Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Freedom of Religion -- By Colin G

In the United States, freedom of religion holds an exalted place both in the founding documents of our government and in the minds of our citizens.  That is not to say this freedom is never threatened; there are plenty of political leaders who are even proud of the persecution they encourage.  But outside an unfortunately vocal fringe group, freedom of religion is still a tenet of American society, conservative and progressive segments of that society alike.

But should it be?

Suppose that tomorrow I convert to the Order of the Unicorn, a religion requiring me to worship the one and only Unicorn (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!), a process requiring me to take every Friday off as a holiday, and Thursdays too, should the weather be pleasant.  Taking the idea of freedom of religion to its logical conclusion, no employer could discriminate against me for my religious beliefs in the Unicorn, nor could they impede my ability to observe my holy days.  Since the state has no more ability to ascertain my true beliefs than to change them, this inevitably leads to a compromise of the ideal.  This compromise is the selection of either particularly popular religions, or religions that do not conflict with state traditions (for example, the five-day work week).  And here we see the first difficulty of the principle of freedom of religion.

To illustrate the second major difficulty, suppose instead of converting to the Order of the Unicorn, I have no religious epiphanies, but instead I want to see my son play baseball on some Friday afternoon.  My place of employment is closed on Christmas, even though that day is not a holiday for me.  But I have no right to take a few hours off of work to support my son.  The state, effectively, is imposing religious values, in fact specifically Christian values, by dictating that the celebration of some long-dead shepherd's son is more important than my own son.  To this difficulty, the laws of supposedly enlightened governments offer no compromise.

The special place for freedom of religion, therefore, cannot be defended.  Note that I am not arguing that the state has any right to interfere with the freedom of belief; such interference is ineffective, harmful, and delusional.  Nor am I arguing for any actual curtailing of religious freedom.  What I have tried to show is that anything currently protected by religious freedom, at least anything that in fact deserves legal protection, must be protected instead by secular civil liberties.  Only when such a system is in place will atheists be treated equally by the law.

If you are a young non-theist who wants their voice to be heard, consider submitting an article of your own to Generation Atheist. Visit our submissions page for details.

Tomorrow: Art and Religion by Caroline K. Another quick note, the blog is still going through its techy phase, so if you arrive and there's something weird here, don't worry - everything will be sorted out in the end. Hopefully. 


  1. I agree, there is far too much respect afforded to religious ideas. I think there is a distinction between respecting a person, and their right to follow whichever religion they choose, and the ridiculous respect given to ideas purely because they are religious in nature.

  2. In the particular situation you described, I feel like there might be some doubt as to how others would react. Certainly, the Order of the Unicorn is no more abnormal than other, more "accepted" religions, yet I have no trouble imagining an employer refusing you time off for Unicorn worship rather than going to a traditional church—though a court might uphold your rights, the initial reaction would likely be one of disbelief.

    There are certainly places where society is too accommodating of religion, but it's also worth noting that some religions are afforded more rights than others. As you noted, Christmas is a government instituted holiday, yet my family must obtain permission to take off Pesah (a Jewish holiday) from their respective employers, and those of secular values are afforded no similar special rights.

    The solution, from my point of view, is to limit the ridiculous accommodation of religion altogether. Certainly freedom of religion is an important tenet of society, one that I will fight for tooth and nail even if I don't wish to practice it myself, but there are certain extremes that are senseless. If a boss would scoff at the idea of allowing you work off to practice a non-traditional religion, then why is it acceptable to ask no questions around Christmas or Easter? Why is this somehow less sacred than a family occasion?

    What makes religion so untouchable?

  3. Just had a thought: this is kind of like what people are trying to do through the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Part of that is about showing how ridiculous religious privilege is.