Religious freedom occupies a special place in contemporary political discussions. It should not. This is not because religious freedom is not important but because it is no more and no less important than other forms of freedom of conscience, belief and practice.
Many believers point out that faith plays a unique role in their lives. That is often true. Those atheists who dismiss belief in God as no more credible than belief in Santa Claus or in fairies miss the point. Religion is more than an intellectual exercise or a matter of logic; it often has, for believers, a vital social and spiritual function. But acknowledging the vital and unique role of faith in the lives of believers does not commit us to providing it with a privileged position in society.
The reason that religious freedom has a special place in contemporary political debate is historical. Ideas of tolerance and of freedom of expression developed in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards primarily within a religious framework. Questions of toleration and expression were at heart questions of how, and how far, the state, and the established church, should accommodate religious dissent. We can see this in the arguments of John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship. Locke’s starting point was the insistence that the duty of every individual was to seek his own salvation. The means to do so were his religious beliefs and the ability openly to worship. The power of the political authorities could not rightfully extend over either sphere.
Written at a time when Europe was rent by tempestuous religious strife, and when intolerance and persecution were the norm, Locke’s was a powerful argument for religious freedom. It was also an exceedingly narrow conception of liberty. Locke’s toleration was rooted primarily in the desire to extend freedom of worship and theological discussion to nonconformist congregations and placed little emphasis on wider issues of freedom of thought or conscience. Indeed Locke was emphatic in refusing to extend toleration to many other groups. Neither Catholics not atheists were, in Locke’s view, deserving of tolerance, the former because they gave their allegiance to a ‘foreign prince’, the latter because their opinions were ‘contrary to human society’ and ‘to the preservation of civil society’.
Locke’s near contemporary, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose views influenced the Radical Enlightenment, proposed a different concept of tolerance. Spinoza’s starting point, was not, as it was for Locke, the salvation of one’s soul, or the coexistence of churches, but the enhancement of freedom, and the quest for individual liberty and freedom of expression. All attempts to curb free expression, he insisted, not only curtailed legitimate freedom but was futile. ‘No man… can give up his freedom to judge and think as he pleases, and everyone is by absolute natural right master of his own thoughts’, Spinoza wrote, so ‘it follows that utter failure will attend any attempt in a state to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinion.’ ’The right of the sovereign, both in the religious and secular spheres’, he concluded, ‘should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he wishes and say what he thinks’. It is a more inclusive vision of freedom than Locke’s, and a more useful starting point – and conclusion – when thinking about contemporary freedom.
Modern ideas of freedom and tolerance are usually seen, particularly in the West, as having derived from Locke. In fact they draw upon both Locke and Spinoza. The US First Amendment owes much to Spinoza’s conception of freedom. Even in Europe, where freedom of expression is construed in narrower terms, Spinoza’s influence remains important, if unacknowledged. However, despite the broadening of the conception of liberty and tolerance, the idea that freedom of religion is a special freedom, an idea that derives primarily from Locke, remains entrenched.
Today, we live in very different world from that in which concepts of religious freedom first developed. Religion is no longer the crucible within which political and intellectual debates take place. Questions of freedom and tolerance are not about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting religious views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive, hateful, harmful to individuals or undermine national security. We can now see more clearly that religious freedom is not a special kind of liberty but one of a broader set of freedoms. If we were think about religious freedom from first principles today, it would not have a special place compared to other forms of freedom of conscience, belief, assembly or action.
Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent, nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.
Many on both sides of the debate about religious freedom continue to treat religion as special. Many atheists want to deny religion the rights accorded to others forms of belief. Many religious believers want to retain privileges for religion. Both are wrong.
Some atheists argue that secularism requires that religion be kept out of the public sphere. It is an argument that cannot be right any more than the claim that the views of racists, conservatives, communists or gay activists must be kept out of the public sphere. A secular space cannot be one in which religion is not permitted to be present. It is, rather, a space in which one religion is granted no advantage over another, nor over any secular philosophy or ideology. It must also be one, however, in which no religion is disadvantaged with respect to another religion, or with respect to secular philosophies and ideologies.
