The New Religious Intolerance by Martha C. Nussbaum

book jacket Muslim girlThe New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age (2012) by Martha C. Nussbaum

This is an interesting, almost philosophical, discussion of various aspects of religious activities, from burqas to yarmulkes, discriminatory laws directed at a particular practice (forbidding Latin in church but allowing it in schools back in the day in England with hostility to Catholic services), and similar almost random ways that religious dogma infiltrates all aspects of human lives (including treatment of animals, such as kosher killing of animals).

The nub is drawing the line. What is an acceptable level of tolerance and at what point should religious practices be deemed unjustified or in contradiction to legal protections and the interests of the State.

One real crux of the issue of religious variations and other cultural differences is a central problem to religious and other forms of intolerance, and this is stated on page 2: ‘NON-ASSIMILATION TO THE CULTURE OF THE MAJORITY.” From an American perspective living in the “melting pot” historically, immigrants have wanted to assimilate. Yet we have a core belief in the rights of an individual, for example, to religious expression of ANY sort (well, almost, cults are frowned upon, and atheists are assumed to be satanists which is not an acceptable expression of religious activity, however the Courts have permitted leniency for the satirical Satanist groups organized to mock religious displays in order to illustrate the absurdity of and illegitimacy of the domination of Christian beliefs as integral to our “Christian” nation when the United States is VERY SPECIFICALLY NOT Christian but SECULAR. No matter how many times the evangelicals repeat the lie and make false statements as to the Founding Fathers being “Christian” when the facts prove otherwise.

This has become a singular and damaging quality of daily life for America. When you have a fringe religious extremist [Ted Cruz] whose father thinks he’s chosen by [their] god to become president, and that candidate says that his god’s “laws” are superior to man made laws including the U.S. Constitution, the very basic foundation of the country is under threat. Probably one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Republican men originally running for President is the fact that many of them made the same claim: God’s will is that I should run. And yet, a totally secular, sinful, and, if not criminal, certainly skating the limits of legal much less ethical practices, man has become the apparent Republican nominee for President. Pandering and having no moral center, or worse, a deliberate provocateur, is now in a position to end American democracy and freedoms, especially for women, but even worse for minorities who have experienced a massive increase in hate crimes. Like the woman wearing a headscarf and who was driving down a road, minding her own business, when a good old boy pulled up beside her and shot her dead. And she wasn’t even Muslim as I recall. Given the misogyny as well as hatred of minorities, the killer may well have shot the woman just because she was a woman who dared to drive a car alone. The sad thing is I cannot find a citation of this news story because there are so many results when I entered multiple search terms about shootings (19,300,000).

While the book makes some excellent discussion at a “micro” level, there is a failure to have a central thesis or organized blocks that lead a reader through the book to any kind of conclusion or solutions. There is a lot of emphasis on Muslim practices, in particular with regard to women’s clothing as the photo on the cover would indicate, but does not discuss in a coherent chapter or two on this particular aspect and the various laws that have cropped up banning headscarves or not, veils, etc. plus then tossing in some Jewish things, and one brief mention of the Sikh turbans causing so many ignorant people to think they are Muslims and suspect them as being terrorists.

Anyway, in keeping with the somewhat random bits and pieces strung together to form the book, here are some of the notes I made of particularly interesting bits, mainly from the start of the book.

P. 2:

Still, no reasonable person could deny that religious prejudice and fear, in the form of anti-Catholicism and “nativism,” anti-Semitism, and a host of other prejudices against “strange” minorities, have been a persistent blot on our society. . .

Still, the self-image of U.S. citizens in recent years has been that we are a welcoming and diversity-friendly society that has outgrown the prejudices of the past.

