Tag Archives: definition of religion

About Those “Sincerely Held” Religious Beliefs…

Well, the insanity is spreading. Examples are coming hot and heavy…

The GOP has declared a riot that killed nine people and did millions in property damage “Legitimate political discourse.” (As a cousin of mine quipped, “And Pearl Harbor was an over-exuberant fireworks display…”)

An Oklahoma bill proposes to fine teachers $10k for teaching anything “that contradicts religion.”( It doesn’t specify which religion…)The proposed act, named the “Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act” would allow parents to demand the removal of any book with “anti-religious content.” The immediate targets would be any discussion of LGBTQ issues, and study of–or presumably reference to– evolution or the big bang theory. (The bill  was introduced by the same wack-a-doodle who introduced a bill to remove books with references to identity, sex and gender from public school libraries.)

Teachers could be sued a minimum of $10,000 “per incident, per individual” and the fines would be paid “from personal resources” not from school funds or from individuals or groups. If the teacher is unable to pay, they will be fired, under the legislation.

I would be shocked if this lunatic proposal became law, even in Oklahoma–but it does give rise to a question that has recently become salient in the context of vaccine denial: what is religion?

After all, if we are going to protect something, we probably should be able to define it.

I regularly receive a newsletter produced by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and a recent issue considered that question in the context of “religious exemptions” from vaccine mandates. Are religious exemptions actually “religious,” or are people simply using the First Amendment as a pretext to get out of vaccine requirements?

Large-scale vaccine skepticism is a new phenomenon, but is it a religious phenomenon? As The New York Times’s Ruth Graham reports, evidence suggests “most objections described as religious to vaccines are really a matter of personal — and secular — beliefs.” In an article titled “Religious Opposition to Vaccines Is Rooted in Politics, Not Tradition,” UVA’s Evan Sandsmark argues that vaccine refusal among Christian conservatives has more to do with their politics than their religious convictions. “If they look to the moral reasoning and sources of authority within their traditions,” Sandsmark writes, “they will hear a message on vaccines that differs considerably from those on offer by many Republican leaders.”

Sandsmark is not alone in pointing out that Christianity is not an anti-vax religion. Numerous Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, have made public statements in favor of vaccination, and many scholars have debunked and dismissed the claims of those who say their Christian faith precludes them from getting vaccinated. As Curtis Chang writes, “Within both Catholicism and all the major Protestant denominations, no creed or Scripture in any way prohibits Christians from getting the vaccine.” Berry College’s David Barr puts the point sharply, “When Christians claim a religious exemption to this vaccine mandate because they don’t want to take it, the biblical term for what they’re doing is ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’”

As with so many other issues in contemporary society, the devil is in the definition. The newsletter cited a recent PRRI poll in which 52% of people refusing vaccination insisted that getting vaccinated would violate their personal religious beliefs; however, only 33% asserted that getting vaccinated would violate their religion’s teachings.

So–if the religion one purportedly follows does not prohibit vaccination, must we accept the insistence that these “sincerely-held personal beliefs” are religious?

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, a scholar of both religion and constitutional law, has long argued for the impossibility of religious freedom as most people envision it, pointing out that laws mandating acceptance of religious exemptions require judges to become arbiters of orthodoxy—  determining which beliefs and practices are authentically part of a religious tradition and thus deserving of the exemption. They must determine whether there is doctrinal support from within the individual’s claimed religious tradition for whatever “sincere religious belief” s/he is claiming. If not–if we must accept as “religious” whatever commitments and beliefs a given individual claims are religious– then we are allowing people to decide for themselves which laws they want to obey and which laws they don’t.

So here we are. 

We have thousands of American Christians seeking religious exemptions from a public health measure that will save thousands of lives. Some significant number of those people are

disingenuously using their faith as a pretense for vaccine refusal, others are expressing their tenuous interpretations of the teachings of Christian faith, and others are invoking their own personal religious commitments while acknowledging that these commitments are not shared or supported by their religious authorities. 

The idiot who authored those bills in Oklahoma probably thinks the courts will define “religion” as whatever he personally believes….