Many atheists demand also that religious symbols be banned in the public sphere. Many states and corporations have imposed such bans, from the refusal to allow the wearing of the cross in the workplace to the outlawing of the burqa in public places. Such bans are infringements of the basic freedoms set out in #7. An employer has every right to ban kinds of clothing that might be, say, dangerous in a particular workplace. He or she also has the right, in certain circumstances, and within limits, to insist that employees wear a particular uniform, or to desist from wearing something inappropriate. But there should be no general ban on particular forms of clothing or adornment, and certainly no general ban on specifically religious clothing or symbols.
The real dilemmas with religious freedom arise out of questions not of beliefs or symbols but of practices. Many beliefs, religious and secular, imply particular practices. The belief that homosexuality is a sin requires that one refrain from gay relationships or gay sex. The belief that life begins at conception requires that one does not have an abortion or help anyone else to do so. And so on. As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience. But that toleration ends when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes another’s genuine rights.
It is not just in the case of religion that there is a strong relationship between belief and practice. Racists, communists, Greens, New Age mystics – all could claim that their beliefs enforce upon them certain actions or practices. We do not, however, allow racists, communists, Greens, or New Age mystics to act upon their beliefs if in so doing they harm others or deny them their legitimate rights. A racist pub owner cannot bar black people from his pub, however deep-set his beliefs. It would be a criminal offence for Greens to destroy a farmer’s field of legally grown GM crops, however strongly they might feel about such agriculture. There is a line, in other words, that cannot be crossed even if conscience requires one to. That line should be in the same place for religious believers as for non-believers. Society should accommodate as far as is possible any action genuinely required by conscience, but not where such acts harms another or infringes their rights.
Of course, a religious believer might claim that he or she faces a different kind of compulsion to that felt by a racist, a communist or anyone else attached to secular beliefs. He or she may feel commanded by God to act in a particular way. It may well be true that a believer feels a different kind of compulsion. But the reason for which someone feels compelled to act in a particular way is not necessarily relevant to whether or not such acts should be legally permitted.
The fact that acts of conscience may sometimes have to be curbed does not mean that in these cases there is a ‘conflict of rights’. Just as there is a right to free speech but no right not to be offended, so there is a right not to be harmed and to equal treatment, but no right to harm or to discriminate. This is essential to protect religious freedom. An atheist bar-owner should have no right, whatever his conscience may say, to bar people of faith, any more than a Christian bar-owner has the right to bar gays. Such curbs on acts of conscience simply mean that we live not alone on a desert island but together in a crowded society.
How would the argument so far throw light on recent conflicts over matters of religious freedom?
Should religions have the right to prevent the publication of cartoons or books or plays that are deemed offensive?
No. Religious freedom requires that people of faith be allowed to speak or act in ways that might offend others. It does not that require others do not cause offence or promote blasphemy.
Is it legitimate for a state to ban the burqa?
It is not. Wearing a burqa neither harms, nor discriminates against, others. Of course, one might well believe that the burqa harms the woman who wears it and is an expression of discrimination against women. A liberal society accepts, however, that individuals should free to make choices that may not be in their interest and that, to liberal eyes, demean them. This applies even to particularly distasteful expressions of degradation, such as the wearing of the burqa. If women are forced to wear the burqa against their will, the law should protect them against that coercion. It should not, however, impose a ban on those who have chosen to wear the burqa. Some suggest that burqas cause harm because they may pose security problems, or be incompatible with the needs of particular jobs. Such practical problems can usually be solved on a case-by-case basis without the need for draconian legislation.
Should an employee be allowed to wear a cross at work?
In almost every case the answer should be ‘Yes’. There may be a pragmatic case for, say, banning loose chains that in certain workplaces may be dangerous; but it is difficult to see what right an employer has simply to ban the wearing of a cross as a religious symbol.
Should gay marriage be legalized?