But surprising to perhaps post JFK people, who would not remember the major controversy his Catholicism stirred up back in the day (America will be ruled by the Pope!), we now have evangelicals like George W. Bush who deliberately sought out an audience with the pope while in office. Even Bernie Sanders — out of respect, not like W’s deference, availed himself of the opportunity to go to the Vatican and happened to be able to meet the Pope. In one respect, the Pope is a world leader, so it makes sense to treat him with respect for that role. On the other hand THE POPE STILL PREFERS TO LET WOMEN AND MEN DIE from Aids in Africa rather than use a condom. So from my point of view, between that and the denial of contraception and abortion, the POPE and the Catholic Religion IS GENOCIDAL and, new word for me that means the killing of women, GYNAECIDE.

. . . only in very recent times could the majority of the Supreme Court be composed of Roman Catholics without public outrage. . .

I am personally outraged and do not understand why there isn’t public outrage. Not because they are Catholic per se, but because they base their decisions not on CONSTITUTIONAL LAW but on the religious “penumbra” [ha ha, my little joke] of Catholicism that permeates their adherence to church dogma at the expense of women in particular. But people in general, except of course, corporate people or fetuses.

It is my belief that the Enlightened Founding Fathers never envisioned any one of intellect, learning, and reason, would become a Supreme Court Justice chained to religious dogma. Furthermore, when they were appointed for life, the average lifespan was only about to the fifties, so they never expected a hardcore Catholic with delusions of grandeur to be on the Court for more than three decades! Neither did they expect the likes of such as Strom Thurmond who was in Congress for most of his life and who lived to 90+ years old, casting crucial votes in opposition to better ideals for society.

Gerrymandering, politicking and other factors have contributed to the persistence of long-serving congressional members thus avoiding the turnover that the Founding Fathers envisioned: short term public service then go back to your job, farm, practice, whatever. Not even death has allowed for an ameliorating effect of hidebound entrenched cranks with an agenda (Tea Party cabal, proof there is no god blessing America).

p. 3 –  In a list of “ethical virtues, she calls for: “Rigorous critical thinking. . . .” but I fear that is NOT something most Americans are capable of anymore, if they ever were. Certainly is nothing taught in schools, especially those schools that have been sued into teaching “creationism” disguised by the new name of “intelligent design” as a LEGITIMATE equivalent to evolution (believers cannot grasp the concept of the scientific meaning of “theory” and therefore believe it is NOT proven or may not be “true”).

p. 4 – I really do not understand the obsession with heads and religion. The Catholic women used to have to wear lace doilies or other hats to attend services. The Jewish too, even the men with the yarmulkes. The Sikh turbans, the olden days “tonsure” of the monks, the headscarf and more of Muslims. It is very pervasive.  In general I recall one explanation was that women’s hair in particular causing men to lust and not be pious in church. From my point of view, according to religions, everything about a woman makes men lust!

She makes the point that in some countries they ban headscarves but allow nuns and priests to wear full habits.

p. 5 –  “The mayor of the Italian city of Capriate in Bergamo banned kebab shops in the city in 2009.”

Also: “In Lucca, Italy (near Pisa) . . . “a kebab shop was firebombed, and a member of parliament from the anti-immigration Northern League called for a ban on ALL FOREIGN FOODS.” So I started wondering what all that would cover. Pineapples, corn, spices of all sorts especially curry, and COFFEE? Hard to make a Turkish coffee in Italy then. Or anything with coffee since I don’t think coffee plants are native to Italy.

Then there is a paragraph on the ways that non-assimilation really is problematic. Like the whole swimming pool controversy in various countries. In England, I read elsewhere, the issue was that Muslim men would not let their women swim in a pool (even wearing full freaking burqas) without being there too. Of course, that meant that other Muslim men would see their women? So then there was an effort in Helsinki “of reserving certain hours for Muslim women to use the public swimming pool” that was cancelled, because obviously such a policy then discriminated against all other women. And it is stupid. So then they tried a women only night, but she doesn’t say how that worked out. But since Muslim women aren’t allowed to be on their own, not sure how that could work. Then too, somewhere in this book I saw a mention that apparently it is forbidden for Muslim women to see other women naked. [found it, it was in a footnote] WTF? Maybe non-family? In any case, that presented a locker room problem. Although at many places in the States at least, there are private dressing rooms, as well as “family” dressing rooms to allow for mixed gender children to be able to participate.

