Reformed Articles

The "religious exemption"

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Atheists like Jeff Lowder and Richard Dawkins, as well as apostate Randal Rauser have been expressing outrage at a CNN report about “at least 14 states exempting religious gatherings from stay at home orders.”

(Strictly speaking, Lowder simply retweeted someone else, but it’s safe to say this reflects his own consternation.)

Dawkins said:

A church is an enclosed space where people right next to each other sing their lungs out into the air. A church is virus heaven: a focal point where people get infected, then go out & infect others


There are several issues that need to be sorted out:

1. There’s a distinctively American issue. The “religious exemption” is a Constitutional exemption: the free exercise clause in the first amendment. This isn’t an exception that some mayors and governors are making for churches and synagogues. Rather, this is a case of mayors and governors defending a Constitutional right. The Bill of Rights contains a number of exemptions from the heavy-hand of gov’t. It’s no different than freedom of speech, assembly, the right to bear arms, 4th and 5th amendment protections and civil liberties. 

2. Then there’s the ethical issue. Dawkins’ point seems to be that we have no right to endanger others. If that’s his point, it’s simplistic and needs to be qualified:

i) Church attendance is voluntary. It’s not like parishioners attend at gunpoint. Insofar as attending church carries the risk of infection, parishioners mutually consent to the risk. And that’s hardly unique to church.

Shopping at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Walmart, Fred Meyers, &c. carries the risk of contracting the virus, then spreading it to others. Yet shoppers assume that risk by mutual consent. 

ii) At the same time, they are putting others in the community at risk who did not consent to becoming infected by the shoppers because some of them didn’t shop at Lowe’s or Home Depot, &c. 

Yet critics of churchgoers presumably don’t think it’s wrong to expose others to potential infection because you went shopping at Home Depot but they didn’t. Presumably, critics of the churchgoers accept a generalized risk where a shopper at Home Depot might infect a shopper at Target.

iii) Presumably, critics of churchgoers draw the line because they think drugstores, bulk stories, supermarkets, &c. provide “essential goods and services”–whereas public worship doesn’t provide an essential good or service. So the risk is warranted or unwarranted depending on whether you classify the transaction as an essential good or service. 

Of course, that just means many critics have a secular view of Christianity. But that begs the question. Christians are hardly obligated to share the same view of Christianity as atheists. 

iv) Jeff Lowder lives in a state that legalized pot. As a rule, decriminalizing a product or behavior makes the usage or behavior more prevalent. Driving under the influence endangers the life and health of the other drivers, bikers, cyclists, and pedestrians. But how many critics of churchgoers are equally critical of legalizing pot? If the objection is that it’s wrong to put others at risk, and if they were morally consistent, then they’d be opposed to legalizing weed. 

v) In addition, I’ve read that many pot shops have been exempted from lockdowns. Pot shops are treated as if they provide an essential good or service–unlike churches. Do critics of churchgoers regard pot shops as essential businesses? There’s a lack of moral seriousness in the criticisms and comparisons. Lots of irrational, contradictory indignation.