The United States Supreme Court will not be hearing Sylvia Spencer et al v. World Vision, the controversial case of three World Vision employees who were fired for not believing in Jesus as God or the Trinity as required by World Vision’s company policies. World Vision won the appeal in 2010 in front of the Ninth Circuit, and that decision stands.
In the World Vision case, all sides agreed that the nature of the firings were religious, but the fired employees argued that World Vision was not truly religious since its work was humanitarian rather than religious, and not significantly different from groups like the Red Cross.
So what about jobs that do not involve religious work at all, such as a shipping worker or a web developer? The Court says [PDF],
The nature of the Employees’ duties is irrelevant to our analysis. If World Vision qualifies for the exemption, it is entitled to terminate employees for exclusively religious reasons, without respect to the nature of their duties.
What does this mean for people like me who are closet atheists in other Christian companies? It means I need to find a new job or risk being fired. I already knew this, but I think it’s getting to the point where I can’t put it off much longer. Despite the poor economy, I’ve got to get out of here.
According to the decision, firing someone based on religious beliefs is not limited to places of worship or schools. As cited in the court’s decision (pages 7-8), here are nine factors considered in determining whether an entity qualifies for religious exemption.
- whether the entity operates for a profit,
- whether it produces a secular product,
- whether the entity’s articles of incorporation or other pertinent documents state a religious purpose,
- whether it is owned, affiliated with or financially supported by a formally religious entity such as a church or synagogue,
- whether a formally religious entity participates in the management, for instance by having representatives on the board of
- whether the entity holds itself out to the public as secular or sectarian,
- whether the entity regularly includes prayer or other forms of worship in its activities,
- whether it includes religious instruction in its curriculum, to the extent it is an educational institution, and
- whether its membership is made up by coreligionists.
You can read the Ninth Circuit’s Sylvia Spencer et al v. World Vision decision here [PDF].
I think this film, Parrot, might reflect what a lot of us feel or experience as the only atheists in our deeply religious families:
Do you think it has potential?
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
— C.S. Lewis
Dear Mr. Lewis,
You could be an alien (what I would pay to see you discuss this with Dan Aykroyd), but most likely it means you need to learn to accept reality and not invent a fantasy land to avoid the fact that sometimes we don’t get what we want. If no experience in this world will satisfy you, then perhaps you:
- Have not experienced enough of the world to understand how fulfilled you can be as a part of it.
- Refuse to be content.
- Misunderstand your desires.
- Are deluded into thinking what we desire should be fulfilled.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy drinking vodka with Dan Aykroyd.
J. Anderson Thomson is a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. In a recent LA Times opinion post he expounds on the biological reasons we humans created the idea of God in the first place, and what role that belief serves psychologically.
I find these reasons for faith fascinating, and I see how they have been present in my own life.
Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.
For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.
Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits.
In addition to these adaptations, humans have developed the remarkable ability to think about what goes on in other people’s minds and create and rehearse complex interactions with an unseen other. In our minds we can de-couple cognition from time, place and circumstance. We consider what someone else might do in our place; we project future scenarios; we replay past events. It’s an easy jump to say, conversing with the dead or to conjuring gods and praying to them.
I know (quite acutely, in fact) that I have a great need for attachment and a sense of another authority; I also possess a tendency to be intuitive or over-analytical about what someone else is thinking and feeling. I have certainly assigned motives and reasons to events that have no human agent.
All of these factors only encompass what I know consciously about myself and how faith has played a role in my life in the past. The chemistry of my brain and the more subtle evolutionary reasons for belief–well, those cannot be controlled. I can only use my reasoning and understanding to choose a different reaction when confronted with the concepts of a great “Other” or supernatural events.
“God” and faith are crafted to fulfill some of our needs and natural inclinations. They are presented to us as a catch-all solution to these inborn “problems.” Do you need love and someone to care for you? God will do it! Do you have a tendency to cling to a group and fear the “others?” Religion is perfect for you! Do you get that tingly feeling that someone is in the room with you when you meditate? That’s a god!
This, of course, doesn’t mean gods are real, but it does illustrate that we have a desire to answer questions and fulfill needs that come naturally to us. When we supply imaginary beings as the answer to the human condition, we’re doing ourselves and our descendants a disservice. It’s much more difficult to see the world objectively and accept the fact that we’re on our own, but it’s empowering and spurs on positive change in society. Why take personal responsibility when it’s much more comforting to know someone else is in charge of the rules who wants us to succeed? Because we will be a better, more altruistic society if we take charge of our actions and how they affect others.
We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.