Entitlement and Religious Exemptions

What the New Zealand Herald Refuses to Understand

While driving to work today, I heard a news item about an employee of SkyCity, Tuni Parata, is facing some degree of disciplinary action after being found with a personal book on her. Apparently this is in breach of SkyCity uniform code, which does not allow employees in certain roles to carry personal items such as mobile phones or books. I was wondering why this was in the news, then it was mentioned that the item she was found with just happened to be a pocket Bible. Okay, I thought, that’s probably why it made the news, but no big deal.

Then, when having lunch, I saw this headline on the front page of the New Zealand Herald:

Thou shalt not…
casino bans Bible

I read the article to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood when I heard about the story on the radio in the morning, and two sections stuck out to me:

As a general principle, staff in customer service roles are in breach of SkyCity’s uniform standards if they carry items such as mobile phones, books and other items which might interfere with their customers.

Grainne Troute, SkyCity’s general manager of group services

a union rep told [Ms Parata] it didn’t matter if it was “a Playboy magazine or a Bible, it was not work-related material, therefore should not be with you front of house and certainly not being read”.

Perhaps whoever wrote the headline didn’t bother to read the entire article? Unfortunately, it seems more likely to me that this is indicative of the Herald prioritising getting more readers over accurately representing the truth. If there is anything indicative of bad reporting, it is having a higher priority than accurately representing the truth. This headline is misleading, implying that the fact that the specific object Ms Parata was found with was a Bible was somehow relevant.

The article is available online under the headline Casino worker faces action over Bible at work. I don’t know why the headline is different here, and although it’s a certain improvement on the misleading sensationalistic one used in the print version, it’s still fixated entirely on an arbitrary detail.

Society is overprotective of religion. Religious ideas escape the criticism to which other ideas are subjected in the name of “respecting the beliefs of others”. As a result, when a religious idea is treated just like any other idea (or, like here, when a religious book is treated just like any other book) some people are going to think that the issue is about religion, and attempt to explain the discrepancy from normal behaviour by some prejudice against religion specifically. That’s what this article seems to be trying to do, particularly with its headline.

However, as expressed in the quotes above, that’s not the case. The discrepancy is because religion is not being handled with kid gloves. This woman has been told she’s not allowed personal books at work, and that includes her personal religious book, whether it’s important to her or not. I like to call this being treated as an adult. Instead of treating this woman like a child in the name of “respecting her beliefs”, the organisation is respecting her by treating her like an adult. I applaud them for this, at least. People are more important than ideas – they deserve respect by default whereas ideas should always stand on their own merits.

In reading this story I am also reminded of events like pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions on religious grounds. I realise the scale is entirely different here, but at some level the concept is the same: there is a conflict between one’s job and one’s religion.

I’m going to practise as I preach now, and give Ms Parata the respect of applying the same standards to her religious ideas as I would to her secular ideas. According to the Herald article, she made this claim:

Ms Parata said that carrying a Bible was a vital part of her faith and relationship to God.

Just to emphasise how ridiculous this sounds when we’re not handling religious ideas with kid gloves, I’m going to swap out a couple of words for essentially equivalent ones that belong to a religion that is typically treated with the respect it deserves by non-adherents:

Ms Parata said that carrying a copy of The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was a vital part of her faith and relationship to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I doubt, however, the Herald or the union would be acting so outraged if this were the case.

EDIT:

It looks like SkyCity is going to grant Ms Parata an exemption from this rule – she will be allowed to carry her pocket Bible with her at work. I understand how this might be seen as necessary from a PR perspective, but I withdraw my statement of support. By exempting her from this rule on religious grounds they are respecting her beliefs over her, and not treating her like an adult. They’re furthering religious hypocrisy and I certainly will not support that.

I also think it might be worth clarifying that I’m trying very hard to make no comment on whether or not I think the policy is a good one. Whether or not the policy should exist or be enforced in the first place is irrelevant to my discussion; it’s the hypocrisy I take issue with.

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The Point of Life

Last week, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about a particularly nasty sign outside a church here in Auckland. I asked her more about it and she told me that it was outside Greyfriars Church, which is on Mt Eden Road, and that she walked past it every day and would agree to taking a photo to send me.

Here’s the photo she took:

Without God Life is like a blunt pencil NO point
GREYFRIARS WELCOMES YOU
Without God
Life is like
a blunt pencil
NO point

Or, as I might paraphrase it, “if you’re not one of us your life is pointless”. Gee, thanks Greyfriars Church, I sure feel welcome now. As another commenter on Facebook said:

Might as well said “Life without god is like a blunt pencil, easily fixed with a sharp blade.”

This is the kind of negative message I both love and hate to see being displayed by a church. This sort of thing excites me because I can see how it could be effective in driving people away from the church and generating negative publicity for it by bringing its bigotry to centre stage, but at the same time seeing such anti-atheist prejudice in my own city saddens me.

The underlying philosophy of messages like this is that human life has a global purpose, and that purpose was given to us by the Christian god. Following on from that, you can reach 2 conclusions:

  1. In order to fulfill one’s purpose in life, one must dedicate their life to “God’s plan”.
  2. To distance oneself from God is to distance one’s life from purpose.

This message is basically conveying the second conclusion here. It’s similar to the tactic of threatening people with hell, but a bit less extreme. I imagine those who wrote the text on the sign thought it would sound more like an offer, as in “join us and we can help you find purpose”, but to me it reads more like “never forget you are less than we are”.

I understand that the concept of “God’s plan”, associated with this idea of a universal purpose, is generally considered a comforting idea among Christians. The justification for this, as I understand it, is that the concept of always having a guiding hand over their lives lessens the bad things in life by making them a necessary part of this plan.

However, as I see it, the main function of this concept is one of disempowerment. They are told that their lives belong to another. They are told both that they have free will and that the right thing to do is to renounce their freedom that they might better serve as the hand and the mouth of their god. In particular, this is the core of evangelism.

The concept of a divine purpose to life in general is usually seen as comforting because it is compared with a life with no purpose, as demonstrated by this sign. Of course, one need only look at the world to realise how massively false this is. There are millions of people living lives without any gods who are driven and passionate and, yes, purposeful. The difference is that we are not passively accepting another’s cause for our lives, but determining our own purposes.

This is the truly empowering idea. Your purpose is your own. It comes from within you and from all around you, and it is whatever you want it to be. It never has to be set in stone, and it never has to change, but it depends on you, and while people may be able to take freedom from you, they cannot take your purpose unless you let them. It saddens me greatly to see so many allow churches to take their own purposes away and replace them with the empty plan of an absentee god.