Freedom from Religion

Revere writes about a religion panel on CNN that berated an atheist family that got ostracized when it complained about officially-sanctioned prayer in public schools, and concluded that freedom of religion doesn’t exist. The money quotes from the panel are,

Hunter: I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they’re being imposed upon. I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools. I would rather there be some morality in schools. But they did that because an atheist went to court and said their child — don’t pray.

Schlussel: Listen, we are a Christian nation. I’m not a Christian. I’m Jewish, but I recognize we’re a Christian country and freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.

Freedom of religion means that one has the right to practice one’s religion, within reasonable legal parameters. Choosing to eat kosher food falls under freedom of religion; stoning unchaste women doesn’t. That right appears in every liberal democratic constitution I know of, along with freedom of speech.

Freedom from religion means that one has the right not to have another religion imposed on him. This is somewhat fuzzier, since a lot of religious restrictions have ostensibly secular purposes. But even then, it’s usually possible to tell intuitively what violates freedom from religion and what doesn’t. Requiring all women to wear hijabs does, as does pressuring children to pray in public schools. Having no non-kosher restaurants in the neighborhood doesn’t.

That freedom is just as legally enshrined as freedom of religion. Sometimes, it’s enumerated explicitly in a constitution. At other times it’s not, but is inferred from other freedoms: freedom of speech, privacy, freedom of religion, and so on. In the US there is no explicit guarantee of freedom from religion, but there is a guarantee of the closest principle, separation of church and state. That ensures the state may not impose religious restrictions that have no clear secular purpose.

We can bicker about what “secular purpose” means, but usually the best appeal is to the justifications people give for a restriction. Restrictions on abortion or stem cell research are often motivated by religion, but justified by appealing to a secular principle. The same applies to some obscenity laws, especially those about the media. In contrast, bans on homosexuality and sodomy laws are almost exclusively justified by talking about God, which makes them impositions of religious values on the general population.

In principle, it’s possible to have freedom of religion without freedom from religion. In practice, it never happens. When there’s a sufficiently strong state religion, it always uses its power against other religions. Saudi Arabia doesn’t content itself with legislating the Shari’a; it also forbids Jews and Christians to establish houses of worship. In the West, Christian fundamentalists are at the forefront of the movement to turn Muslims into second class citizens.

Illiberal people tend to have an annoying tendency to see things in terms of power rather than of liberty. It makes them sound realist, but in fact they aren’t. Instead of seeing the world as it is, they deduce that what happens in realpolitik is a good moral compass. People seek unlimited power; therefore, our group should seek unlimited power.

Talking about one’s freedom to have a public school impose one’s prayer on everyone is dishonest. It’s not a question of freedom but of power, since the essence of that power is to deny freedom to others. Christian parents who use their power to enforce Christianity on atheist children are looking for freedom to the same extent as white families that prohibit blacks from living next door.

17 Responses to Freedom from Religion

  1. Totally agree with ya. The whole “majority rules” idea is not always ethical. And having freedom OF religion should entail being free FROM bullying by other (more powerful religions.)

    Also, a friend and I were talking about atheism and agnosticism.. namely, are they religions? What do you think?

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Not really. Religion is typically defined by belief in one or more gods, which atheism and agnosticism lack. It’s also very much wedded to culture; Christianity and Islam have basically identical metaphysical conceptions of the world, but are nonetheless distinct cultures. Atheism is just a metaphysical position, like theism, so it’s not a religion. You could argue that there exist atheistic religions – maybe Confucianism, or even Buddhism – but atheism and agnosticism themselves aren’t religions.

  3. Tomas says:

    The title “Freedom from religion” put me into fear. but I am happy for it was in vain. As I understood, you call not to disbelief, but to the purity of faith. God looks not for religiosity of our countries but for personal, exclusively voluntary response of each believer, who welcome other with love but not a threat.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    What purity, and what faith?

    What I call for is for religious people to stop imposing their views on the rest of the population.

  5. What I call for is for religious people to stop imposing their views on the rest of the population.

    Shut up you fundy atheist Jew liberal god-hater. You already have enough reasons to kill Jesus when he comes back, but here you go trying to strip us of our political hegemony. I’ll pray for you.

  6. Monkey says:

    Tyler DiPietro,
    In great honesty I do hope you pray. Pray, pray, pray. Pray so much that you spend your entire day(s) inside a stuffy patriarchal building with expensive windows and stay off the street and stay out of the lives of people who are trying to live free of mythical constraints. Pray so much that your knees know only pain and your voice knows only rasp – it will keep you from talkng to me and others who need not hear the regurgitated espousal of a man who is comming back to life. Have you and your myth believers not yet done enough damage to the psyche and geopolitics and environment and culture and … of the world.
    Now, go pray. I am going outside and I dont want to run into you.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    Monkey, Tyler’s joking. Check out his blog; he’s far from a religious fundamentalist.