Yes. This is a matter both of secular equality and of religious freedom. On the one hand, the state should not exclude gays from the civil institution of marriage simply because of religious hostility. On the other, some faith groups wish to bless to gay marriage. For the state to deny them that right because other faith groups disagree would be to undermine religious freedom. What the state should not do is to force religious bodies to accept or consecrate gay marriage.
Should a Catholic adoption agency be allowed to turn away gay prospective parents?
If the agency receives public funding, or performs a service on behalf of the state, then the answer is ‘No’. It would then be legitimate for the state to insist that the agency does not discriminate, despite Catholic views on homosexuality. If, however, it is a private agency – if it is simply performing a service for Catholic parents who subscribe to its views on homosexuality – then the answer should be ‘Yes’.
Should Christian bed and breakfast owners be allowed to turn away gays?
Such owners, even if they are turning their own home into a b’n’b, are providing a service from which a gay couple could reasonably expect equal treatment. The answer, therefore, is ‘No’.
Should Catholic-run hospitals or schools be forced to give employees health insurance that includes free contraception?
This is, of course, a source of major controversy in the USA. The answer is ‘Yes’. This is not a matter of religious freedom, but of employee rights. Churches are not being forced to provide contraception. In their role as secular employers, they are being asked to provide employee benefits that all employers must provide. To exempt Church-run organizations would be to deny those benefits to a particular group of employees.
Having said all this, many of these conflicts would be better resolved through the pragmatic use of common sense than through the strict application of principle, particularly when those principles remain socially contested. A religious believer should not normally have the legal right to discriminate. But if it is possible to arrange matters so that a believer can act according to conscience without causing harm or discrimination to others, then it might be worthwhile doing so. In principle, a Christian marriage registrar should expect to have to perform gay civil partnerships, whatever their religious beliefs. However, it might make pragmatic sense to roster others to perform ceremonies for gay couples, not because we should accept prejudice – prejudice, whether religious or secular in form, should always be challenged – but in acknowledgement of the fact that genuine social conflict exists on this issue. We should not give an inch to bigotry. Someone whose ‘conscience’ would not allow them to work with gays, or to marry Jews, should clearly not be indulged. Nevertheless, many oppose gay partnerships or marriages as a matter of conscience and not simply through homophobia (albeit that ‘conscience’ can, of course, often be a cover for homophobia). We can both challenge such attitudes and accept that on matters of genuine conscience, a little leeway or accommodation that allows someone to live by their principles may be desirable. The law should not make any such accommodation. But as individuals, or as organizations, it may be wise to, though not at the cost of causing harm, allowing discrimination or endorsing bigotry.
There are exceptional cases in which we should set aside these basic principles. A marriage registrar should be expected in principle, if not necessarily in practice, to perform gay civil partnerships. But we should not expect a doctor or a nurse, even in principle, to perform an abortion, if they feel to do so is against their beliefs. Whatever we may think of the belief that life begins at conception, it would be unreasonable in the extreme to expect those who do hold that belief to commit what they consider to be murder.
A pragmatic approach to matters of religious conscience is neither a sign of ‘weakness’ nor a matter of ‘accommodating’ the devil. Standing by political principle is vitally important, including the principle that people should have the right to act upon their conscience if possible. Why is that principle important? Because we recognize with Spinoza that ‘No man can give up his freedom to judge and think as he pleases, and everyone is by absolute natural right master of his own thoughts’. To recognize that is to recognize also that it is better if people are persuaded to act in a particular way, by exercising their freedom to judge and think, than being forced to do so by the power of the state. There are times when the state has to wield the big stick, particularly if ‘acts of conscience’ lead to physical harm or discrimination. But such occasions, as a matter of principle, should be minimized as far as possible. To be pragmatic in this matter is to keep to one’s principles.
The aim of rethinking religious freedom is to strengthen, not weaken, it. It is to establish it not as a special privilege arising out of the turmoil of seventeenth century Europe but as one of a set of indispensible freedoms rooted in the needs and possibilities of the twenty-first century world. To defend religious freedom in this manner is not to defend religion. It is to defend freedom.
