuality and other sex-related activities. What is comes down to is purity.

Consider body fluids. Most invoke disgust. Walk by a puddle of urine. Watch snot fly from someone’s nose. Vomit. (Interestingly tears are excluded.) This is why, Bloom believes, religions have produced a variety of cleansing techniques to make their followers ‘pure.’ Christian baptism and ritual Islamic washing (wudu) are two examples. From a hygienic perspective this makes sense; once this ideology marries a term like ‘ethnic cleansing’ problems ensue. 

We apply ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ to a range of practices, not just our bodies. Take language. One study showed that people that had to express malicious lies over the phone chose mouthwash as their parting gift; another group, which had to express the same lies over email, chose hand sanitizer. Sin much? A splash of Sunday morning holy water and a wafer takes care of that. 

While innate, disgust is a learned behavior within cultural parameters. The smell of durian, for example, makes me want to run far away, while one of my best friends can’t wait to shove it down his throat. Exposure breeds tolerance. Surround yourself with a community of others that think abortion is an offense to whatever god you’ve invented, or that homosexual activity is sacrilegious, and your disgust turns to revulsion. The ‘others’ are no longer even human in your eyes. Their rights, inconsequential.

Which is why this talk about religious freedom is nonsense. Proponents of anti-LBGT and –birth control measures are using faith to hide behind their mask of bias—a learned bias, not a divine mandate. Their religious road to freedom leads to its own prison, one that over time, if fed and nurtured, runs into similar nationalistic cleansing efforts that any sane man or woman is disgusted by when studying history.

There is nothing free about such religious posturing. It only travels backwards. As journalist Robert Wright writes,

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.

If only that was the case. 

Image: Wikipedia

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
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  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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