Why religious equality & diversity won't work

Over the past few years I've reach a position which I'm not particular happy with: religious neutrality & diversity together are pretty much doomed. In the United States the separation of church & state crystallized at a time when Protestantism was normative, and despite all their differences this branch of Christianity shares some commonalities. With the entrance of Catholicism and Judaism into the religious matrix there was some accommodation, but the reality is that to a great extent American Judaism & Catholicism have been "Protestantized" through various Kulturkampfs (e.g., the vitality of non-Orthodox religious Judaism, the "Americanist" tendencies in the Catholic Church in this country). The main problem is this: most religions involve rituals and customs. These rituals and customs demand accommodation, and as the number of rituals and customs proliferate there is an increased chance that they will clash.

This is pretty obvious with regards to Muslims. In Minnesota some Somali cab drivers have refused fares which involve alcohol (intoxication or possession). This was justified by their religious beliefs. Some Muslims at Target refuse to sell pork. These are small issues, but they are symptomatic of problems which crop up when separate purity taboos mix. Some African groups for example don't understand why Americans find objectionable a nominal ritualistic cut into the female clitoris.

In any case, today I stumbled upon this story about cow slaughter in Wales. Why the controversy? You can read:

An explosive cultural stand-off between the Government and Britain's Hindu community is looming in the formidable shape of a six-year-old black Friesian bull named Shambo.

Hindus from around the country are threatening to form a human chain to prevent the slaughter of the animal, which they regard as sacred, after it tested positive for tuberculosis.
Hindu leaders are now exploring the possibility of an injunction to stop the slaughter but if that fails they vow they will stop it physically. "We will do whatever it takes to preserve Shambo," Swami Suryananda said. "People will come from all over Britain, and not just from Britain but from all over the world - if the Government refuses to respect the core values of the Hindu religion."

Look, British people eat cows. Religious Hindus believe in the sacred nature of the cow. The killing of this sacred cow seems rather precautionary. Obviously the government of Wales doesn't really respect this Hindu belief. From personal experience non-Hindus (Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc.) really enjoy making fun of the Hindu attitude toward the cow (though one might say that it is more rational to get enraged about the killing of an animal, which can feel pain, as opposed to sacrilege of a book). Hindus on the other hand imbue the cow with some pretty intense religious feeling, sentiments which have led to intercommunal riots in India. I know some Indian Muslims who find it ludicrous that humans lives might be expended in the interests of the reverence of an animal (to which I would respond that Muslims are well known for threatening when the "reputation" of their Holy Book or prophet is besmirched).

The point isn't that the United Kingdom will be riven with cow slaughter conflict, it won't. The issue is the general problem that religious people take their faith quite seriously, but those outside of a given religion tend to see the whole enterprise as silly (though of course those engaged in mockery have their own sacred cows). When you have a situation where numerous segments of the population have disjoint sacrality axioms you're bound to have clash scenarios that emerge from the divergences of world-views.

In some ways I'm actually just restating the problem that crops up when you assume the importance of overdominance in genetic architectures. Say what? The problem is that relying upon overdominance causes problems because it is difficult to obtain a situation where a given individual is actually heterozygous across all the loci in question. Similarly, as religious pluralism increases the "safe common space" which spans all sects begins to narrow as areas of conflicting emphasis (e.g., Hindu cow reverence vs. Muslim cow slaughter) are cordoned off. If, as in the United States, you privilege and respect religious sentiment, you will encounter a situation where you can't please all parties, and the pretense of neutrality needs to be addressed. Who speaks with the voice of God? Why man of course....


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Of course, bovine TB is fiercely contagious, and even if they plan on keeping that bull locked up for the rest of his life, the fact that they're spending the night in his stall means they're putting themselves at risk for catching it - yes, it's transmissable to people in the air, not just by eating contaminated meat. The other cattle and cervids at the temple are at risk, and so is everyone who visits.

But gosh, let's not offend their religious sensibilities.

