The Friendly Atheist has posted a letter from a Malaysian atheist appealing for help and advice to solve a problem related to religion. It’s from a Malaysian woman in a relationship with a British man. Both are atheists, but they can’t be married as such in Malaysia because, having been born to Moslem parents, she is automatically a “Moslem,” and can’t renounce the religion because apostasy is severely punished. She claims the penalty is death, as in Saudi Arabia, but, based on some of the comments, in practice it’s less drastic than that. As some of the commenters point out, the letter seems a bit fishy, I suspect because the British man isn’t really as interested in getting married as the writer seems to think. Be that as it may, the letter is a case in point of how moral rules can be blunt instruments.
In this case, the rule we are talking about is the rejection of “religious bigotry.” Like all moral rules, to be effective, it must be kept simple. In essence, the rule is that if you object to someone else’s beliefs, and the set of beliefs you object to are generally accepted as a religion, than you are a religious bigot. There are good reasons for the existence of such rules. They leverage the innate human predisposition to acquire a moral code in order to prevent harm to individuals on account of personal beliefs. It is tacitly assumed that these beliefs pose no threat to other individuals that they cannot reasonably be expected to bear, or that the “bigot” would not be likely to bear if the shoe were on the other foot. As the case mentioned above illustrates, it is unwise to apply such rules indiscriminately, untempered by considerations of what is really being accomplished in the process.
Take, for example, objections to Islam. In general, a large proportion of the populations of the western democracies today would object to any sort of discrimination against anyone on account of their religious affiliation as Moslems. To them, such discrimination represents “religious bigotry.” However, if one really accepts the teachings of Islam at face value, their consequences if applied to these opponents of “religious bigotry” would likely induce them to change their tune with alacrity.
Suppose, for example, that they were made to suffer severe punishment for beliefs over which they had no more voluntary control than the belief that 2+2 = 4? Suppose they were prevented from marrying a person they loved because that person was not a Moslem? Suppose their best friend suddenly announced that the friendship was over because its existence was not in accord with the friend’s religious beliefs? Suppose they were required to accept the murder of one of their children by someone acting explicitly in the name of that religion, because the child was a homosexual? Supposed they were required to live under laws explicitly based on the prescriptions of that religion? Supposed they were required to accept official discrimination, resulting, for example, in a higher tax burden, on account of their own religious beliefs? All of the above are explicitly required by the Moslem religion if one takes the Quran and Kadith seriously. These opponents of “religious discrimination” would certainly reject all of the above out of hand if it were required of them by some arbitrary tyrant acting in the name of pure self-interest. Why, then, are such demands acceptable if made in the name of religion?
Blind religious discrimination has been an incredibly destructive force in human history. Religious discrimination against Moslems can be just as destructive as any other variety. However, one does not become a “bigot” by virtue of objecting to the sacrifice of cherished liberties, won over centuries at a high cost in blood, because someone else’s religion demands it. Those who demand religious liberty for themselves must be willing to accord that same liberty to others. No “moral rule” can have any force that requires one to sacrifice one’s own liberty to accommodate someone else’s religion.