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Is religious freedom special?

April 14, 2016

I want to reflect some more on my recent religious freedom post and the follow-up comments. Victor asked what I meant when I said religion is ‘special.’

Let me explain with a story. I once had a colleague who was an accomplished amateur photographer. Every now and then he hosted an informal ‘Photography 101’ lunchtime seminar. He pitched it as: “Curious about photography? Well, I’m passionate and knowledgeable about it, and can provide some insight. Attend and maybe you’ll start to love photography too!” Now substitute ‘Christianity’ for photography in his pitch and try to imagine the response.

Religious beliefs are often denied the allowances we make elsewhere, like amateur photography. I am almost certain HR wouldn’t allow a ‘Christianity 101’ lunchtime seminar. On the other hand, we grant allowances to religion we don’t grant to others. Religious organizations are exempt from certain Obamacare provisions, for example.

Agellius and Victor argue that this special treatment arises because religion is more than just a belief. It is a way of life above man-made laws. Many religions both compel and prohibit certain actions.

While I agree with that stance, I question whether it uniquely applies to religion. Secular pacifists might also argue that their conscience compels them to act in a certain way. Ethical vegetarians are probably in the same boat, as are people opposed to modern agriculture. Religious faith may impact your way of life in multiple dimensions, and may do so strongly. But it’s a spectrum rather than something unique to faith.

Which is why I think that, in an increasingly secular age, we who care about religious freedom should stress these commonalities. We should highlight that freedom of religion is a subset of freedom of conscience, and that all of us would be aghast if we had to violate our conscience. Christians aren’t special in that regard.


Weekend science, religion, and etc. reading list

April 8, 2016

Here it is folks!

  1. Although I first lived in New York City when I immigrated to the US, I didn’t follow American sports until I moved to to Philadelphia. The former 76ers star Allen Iverson has always been one of my favorites, and so I’m happy he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. With that lengthy intro, check out the YouTube video above of his best crossovers, and read the associated Deadspin article.
  2. Galileo’s reputation is highly overrated.
  3. On diversity in science.
  4. Jacobs on how we all discriminate against the ‘outgroup.’
  5. Kevin Drum on the dangers of publication bias.
  6. Interesting take on women in science.

Religious freedom, ctd.

April 8, 2016

Three comments on my last post that I’d like to highlight. Agellius notes that faith has special protections because God is a higher power than government:

I would agree with you if we were only talking about the aspect of religious belief that produces the same type of joy that one experiences from math or music. That is, if we were only talking about the aesthetic or emotional aspects of religion. But aesthetics and emotion are not the essence of religious belief.

Religious belief has special protections because at the time of the Founding, the vast majority of people believed that God was a higher authority than government. This is an idea that was ingrained in European culture from time immemorial, and explains why the Founding Fathers appealed to God in the Declaration of Independence, saying that “all men are endowed by their Creator” — not by their government — “with certain inalienable rights”. This being the case, religious people will go to jail or die rather than violate God’s commandments. For a Christian, to violate a commandment for the sake of avoiding legal sanctions is a sin. It can’t be done.

Religious freedom was designed to avoid putting people in situations in which they are forced to choose between obeying the law or obeying God (exemplified by the ancient Roman Emperors forcing Christians to burn incense on a pagan altar or die). Taking away the right of religious freedom, the right to have our conscience formed by religion, and to hold religion as more sacred and inviolable than the law, can only increase instances in which people are forced to make that choice.

The reason people are losing their appreciation for the inviolability of religious freedom, is that they no longer consider God to be a higher authority than government.

Victor expands, arguing that there is much more to religion than just belief:

1) The difficulty in your argument is that it looks at religion as belief. It definitely is a belief for many people, maybe still the majority of Westerners, or maybe for the people to whom you are referring. But more and more people see it as a way of life similar to how Buddhism is a way of life. Jesus’s first followers were not called Christians but people of the Way. This doesn’t refute anything you say, but I’m just adding another dimension. Violating someone’s way of life might have different implications than violating a belief (whatever that means).

2) Ms. Lamb is definitely saying that, in her taste, mathematics is pretty amazing. But I think she is saying something even deeper beyond tastes. She is saying, like history, like science, like art, mathematics has actual utility in life outside of working hours. This is a huge statement. If math brought a person no joy AND it had no utility in life, then it may be right to argue it is a waste. But apart from subjective joy, it has usefulness in life outside of a job that may not use it (and I bet there are ways to use in that seemingly unrelated job). This is a strong point.

3) I couldn’t understand some of your points in this just because they were vague.

A – What does “faith is treated differently” mean? It’s treated differently than what in what way in what circumstances?

