This real-world scenario is a great thought experiment to test our thinking on religious freedom. Do we believe the radical secularist view that there should be freedom from religion and zero tolerance of public expressions thereof, do we believe that someone should be able to do absolutely anything if a sincerely held religious belief, or if somewhere between those extremes: exactly where?
An elderly couple had just won a Christmas ham in a raffle at their local club where they’d gone out for the night, and responsibly booked an Uber to take them home at about 10pm. The Muslim driver asked them what they were carrying, and when they answered honestly he told them they couldn’t get in. He cancelled the ride and drove off.
I posted a poll on Twitter asking people, “Should he have religious freedom to ‘discriminate’, or should he be forced to help non-Muslims do what would violate his Muslim beliefs?”
I hoped most people would advocate for freedom, but as it currently stands, 57% of 430 votes are for forcing the driver to provide a service he doesn’t want to.
So let’s talk about that.
#BreakingNews: a Muslim Uber driver refused passengers service because they’d won a leg of ham in a raffle & wanted to take it home.
Should he have #ReligiousFreedom to “discriminate”?
Or should he be forced to help non-Muslims do what would violate his Muslim beliefs?#AusPol
— Dave Pellowe 🇦🇺 (@DavePellowe) December 19, 2019
It’s trite and prejudicial to say without knowing anything else about him that the driver is of poor character or motivation. But taking this real-world example to one possible extent, let’s reasonably assume the driver holds moral convictions informed by his religious beliefs that consuming pig products is a sin; forbidden (haram / حَرَام).
Let’s then, again reasonably, assume not only does he not want to do what is forbidden by his religion and subsequently his conscience (whatever we may think of them), but he also does not want to play any part in assisting anyone else to do what is forbidden.
I hope you immediately see the possible parallels between a Muslim Uber driver and a Christian baker, florist or photographer. Simply saying if you don’t want to partake in that sin then don’t isn’t helpful and certainly isn’t taking into account that the person may sincerely believe facilitating or helping celebrate the sin of others is a sin in itself.
For me, this Muslim driver is silly. He shouldn’t take a professional driving job when he can’t bear the thought of providing carriage to someone with haram foods. The predictable regularity of helping people home from their grocery shopping with food he’d never let pass his lips or helping people get home safely so they can consume alcohol without breaking the law makes it likely he’ll either be inconsistent in practice or cancelling lots of trips.
But what if he’s trying to avoid bludging off welfare and prepared to wear the business consequences of a poor reputation for the sake of not violating his personal convictions while responsibly providing for his family? Should we force him to choose between betraying his religious beliefs or conscience by taking all passengers without question and the alternative of even temporarily being unemployed or burdening taxpayers?
Again I have to ask myself, what if the shoe was on the other foot? I have no problem empathising with a Christian service provider declining to serve weddings which contradict the traditional Christian beliefs about marriage. I am convinced forcing such a business to violate sincerely held beliefs is no one’s right and furthermore blatantly tyrannical deprivation of social liberty.
There is no objective harm in being denied a professional service, even if for reasons perceived by most as being ‘wrong’. Sure it’s inconvenient, but that’s not objective harm. Sure it might make the would-be-customer feel horrible, but that’s not objective harm either.
Consider the potential for tyranny in empowering government to compel service. Where might the line of reasonable refusal get drawn if we allow the majority to define when and where we may obey our conscience?
Will doctors who still believe in ‘do no harm’ be compelled to help parents find someone to kill their preborn child because she’s female, or has the yet-to-be-discovered ‘homosexual gene’; or worse, perform the terrible deed themselves?
Should a ‘progressive’, Green-voting website developer or advertising agency be forced to help increase brand reputation and profits for a coal mining client?
I believe in freedom. I believe the axiom first articulated by John Stuart Mill that personal freedom to swing one’s arms ends at the next person’s nose, meaning that the natural limits of personal freedom and autonomy are at the point of causing objective harm to someone else.
I believe in freedom of speech even for bad ideas and freedom of conscience even for bad behaviour limited by the test of objective harm.
The solution for bad ideas is also free speech, an open and necessarily robust debate. Likewise, the solution for bad behaviour (such as declining passengers with ham) is the free market and competition with better services.
The worst-case scenario with more freedom is temporarily hurt feelings and inconvenience.
The worst-case scenario with increasingly limited freedom is the increasing willingness of society to force people to celebrate and facilitate what goes against everything they believe to be good and true. When a society has no further use for or even tolerance of its’ citizens’ very consciences, that society has arrived at a very dangerous place that cannot be sustained.