Religious accessories bans are wrong: Series introduction

For the third time in a row, the new Québec government is considering some form of state-enforced dress code to force religious people to look less, well, religious. Once again, a depressingly large number of atheists think this makes sense. And so, once again, I’m going to explain why it doesn’t.

I would love to be able to do this in a single article. Unfortunately, that’s just not practical for a number of reasons.

  • First, there is virtually no agreement about exactly what should be banned, or who should be banned from wearing stuff, or in what circumstances. Sometimes only people in positions where they wield the state’s coercive power (judges, police offices) should be banned from wearing only “ostentatious” religious accessories. Sometimes even teachers and wildlife officers (?) should be banned from wearing all visible religious accessories. Sometimes everyone should be banned from wearing religious accessories in public. And you’ll find proponents of all flavours in between.

  • Second, because this debate has been going on for over a decade now (almost two! and that’s just in Québec!), the arguments of proponents have gotten more numerous, and more complex. Not better, oh, dear me, no. They’re all still terrible; they’re just just more complex, which means they require more careful and precise debunking. And there’s a lot more of them.

  • And finally, and most importantly, most people in favour of religious accessories bans really haven’t given it much thought. Some of them are straight-up bigots, and so they don’t want to put any thought into it, lest they be forced to face their own bigotry. But a lot of them are decent, well-meaning people, who just haven’t sat down and really thought hard about the issue. And why should they? It won’t affect them (they think), and it’s not that much of a burden on those it does affect, right? And it just… feels right… right? A secular state shouldn’t be represented by people wearing religious accessories, right? Right? I mean… obvious, right? (Spoiler alert: wrong.)

[Poster created by the Parti Québécois to illustrate which religious accessories were allowed and which were banned under their proposed Charter of Values. Allowed symbols are a standard Christian cross necklace, a star-and-crescent (Islamic) earring, and a Star of David (Jewish) ring. Disallowed accessories are an enormous Christian cross necklace about half the size of one's chest, a hijab, a turban/dastar, a niqb, and a kippah.]
This is the graphic created by the Parti Québécois in 2014 to explain what would and wouldn’t be banned under their Charter of Values.

It would probably be possible to debunk the idea in a single post, but if I did that, I would inevitably be leaving room for proponents to weasel their fine-tuned arguments around it. I would also have to be short and dismissive, which will probably piss off people who believe their positions are well-considered and legitimate, and deserve serious consideration.

And the bottom line really is that is not a simplistic issue. Treating it as one is one of the ways you end up so very wrong about it.

So I’m going to spend several articles taking the issue apart in painstaking detail. The target audience is primarily nonbelievers who think religious accessories bans sound like a good idea, and may have even given it some serious thought at some point.

If that’s you – if you’re an atheist who supports religious accessories bans – I implore you to read the series through. We’re supposed to be the people who base our beliefs on evidence and logical reasoning, but we all know how easy it is to be seduced by things that… feel… right, but have no real rational basis. I submit that this is one of those things; I understand why (some forms of) religious accessories bans feel right, but I believe I can show why they’re actually not justifiable.

So, please, especially if this is something you intend to support or oppose publicly – especially if you’re in a position to impose a ban on others (for example, you’re considering voting for a party whose platform includes it) – take the time to carefully review my admittedly meticulous and detailed arguments against religious accessories bans. People’s rights are at stake; people’s jobs are at stake; the course of people’s lives might be at stake. If you’re willing to have that kind of impact on people, you at least owe them that much.

9 thoughts on “Religious accessories bans are wrong: Series introduction

  1. I tend to think of religious garb as fashion accessories or bling.

    If you can pull it off, more power to you.

    Otherwise it’s just tacky and ostentatious.

    You could get into the curcifix as celebrating torture and execution, the hijab and burka as symptomatic of patriachal and misogynistic cultures and religious paraphernalia in general as part of a tribal and sectarian mindset used to denote an ingroup (good) and an outgroup (bad) but I suspect most who wear this sort of crap in public have never given it a lot of thought and many do so as a result of childhood indoctrination and fear of reprisal should they violate tribal taboos.

    I think that where pushback is needed is where religious fuckwittery is used to justify imposition of such beliefs on society, for example when doctors refuse to treat transgender people or women seeking abortions, pharmacists refusing to dispense contraceptives, Catholic controlled hospitals refusing to perform abortions and provide end of life services, Catholic schoolboards discriminating against gay students and teachers and so on.

    I look forward to the rest of your series.

    • … I suspect most who wear this sort of crap in public have never given it a lot of thought and many do so as a result of childhood indoctrination and fear of reprisal should they violate tribal taboos.

      You’d be surprised!

      In one of the series instalments I’ll dig into research on why people wear religious symbols (specifically the hijab). But I’ll give you a preview.

