Sunday, January 18, 2009

Guest Blogger: Russell Blackford: Implications of the atheist bus.

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, I've been blogging about the atheist bus.

For those who don't know about it, there's an advertising campaign going on in the UK at the moment involving buses with signs that say:

"There's probably no God.
Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

I love this slogan, and think it makes the point well. I have a lot more to say about that on my home blog. Briefly, it's a nice, gentle riposte to religious messages on buses that ask us to worry about whether we're "saved" or not, and about what's going to happen to us after death.

Of course, a message like this breaks a powerful taboo. One of the issues that has arisen from the atheist bus campaign relates to a bus driver who objected to driving a bus with this advertisement. As it happened, the bus company handled the issue in a pretty low-key way, and that was probably wise (or so I think) in this unexpected, one-off situation.

It seems that they let him go home on the Saturday afternoon when there was no other bus to drive, though it's not clear to me whether or not they docked his pay for the afternoon. According to the article that I've linked, when he returned to work on Monday he was called into a meeting with managers. He agreed to go back to work, and they agreed that he would only have to drive the buses if there were no others available. That's an attempt to accommodate his position without a commitment that he would be excused from driving the "atheist bus" if it was the only one they could assign to him. I don't mind the way this was handled, although I've seen lots of claims that management was too soft. (I'm sure there are also lots of people who think it outrageous that an employee can be directed to drive a vehicle with such a heinous, anti-Christian sign on it. Hallelujah!)

Over here at Sentient Developments, I don't so much want to get into the merits of what management should have done in this situation. But where do you draw the line? Surely we shouldn't give bus drivers a right of conscientious objection to driving buses with advertisements for products that they dislike or perhaps even consider morally abhorrent. Where does it end if you go down that path? Some will object to advertisements for various meat products, some to advertisements for sexy clothes, some to ... well, God knows what (as it were).

Can Muslim taxi drivers refuse to drive you home from the airport if you're carrying your quota of duty free alcohol? Can Catholic doctors refuse to perform abortions, even if it's necessary to save a woman's life? The possibilities go on and on, and we shouldn't be too quick to give everyone who claims to have a moral or religious scruple the right to decide what work they will or will not do. In some cases, their employer has every right to demand that they carry out the requirements of the job. In other cases, it goes beyond that: there's a strong reason in public policy to avoid people picking and choosing. E.g. a pregnant woman is in a vulnerable situation; she needs to be confident that hospital staff will not even contemplate putting her life at risk if something goes wrong. If an emergency abortion is needed, the doctors and nurses mustn't hesitate to act.

It seems to me that there are two questions here. One is a question about how managers should react when something unexpected happens that leads to a direction to an employee to perform a task that's against his or her conscience. As I said, I don't so much want to talk about that. Briefly, although I'm open to debate, I think that there was good reason for managers be understanding and cautious (if not out of compassion, at least to avoid PR and labour relations fall-out).

But the other issue relates to a more general question: just how far we should go as a society in accommodating people with religious scruples ... even scruples that stop them from doing work that they know very well is part of the job, whether it be filling prescriptions for the contraceptive pill, serving alcohol, or probably many other examples that could be given. And it's not just in the workplace. More generally, how far does your religion give you a right to conscientious objection to rules that are binding on everyone else?

This post is just to get us thinking. When I come back tonight (my time), I'm going to have quite a lot to say about what "freedom of religion" really amounts to. I don't believe it's the free pass that's often claimed. Or we shouldn't let it be.

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

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