I was raised Roman Catholic, and took it fairly seriously, but not super-seriously, as a youth. At least as an altar boy (it was only boys doing that, then) I had something to do during Mass, to cut the boredom, a little. Then I got to college and got sunk in philosophy and became an atheist, as I am now. At the time I thought pretty highly of myself and my “intellectual courage,” but I recognize now that “courage” was not a factor. My temperament is scientific/skeptical, much more so than religious, and that’s that.
Certainly I continue to be critical of religious efforts to foist dogma on others, via politics, but I have long since stopped “bashing” religion in and of itself. I see said bashing as pointless and often counterproductive. Moreover, if you consider the bloodiest, most violent and destructive century in human history so far – the twentieth – the primary problem wasn’t religion. It was totalitarian socio-political doctrines like Stalinism, Nazism, and Maoism. Not that the U.S. and other somewhat more democratic nations reacted all that well, especially post-WWII.
I recognize why many continue to choose religion. I can relate to the desire for guidance, solace, and (far and away the most important, imo, even if believers don’t get all hung up in what really motivates them, and why should they?) participation in a community of shared belief and values.
Finally, I think that plenty of coverage, in the left-progressive blogosphere, of the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision has been apocalyptic overkill. Full-blown religious right Pentecostal/fundamentalist theocracy is here, because of this? Come on.
All that being said, it is one awful decision. And we can’t really just blame it entirely on the excesses of five reactionaries on the Court.
In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law represented the kind of consensus that even then was rare: it passed on a voice vote in the House of Representatives and 97-3 in the Senate. A resolution praising cute kittens probably couldn’t have gotten as much support. And yet the legislation was a serious mistake, as demonstrated by the recent Supreme Court decision permitting Hobby Lobby to deny its employees their right to contraceptive coverage.
The origins of RFRA can be found in the 1990 Supreme Court case Oregon v. Smith. Two native Americans, Alfred Smith and Galen Black, were fired because they took peyote as part of a religious ceremony, and were subsequently denied unemployment benefits by the state of Oregon. They sued, arguing that Oregon had violated their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.
A majority of the Supreme Court, through Justice Antonin Scalia, rejected the claims of Smith and Black. As long as a law was neutral and not targeted at a religious practice, regulations of conduct (as opposed to belief) did not violate the Free Exercise Clause.
The decision generated immediate disagreement from a strange-bedfellows coalition of civil libertarians and religious conservatives. This led to the passage of RFRA, which sought to replace the Smith rule with a complex balancing test that provided an exception for religious considerations. The Supreme Court held that Congress could not overrule the court’s First Amendment interpretation as it applied to states, but RFRA still applies to federal regulations and (unless Congress explicitly stipulates otherwise) to federal legislation.
Unfortunately, as with so much else, it will be challenging, to do much about this, legislatively, until the 2020s, what with demographics and gerrymandering. It may be more effective to focus on no more crap like RFRA, seemingly innocuous at a glance, getting passed under Hillary or whoever. But we could get lucky with a big election or two, sooner. Worth trying for.