Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom

MELBOURNE – What are the proper limits of religious freedom? Marianne Thieme, leader of the Party for the Animals in the Netherlands, offers this answer: “Religious freedom stops where human or animal suffering begins.”

The Party for the Animals, the only animal-rights party to be represented in a national parliament, has proposed a law requiring that all animals be stunned before slaughter. The proposal has united Islamic and Jewish leaders in defense of what they see as a threat to their religious freedom, because their religious doctrines prohibit eating meat from animals that are not conscious when killed.

The Dutch parliament has given the leaders a year to prove that their religions’ prescribed methods of slaughter cause no more pain than slaughter with prior stunning. If they cannot do so, the requirement to stun before slaughtering will be implemented.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Catholic bishops have claimed that President Barack Obama is violating their religious freedom by requiring all big employers, including Catholic hospitals and universities, to offer their employees health insurance that covers contraception. And, in Israel, the ultra-orthodox, who interpret Jewish law as prohibiting men from touching women to whom they are not related or married, want separate seating for men and women on buses, and to halt the government’s plan to end exemption from military service for full-time religious students (63,000 in 2010).

When people are prohibited from practicing their religion – for example, by laws that bar worshiping in certain ways – there can be no doubt that their freedom of religion has been violated. Religious persecution was common in previous centuries, and still occurs in some countries today.

But prohibiting the ritual slaughter of animals does not stop Jews or Muslims from practicing their religion. During the debate on the Party for the Animals’ proposal, Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, Chief Rabbi of the Netherlands, told members of parliament: “If we no longer have people who can do ritual slaughter in the Netherlands, we will stop eating meat.” And that, of course, is what one should do, if one adheres to a religion that requires animals to be slaughtered in a manner less humane than can be achieved by modern techniques.

Neither Islam nor Judaism upholds a requirement to eat meat. And I am not calling upon Jews and Muslims to do any more than I have chosen to do myself, for ethical reasons, for more than 40 years.

Restricting the legitimate defense of religious freedom to rejecting proposals that stop people from practicing their religion makes it possible to resolve many other disputes in which it is claimed that freedom of religion is at stake. For example, allowing men and women to sit in any part of a bus does not violate orthodox Jews’ religious freedom, because Jewish law does not command that one use public transport. It’s just a convenience that one can do without – and orthodox Jews can hardly believe that the laws to which they adhere were intended to make life maximally convenient.

Likewise, the Obama administration’s requirement to provide health insurance that covers contraception does not prevent Catholics from practicing their religion. Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities. (The government already exempts parishes and dioceses, thereby drawing a distinction between institutions that are central to the freedom to practice one’s religion and those that are peripheral to it.)

Of course, the Catholic Church would be understandably reluctant to give up its extensive networks of hospitals and universities. My guess is that, before doing so, they would come to see the provision of health-insurance coverage for contraception as compatible with their religious teachings. But, if the Church made the opposite decision, and handed over its hospitals and universities to bodies that were willing to provide the coverage, Catholics would still be free to worship and follow their religion’s teachings.

Religious exemption from military service can be more difficult to resolve, because some religions teach pacifism. That problem is usually resolved by providing alternative service that is no less arduous than military service (so that such religions do not attract adherents for that reason alone), but that does not involve fighting or killing.

Judaism, however, is not pacifist, so, once again, there is no real issue of religious freedom at stake. The ultra-orthodox want exemption for those who spend their time studying the Torah on the grounds that Torah study is as important as military service to Israel’s well-being. Providing the option of non-combatant national service thus will not resolve this dispute, unless it consists of Torah study. But there is no reason why Israel’s secular majority should share the belief that having tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox scholars studying the Torah provides any benefit at all to the nation, and it is certainly not as arduous as military service.

Not all conflicts between religion and the state are easy to resolve. But the fact that these three issues, all currently causing controversy in their respective countries, are not really about the freedom to practice one’s religion, suggests that the appeal to religious freedom is being misused.

