The search for life’s ultimate meaning

Martha Nussbaum starts her discussion of burqa bans with her version of the justification for the free exercise clause of the US Constitution and freedom of religion in general. It’s a rather sentimental picture.

Let’s start with an assumption that is widely shared: that all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity.  It is widely agreed that government must treat that dignity with equal respect.   But what is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?

We now add a further premise: that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” ─  is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity.

The problem with that as a justification for the free exercise clause and for freedom religious practice is that it’s so incomplete. Nussbaum is very very fond of talking about religion as the way “people search for life’s ultimate meaning,” but that’s far from being all that religion is, and Nussbaum’s presenting it that way is misleading, even obfuscatory. Religion is other things too, including a set of rules. A religious set of rules is often reactionary, and it is always “sacred,” which makes it less accountable to human ideas and wishes, and more difficult to change.

Religion is not just about the individual’s search for meaning; religion is social, and often demanding, or frankly coercive. The free exercise of religion often means the freedom to force subordinates to obey religious rules. Nussbaum makes the whole system sound a lot more benevolent than it can be assumed to be.

That’s especially obvious in the case of the burqa. The burqa is not really part of women’s “search for meaning” in the sense people like Nussbaum, and like me, understand it; it’s part of a system of rules forced on people by tradition and custom and authority. Yes it may be that some people “find meaning” by obeying such rules, but the truth is it doesn’t matter if they do or not; the rules are rules, and they have nothing to do with freedom.

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