With Faith All Things Are Possible (But Not Really)

It’s been said that with faith, all things are possible. But here, in the real world, basing policy decisions on faith leads to real problems.

Indiana’s new Religious Faith Restoration Act (RFRA) is garnering a lot of media attention—social and traditional. And rightly so. There’s no easy way to put this. The law is stupid. I don’t mean stupid in the I-don’t-personally-like-it sort of way (though, it is that, too). I mean it’s stupid in the it’s-an-irrational-law-that’s-impossible-to-uniformly-enforce sort of way.

Indiana’s RFRA law was drafted with the help of well-known anti-homosexual bigots. And while governor Mike Pence insists the law was not intended to permit individuals or corporations to discriminate based on sexual preference, the law clearly does exactly that. In fact, it’s worse than that. The law essentially gives anyone, or any corporation, the right to discriminate on just about anything.

Proponents of Indiana’s RFRA argue that this law is nothing new. That it’s just like a number of other state and federal “religious freedom” laws already on the books. They say it simply codifies at the state level what is already codified in the U.S. Constitution. But that’s simply not true. This law adds a couple of new twists. Under this law:

  • any for-profit business can assert a right to “the free exercise of religion”; and
  • a business can cite it’s “free exercise” right as a defense against a lawsuit brought by any individual.

The biggest problem, though, with the Indiana RFRA law is much more fundamental. The real problem with the Indiana RFRA law is that it is faith-based. It is perfectly reasonable to create laws that protect one’s right to hold religious beliefs and that protect individuals from persecution for such beliefs. But it is completely unreasonable to create laws that are themselves defined in terms of faith.

Unreasonable Faith

Faith, by its very nature, is unreasonable.

More precisely, religious faith, by definition, is beyond the realm of (scientific, logical, mathematical) reasoning. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, evidence. With faith, no justification or evidence is necessary. Indeed, if one actually has evidence—concrete, verifiable evidence—faith itself disappears. (Or it recedes back to a question not directly addressed by the evidence. This tendency is often referred to as The God of the Gaps.)

Let me hasten to address the tiresome objection that science, like religion, is ultimately a faith-based endeavor: one must accept on faith the axioms of science, of logic, of mathematics. While in some highly esoteric sense, this may be true, in every practical sense, this is simply bullshit.

There is a real and significant difference between religious faith and “faith” in the axioms of scientific, logical, and mathematical reasoning. The difference is falsifiability. Religious faith is not falsifiable. It is not amenable to the scientific method. It cannot be tested and confirmed. It is simply accepted. The “faith” in reason, on the other hand is falsifiable; it allows us to make predictions that can be tested and confirmed, provisionally, to greater and greater degrees of confidence. If a prediction fails, we revise our worldview and test again using new predictions.

To quote from Tim Minchin’s Storm:

Science adjusts it’s views based on what’s observed
Faith is the denial of observation so that Belief can be preserved.

Reason lets us live longer, healthier lives. Reason gives us airplanes and computers, medicines and cell phones, better foods, and on, and on, and on.

Faith gives us the ability to justify anything. While this, at times, may be comforting (in an ignorance-is-bliss sort of way), it lets us convince Africans that condoms exacerbate the spread of AIDS. It lets us convince parents that sex education increases unwanted pregnancies. It lets us convince young men to commit mass murder and suicide in exchange for an imagined life with virgins. And it lets the Governor of Indiana say, with a straight face, that a law allowing individuals and corporations to deny services, medical treatment, housing, etc., to someone because they are gay, or atheist, or whatever, is not a law that enables discrimination.

Faith-based Laws Can be Twisted

Ultimately, laws must be enforced. A law without enforcement has no effect. But before a law can be enforced, it must be interpreted, and that’s the role of the courts.

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.

But how should a court interpret a faith-based law? There is no objective standard, no agreed upon methodology, for determining the truthfulness of a faith-based statement. This is tautologically true. Statements of faith are beyond reason; they must be accepted or rejected on the basis of faith. In a courtroom, however, this is highly problematic. Who’s faith should determine the truthfulness of a claim? The judge? Jury? Plaintiff? Defendant?

The Indiana RFRA permits both individuals and for-profit corporations to cite deeply held religious beliefs as justification for their action, even if those actions are in violation of other laws. How, for example, should the following be decided under Indiana’s RFRA law:

• Does the proprietor of a small bakery have the right to refuse to sell a wedding cake for a gay wedding? An Islamic wedding? A Jewish wedding? A non-denominational wedding? An interracial wedding? An atheist wedding?
• Is the owner of a store allowed to fire it’s female employees because the owner believes a woman should not be seen outside her home without the company of her husband?
• Should Catholic employees of Ford Motor Company be excused from work to celebrate mass on each saint’s day? (Note: there are 25 saint’s days this month.)
• Does a fundamentalist Christian dentist have the right to refuse dental care to a gay man? A Jewish man? A Scientologist? An atheist?

In each of these examples, the action described may be in conflict with someone’s deeply held religious belief. But who’s religious beliefs matter? Everyone’s? If so, Catholics can miss 25 days of work this month. Atheist landlords can cancel leases of religious tenants. And of course, gay couples might have to learn to bake their own wedding cakes (that is, if grocery stores agree to sell them the ingredients).

Faith is not falsifiable. It is not verifiable. There is no empirical process of determining the truth value of a faith-based claim. As such, faith-based laws can be twisted to fit whatever you want them to fit.

As Susan B. Anthony observed:

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.

American Theocracy Rising

This whole state of religion in America is ridiculous. And worrisome. The religious right make no bones about it. They believe this country was “founded as a Christian nation” and are working diligently to “restore” the freedom of—but not from—(Christian) religion. And they’re actually making headway.

The passage of Indiana’s RFRA law is the latest, and perhaps most blatant, example of the strengthening grip of an American theocracy.

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