Hobby Lobby and Secularism

The controversy over the Supreme Court decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has been…well, hysterical, when you think about it. There are, for instance, otherwise intelligent people shuddering for the United States. It is unbecoming for a scientist to be reading tea leaves – principally because they aren’t any good at it – since it causes them to declare that a “theocracy” is afoot.

Of course the word “theocracy” only enters the conversation because it’s scary, like communism, and not because anything like a theocracy is imminently threatening.

Rather than dig into the case as one more bloviating layperson, I’d like to comment on an issue which plays into the discussion, which has plenty of application over and above SCOTUS.

Namely, there is a peculiar fear of religion, and a distinction of religion from…well, I guess the “normal” or “ordinary” way of looking at things. There is also the widespread illusion that science and religion are so different from each other that they are actually opposed.

Here I would like to introduce the notion of worldview. This is simply the way a person believes the world to be.

Is the world knowable, or not?  If so, how can we know it, and what can we know about it? Is there a God, or not? Am I the only one who exists, or do all these other people exist in the same way that I do?

If these questions sound philosophical, that’s because they are. One’s worldview might also be likened to one’s personal philosophy. What do you perceive to be the purpose of life, if anything? What is all of this for? What duties and obligations do you have, if any?

How one answers questions like these, then, determines (or is indicative of) his worldview.

It should be obvious, I think, that while there may be trends in the way people answer these questions (the ancient Chinese might answer differently than the medieval Muslims, who again answer differently than modern Latin Americans), there is not necessarily any neat, “standard” response.

In other words, there is not a neat, “normal” response from which we could say that religion departs. If anything, religion would have to be part of that normal response, given its ubiquity across space and time.

Now, let us usher in an interesting idea: Secularism. This, of course, is a lack of commitment to any particular religion, and a positive commitment toward the common understanding of the common good. This is such an alluring idea, in fact, that it is taken to be the “standard” worldview, from which other worldviews (especially religious worldviews) depart.

I would then argue: Secularism is not meant to be a worldview. It is meant to be a mutual agreement not to impose any particular worldview. In the same way, a recipe is not an ingredient – it is a description of the way the ingredients are meant to come together.

The fascinating thing – to this bloviator, anyway – is that in its refusal to impose a particular religious worldview, secularism has thus seemed very attractive to those who reject all religious worldviews – I mean, atheists.

In fact, many atheists have often been only too happy to wear the mantle of secularism, and many Christians have been too dense to understand the distinction: Atheism is a worldview, but secularism is not. (I do think, lest I hang too many of my brethren in Christ, that plenty of atheists are so fanatical as to miss the distinction, too).

The truth is, both Christians and atheists (and Muslims, and Hindus, and…) should be happy to wear the mantle of secularism – unless they have a better strategy for governing in a pluralistic society.

Or, I suppose, unless they intend to install a theocracy.

Now, critical to secularism, it seems to me, is the free exercise of religion; but let’s amend it, and call it the free exercise of worldview.* We should not leave the atheists out, after all, or they might claim the whole damned system for themselves and install an anti-theist-ocracy. (Don’t laugh…it’s been done).

Let’s ask the question: Is it right to impose on an employer (or anyone), and require her to provide for a product or treatment to which she is morally opposed?

Is it really in line with the idea of secularism that we should require people to act in opposition to their worldviews, so that other people will receive what is considered “good” within their worldview?

Forget for a moment that this was an issue raised mainly by Christians. Think of yourself, and your sincerely held worldview. Think of one particular action which you find morally offensive.

The argument is, can a society really be justified in forcing you to commit (or be complicit in) that action, no matter how “good” other members of that society perceive it to be?

Don’t be hasty. Don’t assume you’re cool with whatever. That is not the meaning of secularism.

The meaning of secularism is to provide a real opportunity for people of multi-various worldviews to live authentically within their own worldviews, while living in common with each other.