OMG this is absolutely nuts. Imagine if religion were like food and other allergies. NO PEANUTS anywhere in the country because some children can get a whiff and die. That’s why they are no longer available on aircraft! While I appreciate the problem (A friend had a child with life-threatening allergy, and she often had to deal with ignorant moms who tried to get him to eat cookies with nuts in them EVEN WHEN HE SAID NO I am allergic.) there are some pragmatic limits to how much taxpayer dollars should be spent to accommodate every cultish notion of religious freedom — especially now that “religious freedom” is being used as a cudgel to IMPOSE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS on others. THAT IS DEFINITELY OVER THE LINE and down into the abyss of authoritarian theocracy.

BTW, the footnotes make for some interesting reading as well. Footnote 35 (from Chapter 3’s First Principles: Equal Respect for Conscience) was a lengthy list and description of “The Central Human Capabilities” including: Life; Bodily Health; Bodily Integrity; Senses, Imagination, and Thought; Emotions; Practical Reason; Affiliation; Other Species; Play; Control over One’s Environment; Material. (p. 257-259)

Of these my favorite is “Bodily Integrity” — which should come as no surprise to those of you who have read anything else I have written on this blog. She defines bodily integrity as:

Being able to move freely from place to place, to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence, having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

Obviously, no women anywhere experience bodily integrity for their whole lives. I believe that 100% of women experience something from mild to death at least once and probably more often no matter where they live.

p. 18 – The fact that this book was written in 2012 becomes depressingly clear when she declares that “Laws that stigmatize and persecute are extremely unlikely to STAY AROUND in the United States Constitutional System.” Given the bathroom madness, the hate crimes increase, and the strength and intensity of misogyny regarding forced birth and rape, I have to say that with the Republicans in charge, we have accrued too many laws and policies that do stigmatize and persecute people for being different and these do, in fact, appear to be strong enough to become permanent. She does acknowledge that even in 2012:

Despite these historical differences [between U.S. and Europe], then, we should be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as Europe. Fear is ACCELERATING, and we need to try to understand it and to think how best to address it. . . .

p. 24 – She has an interesting discussion of the concept of the hidden evil behind the facade of normalcy and likens it to a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers thing, where only the heroes can see the hidden evil or I think it as the trope of paranoid but they really are after you.

The suggestion of superior insight flatters readers as they are urged to become saviors by stripping away the pretense that surrounds the evil forces.

The idea of covering the face has taken on a huge symbolic significance in current debates over the role of Islam in in Europe. The obsessive focus on removing the veil follows a long tradition. . .of imagining the existence of a secret conspiracy that will pop out of hiding to kill us when its time is ripe.

I would also say that the fear of people in hoodies represents this sort of primal fear of the unknown. It just seems menacing. Bank robbers cover their faces. Terrorists cover their faces to avoid being identified. The most basic reason for covering faces is to HIDE IDENTITY and why would anyone need to hide their identity unless they were up to no good? Being female and being forced or acculturated into covering you face and body is tricky. Since terrorists compel children and women to be suicide bombers, we are correct to find women not showing their face as threatening and the State interest overrides any religious freedom right. Plus it is a violation of everything contemporary feminists find appalling and a violation of women’s rights, so it is perceived as coercive. And since women completely covered and veiled still get raped, to justify it as a method of preventing male lust is absurd and deserves no “respect” of their traditions or religious dogma. If their religious beliefs included sexual slavery, it is obvious that that would be a violation of basic human rights. And yet, Muslim wives have so little autonomy or rights that they are perceived of as little more than sex slaves and servants by non-Muslims. So we end up afraid of covered faces or opposed to covered faces as symbolic of repression. The author has an extensive discussion on fear and our responses to it.

p. 68 – “Lockean Neutrality versus Accommodation”
But what do these abstract principles [religious freedom] really mean? What is truly equal liberty in religious matters? What type of state efforts to respect religious pluralism does a commitment to ample and equal liberty require?

p. 69+ – What sort of liberty must a good society give to members of minorities whose religion the majority finds incorrect, or even sinful and bad? Should there be an established state church? [NO A THOUSAND TIMES NO! expressly forbidden by the Constitution!] What should be done about people who want to disobey some law applicable to all on grounds of conscience, who don’t want to fight in the army for example, or to testify in court on a Saturday, or to swear a religious oath as a condition of public office (as was typically required in Britain — no avowed atheist was seated in Parliament until 1886). What limits could a decent society impose on religious beliefs?

