More on that Moyers-Nussbaum interview. As always when Nussbaum talks about religion, there are squashy places. The interview is like a pear with a lot of bruised spots.

[W]hat I love are [Roger Williams’s] metaphors for the way that freedom is taken away. I mean, there are two metaphors. One is the imprisonment of the soul. And the other, even deeper, is the rape of the soul. And he keeps saying it’s soul rape when people try to get people to believe something that they don’t really believe. So the only way we can avoid doing that kind of violence to conscience is to give it lots of space to unfold itself. Not just [not] persecuting people, but really bending over backwards to be sensitive to their religious needs.

I don’t think that’s true – depending on what she means by trying ‘to get people to believe something that they don’t really believe.’ If she means trying to force people to believe something by pure command, then – well, then I still don’t agree, but I disagree less than I do with the alternative. I agree that that does a kind of violence to people’s mental lives (I wouldn’t call it ‘conscience’ because I think Nussbaum is using conscience to mean religious belief, which is a stealthy way of privileging religion), but I don’t agree that bending over backwards is the only way we can avoid it; we can just not try to force people to believe something by pure command. But if by trying ‘to get people to believe something that they don’t really believe’ she means argument of any kind, then I don’t think that does do violence to people’s mental lives, or their consciences, and I don’t believe there’s any need to avoid doing that. I’m afraid she might mean that – which would be depressing.

[W]hat our whole history has shown is…that people can get along together and respect one another, even though they have differences about religion, because they can recognize a common moral ground to stand on. They can recognize values like honesty, social justice, and so on.

Well, yes and no. Or up to a point. Or sometimes but it depends. In short, that’s too easy. Some people can sometimes get along together because they can recognize a common moral ground – but not all people and not always. ‘Social justice’ for instance – people disagree about what social justice is, and lots of people are convinced it means nothing but taking all their money away and giving it to coke-addled women with 57 children, so that they hate the very sound of it. The people at Yearning for Zion ranch don’t recognize a common moral ground with people like, say, me. (And the history of the US isn’t entirely one of getting along, I have to say. A little spat called The Civil War comes to mind. So does slavery, so does the genocidal policy toward Native Americans, so do various other quarrelsome moments.)

And George Washington wrote a letter to the Quakers saying, “I assure you that the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness.” And what he meant is you’re not going to have to serve in the military. And I respect that. And unless there’s a public emergency, we’re just not going to do that kind of violence to your conscience. So, I think we have understood that lesson.

But that won’t do as a lesson, because that example won’t do as a general principle, because it’s an easy one. It’s no good trying to make a case for policy X by offering the easy examples and ignoring the hard ones. It’s no good at all, because the problems don’t arise with the easy examples, they arise with the hard ones, so citing the former and ignoring the latter is entirely the wrong thing to do. It’s like saying ‘the bridge is strong enough because look, this bicycle made it across,’ when cars and trucks and buses are also going to be crossing the bridge.

In short it’s a cheat. The problem is, the Quaker scruple is much too easy to ‘respect.’ Most people do understand and respect and sympathize with conscientious scruples about killing people, even if they don’t agree with particular instantiations of them. But that is not the case with all religious ‘scruples’, to put it mildly. Saudi authorities have ‘scruples’ about allowing women to do almost anything without written permission from a male guardian. I don’t respect that. I don’t think it should be treated with any delicacy and tenderness at all; I think it should be reviled. The Vatican has ‘scruples’ about condoms which cause it to forbid all Catholics to use them, which to the extent that it is obeyed will inevitably cause the deaths of countless women and children. I feel absolutely no need to treat that stupid, irrational, ill-founded ‘scruple’ with delicacy and tenderness. I think it’s vicious, obstinate, and murderous.

And the fact that Nussbaum picked an easy example instead of a hard one tips her hand, because if she picks an example that atheists and secularists can understand just as well as theists can, then she’s not really talking about religious scruples at all, she’s just talking about scruples. What is specifically religious about scruples against killing people? Nothing. So what does religion add to the scruples that mean we should treat them with the greatest delicacy and tenderness? Nothing. At least nothing that I can think of – do tell me if you can think of any.

No, I think it’s one or the other but not both, whereas Nussbaum wants to pretend it can be both. I think it’s either a good scruple whether you’re religious or not, or it’s a bad scruple. I can’t think of any that are good scruples that are also necessarily religious. Can you?

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