Modern, free, democratic, pluralist societies have many virtues, but they are also increasingly encountering one significant problem, what I call “the problem of pluralism.” This is the problem of how to deal with a number of different, competing, and often conflicting, worldviews or philosophies of life in the modern democratic state, especially at the institutional level, such as in schools, government agencies, political parties, parliament, and most especially at the level of law. This problem can be approached either as a theoretical problem or as a practical problem. At the theoretical level, we would consider this matter as part of our analysis and justification of the theory of the democratic, pluralist state. This involves thinking about how procedurally such a state can be established and can function as a stable political entity if it is trying to accommodate and facilitate many different approaches to and understandings of the nature of reality, the human person, and issues concerning moral values, and the meaning of life. It is also very important when considering the theoretical question to think about how the values and procedures upon which the state is founded are themselves justified without seeming to privilege one particular worldview in the state over others. But the problem of pluralism can also be approached from a more practical point of view–as a practical problem facing a particular state, or various states, in the real world right now, states that have some combination of a constitution, laws, procedures, and executive, legislative, and judicial arrangements, already in place, states which then have to grapple with problems of competing worldviews within this framework. For example, there might be three major approaches in a particular state for thinking about the allocation of healthcare resources, or how to deal with poverty, or on the issue of abortion, or stem cell research, and the state must have some procedure for making decisions about these matters.
It is not my intention to discuss or resolve the complex but fascinating problem of pluralism here, but I do want to draw attention to a key point that is frequently overlooked in this discussion—that, in the context of modern pluralism, we must now regard secularism as one of those worldviews that plays a quite significant role in the direction and nature of the modern state. And, further, once we do this, our whole understanding of the role of religion in the modern state is transformed as well. I have argued elsewhere and want to repeat here that secularism must now be seen as a positive worldview in the modern world that takes its place alongside other traditional (religious) worldviews in shaping the issues of the day. Secularism must not be understood as simply the view that there is no God, or that religious doctrines are not true, or that religious morality should be rejected, or something along these lines. We need to focus on what secularists believe (and on what they desire politically) rather than on what they do not believe. Secularism, in very general outline, may be understood as the view that all of reality is physical in nature, consisting of some configuration of matter and energy. Secularists also usually hold that everything that exists either currently has a scientific explanation, or will have a scientific explanation in the future. This view would also hold that the universe is a random occurrence, as is the existence of life on earth, including human beings. Supporters of this approach also insist on secularist accounts of morality and politics.
Our failure to appreciate that secularism is now a major cultural player and shaper of modern society has led to many confusions in our contemporary approach to and understanding of pluralism. We often say today that we are living in a secular state, or that people are becoming more and more secular, or that secularization is sweeping the globe, and so forth. These points are all true, but are only part of the story, and no longer the most important part. For this use of the term “secular” is intended only in a negative sense. It means that the religious way of looking at things, broadly understood, is losing its influence, or that “secularization,” which is often not carefully defined but which usually means something like consumerism, materialism, technology, this-worldly, etc., is pushing issues of the spiritual and moral life aside, but only rarely do we focus on what it is that is proposed as a replacement for the religious outlook. And this is where we need to start thinking and talking in terms of secularism as a positive worldview (what secularists believe) rather than in terms of “the secular” (what secularists reject).
So when some thinkers argue that we are now a more secular society, or that we need to promote a more secular approach–that this would be a good thing for modern democratic states–what do they mean? I am suggesting that this view cannot mean that we want to promote a secularist state, and that religious views should have no place in the political sphere. This is because secularism is simply one view among many in the modern state, and why should we grant secularism a privileged position among all of the worldviews? To be more specific, why should we give preference to secularist views of morality when deciding questions concerning abortion or stem cell research over various religious views (and let us note, as others have pointed out on e-IR and elsewhere, that there are various types of secularism, just as there are various types of religion, but this does not affect my general point).