B – Religious Christians want Christianity to be a special type of belief, unlike any other what? I can’t tell if you’re referring to other religions or to beliefs that cars should drive on the right side of the road.

C – What did you mean that if religious belief is special it should be treated differently? Can you give an example. I can’t tell if you’re talking about allowing people to opt out of things or what you mean.

Finally, walstamp explains why faith, and especially Christian faith, is unique:

Faith, and especially Christianity, doesn’t fit into our existing norms. It is treated differently. This disparity is partly because many liberals–disproportionately represented in science and the media–have an anti-faith bias.” You are right about Christianity not fitting into our existing norms. At its fullest and deepest it is far beyond any mental understanding and speaks to Christians at the center of our being. Christians are something in Christ that people who are not Christian are not. On the other hand, Christians should not expect special treatment based on their claim to be children of God. Something that obviously cannot be scientifically or materially identified. Joy is a sign of Christian belief but not a determinant. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

I’ll try to respond to these soon. But for now, the weekend reading list is coming up.

Loving math and secularizing religious freedom

April 6, 2016


While criticizing Andrew Hacker’s book on math education, Evelyn Lamb wrote:

I am a mathematician, thinking about math brings me great joy, and I want more people to have joyful experiences with mathematics. Of course I think many of Hacker’s conclusions are incorrect. Most troubling to me is the idea that mathematics is important only insofar as we use it in our careers, and therefore anyone whose job path doesn’t involve math shouldn’t have to take math classes beyond basic numeracy. Education isn’t valuable simply because we use it in our jobs. Literature, music, and art enrich our lives and nourish our spirits. History and political science can make us more informed citizens. Science can help us understand why research is rarely conclusive. I reject Hacker’s idea that mathematics doesn’t help us understand other areas of life and enhance our experience of the world. In her recent Slate piece on Hacker’s book, Dana Goldstein described how her husband sees concepts such as derivatives as connecting the concrete to the abstract, of helping us understand the world. He’s right.

I loved the honesty in this paragraph. Sure Lamb used evidence and reason to rebut Hacker. But her argument ultimately depends on aesthetics and beauty. Math brings her joy, and she wants to share it with everyone. I–and most of my scientist friends–can identify with Lamb’s feelings. At times we’ve all felt joyous about science.

I bet we’d still identify with Lamb even if she were writing about music or photography or French literature. We may not share her enthusiasm. But we get that taste is subjective, that people find all sorts of things interesting, and they often want to share that love with others. To each his own, right?

This sort of live-and-let-live attitude would disappear if Lamb had written: ‘I am a Christian, thinking about Jesus brings me great joy, and I want more people to have joyful experiences with Christ.’ Faith, and especially Christianity, doesn’t fit into our existing norms. It is treated differently. This disparity is partly because many liberals–disproportionately represented in science and the media–have an anti-faith bias.

But I’m starting to think religious Christians share some of the blame. They want religious faith to be viewed as a special type of belief, unlike any other. But if faith is special, then we should expect it to be treated differently. Sometimes that special treatment will work out for religious Christians, and sometimes it won’t. You can’t insist on one without the other.

I’m starting to feel that it would be better for religious freedom if it lost its special status. If it were viewed almost like any other belief out there. If that happened, then evangelicals could talk about Jesus like Evelyn Lamb does for math: as something that brings them great joy.

Weekend science, religion, and etc. reading list

March 11, 2016

Here’s the weekend reading list folks:

  1. Social work needs heterodoxy.
  2. David Bruggeman has two posts on gender and biomedical research. Reminded me of Londa Schiebinger’s Has Feminism Changed Science.
  3. Another one on gender and science.
  4. The New Yorker has a fascinating profile of ‘Mr. Money Mustache.’ A good college friend of mine is obsessed with him.

Talking about careers

March 7, 2016

I was lucky to be invited to give a talk at the University of Oregon. I spoke about my transition from plasma physics to software product management. I’ve given career talks to grad students before, but I decided to take this one in a different direction. It was a bit experimental for me. I was quite happy with how it turned out. Check it out and let me know what you think.

And this time I’m serial: I will restart more frequent blogging!

Weekday reading list

February 22, 2016

Hi everyone. My new job has been busier than expected, and it’s taking me longer than I thought to figure out how to juggle increased work responsibilities, more changes in my personal life, and writing. That said, I’ve made it my resolution for March to get back to writing.

Until then, enjoy a mid-week reading list:

  1. Dan Kahan on creationists and evolutionists at science museums.
  2. How Apple’s stance on iPhone privacy could backfire.
  3. How faith helped improve a county in Florida.
  4. My friend David Bruggeman on the necessity of paper maps.
  5. Some non-fiction writing advice I should probably follow.