Ronald Lindsay is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to fostering secular society. A Northern Virginia resident, he practiced law for 26 years at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and also earned a doctorate in bioethics from Georgetown University. He recently participated in CFI's symposium, "Why Tolerate Religion?," on Brian Leiter's book of the same name.
Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?
I identify as a humanist and an atheist. My view of an atheist is someone who thinks it's highly improbable there is a God. A humanist for me is someone who believes in the worth, the equality of each individual, and that morality is grounded on human needs and human interests. What's important to me about humanism is the commitment to treat others with respect and to base morality on secular considerations.
In "Why Tolerate Religion?", Brian Leiter argues against religious exemptions from government requirements. Do you agree with him?
There were a couple different aspects of this argument. His major argument is that claims of conscience based on religious belief should not be given any preferential treatment over claims of conscience that are based on secular moral considerations. To that extent I agree with him. He also argued for a narrow view of accommodating claims of conscience, whether they were secular or religious, and I'm not sure if I would go with him in that regard. He said claims of conscience end up burdening others, and we should not allow that; I would take a more pragmatic approach.
Would you allow religious exemptions for groups under the Obama administration's contraception coverage mandate?
I think there should be a very narrow exemption for clearly religious institutions. There are two strains, if you will, of religious liberty. On the one hand it's clear from our constitution the founders wanted the government to stay outside of church internal affairs. We don't want the government deciding who should be a bishop, don't want the government deciding religious dogma, etc. I definitely agree with that position. Any time you have a mix of church and state it's bad for believers and nonbelievers. On the other hand you have religious freedom that deals with freedom of conscience -- the right of someone to refuse certain action that the government requires because it would violate their beliefs. What the Catholic bishops and some other organizations have done is to conflate those two types of religious freedoms. You have this peculiar situation where they are claiming conscience rights for corporations, which makes no sense whatsoever. The Hobby Lobby [lawsuit] shows how far they're trying to interpret with a very expansive, unprecedented view of the need to accommodate religious belief. It's a stretch to say a nonprofit corporation has a conscience, but then to say a for-profit corporation has a conscience is frankly ridiculous. What they're arguing for is the right to restrict other individuals from engaging in behavior they object to. If you take it to the logical extreme, if you're a Catholic boss, you don't have to provide birth control for your employees. Then can a Jehovah's Witnesses boss say no to blood transfusions? Then we'll have this labyrinth of exemptions based on what religion your boss has.
At your core, what is one your defining beliefs?
One of my defining beliefs is I believe a secular society in which we base our public policy and ethics on the concerns we all have, concerns related to human needs and human interests, would serve the best interests of all, including believers and nonbelievers. In that way I think we can move forward as society and respect the freedom of conscience of everyone.
- Liz Essley