Now supporters of secularism might argue that we should in fact promote a secularist state, that a secularist state would be better in general for progress, that is, a state guided by secularist accounts of reality, the human person, morality and the good life. One might want to promote what I call a seculocracy, which means a state where the laws are based on a secularist ideology or worldview (just as we sometimes call a state based on a religious ideology a theocracy). Or in the language of the U.S. Constitution, secularists might argue for a state where their views on significant political, social, and moral questions are established in law. One might believe and argue publicly that this is the best way forward for modern democracies. However, this position faces a major problem: while one is perfectly free to hold this position oneself, and to argue for it publicly, and even to argue that other (religious) worldviews are irrational, or that the secularist view is superior or whatever, one must recognize that in a free society many will argue just the opposite. In a free society, any type of restriction or suppression of a view before a public debate is held violates the basic principles of democracy and freedom.
As a possible way around this problem, one could instead adopt the approach that one can give good reasons for excluding religious views from politics, and so the secularist view should then dominate, or win by default. For instance, one might argue that religious beliefs are not rational, that secularist beliefs are more rational, or that religious beliefs are based on “faith,” or authority, or tradition, and that secularist beliefs are not, and so secularist beliefs are rationally superior. In short, one might argue that there is something “wrong” with religious arguments, some “problem” with them that does not apply to secularist arguments. But one must be very careful if one adopts this response. I agree that when one presents arguments in the public square, especially arguments that would shape society and culture, one needs to give rational arguments. But the religious believer will argue that religion has a rational side to it, has a long tradition of reason, and that we can appeal to this rational tradition as the philosophical justification for our religious beliefs. For example, one might argue that God exists, and is the creator of life, that life is extremely valuable, that the fetus is an innocent human life, and should be protected in law. Or one might argue that God created all people equally, and so racial segregation is wrong, or that it is part of God’s moral law that we are our brother’s keeper, and so we should support social welfare programs, and so forth. And arguments like these would not just assert the existence of God, but argue that it is rational to believe in God (the actual argument could be assumed in the public debate, but would be available in other venues, such as academia).
A secularist would no doubt reply that religious arguments like these are not rational, which is his right; however, he can’t use this opinion to somehow restrict these religious arguments from influencing public debates. As I pointed out, he is free to believe that such arguments are not rational, but not free to restrict those who do not agree with him. One cannot restrict a belief in a free society just because one disagrees with it politically, nor even because one thinks it is irrational. I would accept that in a democratic society we should try to be as reasonable as we can, should especially try to give reasons that would persuade others, so I would agree that one should not appeal to religious texts, or authorities, or to private experiences, in public arguments, as long as secularist-type arguments that are based on similar sources are also restricted in the same way.
Sometimes one will hear the objection that an appeal to “the secular” or to “secular reason” does not necessarily mean that one is advocating secularism. The use of the term “secular reason,” it might be argued, simply means that one appeals (or should appeal) to reason and evidence in one’s arguments on various issues. The word “secular” means only that one is making no appeal to religion; so a thinker who argues that one should appeal only to secular reasons in politics is not covertly suggesting that secularism should be the default worldview, and so arbitrarily prejudicing the debate against religion. But again this argument is not sufficient to rule religious arguments out of public life. We need to be careful about what the phrase “secular reason” means here. If it just means “reason,” then reason can be used to establish the rationality of basic religious beliefs, so the religious believer will argue (and it is irrelevant whether the secularist agrees with this or not from the point of view of a free democracy). That is to say, reason can be used to establish the rationality of basic religious premises and conclusions. But if the phrase means “secularism,” then we are back to the same problem as above. For to say that an argument that appeals to reason only can’t have (in principle) a conclusion with religious content is really just to say that religious beliefs are irrational, or at least not as rational (and so not as worthy) as secularist beliefs. One might, of course, be convinced of this oneself, but this is not enough; one has to convince the religious believer too if one wants to restrict religious belief in politics, and that is why no such argument can succeed. One of the often unstated assumptions of secularism is that “secular reason” (understood as secularism) is the same thing as reason. Religious believers of course will reject this understanding of reason, and in any case this is where the debate begins in a free society, not where it ends.
