Atheist Support for Religious Freedom

Talk presented to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 13 October 2009, by Lev Lafayette

The History of Religion and Religious Freedom

The history of religion - in addition to being a history of charity, of good deeds, of community, of attempting to provide an explanation to timeless questions of existence, of making significant contributions to the development of the human spirit - is also a history of discrimination and persecution both by those who are greatly devout and towards those who are greatly devout. We may keep this in mind as the question of atheist support for religious freedom is explored. Some of these religious persecutions, and persecutions of religion, lasted for centuries and in many less liberal and democratic regimes than our own they are ongoing. At times this persecution has been subtle such as in the form of cultural discrimination. In others it is systematically enforced in the restriction of property titles, or the requirement of payment of additional taxes. More seriously it involves widespread censorship, forced conversions, segregation and pogroms, terrorism and war.

The most famous examples of this radical denial of religious freedom - by other religions - is etched on the history of our species like a nightmare of our our collective madness. We think of the Roman pagans throwing Christians to starving lions for entertainment, we think of the imperialist Crusades into the Levant, we can think of the Muslim conquest and rule of Hindu India which led to eighty million deaths, the devastation and bloody destruction of the Mesomerican cultures by their Christian invaders and all the way up to the public and privately expressed religion of Adolf Hitler who, in his systematic persecution of the Jews, declared: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.."

In contrast to this there was a tradition, albeit often weak, of religious freedom. In ancient times this usually correlated with commercial regions that found themselves as centres of multiple cultural influences. It would simply be impractical to enforce a single religious code in such places, although when such centres were segregated into religious districts, clashes were common such as between the Greeks and Jewish sectors of Cyrene and Alexandria. Over two and half thousand years ago, Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Empire, was probably the first to institute laws that provided religious freedom. Some three hundred years later, the emperor of the Indian Murya Empire also provided such laws in the Edicts of Ashoka. It was through political and religious liberals, from the political philosophy of John Locke, and the practical application by Thomas Jefferson that the separation of church and state became a modern reality. Today freedom of religion is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It proclaims: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."

This situation is mostly satisfactory, most of the time, to most atheists. Freedom of religion, in its universal form, also implies freedom from religion. Atheists may make their empirical as well as metaphysical propositions along with any others and there is no compulsion in law one way or another whether these should be accepted. Likewise, with our more speculative brethren we can feel some justifiable anger when atheism is effectively declared a state religion, such as the People's Republic of China, and where those of heretical beliefs, such as the Fulun Gong, are subject to widespread persecution such as systematic imprisonment and organ harvesting. We may also mention the systematic persecution and discrimination against members of the Bahá'í faith in Iran, where they have had their property seized, have been banned from government jobs and have been imprisoned for holding religious study circles, and more recently, Egypt, where a modernisation of the identity documents which allowed only three faiths; Muslim, Christian or Jew - effectively denying them the right to basic identity documents. To a liberal and democratic atheist, such totalitarian evils are not entertained.

Conflicting Standards

Freedom of religious belief however, does not necessarily imply freedom of religious practise. All content-bound expressions of freedom are not absolute, and this is no exception. Freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to abuse others, under the claim of being a 'religious practise' and we indeed may be very grateful for this, for it means that in most cases we are not subject to religious courts and their laws. Those who are wives in our audience may be very pleased indeed that when the separation of church and state is exists it usually means that they can avoid enforced sati, the sometimes voluntary, sometimes coerced, immolation of a widow on her husbands funeral pyre. We can be reasonably sure that when the southern African traditional medicine practises of Muti includes human sacrifice that those who engage in it will be charged with murder. At the same time, self-regarding and consensual acts which has religious significance but are prohibited by secular law - such as polyamorous unions or the use of psychedelic drugs by earth-centered religions (for example the use of peyote by indigenous Americans) - these are often illegal.

It is my suspicion that the normal development of liberal democracies is towards universal pragmatics on such matters. Religious belief and expression will increasingly become one where self-regarding and consensual acts will be permitted and religious expressions which engage in coercive harm will be prohibited. Note that this is not necessarily an atheist position as such; under universal pragmatics, atheism only makes sense within the natural world. Within the social world the best description would probably be agnostic, treating legal norms and institutional structures as if religion didn't exist at all. Of course, the provision of religious freedom under the legal norms of universal pragmatics implies that there is a right which includes the possibility of the wrong choices being made. However it is through free choice, and the consequences that arise, that the ability to voluntarily change one's religion can develop consciously. Support of rational approach to religious belief can then be achieved whilst the legal mechanisms are in place allowing people to hold to non-coercive irrational beliefs. After all, the 'right decision' can never be imposed upon others with any possibility of long-term success. If we respect our own ability to make free religious choices - and obviously the ability to choose none at all, we should also accord that right to others.

