Richard Dawkins in Boing Boing:
[Image, via Wikipedia: The Flammarion engraving (1888) depicts a traveller who arrives at the edge of a flat Earth and sticks his head through the firmament.]
A scientific experiment avoids confusion by holding as much as possible constant, while systematically varying some factor of interest. When you are trying to think through a complex train of thought it can be helpful to do something similar, especially when sorting out separate arguments that might be confused. My previous Boing Boing post, “Should employers be blind to private beliefs?,” could be seen as raising four separate questions. These were in danger of being confused with each other, and it is helpful to consider them one at a time, setting the others on one side temporarily–the equivalent of holding other variables constant in an experiment. The four questions were:
1. Should Martin Gaskell have been turned down by the University of Kentucky? I got rid of this one by explicitly stating that I was not concerned with it. I shall continue to ignore it here.
2. Should employers ever discriminate on grounds of the beliefs of candidates? If the answer to this is no, there is no point in going on. I tried to dispose of it by reductio ad absurdum. I postulated hypothetical extremes (flat earth geographer, stork theory doctor, astronomer who thinks Mars is a mongoose egg). I presumed that everybody would agree to discriminate against such obviously preposterous extremes, and that we would therefore have a non-controversial baseline from which to move on to more subtle questions. As it turned out, I was wrong: I underestimated the emotive impact of the very word 'discrimination'. I may also have underestimated the power of the relativist doctrine that all opinions are equally worthy of respect. But in any case my purpose was not to erect a straw man and knock it down. I wanted to find a baseline of agreement, which would enable us to set Question 2 on one side, while we went on to the other questions.
3. Should employers discriminate on grounds of religion per se? Here, I had thought we could establish a baseline agreement that there are at least some religious beliefs that nobody would wish to discriminate against. None of us, certainly not I, would rule out Georges Lemaître when employing a physics professor, on the grounds that he was a Catholic priest. But there could be beliefs, which might happen to have their origins in religion, but which some people might otherwise have considered grounds for rejecting a candidate under Question 2. We are not talking about discriminating against religion per se but against a counterfactual belief that happens to come from religion, and this leads me to Question 4:
4. Suppose you are one of those who will allow a yes answer to Question 2, and are prepared to contemplate at least some discrimination, say against flat-earthers. Would you allow religion to serve as a special, privileged, protective shield against such otherwise-agreed discrimination: a shield not available to non-religious flat-earthers?