      The mistake you’re making (and the mistake I was making, and the mistake most nonreligious people make when they talk about this stuff) is that you’re trying to find a way to make a hijab-wearer’s (just focusing on the hijab for simplicity) decision make sense… to you. You are a nonreligious, reasonably sensible person, so you’re looking for answers that satisfy nonreligious, reasonably sensible needs. And so, naturally, you come up with answers that make sense in a nonreligious, rational world: pressure, indoctrination, coercion, etc..

      To really understand why a religious person wears a religious accessory, you have to think like a religious person. And that means you’ll probably come up with reasons that will make no sense to a nonreligious person.

      And that’s what happens. Turns out that most women who wear a hijab are not doing it because of childhood indoctrination or pressure. Quite the opposite! In fact, it’s quite common that first-generation immigrants reject wearing religious symbols, because they hinder integration… but their children, second-generation immigrants, will defy their parents and wear religious accessories. (See, for example: https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/two-women-two-veils-montrealers-speak-of-their-choice-to-wear-niqab.) Turns out most people who wear a religious accessory, and especially a religious accessory that’s contentious (like hijabs and especially niqabs and burqas) are actually doing so in defiance of pressure to take it off. And that’s a point of pride for them. The more you pressure them to take the accessory off and conform, the more holy or “special” they feel wearing it.

      And there’s much more to it. The upcoming instalment will also go into detail about the difference between a religious accessory and, for example, a MAGA hat. (Again, as a preview: people wear religious accessories for generally private reasons, like their relationship between them and God or whatever, while things like the MAGA hat are worn for entirely public reasons, like broadcasting their beliefs to onlookers.)

      I think that where pushback is needed is where religious fuckwittery is used to justify imposition of such beliefs on society…

      Yes, definitely. No public institution or employee should be allowed to force beliefs or practices on anyone without a clear and secular justification. There is no secular justification for a public hospital to be forcing the doctors who work there to conform to the faith of the administrators.

      And of course, merely wearing a silly hat is not forcing beliefs or practices on anyone. When a citizen decides to wear something to work, be it a stylish business dress, a religious hat, or “bling”, that is a decision made by that private citizen… not the state; the state doesn’t dress people. So long as it doesn’t interfere with their job or the rights and freedoms of others, the state has no justification for interfering.

      • There is an interesting angle I only became aware of a few years ago, and that’s of cultural dress. That technically, the clothes I wear come from Christian cultures. And especially traditional formal wear, like a business suit, which descends from the military of Christian nations (like the UK).

        Likewise, many of these styles of dress are actually equally rooted in cultures with a predominate religion, but not all of them are actually religious. Or they are. Actually, it’s hard to tell. Some branches of Amish and Mennonite religions hold to a certain dress for religious reasons, but those clothes weren’t originally religious. And likewise, religious garb can become non-religious and cultural, like suits and ties, or t-shirts.

        It’s not easy to tell the difference between something that is religious or cultural, since religion is a part of culture.

        • Yes! Absolutely! There’s a whole article in this series dedicated to teasing out that idea!

          Technically, all clothing (other than stuff worn for safety or protection) is “religious clothing”. The only reason we cover our genitals and breasts is because of Christianity (well, technically its Abrahamic roots). There’s really no difference between a shirt and a hijab, except the latter is Islamic modesty clothing while the former is Christian modesty clothing… but we don’t recognize it as such because Christian standards are the baseline standards in Canadian culture. We only recognize the Islamic modesty clothing as special specifically because it’s not the Christian standard.

          • Hmmm… we have had clothing before monotheism and Abrahamic roots. It legit provides an advantage during an ice age.

          • Well, sure, that would be an example of clothing for protection. But there are two things to note about that.

            First, when that protection isn’t necessary, like in the summer, it wasn’t used. In fact, Columbus kinda freaked out because the indigenous people he found were basically all naked. The folks back in Europe were all scandalized/titillated by it.

            Second, if you’re going to say that shirts and pants (or tunics and breeches or whatever – basically shirts and pants) predate Christianity and therefore they can’t be Christian… well, headscarves and full-face veils were common in Arabic culture before Islam… so… either shirts and pants are Christian, or hijabs and burqas are not Islamic.

            See what I mean? It’s impossible to separate “religious clothing” from “secular clothing” in any sensibly objective way. Your only option is to use cultural standards… and our culture is historically Christian. So we’re not “secularizing” a woman’s attire when we strip her hijab off, we’re Chrisitanizing it.

  2. Many ex.Muslims support this ban.So. it is not only
    atheists or ex=Christians. You must address this situation also.

    • Why?

      I don’t care who supports the ban. All that matters is why.

      If their reasons are no different from the reasons of atheists and (ex-)Christians, then it doesn’t matter if they used to be some form of Muslim.

  3. If I want to wear wool socks with my Birkenstocks for entirely private reasons there’s nobody who should have anything to say about it. So I return that favour — let people wear what they like, it should make no difference to anyone.

    –Bob.

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