Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion

Among my memberships, I’m a life member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (atheists and agnostic members) and a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (religious and non-religious members). I believe I am more committed to freedom of religion than many if not most religious Americans.

I’ve found it strange when religious people say that freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion. I would agree if the statement meant that no one has a right to religion-free surroundings. After all, our Constitution doesn’t guarantee us a right not to be offended. That would be as silly as it sounds, but additionally and perhaps unexpectedly it would fly in the face of religious freedom.

Conversely, religious people have no right to be saved from expressions by the non- and anti-religious. (Vast populations dominated by Islam disagree with me on that, at least for anti-Islamic expressions.) In the past few years a number of freethought organizations abandoned their usual polite silence and paid for billboards with strong messages. (The organizations include American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, United Coalition of Reason, Americans for Separation of Church and State, along with others and their local and state or provincial arms. This is a multinational phenomenon, not just American.) Some billboards declared “Beware of dogma,” “You know it’s a myth,” “Good without god,” “Morality requires no supernatural supervision,” and many other messages, including the cleverly modified (from Dostoyevsky) “If God exists, everything is permitted.”

The backlash was quick and severe. Churches demanded billboard messages not be near them or near schools (apparently religious myths are more appropriate for children). Pressures on billboard companies led to contract cancellations, and vandals marked up or destroyed many of the messages. (On “Keep religion out of government,” religion was painted over and replaced with fags.) To their credit, while they disagreed with the messages, some TV-interviewed persons-on the-street said they stood behind the billboards as an expression of an American right. The matter was newsworthy enough that even I was called to do interviews for two Atlanta TV stations.

Religions, as I have pointed out, like so much to protect their turf that they have little compunction about stepping on that of others. How much they do, I suggest, is directly related to their majority in the population and indirectly to the degree to which freedom of belief and speech have been institutionalized. (Graphing the proportion of Muslims against the dominance of Sharia law in a society is instructive.) Having God on your side can excuse all manner of hurtful misbehavior. That is why Christians spread disinformation about trustworthiness of nonbelievers (simply untrue), about the clergy’s being the natural spokespersons on moral questions (ludicrous), and about how bleak are the lives of the unchurched (just wrong). It is why they assume the right to pressure legislators and magistrates to give churches special advantages not available to others (that point is worth a blog post all by itself).

The only persons who would not be offended by such strong-arm control are members of whatever religious group is being actively bossy at a given time. United States history is not short of examples in which a given religious group has curtailed another religious group’s freedom or right to full civic participation. Catholics and Protestants. Jews and Gentiles. Baptists and Episcopalians. Church of England and Unitarians. In fact, although we teach children that Puritans and Pilgrims came ashore for the enlightened concept of religious freedom, they did not. They came for their own religious freedom, not that of others, a realization that came at a high cost to Roger Williams. The persecution of religious sects in the United States has always been by those in opposing religions, not by the non-religious. By far, then, the greatest beneficiaries of freedom from religion are believers themselves.

The matter is a rather simple one. The freedom of persons in one instance of religion must entail freedom from persons of all other religions. I am not free to believe what I wish unless others are not free to compel me toward their belief, so freedom from the religion of X is necessary to the religious freedom of Y. The subtitle of Taking Liberties by Robert Boston says it well: “. . . religious freedom doesn’t give you the right to tell other people what to do.”

Freedom of religion cannot exist in the absence of freedom from religion.


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About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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