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The impossibility of true religious neutrality in the workplace

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The recent Duck Dynasty controversy is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment concerns passing a law that criminalizes a specific religious belief. The controversy is, however, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issue. The reason for this is simple: It is illegal to treat someone unfavorably in the workplace because of their religious beliefs:

Religious Discrimination

Religious discrimination involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.

Religious discrimination can also involve treating someone differently because that person is married to (or associated with) an individual of a particular religion or because of his or her connection with a religious organization or group.

Religious Discrimination & Work Situations
The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.

Religious Discrimination & Harassment
It is illegal to harass a person because of his or her religion.

Harassment can include, for example, offensive remarks about a person’s religious beliefs or practices. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

My point is not to defend Phil. I think from the perspective of political philosophy, and especially for the student of presuppositionalist apologetics, something more interesting is going on.

No one has ever truly desired to protect everyone from discrimination. All societies have implicit and deeply unconscious standards of rationality and justice. What is "rational" or "just" in any given situation is constituted by the tautological definition of "correctness." A proper ratio or distribution is made. Someone is favored and vindicated, and another is condemned and vilified. When the quoted text states that it is forbidden to make "offensive remarks about a person's religious beliefs or practices", what it really means is that it is illegal to offend certain religious beliefs or practices because they are within a certain horizon of legitimacy.

Obviously those outside of this horizon are not protected. To use an example which (I hope) most or all of us can agree on, if a Hindu extremist were advocating the practice of Sati, during which a widowed woman were forced to throw herself upon a funeral pyre, and such a Hindu were to voice his belief in the propriety of such a practice or the impropriety of not performing this practice to a female coworker, somebody is likely to get fired. In a Hindu society which countenanced such a practice, the Christian who protested would be more likely to be fired because when she protests the impropriety of such an act, she is oppressing the privileged Hindu religious beliefs of her coworker. If she is living in a Christian society, she is being oppressed on the grounds that her religious sensibilitites concerning her right to not be immolated are being infringed upon. This is offensive to her. And so the Hindu would be fired.

In the case of Phil, whether or not the quoted text protects him depends entirely upon the privileged religious and/or ethical system of that society. In a Christian society, he is being illegally dismissed from his job because his religious beliefs are being discriminated against. In a non-Christian nation, it is he who is doing the discriminating. Although our society enforces pretenses to religious neutrality, we presuppositionalists know that there is no such thing. Take any two supposedly secular, neutral societies at different regions or periods of times, and their 'neutral' norms will be radically at odds with one another, because their norms are conditioned entirely by their social and historical context, and by the norms, (ir)religious norms and ethical beliefs of whomever is in power.

And so the tacit meaning of the text is: it is illegal to discriminate against such and such a dominant set of religious or ethical beliefs. The prerogatives of subordinate religious and ethical positions are...well...subordinated to this dominant class. This is the way it has always been in all societies, and it is a conceptual absurdity to suppose there could ever be such a thing as a purely neutral ethical or religious order. This is why an official religious or ethical creed is so important for a nation: it makes it clear who is in charge here. In our situation, it is clear who is in charge: A specific, Western, 21st century incarnation of liberal postmodernity, with a definite, concrete, non-neutral set of historically contingent political norms. Norms of goodness, propriety, justice, rationality, etc. are defined as tautologically as those of any other society, and are held to in as unquestioned and axiomatic a manner as any other. I conclude with a long point from an article on the political philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre:

MacIntyre begins After Virtue by asking the reader to engage in a thought experiment: “Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe…. A series of environmental disasters [which] are blamed by the general public on the scientists” leads to rioting, scientists being lynched by angry mobs, the destruction of laboratories and equipment, the burning of books, and ultimately the decision by the government to end science instruction in schools and universities and to imprison and execute the remaining scientists. Eventually, enlightened people decide to restore science, but what do they have to work with? Only fragments: bits and pieces of theories, chapters of books, torn and charred pages of articles, hazy memories and damaged equipment with functions that are unclear, if not entirely forgotten. These people, he argues, would combine these fragments as best they could, inventing theories to connect them as necessary. People would talk and act as though they were doing “science,” but they would actually be doing something very different from what we currently call science. From our point of view, in a world where the sciences are intact, their “science” would be full of errors and inconsistencies, “truths” which no one could actually prove, and competing theories which were incompatible with one another. Further, the supporters of these theories would be unable to agree on any way to resolve their differences.

Why does MacIntyre ask us to imagine such a world? “The hypothesis I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described” (After Virtue 2, After Virtue 256). People in the modern liberal capitalist world talk as though we are engaged in moral reasoning, and act as though our actions are chosen as the result of such reasoning, but in fact neither of these things is true. Just as with the people working with “science” in the imaginary world that MacIntyre describes, philosophers and ordinary people are working today with bits and pieces of philosophies which are detached from their original pre-Enlightenment settings in which they were comprehensible and useful. Current moral and political philosophies are fragmented, incoherent, and conflicting, with no standards that can be appealed to in order to evaluate their truth or adjudicate the conflicts between them – or at least no standards that all those involved in the disputes will be willing to accept, since any standard will presuppose the truth of one of the contending positions. To use an analogy that MacIntyre does not use, one might say that it is as if we tore handfuls of pages from books by Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Danielle Steele, Mark Twain, and J.K. Rowling, threw half of them away, shuffled the rest, stapled them together, and then tried to read the “story” that resulted. It would be incoherent, and any attempt to describe the characters, plot, or meaning would be doomed to failure. On the other hand, because certain characters, settings, and bits of narrative would reappear throughout, it would seem as though the story could cohere, and much effort – ultimately futile – might be expended in trying to make it do so. This, according to MacIntyre, is the moral world in which we currently live.

