"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

What should we mean by "Religious Freedom"?

Now, you see? You would think that this was an easy thing to get right, but it takes a theologian to get it manifestly wrong. Prof Roger Trigg of Kellogg College, Oxford has a book out in which he argues that the courts have gone too far in promoting the equality agenda above religious freedom.
Is religious freedom being curtailed in pursuit of equality, and the outlawing of discrimination? Is enough effort made to accommodate those motivated by a religious conscience? All rights matter but at times the right to put religious beliefs into practice increasingly takes second place in the law of different countries to the pursuit of other social priorities.
Well one of the problems with this is the definition of the word “freedom”. It is a word increasingly appropriated by religion worldwide; Catholic hospitals in the U.S want freedom to refuse reproductive health care, Muslims want the freedom to stifle criticism of Islam, Christian registrars want the freedom not to perform civil partnerships and Christian proprietors want the freedom to discriminate against homosexual clients. When society and the courts don’t allow this they say it is an attack on religion and religious freedom. It’s a superficially appealing argument, after all who doesn’t approve of freedom of conscience, freedom of action and freedom of speech? Freedom is a human right after all. But let’s deconstruct this emotional appeal to freedom and see whether the demands of religion and the religious are really on a sound ethical footing.
So, here is a selection of definitions of Freedom from Dictionary .Com
1. The state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint: He won his freedom after a retrial. 2. Exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc. 3. The power to determine action without restraint. 4. Political or national independence. 5. Personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery: a slave who bought his freedom.
I’m guessing that in this context most of us would see definitions 2 and 3 as most relevant, and as they are similar in effect I will treat them as one.
The obvious thing to say is that nobody in any stable society anywhere in the world, no matter how liberal or democratic has freedom according to this definition. We are all subject to external control, interference, regulation and restraint in many aspects of our lives. We are all subject to laws and injunctions that in the main (at least in a democracy) we agree are necessary for the good order of society. Personally, I would love to drive at 120MPH on the outside lane of the motorway, but apparently I can’t, not even if Jeremy Clarkson were my personal god and saviour. Neither can I smoke myself into oblivion on homegrown skunk, nor would professing myself a Rastafarian change that.
Now in a democratic society we can argue for and against the laws we abide by and we can apply whatever philosophy we like to those arguments; secular, religious, liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian or whatever floats your ontological boat. But, if we find ourselves on the losing side of that argument at any given time we still have to abide by the laws.
Many of us are in “pursuit of other social priorities” some liberal some conservative, but we all have to live within the constraints of the status quo even while trying to change it. I am on record as disagreeing with the drug laws as they stand; I would like to see them repealed not just for Rastafarians or MS sufferers but also for everyone else. Either society accepts that using narcotics is a legitimate personal choice or it doesn’t and at the moment the law is against me and equally against those who think they have a special case for being exempt.
Similarly the current situation in our society is that we are moving towards legislation that ensures equality for people previously marginalised by the law. It is illegal in our society to discriminate on the grounds of race or gender and most of us appear to be accepting that our institutions should be colour and gender “blind”. This means for example that now  any two individuals can enter into an institution legally equivalent to marriage regardless of their respective genders. I of course think this is a good thing, however I accept that there are many people who disagree and they are entitled to do so. But, they are not entitled to break those discrimination laws any more than I am, whatever their personal justification.
So there we have it! Religion and the good theologian Roger Trigg are not just demanding religious freedom; they are demanding more freedoms than the rest of us. What they really want is religious privilege, protecting them from the laws that the rest of us will be subject to.
My definition of religious freedom would be the “freedom to believe and worship in any way you want commensurate with the norms and laws of the society you inhabit.” As a religious individual you have the right to avoid professions that put you in conflict with your faith, and if you are in such a profession and it becomes incompatible with your beliefs, you can negotiate with your employer to protect you from the conflict, but if that fails you can capitulate or leave. This is no different from any other person in society. If in my profession my employer insisted I source components made by third world child labour, I would either leave for a company whose world view was more compatible with my own or compromise while arguing for change. But I wouldn’t expect to refuse to do my job and not get fired.
If the religious want to live in a society that is commensurate with their beliefs, they must argue for it. They must argue in the public forums, in the media and in our political institutions. But, in engaging in that debate they must expect their ideas, their rational and yes, even their sacred doctrines to be as open to scrutiny and criticism as any other. For this is another privilege religion demands for itself (or should I say wants back?); the freedom to be beyond censure and critique, for their beliefs to be sacrosanct in a way not afforded to any other philosophical view.
Freedoms of this kind if conceded to religion, would become the links in a chain for the rest of us.

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