Freedom from religion 12

Can you call yourself free if restrictions are put on your freedom?

We of The Atheist Conservative say that a person’s freedom should be limited by nothing but everyone else’s freedom.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia seems to have a different idea of what freedom means.

He grants that with the first amendment the Constitution enshrines the principal of freedom of religion, but according to reports (see below) insists that “freedom of religion” does not include a right to “freedom from religion”.

So you are free to worship something or other, but not free to worship nothing.

How many ways can the idea be expressed? You are not free not to worship anything at all. You are not free not to worship. You have to worship something. It can be anything at all, but you must worship it. Hold it sacred. The thing. Or the person. Or any number of things or persons. You are Constitutionally obliged to consider it or him or her or them divine.

You are perfectly free to decide which it or him or her or them you consider divine. But you are not free to consider that nothing is divine.

You may choose (for instance) an abstraction, a dead Jew, a rock, a wooden or plaster or cloth or straw or polystyrene object, a devil, an ancestor. Or any number of the same. Or even  a mixed bag of all of them – a Deity Allsorts.

That is right and proper and permitted by the Constitution of the United States. But you cannot deny that something or someone is, or a bunch of persons real or imaginary are, or at least that a state of mind can be achieved in which you understand that absolutely everything is, divine.

Not, anyway, according to the Constitution.

Which logically means that the Constitution forbids you to refrain from worshiping something. If you do, you may be in breach of Constitutional Law. 

And it may follow that the thing you must worship must also be honored with the performance of rites.  Simply believing it to be divine may not be enough. To be religious you must follow some ritual of worship. Otherwise you could just claim to worship your Aunt Sally and never do a thing about it. Even your Aunt Sally herself, if she’s alive on this earth and not moved on, or over, or through, or up to another (imaginary but Constitutionally-acknowledged) world, might not believe you are really sincere.

And this from a judge we have held in high esteem? Did he really say something that implied all that? What in fact did he actually say?

The Washington Times reports only these words of his:

I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over nonreligion.

And MSN interprets his words like this:

Defending his strict adherence to the plain text of the Constitution, Scalia knocked secular qualms over the role of religion in the public sphere as “utterly absurd,” arguing that the Constitution is only obligated to protect freedom of religion – not freedom from it.

He probably meant nothing more, after all, than that religious groups may put up their shrines and symbols in public places, and publicly display mottoes with religious references, and that atheist protestors have no grounds in law for objecting.

Austin Cline, who is an atheist, agrees with this view in an essay titled What is Freedom From Religion? But he discusses much more than that issue.

He writes:

Freedom of Religion Requires Freedom From Religion

Conservatives insist that the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, and argue against strict separation of church and state. Too often, though, conservatives seem to have a flawed understanding of what freedom from religion really entails and fail to realize that freedom from religion is crucial to religious liberty in general.

It is evident that a person misunderstands the concept of freedom from religion when they say that promotion of the idea is part of an effort to eliminate religion from the public square, to secularize America, or to deny religious believers a voice in politics. None of this follows from a belief that people have a right to be free from religion.

What Freedom From Religion is Not

Freedom from religion is not a demand that one never encounter religion, religious believers, or religious ideas at all. Freedom from religion is not freedom from seeing churches, encountering people handing out religious tracts on the street corner, seeing preachers on television, or listening to people discuss religion at work. Freedom from religion is not a demand that religious beliefs never be expressed, that religious believers never voice an opinion, or that religiously-inspired values never have any impact on laws, customs, or public policies.

Freedom from religion is thus not a social right to never encounter religion in public spaces. Freedom from religion has two relevant aspects: personal and political. On the personal level, a right to be free from religion means that a person has the freedom not to belong to any religion or religious organization. The right to be religious and to join religious organizations would be meaningless if there did not exist a parallel right not to join any at all. Religious liberty must simultaneously protect both the right to be religious and the right not to be religious at all – it cannot protect a right to be religious, just so long as you pick some religion.

What Freedom From Religion Is

When it comes to politics, the freedom from religion means being “free from” any government imposition of religion. Freedom from religion does not mean being free from seeing churches, but it does mean being free from churches getting governing financing; it doesn’t mean being free from encountering people handing out religious tracts on a street corner, but it does mean being free from government-sponsored religious tracts; it doesn’t mean being free from hearing religious discussions at work, but it does mean being free from religion being a condition of employment, hiring, firing, or one’s status in the political community.

Freedom from religion isn’t a demand that religious beliefs never be expressed, but rather that they not be endorsed by the government; it’s not a demand that religious believers never voice an opinion, but rather that they not have a privileged status in public debates; it’s not a demand that religious values never have any public impact, but rather that no laws be based on religious doctrines without the existence of a secular purpose and basis.

The political and the personal are closely related. A person cannot be “free from” religion in the personal sense of not having to belong to any religion if religion is made a factor in one’s status in the political community. Government agencies should not endorse, promote, or encourage religion in any way. Doing so suggests that those who accept the religious beliefs favored by the government will, by extension, be favored by the government – and thus a person’s political status becomes conditioned on their personal religious commitments.

