Austria gives us yet another tolerance problem

Niko Alm's weirdo European driver's license

Fun fact: in Austria, you are prohibited from wearing a hat or other headgear in your driver’s license photo unless you are doing so for religious purposes. This policy holds to Austria’s motto, We Promise Never To Be Dicks About Yarmulkes Again, but it also creates an interesting dynamic. We can all agree that a decent society does not prohibit individual religious expression. In the case of the Austrian driver’s license hat, though, all forms of individual expression are prohibited except the religious. It seems we are headed toward that donnybrook of liberal democracies, the scenario in which everyone is treated equally but some people get treated especially equally. Enter Niko Alm: Austrian, atheist, insists on wearing a pasta strainer on his head.

You can kind of see it in the photo, which I’m sure is a real conversation-starter with the bouncers at Vienna’s many Joy Clubs. Alm won the right to wear a colander in his driver’s license picture after a two-year fight with Austrian authorities* that involved, among other sworn assertions, securing a psychologist’s assessment that he was mentally competent to drive. Niko Alm is not crazy. He is eccentric, though, as evidenced by his commitment to that most insulting/fun of atheist tropes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In his explanation to the Austro-DMV, he claimed that he was required to wear the strainer by his religion, Pastafarianism. In his explanation to the Washington Post, he was less coy. “I am a person who believes in the equality of all people,” Alm said. “I consider priviliges due to religious or any other type of belief as anti-democratic. So I wanted to apply the same exception to my headgear.”

Here we reach the crux of the matter. Where does tolerance of religion become, as Alm puts it, “privilege” of religion? In the United States, at least during the last 50 years north of the Mason-Dixon, we do not pit one religious belief against the other. The Senate has not conducted lengthy hearings to determine which branch of Protestantism is the true faith, and we do not afford graded rights to Jews, say, that are more expansive than the rights given to Scientologists. It’s all just religion, and our official position is to leave religious ideas alone.

The problem is that generally, liberal democracies are based on the free exchange and—dare I say it?—comparison of ideas. I may be as deeply committed to Keynesian taxation and public works schemes as you are to Methodism, but if I want the government to adopt them I’m going to have to argue and prove stuff. This principle is not strictly limited to public life, either. If I consider recreational marijuana use the inviolable right of private citizens in private homes, I can’t just start doing it and argue committed belief. I have to convince people, and to do so I must demonstrate the validity of my idea.

So it seems we have two leagues for ideas: the secular, where ideas battle one another in a Thunderdome of rhetoric and evidentiary support, and the religious, where everybody is careful never to say that anybody is wrong. Yet religious ideas are constantly infringing on the secular. Take the debate where the FSM had its origin, intelligent design. Christian groups insist that, like evolution, ID is a theory.* Each is a matter of belief, and therefore both should be taught in schools.

The difference between these two theories, of course, is that one is supported by observable evidence and the diligent labor of generations of scientists, and the other is supported by a six thousand-year-old story about where the moon came from as told by goatherders. If both of these were regular ideas, it would be a squash match. If both were religious ideas, we would declare them incommensurable and teach neither. But because one idea is secular and one is religious, we are forced to “teach the controversy.”

By making religious ideas a protected class, we have inadvertently made them more powerful than regular ideas in public life. Part of that is because religious ideas have built-in bases of public support. When Michele Bachmann announces that she is running for President partly to prevent gay people from thriving, she gets traction because millions of Americans believe they are bound by their religion to support her. But she also enjoys the advantage of no one saying “that idea is stupid, and you seem to have only read one book.” To do so would be anathema, because it would be attacking her religion.

I don’t believe that we should attack any person for his or her religious beliefs. However, I do believe that we must be able to attack religious beliefs themselves. In discussions of ideas, why you believe what you believe is paramount. How fervently you believe it—no matter how much faith you have that the ether preserves space as an absolute manifold rather than the relational distances among bodies—does not count. You can believe in an idea religiously, but that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it. I have to tolerate you. The line between the person and the idea is hard to discern, but it is the line between a liberal democracy and a superstitious majority, and we have to locate it.

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  1. Excellent post.

    I strongly agree that protecting religious thought, or presenting it as an obligatory alternative is ridiculous. Unfortunately, it seems that given that religious belief is so prevalent in the United States, even across party lines (although admittedly weighted heavier on the Republican side of things), it has largely proven to be difficult to make headway into a more rational, secular humanist-type approach to policy. But I remain optimistic.