  8. Don’t worry, Alon. I thought it was a pretty obvious jest, but I chalk up the confusion to parody being so close to reality now of days.

  9. The whole issue turns on what is coercive. Is it coercive if the class valedictorian wants to pray at graduation? Or the football team’s captain wants to lead a prayer? I tend to think people are strong enough to handle hearing a prayer spoken out loud. It is little different than having to deal with hearing opposing views spoken.

    However, I don’t mind schools not allowing prayer in the classroom as long as they don’t try to prevent students from meeting and praying VOLUNTARILY on school property.

    Good blog!

    -J. Kaiser

  10. However, I don’t mind schools not allowing prayer in the classroom as long as they don’t try to prevent students from meeting and praying VOLUNTARILY on school property.

    This is exactly the case with me. Prayer should be allowed in school providing 1.) it does not disrupt regular school activities and 2.) it is not officially sanctioned by the faculty of the school or anyone in another official capacity.

  11. Monkey says:

    Sorry..new to this blog and, well, I bunged it up. Tyler, my apologies.

    Herein lies the danger of sarcasm!

  12. Ultimately it is the children who are subjected to this thing called “prayer”. It is a childish thing; that is to say a naieve thing to want to believe that only good should go to those who are sorely in need of help. There is another side to prayer than just the humanitarian side; there is the “gratitude to God” side where one asks God for thanks. Again no problem aprt from one: which God. In a Catholic school it would be the Christian god, for example. That alone should be enough to axe prayer in school.

  13. jen says:

    anyone get this :Nothing is not. Nothing does not exist apart from the ‘word’ that should not exist. Nothing is not, not in this whole universe. For if nothing existed in this universe, nothing would exist. But are we not, is this world not. No, no nothing at all.

    ‘its only a word game no need for fuss, think nothing of it, if you can.’

  14. Joe says:

    In all likihood any mature adult/s that specialize in freedom against religion are low self esteemed individuals that in most cases blame society for their personal downfalls & high self pity. Being the unfunctional people that you are have found a cause that potentially has the most worthiness of being controversial.
    This U.S. was built on solid principles of rights that included GOD that unfortunately gives you freedoms of spreading this nonsense.
    Here’s something never heard is a freedom from religion protestor whine or cry about :”Having a day off from work that has been set aside in recognition of the birth of Jesus Christ call CHRISTmas DAY.”
    If freedom from religion fanatics are unsatisfied with your lives you also have this right. The right to leave this country!!!

  15. MarkDC says:

    Religion is mostly a cultural thing — meaning, men act that way, to get laid. Whatever gets men the most power, prestige, and pussy, is what men tend to do.

    Women seem to really believe in religious nonsense. Men seem to know its nonsense, but wisely pretend to do along, cause that maximizes their efforts to get power, prestige, and pussty.

    You think if Osama Bin Laden was born a black brother in South Side of Chicago, he wouldn’t be rapping his head off, or playing basketball, or selling drugs — whatever got him the most power, prestige, and pussy in THAT culture? Of course he would.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a god. Who the hell knows? But that doesn’t matter, if there were a god, or not, men would STILL be doing whatever gets them the most power, prestige, and pussy, in that culture, that they can.

    Its just the way things are.

    Islam is a gutter religion because the WAY men get power and prestige and pussy is SO oppressive, it stops women from giving the power, prestige and pussy. Women have no say.

    In most of non Muslim world, women really decide who to give their favors too. Over time, this has made men do things that women approved of. And that had a corrective, healthy effect.

    But Islam stops that process. Islam is so oppresive, women don’t get to decide.

    There are all kinds of cultures — hip hop culture, sports culture, celebrity culture, army culture, police culture, political culture. All cultures are really reward systems — loops of behavor, where men do xyz, to get the power prestige and pussy. Women are the real reward, the favors and attention of women. Whatever women reward in the culture, men do, and in fact compete like crazy, to get the affections of women.

    When you start to understand what a culture is — described above — you can start to understand why Islam is still stuck in the dark ages. Other cultures have evolved — men had to change what their behavior was to get the women. Not in Islam. The guy who gets the most power, prestige, and pussy in that culture, is the guy that is more radical, more extreme, that dominates more.

    Good luck dealing with Islam.

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