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    1. CommentedReta Tallman

      Have to correct this otherwise good information: Catholics cannot 'practice' their religion by using contraception or from aborting the unborn, whereas your example of the meat situation and bus sitting problem is correct. Neither would prohibit these people from 'practicing' their religions. The 'practice' of religion has to do with principles such as doing no harm to either soul or bodies of ourselves or others which is contained in both Judeo and Christian dogma........certainly forcing Christians to contracept or abort goes against practice of both religion and humanity.

    2. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      Yes, meat is not universally needed. But for example, in the case of pregnant women, I understand, complete absence of red meat can lead to a much higher incidence of premature breaking of the placenta leading to miscarriage.

      But in any case, if meat is so unnecessary, and one speaks of animal rights as those of humans -- might I suggest that there is no "correct" way to kill a human in order to eat one. As such, I would propose the simple litmus test:

      Seek the ban of all animal slaughter -- or know that your attitude is simply bigotry against Muslims and Jews, whatever the academic sophistry.

      The history of ritual slaughter bans in pre-WWII Europe on this issue, particularly those of Poland and Nazi Germany, should at least induce one to do a little soul searching.

    3. CommentedShane Beck

      It is interesting to note that the major religions cry havoc when they feel that their religious freedoms have been infringed upon but they have no hesitation about inflicting their religious beliefs upon the secular state and people. Examples include gay marriage, abortion, censorship etc. A more extreme example would be Jihad. I'm all for the practice of religious freedom, but when it comes to lawmaking (the selfhood or legal status of an unborn foetus, for example) the Church and State should definitely remain separate.

    4. CommentedM L

      While it may not be individually required of Muslims to consume meat, it is institutionally required to accept that the ethics of Islamic animal slaughter are sufficiently just, and that the prohibition of the same is an injustice against religious practice. That is to say: eating meat isn't an absolute requirement, however upholding the right of those who choose to do so is. In calling on you to accept the legal soundness of the Islamic method of slaughter we are not calling upon you to do any more than we have chosen to do ourselves, also for ethical reasons, for more than 1400 years.

    5. CommentedDevra Berg

      I'll only deal with Judaism since I know about it. Possibly one could generalise to other religions.
      Judaism is a religion of interpretation. It has never stayed with what is written in Leviticus or Deuteronomy. The whole kosher thing is a vast edifice of new stuff built on a very simple commandment 'Though shalt not seethe the kid in its mother's milk.' I personally interpret that as being to do with protecting animals, not idiocies like using different tea towels to dry 'milk' dishes and 'meat' dishes.
      Now what do the slaughtering laws mean? The prohibition is on ingesting blood. So necks are cut to allow as much blood as possible to drain away. I can't imagine that stunning an animal first could affect that. The problem is the old one - we've 'always' done it like that...
      Indeed, when push comes to shove, orthodox Jews are remarkably adept at interpreting things to suit themselves. So you can't even carry an umbrella on the Sabbath, except when you can, in an area delimited by a bit or wire strung around some streets, the 'eruv', which allows all sorts of things to be done, pushing babies around etc. Well, I would suggest that a bit of suitable interpretation be applied to the slaughter problem.
      Why 'religion' has such status and feels free to make its outrageous claims to be treated exceptionally, even to the point of being against a country's laws, is beyond me. The only glimmer of hope is that in Israel, as an example, orthodox Judaism is getting ever closer to orthodox Islam, so when the two are virtually indistinguishable, do you think we might have peace? Too much to hope for from the religious, I expect.

    6. Commentedprempal singh

      Hmm, "what religon got to do with common sense" Really?
      What made sense under the circumstances few hundred years ago, may not be right and may not make sense now.
      Now the question is does religion adopt to current circumstance or not. If we have an adoptive religion, i believe there may not be at least religious issues in the world. We may converge.
      But is that convergence in the best interest of people who are promoting the respective religion? you know the answer.
      I live in cosmoplition and interact frequetnly with people of other faith. We discuss religion and agree on that every religion has many good and some baggages.
      If we can some how get rid of these baggages, life on earth will be lot better of for all of us.
      Again talking to my fellows, we all agree there is a time for things to happen (change), if and when God has desire, it will happen.

