Freedom of Religion: a Flawed Concept

“It’s my religion.”

If there exists a more nebulous defense of the entire spectrum of potential human actions, from the inane to the decidedly evil, I certainly am not aware of it. Religious beliefs are given extreme deference in America, even by the the non-religious. We’re bombarded by saccharine pleas from Disney and other factories of infantile pop spirituality to “just believe in something”. And then that belief is used as a universal defense for any action that results from it. Further, it is posited that this faith is beneficial because it constrains people and gives them reasons to be good. Faith defines what is good, is a defense for things that otherwise seem bad, and constrains people to its self-created definitions of goodness. Confused? Good. You’re sane.

So engrained are the ideas that belief justifies actions and that morality is the product of belief that believers often wonder why non-believers don’t just go around murdering people. After all, if there is no eternal judgement for your actions, no belief in a higher power, why be good? Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov pondered thusly: “Without God […] everything is permitted.” An exploration of natural morality is a topic for another day. What concerns me now is the implication — nay, the claim — that religious beliefs constrain people. Sure, a particular religious belief might constrain a particular religious person. But take a step back. Look not at a specific religion, but on the concept of religion itself. What is there to constrain religious belief?

Religious beliefs are, rather by definition, irrational, which is to say that they are primarily based on faith, not facts. And what is to constrain faith? Faith is an internal conviction that springs up outside of a system of strict evidentiary truth seeking. The ultimate answer to “why do you believe?” has to be “because I believe”. Sure, in practical terms, it’s correct to say that most believers believe because someone told them to believe, or because they had an emotional experience that swayed them to belief. But why did they choose to embrace that idea? Well… believers just believe. You have to just have faith.

Freed from any need for a deeper explanation, faith is completely and utterly unbounded. You may believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, or that girls should have their clitoris cut off, or that God wants you to exterminate the Jewish people, or that humans were formed 7,000 years ago from dust, or that insulting the prophet Muhammed should be a capital offense, or that your children should not get medical care or blood transfusions. These are all real religious beliefs. But their spectrum is not constrained by what beliefs have yet been claimed. The spectrum is constrained only by the limits of any one human being’s credulity. And there are some stupefyingly credulous people out there.

Which brings us to “freedom of religion”. In the United States, the first amendment to the Constitution states that Congress can make no law “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”. Thus, people are said to have freedom of religion: to practice their religion as they see fit.

How are we supposed to square the ideas of human rights and rule of law with the idea that religious practice cannot be prohibited? These ideas cannot avoid conflicting. Driving drunk? The Lord spoke to you, and said “verily I say unto you, if you can enter a vehicle under thine own power, thou art good to drive”. Want to suck the blood off of a baby’s penis with your mouth and give him a herpes infection which kills him? Oh, that one’s real. What could not be defended by saying “that’s my religion”? How do you even begin to draw a line that makes sense?

This is the problem. Religious belief is carte blanche to do anything. Ivan Karamazov was wrong: it is not God’s absence which permits anything, it is the unbounded and socially excused concept of religious belief that permits anything.

Of course, people should be free to believe what they want. That’s not freedom of religion — that’s freedom of thought; a foundational freedom. Probably the foundational freedom. That people are free to think what they want does not mean they should be able to do what they want. Rights and laws don’t just go away because you have a mystical idea in your brain that contradicts them. That’s not how a civilized society, ordered around the idea of human rights, ought to work.

Thus I would like to encourage people to start thinking of “freedom of religion” as just “freedom of thought”. If your rituals and worship and the exercise of your belief are lawful, and mindful of human rights, go ahead. Worship away. But if your religious rituals or the exercise of your beliefs violate the law, or violate people’s human rights, you shouldn’t be able to jump to “it’s my religion” as a defense. Because it’s not a defense. It’s a declaration that you’re above the law or that your unfounded beliefs are more valuable than someone’s natural rights.

Comments

  1. says

    All human rights, defined in law, are predicated on the idea that they, if exercised, do not violate someone else’s.

    So, burning a flag as free speech is, of course, protected. Burning your neighbor’s flag, without his consent, is not.

    I don’t see any real difference, or danger for that matter, in the 1st amendment’s religious freedom mandate. As long as the exercise of that religion doesn’t harm someone or volate their natural human rights, the government should have no business restricting or prohibiting it. But that really applies to ALL our rights, not just the religious ones.

    • says

      I don’t see any real difference, or danger for that matter, in the 1st amendment’s religious freedom mandate.

      Because it’s not restricted in the way you’ve described. It’s held up as special. For instance, look at the whole Catholic Church vs. PPACA brouhaha. They’re claiming that because their objection to a contraceptive coverage stipulation is religious, it deserves special privilege. As if a position somehow becomes worthy of legal protection just because its provenance is mystical. No. Religion should have no bearing on it. Either they have a sound objection based on the law and/or natural rights, or they do not. Religion should be held up as a magic weapon.