What Religious Liberty Is

The claim that the Constitution only protects “freedom of religion” and not “freedom from religion” thus misses an important point. Religious liberty, if it is to mean anything, cannot merely mean that the state won’t use the police to stop or harass adherents of certain religious ideas. It must also mean that the state won’t use more subtle powers, like those of the pocketbook and the bully pulpit, to favor some religions over others, to endorse certain religious doctrines rather than others, or to take sides in theological disputes.

It would be wrong for the police to close synagogues; it is also wrong for police officers to tell Jewish drivers during a traffic stop that they should convert to Christianity. It would be wrong for politicians to pass a law banning Hinduism; it is also wrong for them to pass a law proclaiming that monotheism is preferable to polytheism. It would be wrong for a president to say that Catholicism is a cult and not really Christian; it is also wrong for a president to endorse theism and religion generally.

This is why freedom of religion and freedom from religion are two sides of the same coin. Attacks on one ultimately serve to undermine the other. The preservation of religious liberty requires that we ensure that the government not be handed any authority over religious matters.

Cline also sets out this for our enlightenment:

Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

In 1779 as a member of the General Assembly, James Madison supported Thomas Jefferson’s historic Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom; after Jefferson left for diplomatic duties in Europe in 1784, Madison became the bill’s prime sponsor. Enactment failed every year from June 1779 until it was finally adopted in January, 1786.

The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was an important milestone in establishing religious liberty in America and disestablishing official churches.

The Act has questionable opening lines – but read beyond them.

The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom.

Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free;

that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do;

that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time;

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical;

that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind;

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry;

that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right;

that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it;

that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;

that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;

that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

“Errors cease to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship … but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions on matters of religion.”

Could freedom of speech be more plainly or strongly supported than by those statements?

They mean that we must be free not only to hold any opinions whatsoever on religion, but also to express them publicly whenever and however we choose.

The time may not be far off when humankind as a whole will be free from religion; when people will learn about the irrational beliefs their close ancestors held with passionate conviction and be amazed that in an age of science they could have swallowed such nonsense.

 

(Hat-tip Don L)

  • Frank
    • Thank you, Frank. The linked article does quote a bit more of what Scalia actually said. His words really do justify the worst interpretation and strong protest. We urge our readers to go there.

    • liz

      Good article. Thanks.
      Why is it so hard to get even Supreme Court justices who are impartial? The religious activists are as bad as the leftist activists.
      And it’s not as if advocating impartiality by government between believers and unbelievers would do any harm to religion, anyway.

    • Don L

      Thanks Frank…for both the info and for the link to the site.

  • liz

    Great piece! Really clarifies a lot on this issue. I hope Justice Scalia comes to this view of it. Also needing to educate themselves on this are the atheists (the “American Atheists”?) Who seem to think that freedom from religion means they have a right not to see or hear anything religious ever.
    And Muslims are described perfectly here – “…all attempts to influence (the mind) by temporal punishments…tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness…”

  • Don L

    Well presented!

    The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. — Jefferson

  • REALBEING

    “Can you call yourself free if restrictions are put on your freedom?”

    Only if those restrictions are reasonable and reciprocal, in that they are in place to keep myself and other individuals from imparting our restrictions on what limited freedom that myself and others, as individuals, can realize.

    • Don L

      Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

      No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.

      Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves.

      All are Jefferson quotes.

  • Christ deuZige

    This is exactly the issue i’ve been getting myself worked up over more and more over the past few decades. To me it feels like the constitutional freedom of religion, which we in the Netherlands have pretty much the same as the US, doesn’t apply to atheists. I want to be free from religion, and live my life without religious influence.
    The main difference between the US and the Netherlands being that in this country the Atheists form the largest group in the population, religiously speaking. We form 47% of the population where the other 53% is devided up into Catholics, protestants, muslims and “other”ians.
    Being the majority somehow doesn’t mean that we get any say in matters like this though. And that really pisses me off.

    • But 47%! That’s really good. Surely a big enough part of the population to start swinging things your way? Are you atheists making a loud enough noise in the institutions? It’s only the atheists who can save Europe from the spreading cult of Muhammad. No one else has an effective counter-argument, since one irrationality is no more valid than another.

      By the way, we enjoy the irony – as perhaps you do yourself? – that your first name is Christ. Or is it a nom de plume?

      • Christ deuZige

        lawl. It’s my real honest first name. I do enjoy the irony though, even when i’m always late picking up on it.

        About that noise making…. not so much. We atheists here suffer from a WWII taboo driven overtolerance and irrational respectsyndrome.

        • Don L

          Interesting. In the US most of those claiming atheist are leftist. They too exhibit an overtolerance and respectsyndrone…to their own (everybody’s) detriment.

          I posit that atheism is the product of rational and reasoned thought. It is the rejection of the irrational. Further, the processes that lead to atheism would also necessitate the rejection of leftism (overtolerance and respectsyndrone). Concluding, those holding to leftism are in fact not atheists…they have merely swapped beliefs: ghost in the sky for the delusion of social justice. Both are faith-based idioacy.

          So, 47% atheist might only be 10 percent and 37% dumbasses!