The philosophical architects of the Anglo-American legal tradition could easily see that when peace and safety, or the EQUAL RIGHTS OF OTHERS, are at stake, some reasonable limits might be imposed on what people do in the name of religion, and that such restrictions, supported by urgent public interests, might still be compatible with a respect for equal liberty. But they grasped after a deeper and more principled rationale for these principles in the IDEA OF INHERENT EQUALITY and EQUAL RIGHTS, not the idea of (mere) TOLERATION, which they judged too thin, and compatible with the type of social behavior they had come to the New World to avoid.

She quotes a wonderful “letter by President George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport in August 1790:”

The citizens of the United State of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is NOW NO MORE THAT TOLERATION is spoken of, as if it was BY THE INDULGENCE OF ONE CLASS OF PEOPLE, THAT ANOTHER ENJOYED THE EXERCISE OF THEIR INHERENT NATURAL RIGHTS. For happily, the Government of the United States, which GIVES TO BIGOTRY NO SANCTION, to persecution NO ASSISTANCE requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasion their effectual support.”

Furthermore, she goes on to explain how significant these beliefs are to the very basic foundation of the United States:

Washington here associates  toleration with hierarchy: a privileged group says that we will indulge you but retains the power not to do so, should it change its mind. Instead, he prefers the idea of EQUAL INHERENT NATURAL RIGHTS, rights that give people both LIBERTY (to practice their religion) and IMMUNITY (from persecution and bigotry, but also FROM THE STATE IMPOSITION OF RELIGIOUS REQUIREMENT). And he tells the Jews that the government will NOT ask them to worship this way or that way; it will ask them only for their support as conscientious citizens. (As we’ll see, he was so sensitive to the claims of minority religion that he did not even construe “effectual support” to require military service of people who objected to it on grounds of conscience.)

She has a wonderful phrase that so exemplifies so many of the laws being passed, despite of lack of constitutionality, that are clearly “PERSECUTORY LAWS.”

Let no [wo]man’s life, or body, or house, or estate, suffer any manner of prejudice upon these accounts. [!!!!]

p. 75 – Roger Williams argued that the accomodationist position was the only fair position otherwise THE MAJORITY WAS CLAIMING FOR ITSELF a liberty much more extensive than it was prepared to GRANT TO OTHERS. [!!!!] . . .By the time of Independence, most state constitutions, provided that only EXTREMELY URGENT PUBLIC CONSIDERATIONS, such as peace and safety, or protection of THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS, could ever be reasons to limit ANY PERSON’S RELIGIOUS LIBERTY — the position that Williams had defended in his copious writings, although it had many sources in colonial thinking.

p. 77 – She discusses more aspects of accommodation, such as Quakers objection to serve in the army. He believed that “conscientious scruple” of people should be protected and “extensively accommodated” apart from “weighty and urgent interests.” This makes me think, as all things seem to do these days, about the rights of women to bodily autonomy. The satirical Satanist church declared abortion a sacrament and sued but I don’t know what the result was, but it may be that faced with all the religious blather and the ridiculous Religious Freedom Restoration [it was never fucking taken away!] Act that has been taken further than refusal to bake a gay couple a wedding cake, to permit active and brutal discrimination against many people, notably recently the transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina and elsewhere. It seems to me that WOMEN NEED TO MAKE A CHURCH FOR THEMSELVES that holds these truths to be self-evident:

  • Women and girls are people.
  • We have equal rights to white men.
  • We have the right to bodily autonomy, including abortion and contraception.
  • Any law that restricts the freedom and rights of women in any way shall be disregarded by members of the Women’s Church as they practice their daily life in observation of women’s rights.

