Discriminating against religious people

Having argued previously that people are not discriminating against Christians by pointing out Christianity’s role in driving homophobia and homophobic violence, I’d like to move on to address what I think is a more interesting broader question underlying this debate. Should we always be wary of “discriminating against” Christians — of treating Christians as a group worse than non-Christians? Should any policy that disadvantages religious people compared to nonreligious people be automatically suspect?

Morally speaking, I don’t think that religion deserves this kind of special protection. (I’ll talk about legally speaking in my next post in this series.) We should be cautious of treating anyone unfairly, but we don’t need to assume that virtually every decision based on a person’s religious identity is a discriminatory one in order to avoid unfair treatment. There are a number of circumstances in which a person’s religious beliefs really do merit consideration, and might rightfully result in that person getting worse treatment or fewer privileges.

In order to explain what I mean, I first need to talk about what “discrimination” means. In the most general sense, “discriminating” is not always a bad thing to do. As Guildenstern reminded Rosencrantz, being able to distinguish different things or different people using relevant attributes is a very useful tool. However, when we usually talk about discrimination, we mean something more complicated. I’m going to unpack what I see as the different components of discrimination as it’s commonly understood.

Discrimination means treating people in a certain group worse than people who aren’t in that  group.

This a necessary, but insufficient, condition for something to count as “the bad kind of discrimination.” If you treat an individual worse than you treat others, that might be rude, but it’s not discriminatory. On the other hand, you can imagine disadvantages society assigns to certain groups of people which are not discriminatory. Consider the group of people who have been convicted of crimes. We agree that it’s okay to jail them, fine them, or otherwise restrict their freedoms (at least temporarily, but in some cases for the rest of their lives). Surely it would be the bad kind of discrimination if the same actions were taken against people of certain ethnic backgrounds. But it isn’t in the case of criminals.

Clearly, it’s not enough just to say that the group of people being put in an inferior position can be described by some sort of adjective phrase. There’s more to discrimination than that.

It’s discriminatory to disadvantage a group when people in that group had no choice about their membership in it.

This is often true. Also, it seems like it’s the way to resolve the issue I brought up in the previous section. Criminals chose to commit crimes, whereas nobody chooses their ethnic heritage. But does that mean that we may never impose any restrictions on someone who has a psychological or neurological compulsion to commit crimes? I don’t think so. (A lesser sentence is probably in order, but forced institutionalization or the like is still a major imposition on freedoms.) And would we give free reign, morally speaking, to restaurant owners to refuse to serve anyone who played football in the park on weekends? No, I think that would be a pretty jerky thing to do.

If being treated worse because of your choices is morally acceptable, where would you draw the line? Would you say it is okay to discriminate based on skin color, because technically a person could bleach or darken their skin to the preferred shade? How about to discriminate based on sex, since anyone could choose to present themselves as male or female, and could even get surgery to make their genitals conform? This is obviously absurd. “They could have chosen to be different” is not an excuse for discriminating.

It just so happens that in our society, some of the most widespread and severe prejudices are against certain people’s innate attributes. It’s also true that being discriminated against for something you can’t change is more devastating and tragic than being discriminated against for something you can change, exactly because it is inescapable. So we should probably be on red alert for discrimination against innate characteristics — but there’s still more to the story.

(For what it’s worth, religion is definitely not innate. The coincidences of your birth have a lot to do with your likely religion, but religion is a set of beliefs about the nature of reality, and those can be agreed or disagreed with regardless of your genes. Some people talk about religion as though it is innate and they’re wrong, but as I argue here, that’s not even really the point.)

Discrimination is unfair treatment.

This is the real crux of the matter. We already established that discrimination is about treating a group of people worse than others. What we need to add is that that worse treatment is unfair — that is, unwarranted and unjust. We need to look at what defines that group, and see if it is relevant to the treatment at hand.

This kind of consideration is what makes punishing criminals okay (their membership in the group of criminals means they have done things which put society in danger, and the punishment is designed to remove or lessen the risk of that danger in the future) but punishing Asian-Americans not okay (there’s nothing actually wrong with being of Asian descent). This is what makes it discriminatory to refuse to serve the football players at your restaurant… unless the park is right next to your building and they keep breaking your windows with their footballs and then running away, or the team has frequently patronized your restaurant in the past but always skips out on the check, or some other such thing that makes their status as football players relevant to the consideration of whether or not to serve them. I’m sure you can add many examples of your own.

Now, let’s say we’re trying to decide whether someone would make a good biology teacher. If they’ve committed themselves to unquestioning belief that on the fifth day of the universe’s existence, God created every species of living creature exactly as it is today, they have shown themselves to be unqualified to teach actual biological science. Suppose we were trying to hire a physics teacher. Whether they understand how the refraction of light causes rainbows, or the shape of the Earth and the fact that it revolves around the Sun, is very relevant to their qualifications to communicate actual physics. And just as I would hesitate to trust an investment banker who told me they make all their important decisions using a Ouija board or chicken entrails, I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they instead said that they talk to their invisible but allegedly omnipotent friend about where to invest my money. I don’t think it would be much better if they told me they feel helpless to change the course of events we experience and simply trust in the wise plans of some supernatural being outside our plane of existence. All these examples result in religious people being treated worse than nonreligious people, but for good reasons — so while it does constitute an act of “discriminating” between alternatives, it isn’t the bad kind of discrimination.

Being religious means resting serious factual claims not on evidence or logic but on feelings or appeals to ignorance. It’s basically a statement that, at least on some very important life questions, you opt for irrationality instead of rationality. In any circumstance where how rational a person is factors into your consideration, their religiosity is just as relevant.