    7. CommentedJürgen Bröhmer

      Just an additional point:
      On 7 May 2012, the District Court of Cologne, Germany (criminal division, case no. 151 Ns 169/11), acquitted a medical doctor for having performed a circumcision on a Muslim boy. However, the court did so only because it acknowledged a relevant judgmental error on the punitive nature of the act (the doctor didn't know and couldn't have known that what he was doing amounted to a crime) and not because the act could not be qualified as a crime (inflicting bodily harm). The court did not accept religious freedom (as underlying the consent of the parents to the procedure) as a relevant justification for the act because one could have waited until the child himself could validly consent to the procedure for religious reasons.
      Not surprisingly the opposition did not take long to respond, with Muslim and Jewish organizations and individuals acting in concert and many others joining in. Indeed a difficult question. Cutting off others' body parts without consent for no compelling reason is something that is usually not condoned. Can - or even must - that assessment change when the same body part has been cut off routinely for hundreds of years or even longer and when many victims - presumably - would not only not mind but request the procedure for cultural, religious or social reasons? Does it matter whether the body part is vital (an organ or part of an organ, or blood as in blood transfusion or in some other way equally significant such as in female genital mutilation) or completely irrelevant (as in this case)? Does it matter, as the Court argued, that one could easily wait until such time when the "victim" can consent? Would such consent be valid? - Thus twisted the relevance of the mutilated part would surely play a role in many jurisdictions. What role does acceptance play in this context? Acceptance is a form of majority rule. Yet again, obviously we sometimes and rightly so condemn what is happening under this guise (e.g. racism, holocaust, apartheid) regardless of how uniformly accepted the practice may have been in a given jurisdiction and in other cases we accept it despite rather egregious results. Guns (no, people) kill thousands in the US and elsewhere just in related accidents and errors and cars (no, drivers) have killed millions around the world who could be alive if we restricted transport to buses and railways and the like. Is it that we weigh the perceived or real benefit of driving cars and owning guns against the cost? Is the perceived benefit of allowing the cutting off of body parts for religious reasons the social peace or some form of social justice we want to preserve? But if that is so, are we not again merely talking about acceptance and hence caught in a vicious circle?

    8. CommentedMiles Robhoto

      Professor Singer,

      Congratulations on this article.

      Why is the idea of a necessary "updating" of religious pratices never mentioned in the debate of religious freedom?

      We know why porkmeat consumption was banned several centuries ago, and why was circumcision promoted in certain religions from the beginning. But those reasons are long gone, with the progress of science and hygiene standards.
      So why is it so impossible for religious leaders to encourage the abandonment of some practices that are anachronistic, increasingly unethical, sometimes barbaric, and utterly inconvenient in an inter-connected world?

      Are those few millenia-old practices the only differentiating points between religions? Would the essence of these religions vanish if they were less invasive in every day life? Is the quest of spirituality supposed to be so tightly related to a certain diet, a certain way of dressing, or to the inflictment of scarifications of any sort?

      My question is: why are people getting better (your other article), why is science improving, why are hygiene standards improving, and all of these in spite of the disinclination of religions to keep up with their times?

    9. CommentedS vd Niet

      In the same vein: banishment of the nikaab in public space is not opposed to freedom of religion, as those religions prescribing women to wear a nikaab don’t command these women to go outside.

      It seems to me the argument of Peter Singer doesn’t apply right away. Somehow we should reckon with rights that count as matters of course, such as going outside, or perhaps eating meat.

      That’s where the second problem comes in. Peter Singer’s argument has to rely on what religions do or don’t say. This is ticklish territory, for what is the proper source to determine what religions do or don’t say? The holy books were written in a different time. Perhaps the authors just forgot to write down the commandment to eat meat, because back then it was a matter of course that people eat meat. If they would have known this would change, sure enough, they would have penned it down and Peter Singer would not have been able to make his point. Where does that leave the idea to prohibit ritual slaughter?

      So I like the argument: it enters the territory of religious argumentation, with the laudable intention to comfort the believer by showing you understand his beliefs, only to lead him back to your own territory eventually. However, you run the risk of getting stuck in the quicksand.

    10. CommentedMiriano Ravazzolo

      Prof Singer

      I would add one point that has been bothering me lately, which starts with the "meaning" of religion. If we assume that a religion is "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs" (, we are considering a set of high-level systems. These systems of course have been implemented during history, and from the implementations we have all the "practices" of a religion; but I would be hardly pressed to give more importance to the exterior aspects compared to the core values.