      • says

        Like it or not, Mark, the constitution guarantees the free practice of religion. Honestly, I’m not sure we even need to get to the question of religion to conclude that the state shouldn’t be able to compel commerce., but that it does violate the conscience of some is without question. I don’t see how forcing you to buy something you find repugnant is any different than destroying some of your property.

        Some might also argue that citizens shouldn’t be compelled to fight in wars either, something that has as its foundation religious beliefs.

        • says

          Like it or not, Mark, the constitution guarantees the free practice of religion.

          Well clearly I don’t like it. :-) Or rather, I think it is sloppily defined.

          Some might also argue that citizens shouldn’t be compelled to fight in wars either, something that has as its foundation religious beliefs.

          There are many reasons for not wanting to fight in a war. I’m not religious and I think compulsory service is immoral. Does my objection carry less weight because it isn’t a religiously-based conviction?

          I don’t see how forcing you to buy something you find repugnant is any different than destroying some of your property.

          I actually agree that lawmakers overstepped their bounds here (the entire idea of mandating that one purchase insurance, I mean). I just don’t think Catholics should have any special ammunition in that argument just because their objection is religious.

      • says

        Because it’s not restricted in the way you’ve described. It’s held up as special.

        I’m not so sure. You don’t REALLY get to claim religious exemption in court for something like murder or theft. It IS properly restricted.

        I think your objection might be that anyone should have to claim religious justification for doing things that they OUGHT to have the right to do anyway, regardless of religious affiliation. But alas, we have devolved to a place in American society where claiming religious exemption is the only thing keeping the government from dictating the minutiae of what insurance plans you can and can’t offer your employees.

        I’d call that a symptom, not the illness.

        • says

          I think your objection might be that anyone should have to claim religious justification for doing things that they OUGHT to have the right to do anyway, regardless of religious affiliation.

          I have that objection in certain cases, yes. Where the law is stupid, and only the religious get special treatment. So I might object to both the law and the exemption. In other cases, I only object to the unfair advantage given to the religious. Check out this IRS bullshit. Get out of taxes free form for clergy and members of religions that object to public insurance plans like Medicare and Social Security. “It’s my religion, man”. Or not being able to be fired for refusing to work on a religious holiday. “It’s my holy day, man”. Those are both cases of the religious using their “freedom of religion” to violate other people’s rights (equal protection, and property rights, respectively).

        • D. Miller says

          Well, it might not be murder or theft, but a case comes to mind that Dawkins mentions in The God Delusion where a particular teenager gets appointed the religious right, by the Supreme Court to wear a shirt with an antisemitic text to school. This was not a freedom of speech issue, because the remarks were discriminatory, but a freedom of religion issue, and he won.

        • D. Miller says

          I forgot to mention he was christian. The shirt said something like ‘The jews killed christ and so they are bad’ or some such. I’d have to look it up.

  2. says

    “So engrained are the ideas that belief justifies actions and that morality is the product of belief that believers often wonder why non-believers don’t just go around murdering people.”

    Friend of mine asked me this question once. My response was to ask him if his Christianity was the only thing preventing him from killing me and eating the flesh from my bones. He actually responded in the positive at first, and I had to point out how screwy that idea was to stay with before he got the point.

    Still, I only meet up with him in public places since then. Just in case.

    • says

      I had the same thing happen to me. I used the “Come on, if you weren’t a Christian, you wouldn’t be going around murdering people, would you?” She responded: “I don’t know… I might… because I’d probably be feeling really lost.”

      Slowly… backing… away. No… sudden… movements.

  3. Rob says

    I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I think you’re painting with too broad a brush. Religion can be an enabler for wickedness, no doubt, but it isn’t always that ,which is what you suggest.

    I’m an atheist, but I was raised Lutheran. I asked my pastor at one time what he thought the purpose of religion was. He said it was about cresting a community around a set of beliefs that inspire people to do good works. Charity and the like. That always made sense to me, even as I rejected what was to me the cloying spiritual aspects.

    Celebrate Jesus’ birth by going to church and pretending to eat his body and blood? Not for me.

    But a voluntary organization of people promoting kindness? Charity? Compassion? I don’t think that’s something even we atheists have to be hostile toward. As with everything else, religion is filled both with good people and assholes.

    • says

      But a voluntary organization of people promoting kindness? Charity? Compassion? I don’t think that’s something even we atheists have to be hostile toward. As with everything else, religion is filled both with good people and assholes.

      Oh, I absolutely think that we’ll lose a lot as a society if we let this part of religion (the community) die as the superstition inevitably fades away. That might be a good subject for a future post — the need for community in a post-religious world.