What does all of this mean for separation of church and state, usually regarded as a very important principle in a democracy? The separation of church and state means that we must not make our own particular worldview, be it religious or secularist of whatever strand, the official worldview of the state. We might ask if secularists want everyone to be secularists or do Catholics want to make everyone Catholics? The general answer to this question in most worldviews is no, at least not to convert people by force; if conversion happens freely, by persuasion, well and good. But just because we don’t necessarily want to convert people to our particular worldviews, this does not mean and cannot mean that we do not wish to influence the state, the culture, and especially the law, by means of some of our beliefs. All of us want to do this no matter what our worldview; it is unavoidable in any case, because somebody’s (or some group’s) values will be shaping our cultural, moral and legal decision-making, and, as a simple matter of logic, not all values can be accommodated. For example, if a state makes stem cell research on human embryos, or human cloning, legal, then those who think these practices are immoral and should be illegal lose out, and the values of those who support these practices become culturally dominant. There is, in short, no such thing as a neutral public square.
So we need to be very careful about adopting the rhetoric of church/state separation simply as way of keeping religion (and so political views we don’t agree with) out of public square debates. One can only insist on a separation of church and state if one means that the state will have no official religion, but we cannot invoke this separation if we mean that religious beliefs and values cannot be appealed to to influence society and culture. If this is what is meant, then secularists would be contradicting themselves every time they then go on to make an argument for cultural change based on their values. And I have already shown why one can’t reply to this point by saying that in fact secularism is actually superior anyway to any religious view, because no argument along these lines can succeed in restricting religious arguments in politics in a free society. If you subscribe to democracy, and believe in a free, open society, one cannot then turn around and restrict a view from trying to gain cultural influence just because one does not agree with it. One can argue against it publicly of course—indeed, one hopes that the public exchange of ideas can serve as a kind of rational test of various beliefs and arguments–but this is not the same as denying it the opportunity to be expressed in the first place by appeal to some procedural or legal maneuver.
So overall then we need to note the following. First, once we see that secularism is a significant, influential worldview in itself, it changes our whole way of thinking about church/state issues, and more generally about the role of religion in the modern democratic state. We must now see that the key philosophical question concerns how all worldviews come into contact with the state, and not just religious ones. Two, the reasons we give for keeping religion out of the debate at the beginning—before the democratic process has been played out—are now seen as suspect in a free society, with the one provision that we should all at least strive to be as reasonable as we can, meaning that we should try to give the best, most logical reasons, arguments and evidence to those we are trying to persuade (this also involves bringing all academic disciplines, where relevant, into the discussion). This is a real problem, however, in modern societies because of the increasing polarization between the worldviews, the attack on reason seen in areas like postmodernism, the increasing influence of epistemological and moral relativism, multiculturalism, etc., but this is a problem for every worldview. We cannot resolve this problem by forbidding worldviews we don’t like to speak (nor can we resolve it by abandoning reason and justification, and allowing a free for all). Third, we must recognize that we are all trying to shape culture by means of our values and beliefs, and so we need to stop picking on members of various religious worldviews, as if they are the only ones doing this. Four, we should not appeal to church/state separation as a political tactic to silence views because we disagree with them politically. Five, we must also keep in mind the general question of how the democratic state is itself justified (is it part of one’s worldview, or in place before one’s worldview, and if the latter—which is the position of political philosopher John Rawls–how are the values on which it is based selected and justified?).
Lastly, the deepest question perhaps of all is how do modern democracies (now looking at the issues in the way suggested in this essay) solve or at least contain the problem of pluralism, without resorting to the suppression of some views, without producing too many disgruntled citizens, without abusing political power, and without slipping into moral and political relativism. This is one of the most difficult questions facing both twentieth first century democratic political theory, and existing democratic states.
Dr Brendan Sweetman, a native of Dublin, Ireland, is Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO, USA. He is the author of Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square (InterVarsity, 2006), and, most recently, Religion and Science: An Introduction (Continuum, 2010).
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