Government impositions on sincerely held beliefs are a sin in secularism. They cripple secularism.

And they necessarily favor one worldview over others.


*Whether this bears the spirit of the Framers is a fair and interesting question, but I aim to talk about secularism principally as a concept, and not within any particular historical context.


  1. This post, as all others that you have written, is a thought provoking piece, willing to challenge the reader, and move outside of the trope talking points of a subject. However, I feel you are too ready to take the side of Hobby Lobby because they state this entire issue was based on religious freedom. A corporation is not capable of religious beliefs. If corporations truly based business decisions on religious practices there would be very few businesses because a great many would be unable to survive because the very nature of business, especially a successful one, goes against the basic principles of Christianity. Had this been an Catholic Diocese or a Baptist College or an Islamic School that was claiming religious conflict with a law it maybe reasonable to grant religious exceptions but a multimillion dollar privately owned business should not be given the same consideration.

    1. Hey Frank,

      Believe it or not, this is the first I’ve been able to come back to this post with any time to talk about it. There seems to be few good threads going on my wall, but even that I’ve not been able to keep up with. More’s the pity.

      It may be easier here, since it’s just you and me for the moment, and I think we’ll probably hit on many of the points raised over there.

      First, let me say that I’ve always appreciated your feedback, and I actually thought of you after this post went live. Figured it might be the first time we take opposing views. I’m glad you recognize my desire to get away from the talking points and the talking past.

      Let me offer this: There is a sense in which I would be inclined to agree with you. In fact, I think your argument is particularly strong for publicly traded companies, or otherwise companies which are not “closely held”. I don’t say that I agree completely, but I think that’s where the strength of your argument lies.

      Just for a moment, though, given the view of secularism I described, I’d like to walk through the following scenario.

      Say I want to start a business. (In fact, I do). Say I want to build furniture for special needs kids (I’ve given this serious thought).

      Now, for the sake of our illustration, say I own and operate the business until I die. And though it starts modestly, it becomes a multimillion dollar business – all the while, I’m still the sole owner.

      Once it becomes feasible, I begin to offer health insurance, because I think it’s a good thing to do. It also remains something of a competitive advantage (which is why employer-based health coverage began: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_insurance_in_the_United_States).

      The decision to offer the coverage, of course, was mine. It wasn’t the decision of some conceptual entity – I was the actor. I was the cause of that effect. If I had decided otherwise, that’s what would happen.

      Here is the crux – given that I own the business, and that I am the primary actor behind all decisions for that company – under what circumstances should I be forced to act contrary to my conscience, if any?

      If, like Mr. Lyons, you want to say that I should be so forced if Federal law requires it (ignoring the many weaknesses of that idea), is there any boundary at all placed on Federal law? If so, where, and why there?

      True, my business is not explicitly a religious business. At what point in the process of starting, building, and running my business – leading, hypothetically, to great success – do I give up my right to act according to my conscience? Is it after I make the first million?

      Furthermore, I sympathize with your notion that

      “If corporations truly based business decisions on religious practices there would be very few businesses because a great many would be unable to survive because the very nature of business, especially a successful one, goes against the basic principles of Christianity.”

      However, I would disagree that it’s absolutely true. Anyway, the nature of business is something of a non sequitor: Whatever anyone thinks about the possibility of a successful Christian business, the point here is a matter of conscience (anyone’s conscience).

      My questions, Frank, are meant to be challenging, but not conversation killers. If you have answers, I am genuinely interested to know. I have simply been dissatisfied with the talking point tropes, as you put it, and want to dig up some of those basic principles which have taken on baggage (or eroded) over time.


      PS – I tried to do an HTML tag on the quote I cited. Not sure if it’s going to work – apologies for any confusion.

  2. I really appreciate your definition of secularism. Very different than how I usually see it defined.

    1. Hey Jennifer – thanks for visiting!

      Yes, the understanding of secularism has been subverted, I think, and so I tried a little subversion to get it back.