I was talking to my friend C about work benefits, and I mentioned a particular benefit that I had taken advantage of in some job I had ever had. I’m going to be a little vague here, because maybe someone else had the same idea I did, and I don’t want to kill a good thing. Basically, this was a benefit intended for some religious minority that happened to be useful to me as well. It might have been (but wasn’t) that on free ice cream day there were kosher (parve) ice creams, and I’m lactose-intolerant so I ate one.

Anyway, C claimed that this was disrespectful, since the benefit was intended for religious minorities, but I was taking advantage of it. I pointed out that being atheists are in fact quite a small religious minority. This is somewhat disingenuous as, normally I consider atheism to be a lack of religion. But when we discuss matters of religious discrimination, atheists are a group against which there is discrimination on the basis of religion.

I guess maybe there was one fewer ice cream available for folks who keep kosher, but (a) I don’t think they measure the exact number of folks who keep kosher and order precisely that many units, and (b) this was a zero-sum situation; one of us was going to go without and it didn’t really matter which, and (c) they could always just order more next time and (d) I work in the software industry and basically all of my co-workers can afford more dessert than they could possibly eat. (Since this ice cream thing is not the real thing that C and I were discussion, the details aren’t really important; the actual situation was non-rivalrous but I also didn’t have the lactose intolerance excuse. I just wanted the benefit).

In my conversation with C, I also mentioned a hypothetical, which I think I took from Eugene Volokh but now can’t find the source for. The idea is that some company ordinarily requires everyone to work on Saturday. They grant an exemption to Michael, because he’s an observant Jew. But Frank is a divorced father, and his custody arrangement only lets him see his kid on Saturdays. Why is it fair that Michael gets the exemption, but not Frank? From an atheistic perspective, Michael is making a non-existent being happy, while Frank would be making his actually-existing kid happy. Of course, that’s not how Michael sees it! But the point is the at people have many compelling reasons to want exemptions to generally-applicable rules, and while it’s quite reasonable to grant these exemptions liberally, it’s problematic to do so only when the exemptions are religious in nature.

I don’t think any of this was super-convincing to C.

Anyway, I was telling E about this conversation, and E pointed out that when we think about rules, there are at least three levels: the letter of the law, the spirit of the law, and broad moral principles. I tend to care about broad moral principles and about the letter of the law (which I was, in the case at hand, following; the hypothetical ice cream was labeled as “kosher”, but not labeled as “for observant Jews only”). But the spirit of the law often moves me less. C, on the other hand, cares a lot about the spirit of the law. It’s unsurprising that I care strongly about the letter of the law, as both my parents worked as lawyers for most of my life. Also, I’m a software engineer and software is a field that is about the letter of the law (though recent discussions about undefined behavior in C are often about how strongly to adhere to an ill-thought-out standard, so maybe this isn’t a universal professional deformation).

I also think it’s possible that there are different moral principles at play. Religious folks (I don’t know whether or not C is religious, or has this belief) often think of respect for religion as a terminal value. Some non-religious folks think this true. So if, for example, someone describes the Book of Mormon as kind of Bible fanfic, that comparison will rankle (even if they personally believe that in fact, Mormons are mistaken and that Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon himself). This generic reverence for religion is not a value I share. Of course, if it comes up in conversation that someone is a member of religious group X and your first response is to say “X is false and bad”, that’s just being a jerk. But in an abstract philosophical conversation, I don’t think there’s a huge problem with comparing religious texts to non-religious texts — even low-status non-religious texts like fanfic. (The low-status bit is actually pretty important; the title of The Greatest Story Ever Told compares the Gospels to literature, and it is not regarded as disrespectful).

Also, I think that even among people who do have this value, it tends to reinforce existing power structures. For example, I have read that no non-Christian group has ever won a free exercise clause (of the US Constitution; RFRA is different) Supreme Court case. So it seems to me that one’s idea of which religious practices fit into this sort of reverence is colored by one’s personal experiences of religion, and those that one is exposed to through mainstream culture. That is, it often ends up being a facet of status quo bias: an inability to look at things with fresh eyes.

I don’t really have a conclusion here. I just thought E’s comment was so interesting that I decided to dress it up in a bunch of bloviation.

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