“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.