One consequence of this situation is that we have endless and interminable debates within philosophy and, where philosophy influences politics, within politics as well (After Virtue 6-8, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry 7 and Chapter 1). MacIntyre demonstrates this with regard to philosophers by a comparison of the positions of John Rawls and Robert Nozick on what justice is, positions which are mutually exclusive, but internally coherent. Each conclusion follows reasonably from its premises (After Virtue Chapter 17). Each position has many adherents who can point out the flaws in the other but cannot successfully defend their own position against attack. In the political world, one of the examples MacIntyre uses is the abortion issue in the United States. One side of the debate, drawing largely on a particular interpretation of Christian ethics, asserts that abortion is murder and hence is both morally unacceptable and deserving of legal punishment; the other side, usually drawing either on a conception of privacy or of rights or both, asserts that women should have the right to make a private decision about terminating a pregnancy, and therefore abortion, while possibly morally problematic, deserves the protection of the law. In either case, the conclusion follows logically, that is, reasonably, from the premises. But the starting premises are incompatible, and there is no way to gain everyone’s agreement to either set of premises, nor is there even any agreement on what kind of argument might be able to gain a consensus. (And a look at public opinion polls about abortion taken in the United States shows that the percentage of people for or against legal abortion in particular circumstances has basically remained unchanged since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973).

It is also the case, according to MacIntyre, that those involved in these philosophical and political debates claim to be using premises that are objective, based on reason, and universally applicable. Many of them even believe these claims, misunderstanding the nature of their particular inadequate modern philosophy, just as the people in MacIntyre’s post-disaster world misunderstand what it means to be doing real science. But what they are really doing, whether they recognize it or not, is using the language of morality to try to gain their own preferences. They are not trying to persuade others by reasoned argument, because a reasoned argument about morality would require a shared agreement on the good for human beings in the same way that reasoned arguments in the sciences rely on shared agreement about what counts as a scientific definition and a scientific practice. This agreement about the good for human beings does not exist in the modern world (in fact, the modern world is in many ways defined by its absence) and so any attempt at reasoned argument about morality or moral issues is doomed to fail. Other parties to the argument are fully aware that they are simply trying to gain the outcome they prefer using whatever methods happen to be the most effective. (Below there will be more discussion of these people; they are the ones who tend to be most successful as the modern world measures success.) Because we cannot agree on the premises of morality or what morality should aim at, we cannot agree about what counts as a reasoned argument, and since reasoned argument is impossible, all that remains for any individual is to attempt to manipulate other people’s emotions and attitudes to get them to comply with one’s own wishes.

MacIntyre claims that protest and indignation are hallmarks of public “debate” in the modern world. Since no one can ever win an argument – because there’s no agreement about how someone could “win” – anyone can resort to protesting; since no one can ever lose an argument – how can they, if no one can win? – anyone can become indignant if they don’t get their way. If no one can persuade anyone else to do what they want, then only coercion, whether open or hidden (for example, in the form of deception) remains. This is why, MacIntyre says, political arguments are not just interminable but extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics is simply a form of civil war(Clayton, 2005).

In our society enacting punitive measures against Phil from Duck Dynasty is a legitimate form of oppression. Of course, all societies have legitimate forms of oppression and illegitimate forms of oppression. In our society, it is legitimate to oppress a fundamentalist Christian and it is illegitimate to oppress someone who practices homosexuality. Where there is a conflict of goals or aims, the decision is clearly in the favor of the one who practices homosexuality. The word "oppress" in contemporary usage itself has the connotation of impeding a class of people whom it is illegitimate to oppress, and they carefully avoid this usage for whatever privileged class is in mind. That is, they will resist the usage of such a word to refer to favoring their privileged class over another because it explodes their ridiculous myth of 'neutrality.'

We define oppression here in as impartial manner as possible. To oppress someone simply means to impede their intended goal. We can all agree that some classes of people deserve oppression. For example, rapists deserve to have their intended goal impeded; indeed, such impediment ought to be very draconian, to put it nicely. Most societies agree that such people ought to be oppressed by having their goals and aims severely impeded, oftentimes to such an extent that psychological and bodily harm is the result. But there is greater disagreement concerning whether or not other classes of people ought to be oppressed. Half a century ago, Christianity prevailed sufficiently in our culture to where the rights of the Christian probably would have been favored. Today, this is no longer the case. It is interesting to see how rapidly such norms of domination switch.

Ultimately, of course, compared to certain groups (for our purposes, Christians) who are persecuted more severely in third world nations, we should not feel too sorry for ourselves. As Christians, we obviously ought to point such things out, but we ought to do well to remember how good we have it compared to Christians in many parts of the world, as well as throughout the history of the Church. The ordinary lower class person lives far more luxurious a life than the kings of old. We do not need to worry about being lynched or burned alive. Nevertheless, self-interest is perfectly legitimate, and we ought to protest what we regard as illegitimate non-theistic norms of justice just as we would expect non-Christians to protest distinctly Christian norms of justice. And contrary to what our liberal society wants us to think, everyone has such norms, and consequently, no one engages in truly neutral value judgments.

The problem is not that a law is being broken or not being followed. The problem is that the parameters of the law were never defined. Therefore, the law in and of itself means absolutely nothing. Since it means absolutely nothing, it can potentially mean absolutely anything, depending on who is applying and defining it. Based on how it is currently being applied, we are able to determine how it is currently being defined.

Clayton, Ted. "Political Philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre." 31 December 2005. Web. Retrieved from:



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