Or something much better, but that is my drift. If a Quaker can refuse to fight as a conscientious objector, then why can’t women who believe that abortion is the right choice for their health and well-being, be able to have and practice any medical or other activity that their conscience dictates they must do?

Is it not the fact that the people in the forced birther movement aka Republicans and Theocrats and conservatives and bat-shit crazy people ARE DENYING WOMEN the right of their own conscience? Geez Louise Muslim men were awarded the right to wear beards in the army since it was part of their religious obligation, and was upheld as a right because a secular exception had already been made for people with skin problems.  Priests are permitted to refuse to testify about what they heard in the confessional. There are other cases along the same lines.

The Supreme Court “applied an accommodationist standard, holding that government may not impose ‘a substantial burden’ on a person’s ‘free exercise of religion’ without a compelling state interest’ (of which peace and safety are obvious examples, though not the only ones). (p. 77)

The case against the Constitutional right to abortion (oxymoron that that is) theoretically rests on the position that it is a “compelling state interest” that women give birth to children. However, in reality the State’s interest SHOULD NOT AND MUST NOT override the right of individual conscience. Thus despite the potential argument that even Quakers must take up arms to defend the country, that is NOT the case!!!!! There may be some distinctions between the right of conscience and that of religion which she discusses briefly; the founders’ draft included conscience instead of religion originally.

For the accommodationist. . . the RELEVANT unit theoretically is the CONSCIENCE OF THE INDIVIDUAL. Thus, if someone has a nonstandard interpretation of his or her religion, it cuts no ice to say the THE MAJORITY of that religion’s members do not agree. But in practice it helps to have a track record, and the public, shared views of a group supply that. For example, though individuals who object to military service have been given EXEMPTIONS WITHOUT being members of a group such as the Quakers or the Mennonites, the BURDEN OF PROOF is high: the individuals have had to supply an extensive account of their beliefs, something that gives unfair advantages to the articulate and educated. STILL, THE THEORETICAL POINT IS IMPORTANT FOR religions such as Islam that contain many different views about what is required, and its spirit is attractive, if an individual sincerely believes that wearing a burqa is required or that killing in war is always morally forbidden, it does no good to point out that many co-religionists disagree. (p. 79)

So to this concept I would say that since people are not REQUIRED to be a member of the Quakers who have a long and well-known opposition to war, but simply be able to document it, then a woman’s right to NOT GIVE BIRTH certainly has millions of people with the same belief even if not formally a participant in a religion that opposes forced birth. It is, after all, a violation of the United Nations human rights to deny women an abortion. And obviously, it is a Constitutional right that MUST NOT BE TAKEN AWAY at the whim of the powerful who thusly would only have INDULGED one class of people in a liberty they themselves retain.

For example, rich women have always had access to abortion but because of the foul Hyde Amendment, poor women are DENIED A RIGHT granted to another class of people. Furthermore, criminalizing abortion DOES NOT STOP ABORTION, it simply causes risks, possible death, prison time, and other negative consequences all on ANOTHER DIFFERENTIATED CLASS OF PEOPLE: women never men. For that matter, MEN NEVER RISK DEATH to procreate as women do! So forced birth is another example of why denial of the right of conscience is discriminatory and should not be mandated by the State, no matter the State interest in having canon fodder and a desperately poor unemployed workforce to keep the wage slaves from demanding a living wage and allowing profits to be earned by corporations by taking the bread out of the mouths of workers through starvation wages. If men can object to possibly dying in a war for oil, then WOMAN MUST BE ABLE TO REFUSE TO BEAR A CHILD, risking death.

p. 81-83 Justice Scalia, of course, reinterpreted precedent [in Smith] and came up with his own definition of what warrants accommodation and he was more restrictive. One wishes once again that this die hard Catholic practiced a lot more Christian virtues when making his judgments.