      I’m all for promoting charity and compassion. But that’s the really nice side of the religious spectrum. There’s also a lot of hatred, and violence, and anger, and disinformation. But forget all that. We could trade “but look at all the good/bad things that ____ does” examples all day. My point here is not that religion is bad, but that it is carte blanche. It’s just a way that people say “I believe this because I believe this”. And it doesn’t make sense to treat this as a defense for one’s actions or as a special dispensation to break the law or otherwise get special treatment.

  4. Steveorevo says

    …more value than someone’s natural rights.

    And there lies the problem; definition of “natural” rights. Frank Lloyd Wright said, I believe in god, only I spell it N-A-T-U-R-E, but then you are back on the religion train. One could embrace “science”. Granted with caution as it has been equally abused. Some may say for even more heinous acts then religion alone (Nazi genocide, removing of the disabled). Ironically, history has often combined the two: Mayan and Aztec prophets were also astronomers that knew the seasons and forecasted winters for political gain.

    • says

      Well sure. Properly recognizing natural rights is the huge struggle we have as humans. No, science isn’t a system of morality. It is a way of critically examining the universe. But science can certainly inform morality by providing information. We have a pretty good sense of innate morality. We understand that we have more of a moral duty to humans than to dogs, to dogs than to mosquitos, to mosquitos than to bacteria, and to bacteria than to rocks. That just makes intuitive sense. But science can help explain that in terms of cognitive abilities and capacities for joy and suffering. The societies you mentioned: Aztec, Nazi — they may have had a leg up on science, but they were dogmatic, and had fear as their primary impetus. We need to keep science and lose the dogma and the fears. Data, empathy, and an open mind are ingredients for a better society and a better understanding of morality and rights.

      • Ethan says

        “We have a pretty good sense of innate morality.”

        That’s true, but only to a point. It’s an easy thing to say when looking at life through the lens of the modern, Western world. Yet not every culture views morality the same, so some of that morality is culturally influenced, and doesn’t end up looking much like what we would call morality here.

      • Amin Riadh says

        “That people are free to think what they want does not mean they should be able to do what they want. Rights and laws don’t just go away because you have a mystical idea in your brain that contradicts them. That’s not how a civilized society, ordered around the idea of human rights, ought to work.”

        Why should your “Secular” values have any more credibility than mine? The reason West adopted Secular political system is with agreement of the Church – else if they didn’t – the majority of Christians could have adopted any systems they wished. Democracy – will of the majority. Basic human rights – only work as most humans sign up to them DESPITE their beliefs.

        Dawkins, for example, used to advocate that religious instruction/indoctrination should be banned for children. In other words, his view should be imposed through the back door. Dogmatic? Very.

        • says

          Why should your “Secular” values have any more credibility than mine?

          I’m going to presume that you meant your (non-secular) values, based on the scare quotes. And the answer is that non-secular values, by definition, contain a mystical component — something about them that is defined outside of the framework of nature and the universe. That’s not to say that all secular values are philosophically and morally sound. They should be analyzed and challenged. Some will fail to stand up under scrutiny. But they will at least attempt to establish a rational basis for their existence. Non-secular values contain philosophical and rational capitulation right in their very name. You could summarize secular values as “X because {reasons}”, and non-secular values as “Y because {magic}”.

  5. Vritas says

    If one believes in nothing then anything is possible. God did not inspire the ovens in the concentration camps. It was those who did not and attempt to restrict and ban religious beliefs. One can tell the quality of any system by the fruit it bears. One only look at the 20th century to see what the rationalists have provided for mankind. With the exception of Islam, I know of no religion that preaches war and other attributes more commonly found in law schools and courthouses than anywhere else.

  6. says

    You see, it might seem that some people need religion (fear) to be nice. In my opinion, that’s just not true. We are all nice as kids? Aren’t we? What changes?.. Well.. social programming kicks in with messages like “you should feel like this/that!”, “You should be/think like this/that” and so on..
    We have more and more expectations from us and the world, and, when they are not met.. we say that we or others are bad.

    Anyways, my point is that we could be just fine, even without religion IF we could see the world from an “I am OK – You are OK perspective”. So, if someone kicks us in the but, is he okay? Well, yes, he is. His behaviour however, is not!

    So, you are free to believe (in) whatever you want to believe as long as you respect me as a human being and do not try to impose your believes on me (ie. I am OK but you are not OK. Let me show you how to be okay. Poor you, you need to be saved!).

  7. says

    Fascinating! My clients ask at times, “can I raise a baby as moral if I am not a Christian.” Yes, I say. Morality & kindness are not only a function of religion, they are hard wired into some humans. It’s the ones who are not, who create the problems. I think the Golden rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you, is a basis for morality. I think religion often inspires extremism.
    I also believe that religion is distinct from spirituality, which I think is a mystery.

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