      But then, in most cases the values are kind of a background noise, and all what seem to be considered as "religious manifestation" are the practices, which descend from ages ago.

      In other words, how would someone become a better person, a more considerate person, a more admirable person, depending from the way the cow who provided the steak he's eating was killed? (of course, just using this as example).

      I was raised a Catholic, and I have plenty of examples like this in my original religion. I am now refusing to consider any external practice as more than a way to share someone's faith, and never as a "religious expression" in itself. Any religion lives within a society, and the ethical sensibility of that society, as defined by the laws, is what should dictate the external behavior.

      The freedom of [expressing a] religion, in other words, is a personal right that ends where the society has a different position.

    11. CommentedFred Kekule

      P. Peters,

      Are you seriously equating the governmental prohibition of "witch" burning with governmental coercion of business owners to provide elective and inexpensive contraceptive coverage when it is against their religion or else face the penalty of being drummed out of business??? Is this "enlightenment?" Do you really consider freedom of religion really a "newfound weapon?" I don't know if you are an American, but this #1 in our Bill of Rights.

    12. CommentedFred Kekule


      Freedom of religion is more than just a freedom to worship for an hour / week isolated in our church, synagogue, or mosque. Rather, it's our freedom to live our lives in accordance with our faith in society as long as we do not infringe about the constitutional rights of others. There is no constitutional right to employer-paid contraception and livestock have no right to being stunned before slaughter. Preventing a Catholic from operating a business because he/she thinks it is unethical to directly fund an employee's contraception is religious persecution against the Catholic. No one is stopping the employee from obtaining contraception at his/her own expense. Rather, the HHS mandate is a new imposition that is directly, or indirectly designed to take faithful Catholics out of the marketplace -- eerily similar to Nuremberg Laws in 1930s Germany. Likewise, you cannot seriously argue that faithful Jews and Muslims should forgo eating kosher food and simply go vegetarian to simply satisfy this new "right" of livestock to be stunned before slaughter. How can you advocate that large groups of people radically change their diet just to satisfy your well-intentioned, but misplaced, concern for the livestock. Jewish people have been doing this for 5000 years and Muslims for another 1300 following their faith in this way -- who are you to tell them to change? Radical liberals such as yourself used to label us as "opponents of choice." Look in the mirror.

        CommentedP Peeters

        You should know that in general it is a right of an animal not to be slaughtered without stunning in the Netherlands. It is in fact banned, because it is believed unethical when less painful and less horrifying methods are readily available. However, religious groups are placed outside of the law and receive special treatment. Therefore, they can continue with their "rituals" eventough it inflicts preventable hurt and suffering to animals.
        Like with women rights, emancipation, and toleration, the ideas develop over time. It has been good practice to stone women, burn witches, slaughter and suppress nonbelievers for many years too. And with every step towards enlightment, people adhering to ancient customs from over 1000 years ago, will start screaming. Especially with their newfound weapon "freedom of religion". Unfortunately for the faithful, these words are starting to loose their magic. Maybe because they used them too often to get their way.

    13. CommentedWilliam Hampton

      Peter, I think that what you say makes perfect sense, but when has sense ever had anything to do with religion? It seems to me that almost everyone should be able to see that if there is a God, it has nothing in common with any of mans religions. Even though all religions can not all be right, but could all be wrong, man will continue to create untold suffering over it.

        CommentedTom McGivan

        Does the fact that often contemporary religion is devoid of sense imply that we should make no attempt the talk rationally about it? Should we not be encouraging the application of reason, practical thought to promote equitable happiness when debating such issues?

