Skip to content

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. 

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

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


Up Next