In dissent, Justice Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall reassert the Sherbert accomodationist standard and emphatically deny that minority liberty need always be at RISK in a majoritarian democracy.

Smith cause considerable public outrage. Religious groups of many kinds, liberal and conservative, Christian, Jewish, and secular, protested the change of direction it signaled. In 1993, by OVERWHELMING MAJORITIES in both House and Senate, Congress pass the [God awful] RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT, or RFRA, which restored the protective Sherbert standard through legislation. President Clinton signed the bill into law. Because the statue was a deliberate end-run around Smith, it is not surprising that the Court [aka Scalia] was not amused. In 1997, in City of Boerne v. Flores, the Court declared RFRA unconstitutional as applied to the states, holding that it exceeded the power of Congress. RFRA remains constitutional, . however, as applied to ACTS OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.

So this is weird to me because I thought it was RFRA that has caused all the uproar. So I guess I will have to research that a little more. Basically, if Scalia didn’t like it, then, theoretically I should. I definitely believe that:

“equality manifests itself in its unwillingness to permit persecutory laws, or even laws that, like the police regulation that barred Muslim beards, betray a persecutory intent that is probably not conscious, thought their obtuse willingness to countenance secular but not religious exemptions. Once we reach the point of seeing that persecution may be the result of obtuseness rather than malice, we are already on the terrain of the accomodationist. (p. 85-86)

One aspect of all this kind of stuff is a fundamental misunderstanding of what majority rule should mean, and it is not to suppress, ignore, or disregard the needs and wishes of the minority. So, for example, the idea of a national vote as to whether or not women should be allowed to have an abortion is completely stupid, beyond reason, beyond democracy, beyond the rule of law. It is the imposition of the religious of a particular faith against non-believers. Rules and laws made by majorities doesn’t make them right, just, constitutional, or fair. Indeed, “They may, however, be extremely harsh to minorities, RENDERING THEIR LIBERTY UNEQUAL.

To grant them accommodations on grounds of conscience . . . is to RESTORE A STANDARD OF EQUAL LIBERTY. (p. 87)

p. 92 – “Establishments and Equality”
The others [minority] get their rights at the sufferance of the majority. Even if the majority is always nice and always says yes, there is something unequal about the situation.

What the problem is is power. If the majority capriciously a minority request, there is little recourse. And the majority does not have to justify their decision, or even explain it.

p. 102-103 – Socrates identified a problem that is ubiquitous in human affairs: unexamined, inconsistent thought. Kant and the Gospel focus on a narrower part of this general problem . . . . this inconsistency is no mere intellectual failing: it is a deep ETHICAL FAILING, indeed we might see it as the DEEPEST and most BASIC ethical failing of all, the FAILURE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE EQUAL REALITY OF OTHERS.

This failing crops up in many areas of life, but it certainly occurs all too often when religion is the issue. Religion is central to people’s sense of themselves. So the tendency of the Gospels — to narrate people’s propensity to accuse OTHER PEOPLE of failing of which they or their own group are GUILTY — is particularly likely to turn up in that area. . . . self-serving hypocrisy. . . .No complaint is more common in the Old Testament than the complaint that people are exempting themselves from requirements they impose upon others. And the related Kantian tendency to make up rules and principles that are could not possibly  stand the test of reflective consistency, rules that are covert devices for using other people as mere means, is so common in religious matters that it need hardly be illustrated.

I just love the phrase “failure to acknowledge the equal reality of others” since it sums up so much that is wrong in society today. From the hatred of have tax dollars pay for food for poor people (lazy whores) to abortion as a personal choice or medical necessity (lazy whores) and praising mothers while condemning single mothers (more lazy whores). [sarcasm!] Yeah, now that I think of i, all of societies ills are because women have sex. That is the true foundation of many religions: hatred of women.


P.S. The last chapter is on the controversial “Ground Zero” mosque/Muslim community center to be built in lower Manhattan. I remember the controversy, but don’t know if it was built or persistent vandalism prevented it from going forward.





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