    14. CommentedP Peeters

      All excellent examples of the naivety and idealism that underpin multiculturalism and how it ultimately fails as a political theory.
      A big first step towards a more balanced debate would be to dispose religion of its exceptional status. That would incline the removal of freedom of religion from the constitution all together, since it is well served under freedom of opinion; a debate which is also ongoing in The Netherlands, with strong opposition from religious parties of course. At the end of the day, modern countries (like The Netherlands) are democracies and all Dutch citizens have to obey the law of the majority, regardless of their opinion/religion. By definition, minorities will always "suffer" by the will of the majority. Infringements on freedom are made constantly in the case of pedophiles, brother-sister marriages, drug use, noise limits, public urinating, sex, speed limits, nudity, etc. Infringements that arise from public debate and the will of the majority of the people. But when unlawful behavior is motivated by religion (in anyway), we always have to move with caution. Minorities will have to except the system in which they operate. No one should receive special treatment in a just (liberal) society. If special treatment is a requisite for religious practice, than that religion has disqualified itself from a place in a liberal society and restricted itself to unjust societies or societies in which they belong to a majority. In the case of religion these are not mutually exclusive, as opposed to liberal societies which are by definition just (if practiced properly).

    15. CommentedCarlos Rodriguez

      Wile not being required to eat meat, what kine of a person wants to prevent another from doing so? This is a substantial part of the human diet, and legislation that forces minorities to stop eating meat of any kind is simply wrong.

    16. CommentedHamid Rizvi

      Religious freedom is defined by its practioners and changes based on interpretation. Religious freedom is frankly also a matter of convenience.

      There are no animal rights in the realm of religion. Animals besides being used as food also help satisfy the ritual needs of the believers.

      If you left things to orthodox Jews, muslims and even Christians there will be no buses for them to discriminte between sexes.

      I, would ask all catholic fundo's to go adopt an orphan and there are plenty to go around before speaking out against birth control or contraception?

    17. Commentedis it vegan

      Dr. Singer, thank you for your strong words. Hopefully they'll help to enlighten others.

      ps. It's 2012. How can ANYONE defend ritual animal slaughter on the grounds of tradition and religious freedom? Ugh.

    18. CommentedAkim McMath

      While Professor Singer makes a good case that such policies do not inhibit religious freedom, I'm not sure I agree entirely. Certainly, they all make it much harder to practice one's religion. It's not easy for many people to give up eating meat, for example. However, I there clearly is a need to put some legal limit on what people can do in the name of their religion. If my religion says that I'm not allowed to pay taxes, for example, I think the law should clearly require me to pay taxes regardless.

      Perhaps religious freedom should not be absolute. Perhaps minor infringements on religious freedom should be tolerated if there is a strong reason for doing so. Of course, I understand how important religious freedom is, and any infringement on it should be taken very seriously. But when it comes to important issues such as animal suffering and access to birth control, minor limits on religious freedom may be justified.

    19. CommentedSteve Barney

      In the Old Testament, see Daniel 1:5-16 for an example of Jews choosing to go vegetarian ("vegetables to eat and water to drink") when "clean" food, or food that satisfies their religious requirements, is not available.

        CommentedSteve Barney

        Here's that passage:

        Daniel 1:5-16

    20. CommentedDan Balserak

      Prof. Singer's treatment of the U.S. government's mandate for coverage of contraception betrays a lack of understanding of Catholic teachings. Just as much as Catholics believe that contraception is immoral, they also believe that they are called to heal the sick and help the needy. So it is no solution to say that they can simply abandon their mission of service. (Before any commenter suggests that Catholic employers could evade the contraception mandate by reorganizing into corporate structures small enough to be exempt from the requirement, note that such a cap on the size of religious employers would likely be considered a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, regardless of the practical feasibility of such a measure.)

        CommentedJack Davis

        Dan: The vast majority of Catholics do not believe that contraception is immoral. Church leaders do not speak for every Catholic.

    21. CommentedDiunei Loumou

      "The measures stipulated by the covenant include the following: a veterinarian must be present during the slaughter (this is already the case for Jewish slaughterhouses); the animal must die within 40 seconds, otherwise the veterinarian must step in and kill the animal; animals must be inspected before slaughter and can be rejected on the basis of overall weight and size of neck."

    22. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      Let me move to human suffering.

