Religious freedom is self-contradictory?

February 2, 2010

Is too much religious freedom a bad thing? Can a liberal democracy really accommodate religious freedom? A long-standing argument that a country must have pretty much the same basic religion surfaces time and time again.

Over at the American Catholic blog , we read that

there is a built in contradiction in the place of religious freedom in classical liberalism: While religious freedom is a central element of classical liberalism, the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview. Thus, while religious freedom is a foundational element of classical liberalism, only a certain degree of religious conformity makes it possible.

This argument collapses simply by noticing that its author needs you to assume that a moral / philosophical worldview is the same thing as a religion. But that just isn't the case. Morality is not the same as religion -- just ask the many nonreligious people who manage to be quite moral all on their own.

If a democracy's citizens all believe that everyone should have the freedom to practice their own religion, that belief is not a religious belief. It's a moral belief, and if it is enshrined in a country's basic laws, it is also a political belief. No shared theology or religion is implied at all.

The author does make a point that an immense moral chasm between two groups in a country will make governing impossible. The post continues:

If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams.

But this is just a theoretical point, without any substance. What actual fundamental disagreement is tearing this country apart? The author doesn't say -- yet we might now perceive a clue to what is really going on here.

Is this author speaking on behalf of fellow Christians? Maybe some Christians are feeling like they are suffering under an unacceptable tyranny, because they can't agree with the basic moral and political convictions of a democracy. Such as keeping religion out of public governing, and keeping government out of private religion.

But that just means that such Christians don't like liberal democracy, and not that liberal democracy suffers from some internal contradiction or imminent collapse. We may conclude that the foundations of liberal democracy remain (secularly) firm.


#1 CybrgnX (Guest) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 at 6:37am

Yes you can have religion freedom IF….
They are treated like any other business…NO special favors for anyone!!!
ALL must follow the law of the land…i.e. if the law says no murder allowed and your religion wants human sacrifice…well tough-you can’t.
The problem with the US is that it tries to accommodate religion rather then just allowing any in accordance with the law.
The law says no cruelty to animals then Voodoo can not slaughter chickens. No building higher then 3 stories….then the religious phallic symbols have to be cut back.
Treat ALL equally under the law!!!

#2 batticus (Guest) on Wednesday February 03, 2010 at 7:38am

Religious freedom was codified back when religion was something internal. It should be clarified to reflect those original intentions (freedom to create a club :

- freedom of speech
- freedom of thought
- freedom of assembly

Freedom to override existing laws was not part of the package and this is where the posted article predicts problems (rightly so).

#3 Austinfidel on Wednesday February 03, 2010 at 3:27pm

“What actual fundamental disagreement is tearing this country apart?”

I would submit this is exactly what the religious right is trying to do with issues like abortion, evolution, school prayer, gay rights and many other issues.

#4 JohnnyCrash on Friday February 05, 2010 at 11:42am

Their point about morality is usually based on a few fallacies. The first is that religion preaches a better morality. Having studied the bible for many years, I can attest to how immoral it is. What it teaches as moral is attrocious and would be too long to list here. The good it does preach is less, in scope and quantity, than the bad it espouses.

The second is the Christian’s misconceptions of morality. The morality many Christians ascribe to does not even match what the bible actually teaches in too many cases. A second misconception is that Atheists are immoral. The Christian is basing this on assumption. In fact, most of society’s generally shared morals, Atheists ascribe to as well (murder, theft, and adultery are wrong, etc) without the flimsy guidance of some ancient book of violence, myths, and superstitions. The third misconception is that Christians are more moral than others. Christians, in practice, make just as many moral mistakes as others. Some cheat on their wife. Some lie and steal. Some of the most devout, homosexually rape little boys while hypocritically preaching homosexuality is wrong. Rwanda and other attrocities were helped by Catholic priests who were hidden by the Vatican.

It can truthfully be argued that the vast majority of wars and major attrocities are driven by the ideology of religion - not skepticism, nor atheism, nor science.

As far as their second point about a “moral chasm,” it is clear that the founding fathers considered religion to be a personal and individual matter. Government on the other hand, was meant for ALL people. As such, no individual rights should be impeded by others. In this regard, the point about the “moral chasm” should be bridged by equality under the law. Where the chasm opens is in the Christian’s refusal to understand this principle and their resorting to intolerance.

For instance, allowing gay couples to marry, adopt orphans, or serve in the military does not impede on the rights of those individuals who disagree with such practices - the Christian. They can still believe what they like and teach their members not to participate, or even support these activities. Instead though, the Christian impedes on the rights of others by invoking “morality” in their robbing others of these rights.  They should live and LET live in this lifetime, and they shouldn’t presumptuously rob their mythological god from his judgment day (vengeance is supposedly the lord’s purview at some later date).

As far as legislation and morality, there are two important facts. First, that nobody will agree on every single item. Even Christians, of different denominations or of the same, disagree (I know many Catholics who feel birth control is OK). Second, that the morality of legislation is meant to protect society as a whole. Therefore, the morality of legislation must, by nature, attempt to accomplish these three things: allow for such differences/disagreements, protect society (from rapist, murderers, etc), and balance this by protecting individual rights (it can be said that protecting society IS protecting the rights of individuals).

Thus taking the example above, homosexuality is not degenerative to society. It is not contagious. Orphans adopted by gay couples do not become gay anymore than straight couples’ children do. They do not learn that murder, theft, or cheating on a loved one is OK. These orphans’ rights to life and happiness are protected. Gay couples will not rape, murder, or steal anymore than straight people would. Prop 8 though, robs rights from gays and does not protect society since there is no threat.

On the flipside, allowing your son to be alone with a priest is definitely a threat to society (whether by the indoctrination of intolerance, or by the immediate physical danger).

Thanks for this article John.  Sometimes reading, thinking, and responding is as good as a double espresso… can you tell I’m still in my PJ’s, pining for coffee, and trying to wake up HAHA!

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