One particular orientation that could unravel this tenancy that has a degree of popularity among many secularists is the notion of 'capitalist democracy'; that is, the economic sphere of life is freed from public intervention and private profit is encouraged, whilst liberal rights are stripped away in the social sphere in favour of a 'tyranny of the majority' approach to norms. In the long run I believe that such a capitalist democracy would become a profit-orientated religious state and with all that implies. There is a particular importance then, for ensuring that the classical liberal rights are enshrined in our legal systems in a manner that protects from popularist vagaries - the only thing that really has saved the United States of America on so many occasions from sliding into totalitarianism is the first ten amendments to the constitution collectively called the Bill of Rights. Further, that modern, corrective, liberal rights are instituted in law for the time that they are necessary. For one of the lessons that has been learned through the experience of political-economy is that there are some areas of life (private ownership of natural resources being a particular case) which structural disadvantages occur and the classical model of liberalism is insufficient in these circumstances.

Two Contemporary Challenges

This brings the issue to two particular and very controversial topics of discussion regarding religious freedom. Firstly, the assumed right of religious education of children and secondly, the very strained relationship that religious organisations have with the principles and legislation of equal opportunity. A third possibility, the various exemptions according to religious organisations, is not discussed in this presentation because it is can be largely deemed as belonging to the same category as other non-profit organisations determined by the fact that any financial surplus is not distributed towards owners, whether private or public, but rather towards the socially-sanctioned goals. To be sure, there will be those who at the very least seek to provide themselves exceptional salaries in this regard, however this is identical to other tax-exempt not-for-profit organisations. Attention may also be drawn, in this context, to the tax-exemptions of humanist associations for educational and civil celebrant programs.

The issue concerning religious education of children is interesting because it involves so many claims; developmental psychologists have a particular opinion, parents often claim ownership of children with natal justifications, and the state, of course, expresses its interest in moulding the minds for the next generation. What is particularly interesting in much religious education is that it does not constitute the teaching of a civil ethics, for that can be surely conducted within a secular framework with comparative sources, or as a study even of religious literature in a comparative form, whereby the myths and legends are studied for their metaphorical connections to moral, aesthetic and factual lessons. Rather, religious education is typically only expressed as a single religious belief, through a religious school, and with young minds being solemnly told by authority figures that there is supernatural punishment for those who disobey the edicts of sacred texts and eternal supernatural rewards for those who follow them. This is more radical that the claims concerns of the Australian Council for the Defence of Government Schools, who famously argued that public funding of religious-schools breached section 116 of the Australian Constitution; a claim which they lost in the High Court 5-1, but where it is recognised that the public does not fund religious education components of such education. This is an express concern of whether children sought be taught supernatural speculations as fact whatsoever except in the context of engaging in comparative ethical systems and studies of mythic literature. The questions are posed: Is it not a form of abuse to teach such speculations to formative minds as if they were facts? Does it not damage their natural developing reasoning ability? Surely it is time that the questions are properly researched and, if it is shown that young minds are indeed damaged by such exposure, that public intervention is required?

The issue concerning the relationship between equal opportunity legislation and religious institutions has become particularly important with the government reviewing the relationship between equal opportunity and the current exemptions enjoyed by religious organisations from such legislation. In particular concern is asked why religious organisations are able to engage in lawful discrimination against people for what are activities of secular employment and so forth can and do face discrimination in employment by such religious institutions on the grounds of their faith, or lack thereof. A current government discussion paper raises the possibility of distinguishing between core religious activities, such as the appointing of people directly involved in ceremonial purposes and those who are engaged in more prosaic work. Many may rightly ask why such organisations are provided such extra-legal protection at all. If it is deemed that it would be thoroughly inappropriate for a local sports team to have a test of sexual preference before one is accorded the right to join, is to appropriate that a religion does the same to somebody whose employment is to mop the floors or trim the roses?

Freedom of and from Religion

Atheists have great opportunity in the matter of religious freedom. Typically there is a concern of ridiculing the articles of faith, and of course there is certainly something to be said for that. For many of us, it is somewhat difficult to believe the various sacred texts, or catechisms like the Apostle's Creed as being literally true. But it would seem that there is more mileage in debating the actual religious practises. Here atheists can simultaneously argue for freedom of and freedom from religious belief and the same for religious practise limited by universal rights. With this approach atheists can take something which religious thinkers often seem to believe is automatically conferred to them - the moral high ground. Atheists have the opportunity to argue that is not they who engage in terrorist activities and imperialist invasions with God on their side. Atheists will have the opportunity to argue "It is not us who tell falsehoods to children, presenting fantastic speculations to them as if they were fact". Atheists will be able say "It is not us that engage in prejudice and bigotry on the grounds of sexuality, gender, gender-identity, marital or parental status". By taking a strategy of winning the moral argument in the public debate, the stage is set to win the practical task in political reality - and if a few religious organisations along the way change their attitude on such matters (and some, like the one in who's hall we meet already have) - then that will count as a victory too. Changing social relations and social conditions is a far more important task than debates concerning the supernatural.

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