The Issue at Hand

Article excerpt

WHAT IS the central dilemma for humanists? I was recently asked this question and responded that on the subject of religion, humanists must decide whether they are champions of religious freedom or, more fundamentally, just anti-religious. Allying with humanist forebears and our nobler selves, we aspire to the former, which is why humanists decry the recent wave of Islamophobia sparked by the planned construction of a privately funded Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. To brand the project as insulting, divisive, and grotesque (along with all the other hate-filled verbiage being thrown at the Cordoba House Initiative) is the worst kind of political grandstanding and fear-mongering (see pg. 6 for further commentary) and must be countered by reasonable, compassionate, humanistic thought.

When the subject turns to the treatment of women, however, humanists' support of religious freedom becomes a bit trickier. Do we still support religious freedom if it impedes the liberty of a segment of its practitioners? What if certain members of that female population contend that they've chosen subservience, even subjugation, for themselves as a commitment to their religious faith?

A half century ago a man named Martin Hall noted in these pages that humanists of the day were aware of the dichotomy "between the theory of individual liberty as the highest moral goal and the reality of modern mass society which demands more and more restrictions of that individual liberty to satisfy [an] equally moral goal, that of social justice" The dichotomy survives here as we explore women's issues, namely pornography and the face-masking Muslim burqa (the taking off and covering up, if you will). Not to artificially conflate the two but to examine the issue of choice in both cases and how they relate to justice. …