Most people, understanding good manners, have distaste for those who are vocally critical of the religious beliefs of others. Theological decisions are recognized as deeply personal, and common decency dictates that we respect the rights of others to believe what they wish, assuming those beliefs cause no harm to others.
The vast majority of humanists, even those actively engaged in the secular movement, share the general public's sentiments on this issue. Live and let live, right?
We should realize, however, that the social norm that discourages the criticism of religion can work to the great advantage of religious political activists. Social conservatives, for example, righteously claiming the highest moral authority grounded in religion, knowing that criticism of religion is considered off-limits, can demand that their policy positions be given legitimacy even when those positions lack any rational basis.
This is precisely what is playing out as America’s Catholic bishops reject the latest effort from the Obama administration to find common ground on the debate over contraception coverage. The administration, bending over backwards to appease the clerics, proposed a plan that would allow religious employers to avoid paying for contraception coverage, placing the burden of such coverage on insurers instead. The bishops rejected the proposal even though it would cost the church nothing, claiming that “religious freedom” requires that all employers (not just religious employers) be allowed to deny contraception coverage.
Many Americans – even the 98 percent of Catholic women who use birth control – are frustrated by the bishops’ stubbornness. But interestingly, despite the impasse and despite the critically important real-life public health consequences that hang in the balance on the contraception issue, few pundits and even fewer politicians will dare to challenge the bishops on the underlying legitimacy of the religious position. That is, nobody will criticize the theology that is the actual basis for this impasse.
"It is becoming clear that some people just will not rest until they have found a way to deny women access to birth control coverage," said Planned Parenthood's president, Cecile Richards. Sharp words, to be sure, but note how even this vocal advocate for reproductive rights stops short of directly criticizing the theology that provides the foundation of the bishop's perceived legitimacy.
Here we see the cost of our good manners. With social rules that say we shouldn’t criticize religion, any public debate with the bishops must ignore the theology that is the basis of the bishops' position and focus instead on the proper meaning of the term “religious freedom.” In essence, these men can use their theology as a means of jeopardizing the health of millions.
Although the church doesn’t like it, contraception has empowered women in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few generations ago, and as a matter of policy the American public, through its lawmakers, has decided that affordable access must be not only widespread, but virtually universal. If bishops, standing on their religious authority, seek to obstruct that access by engaging in the political process to influence public policy, have they not made an issue of their theology? And if they have, why must the debate take place on a playing field that exempts their theology from scrutiny?
If the bishops' position could be fairly critiqued, one could call into question the legitimacy of ancient moral standards, the plausibility of divine revelation, and the credibility of ecclesiastic authority as a basis for public policy, just for starters. The church's history of misogyny, both scriptural and institutional, would also be fair game in any open, frank discussion of the bishops' position. Without consideration of these perfectly legitimate issues, the bishops enjoy an unfair advantage, claiming a right to shape public health policy (and threaten the public health of many) solely on the basis of theological beliefs that are immune from scrutiny.
Good manners are commendable, but silence in the face of efforts to deny basic health care is not good manners. Common decency certainly requires respect for the individual rights of others, but it does not demand that we let the arbitrary theological preferences of others shape public policy. In fact, when theology advocates harmful health policy, common decency may require that good manners be set aside.
David Niose’s book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is available here.