Gene Expression

The accommodation of religion

The Islamic Republic of Harvard?:

But the decision put Harvard in the awkward position of having to arbitrate what constitutes legitimate religious practice. Marine claims there was a “moral and ethical responsibility” for the administration to act on this request, telling the Associated Press last month that “it’s a pretty big breach of their moral and religious code … and it’s just not possible for them to be in a mixed environment.” But according to Aljawhary, “It’s not like we can’t work out when men are around.” In fact, “we were not ‘demanding’ women-only hours,” Aljawhary said. If the administration had said no, she said, “it would have been okay.”

Universities are often forced to alter their policies to accommodate the religious views of students–such as changing test dates on religious holidays or accommodating special dietary restrictions. But what happens when students hold a relatively extreme version of religious practice? And perhaps more importantly, what happens when that practice comes into conflict with other values important to the university?


Religion is not something that just occupies the space between one’s ears; it generally pushes itself in the public space, and confers upon an individual some slack in terms of deviant behavior. The assessment by the powers that be as to what legitimate religious practice is is not new, and will always have to occur. Most people have their own particular spin on their own religious tradition and when authorities are called on to accommodate their religious needs those authorities have to judge the legitimacy and plausibility of those claims. Numerosity matters; the most common interpretations of a given religious tradition are going to be assumed to be more legitimate.

A few years ago a book came out, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, which argued that genuine neutrality and church-state separation is an illusion. In particular, the author makes the claim that the particular nature of American religiosity over the first two centuries of the republic’s existence was instrumental in the erection and maintenance of the “wall of separation.” In short, a Protestant mainline consensus which deemphasizes issues of ritual and practice in favor of particular doctrinal professions or community activities was a background assumption of the evolution of church-state separation. During the 20th century to some extent both American Roman Catholics and Jews aceded to the norms of Protestantism. That consensus is collapsing in the face of both increased pluralism and the decline of mainline Protestantism at the center of our religious culture.

Which brings me to the point of diversity. In the piece above the author notes that “extreme versions” of practice can cause problems in terms of accommodation. Remember the Muslim woman who did not wish to show her face on her driver’s license photo? But deviation from the central tendency of mainstream norms is not the only issue one should consider, the sum of small deviations about the median might be just as disruptive. By this, I mean to suggest that a large number of religionists who have modest needs maybe just as costly in terms of accommodation as smaller numbers of extremists.

Interesting times….

Note: Religion is just a boundary condition in terms of maintaining community norms. The issue at the Harvard gym was sex segregation motivated by the discomfort (assumed) of some Muslim women on campus, but as noted in many articles on the topic other universities have enacted male-exclusionary policies due to concerns of those who were motivated by feminist norms. A society riven by a welter of values is going to be characterized by constant debate and discussion about the outlines of the public spaces, and many of these debates will be won on the battlegrounds of politics. The religious angle is going to be more prominent than the political one because I think at least for the short term supernaturally justified behaviors are given more of a hearing than non-supernaturally rationalized choices and deviations.

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    March 31, 2008

    Very interesting analysis.

    … at least for the short term supernaturally justified behaviors are given more of a hearing than non-supernaturally rationalized choices and deviations.

    The primary exception to this being (some) medically-based situations, at least since the passage (and general public acceptance) of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  2. #2 John Emerson
    March 31, 2008

    Just in general, I’d just like to say that a lot of the stuff about dhimmification seems utterly hysterical. There are some real boundaries that have to be maintained (especially on the status of daughters and wives), but the Harvard gym question wasn’t worth bothering with.

    There are lots of models for dealing with minority and immigrant practices and beliefs: the Amish, native Americans, police tolerance policies in various areas (e.g. on Chinese gambling), and Mormons. In every case the solution was some kind of messy point-by-point compromise, not some deep philosophical principle or a hard-core absolutism about everything. (The most hard-core policy was toward Native Americans, and it was a disaster). Multiculturalists want to slide the line a long way in one direction, whereas nativists want to slide it a long way in the other direction. At the present moment I think that the nativists are the more hysterical and the more harmful.

  3. #3 Caledonian
    March 31, 2008

    Ad-hoc, point-by-point compromises seem to be the worst long-term strategy, in that they make it impossible to produce any meaningful societal standards.

    Now, I’m deeply opposed to arbitrary norms, or coercion towards what a majority views as normality, or coercion even when there are moderately good arguments in favor of doing things one way.

    But I don’t think a society can function without a minimum level of agreed-upon positions and values, and I further suspect that some positions and values lend themselves to making a functional society than others. Tearing down unthinking cohesion isn’t valuable when it’s replaced with unthinking incoherence… and that’s what seems to be happening.

  4. #4 John Emerson
    March 31, 2008

    Ad-hoc, point-by-point compromises seem to be the worst long-term strategy, in that they make it impossible to produce any meaningful societal standards.

    Not true. In a liberal or pluralist society you have ad hoc compromises all over the place.

    Now, I’m deeply opposed to arbitrary norms, or coercion towards what a majority views as normality, or coercion even when there are moderately good arguments in favor of doing things one way.

    Now I’m losing you entirely. Where the majority standard already in place is regarded as fundamental, there should be coercion. Compromises will generally be made recognizing a home team advantage. But not everything needs to be handled this way; most things don’t.

    What I was trying to say is that there should be mutual negotiation leading to decisions about what is can be compromised and what not. In the case of the Harvard single-sex gym story, and others, people have been getting heated up over nothing much, often with the apparent intention of opposing Islam wherever it is found.

  5. #5 Caledonian
    April 1, 2008

    In a liberal or pluralist society you have ad hoc compromises all over the place.

    Not really. What you actually have are issues that people have decided aren’t actually ‘issues’ any longer. Since they’re not important, they can vary as people wish them to.

    often with the apparent intention of opposing Islam wherever it is found.

    I don’t see the problem with that. (You may substitute the religion of your choice for ‘Islam’ if you choose.)

  6. #6 John Emerson
    April 1, 2008

    You’re quibbling. Deciding that something is not important and not an issue is a form of messy ad hoc compromise.

    I certainly would not commit to opposing any and all religions wherever they’re found, and not any specific religion either. Not at the governmental level. Some specific practices have to be forbidden, whereas others can be adjusted to. First group: arranged marriage and honor killing. Second group: ritual slaughtering practices, P.E. requirements, religious dress, etc. Even compulsory military service was eventually compromised during the draft era.