And for the record, I don't think anybody's religious sensibilities deserve to be put above the law. You want a driver's license, you show your face for the picture. You want to be pharmacist, you sell anything legal. You want to take government-insured patients, you take all of them.

It's no more ridiculous to worship that bull than a book. No less, either.

I just read a paper on environmental heterogeneity maintaining variation in a multi-deme (well, two-deme) model*, and was thinking of it analogically in terms of another social/cultural process, but I think it would work for what you're talking about too.

Basically, in their simulations, lots of diversity was maintained when there was balancing selection within demes (not necessarily heterosis) and disruptive selection between demes. In religious terms, you'd have a variety of local "schools" of a major religion that more or less cohabited a given region, and fierce hostility between regions. Separate but equal.

* PubMed "genetic variation deme," and click the first link (Star et al 2007). There's even a link to the free full text!

there is an increased chance that they will inevitably clash.

an increased chance of an inevitable clash seems a bit oxymoronic, no? :)

Separate but equal.

yes. that is the only way you can be 'neutral' and 'respect' all religions, just keep the disjoint sacrality axioms in force in different locales. that's how 'ultra-orthodox' jews maintain their lifestyle in the USA, they self-segregate (and religious separatists like the amish). the problem starts when these groups become numerous enough that they start having an impact on the mainstream. in some ways large religious minorities like muslims seem to want to function as a millet.

And for the record, I don't think anybody's religious sensibilities deserve to be put above the law.

well, this is a laudable position, which i theoretically agree with. the problem is that religion matters to people, and it affects how they live their lives. if you are going to make public policy it is, like it or not, one of the priors you have to take into account in generating said policy. e.g., in a commuity that is 1/3 muslim, 1/3 jewish and 1/3 christian, and all these groups are 'strict,' it might be best to focus any official gov. business where the public needs to participate on days NOT friday, sat. or sunday, seeing as how a significant portion of the population will be at rest. similarly, some school lunch programs in england are excluding pork products because of the large number of muslims, and even tilting toward using halal. now, i wonder if beef products should be excluded because of hindus. shellfish because of jews. oh, what about excluding meat entirely because of some hindus? we have to draw a line somewhere, but i think don't it is practicable to act as if we can be 'blind' to these considerations.

" . . . in some ways large religious minorities like muslims seem to want to function as a millet."

Um . . . they want to be put inside feeders and consumed by birds? Or sit around inside natural food store bulk bins/ on shelves in certain ethnic food stores? That seems like an odd ambition.

(consulting dictionary - do you mean "milieu"? That more or less makes sense, even though it's an absolute pain in the butt to spell . . . Either that, or there are some really odd religious beliefs out there . . .)

Good and timely post. I have too been troubled by the accomodation demands of the Somali Muslims. Muslims parents around the country now are demanding that their kids be given days off for Muslims festivals. Some school boards have adopted the policy that kids can only take days off if on those days a certain percentage of kids didnt show up in the past.

Alleged religious employment discrimination is a big problem area. Federal law (Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) mandates that the employer should reasonably accomodate the religious practices of its employees unless the accomodation poses a substantial burden. Now you have Muslims demanding that they should be given special 2-3 rolling breaks so they can perform their 2-3 prayers in a typical 8 hour workday. On top of that as prayer time changes everyday, their breaks will be at a different time everyday! So some people get special breaks even though everybody is governed by the collective bargaining agreement. Plus some want to perform prayers in a congregation. Most employers wont allow Muslims to use their restrooms to perform wudu (mini ablution) because it violates OSHA and other safety standards. So should they now build special wash platforms for their Muslims employees? The next decade will be very instructive as the courts and eventually the Supreme Court will have to grapple with these accomodation claims.

jews generally reacted these ritualistic problems in two ways:

1) the vast majority adhere to non-rabbinical (orthodox) judaism. e.g., reform judaism = 'christianity for the curly-haired.'

2) others have created a jewish counter-culture enabled by extreme concentrations of jews in a few areas (mostly parts of downstate new york).