    Ultimately, there is just too much religion in American politics, on both sides.

    And this absolutely includes religious moderates. If one believes in some old white man in the sky, its going to influence one’s political decisions. For instance, a Christian moral theorist who is looking to explain morality is not going to take a neuroscience approach because he/she believes that morality was instilled by God. Case closed. Conviction = case closed.

    It seems that there is little sure footing when it comes to the left, and without the built-in religious conviction that the Republicans and conservatives enjoy its difficult for critical/free-thinking liberal politicians to present any sort of case with that unshakeable Christian moral certainity. Whatever the application of that conviction may be, for whichever party. The true left panders to the conservative, and in doing so, in being forced to compromise, they present their case as lacking that fiery conviction of the conservatives. Reason, rational thought, and evidence bow to religion and outdated goat-herder mythology practically every time. Because the majority, believe that goat-herder.

    When you can appeal to voters sense of morality in regards to social and fiscal issues, you’ve got a solid ace up your sleeve. While I think the Republicans have played that card a little too dramatically this time around and will likely suffer for it, there are still those in the voting public that believe them because that card has worked so many times in the past. And it worked for both parties. And thats the problem right there.

    Recent Gallup poll results that suggest Americans would rather elect an openly gay candidate (67% in favor) than an openly atheist candidate (49% in favor) are telling. If you don’t believe in God, one out of every two people essentially doesn’t trust you to run the country.

    While I’m pleased that ones sexual orientation is less of a barrier than it has been in recent years, the latter figure is troubling to me. The idea that because someone doesn’t behold unto a world view based on Bronze-Age thinking filtered through a two thousand year old game of telephone is pretty fucked. Even Democrat supporters are hesitant to vote for someone who doesn’t believe in God. What do you say to someone who is not swayed by evidence?

    I think this may be the underlying issue. Even toleration of religious moderates and religious moderate-ism is going to have negative effects. Political rhetoric influenced by religion, even at a moderate level, even on the left, is just as dangerous to me as the evangelical approach. You can’t ‘sort of believe in God’. Any credibility granted, any validity bestowed upon religious interpretations of science, social policy, ethics, etc is too much and it needs to stop. That Rick Perry can suggest ‘turning things over to God’ as a remedy for the fiscal and environmental problems of Texas, and not be run out of town on a rail, is mind-blowing.

    Among industrialized first world countries, the United States is the most religious, by a fair amount. While many other industrialized countries have similar issues to the US, America is still #1 in this regard. But I’m hoping that the Republicans, and conservatives in general get trounced this time around (please?). America needs to take a giant step to the left, and badly. Things are going to get better, or they’re going to get a whole lot worse. But that starts with putting down the Good Book. En masse. Or at least not taking it so goddamned literally. There is nothing wrong with a good story, but I don’t let the Brothers Grimm dictate my foreign policy or stance on social issues.

    But hey, thats just me.

    Oh, cheers from Canada. Longest. Comment. Ever.

  2. this has nothing to do freedom…

    the picture on an ID is supposed to be an accurate depiction of the person whom it was issued. so unless this man is going to wear a pasta strainer on his head most of the time, I feel he has no argument (and is wasting court time and money which could be used on a similar case, of a person actually in a predicament and not just being nuisence)
    Now an argument could be made for a person who, for work, religion, or fashion even, who wears a hat/head covering daily to be allowed to take a photo with their hat on. I am assuming the law is phrased and created to protect those who are offended and feel as if they are betraying their religion by removing their head gear in public. These pictures are supposed to portray the person in their most stripped down form; and many people are OK to take off their glasses or hats if it would make it easier for an officer to identify them correctly. BUT, very few of us would be as amiable if an officer asked us to remove our shirts for the same purpose, and for those claiming “religious reasons” for their head gear, their “hats” are as important as their shirts in what is publicly modest and dressed.

    As a judge in Austria, I would look to sentence this man for purger y, seeing as he lied in court about his religious affiliation to “prove a point to his government”.
    * and yes if he ACTUALLY believed that leaving the confines of his home (public) without wearing a pasta strainer was morally reprehensible, then by all means let him wear the thing (because his belief does not infringe upon the freedoms and rights naturally bestowed upon others) . . . the issue is he doesn’t.

  3. “I consider recreational marijuana use the inviolable right of private citizens in private homes”, FTW.

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