      Religious freedom and human suffering have an uncommon lineage in the understanding of how various communities have responded to the moral principles of life and its daily exercise and how social acceptance of such responses have transformed societies. I have seen the two extremes, highest form of religious freedom as in Switzerland, and highest form of human suffering as in Western Odisha, where religious diversity and caste systems intertwine to fight conditions of depravity that can only be mildly compared with the likes of Somalia or Sub-Saharan Africa. My studies have shown that it is difficult to understand religious freedom in areas of extreme hardships; sometimes it is modulated by the needs of a community which tries to be accommodative to the harsh conditions of living, while the external world tries to act at cross purpose. Left to the local community, the meaning of religious freedom is very simple, sharing and mutual aid in a self-less paradigm of hope is the central theme, while the external world counter-acts to preach selfishness as the driver of prosperity. The conflict between these contradictory alliances, both of which is least influenced by religious freedom, leads me to a tempting metaphor that we have actually progressed very little to understand how primitive societies work in zones of depravity.

      Procyon Mukherjee

    23. CommentedIsmail OURAICH

      @Robert Bauer: You are indeed right when saying that it is not mandatory to eat meat, and that for us Muslims (to avoid talking about any other denomination), we could eventually do away with it. But, what Prof. Singer forgot to mention here is that there is a special occasion (it is a celebration day) during which it is mandatory to slaughter a sheep or any acceptable substitute ( Therefore, the way slaughtering the sacrificial animal during that celebration is the religiously sanctioned injunction to be followed as described in the article. Now, you can argue and say that we can abstain from eating meat during the rest of the calendar days, and for me personally it would not be a problem. But do you think it realistically feasible an option to implement? What incentive would we give people to switch to non-meat based diet that provide the same nutritional benefits?
      Moreover, the article takes this very example of ritual slaughtering to make a larger point about religious freedoms. And that is why I added the second comment to which you did not provide any reaction. And my point in that comment was that you cannot derive an unbiased conclusion about the Ethics of Animal welfare in religions from a limited perspective such as the one discussed. My contention is that, without analyzing first the stance of a particular religion on this issue through the body of literature that exists on the matter, you cannot drive away the argument that suggest that religions are inherently unethical in terms of animal welfare, which is exactly what I think it is the drive home message that Prof. Singer is making, unless I am mistaken.

    24. CommentedCharlie Savelle

      This line of argumentation seems inherently problematic though. Suppose for example, it is necessary to ride the bus to get to work, and that one is to poor to do otherwise. I don't think that in situations such as these religious freedom can be brushed off by saying, one could do otherwise. Some of these, like eating meat, are central and old aspects of human culture, and the ability to simply not do them is perhaps harder than it looks on paper. Singer rather assumes beforehand that his views on eating meat are better than eating meat, and that not eating meat is an obvious and reliable alternative. This is probably not the case given the normative behavior of our societies. But I do think we should also have a vested interest in defending the rights of people and animals from the imposing modesty and righteousness of a religion or people, but this seems just as domineering, because the implication is that people may be forced to go very far out of their way, to not do something they find wrong. I agree with what Singer is arguing for, but not with the way he is arguing.

    25. CommentedIsmail OURAICH

      With all due respect to Prof. Singer, when you say that prohibiting the ritual slaughter, at least for us Muslims, does not interfere with practice of religion, in fact you are in the wrong. The ritual is a mandatory religious prescription, as the five prayer a day is, as fasting during Ramadan is, etc. So unless one is well versed in the scholarship of Islam, making such a statement is at best biased.

        CommentedRobert Bauer

        Professor Singer claims that eating meat is not mandatory for muslims. That is, if your religion requires ritual slaughter which is at odds with a country's laws against animal suffering, you could just stop eating meat and could still follow all rules as demanded from your religion. Unless Professor Singer is wrong and muslims are in fact required to eat meat (which is hard to believe, otherwise please provide the quote if this is indeed the case) then his argumentation seems to be consistent and your religion should not be exempted from the law.

        CommentedIsmail OURAICH

        And if I may add, there is a lot to be said about the Ethics of Animal Treatment in Islam. A whole literature exists by scholars throughout the history of Islam that expands on this very topic. Perhaps a bit of exploration would make it enlightening in order to build a better understanding on the position that Islam takes on the welfare of animals. Of course, and I would not need to remind you of this, if to make a judgmental argument, one ought not to look at the problem from a limited angle, but rather one ought to investigate the issue from a holistic perspective to reach as unbiased a conclusion as possible.