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The loveless marriage: 'religious' and 'freedom'

By Hugh Harris - posted Wednesday, 23 December 2015


On Monday 30 November, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, issued a media release outlining the initiatives resulting from the inaugural Religious Freedom Roundtable held on 5 November 2015.

As an attendee representing the Rationalist Society of Australia, I was heartened by the constructive and secular attitudes of many of the 36 faith and non-faith groups who were there. Any misgivings about the value of such a discussion, or fears it was driven by a particular agenda, were quickly assuaged by a robust and freewheeling debate.

But there was still a common misunderstanding that religious freedom applies mostly to believers in god, and that the beliefs of those who intersect with them are not quite as important. Believers have consciences. Did non-believers miss out? It's hard to break out of the habit of regarding "conscience" as something belonging to believers only. But that's only an echo of the past. People have rights. Abstract ideas don't have rights, nor do they confer them.

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Moving forward, how we choose to understand the term religious freedom is key. In public discourse it's often the vehicle delivering the religious conscience to the public square. Especially in the US where, for example, the Manhattan Declaration used it to legitimize civil disobedience in opposing same-sex marriage, and pro-life causes. But this is not what religious freedom means.

The unhappy marriage of the words "Religious" and "Freedom" is one of convenience.

And there's no doubt who wears the pants in this relationship. "Freedom" is a grand and illustrious word, the torchbearer of human rights, and the aspiration upon which nations have been built. "Religious" adds little to its lustre, but rather, basks in the radiance of its virtuous benefactor, invoking a dissonance reminding us of times when it was more often associated with words like "persecution", "blasphemy", "heresy", and "war".

Thomas Jefferson, one of the authors of American freedoms, observed that "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government".

It's better to think of religious freedom as freedom of belief. That way, it's less likely to be used as a Trojan horse to favour religion.

Religious Freedom is derived from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which safeguards the right of "freedom of thought, conscience and religion". Freedom of thought is in fact the true progenitor of freedom of religion – which tells us that, amongst the maelstrom of beliefs, religious beliefs have no special currency. And that's why Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly protects faith and non-faith based beliefs equally.

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One would have thought that this settles the matter. Article 18 also says that freedom of religion or belief has limits prescribed by law or to protect safety, order, and the rights and freedoms of others.

So why then do we still hear "religious freedom" invoked a by faith groups when they are in conflict with the law, or with the rights of others? I was curious to hear what acrobatics might be employed to justify this rendering of religious freedom.

At the Roundtable some faith groups argued for the "religious freedom" to act in a way consistent with their "purpose". Understand "purpose", in this context, to refer to an organisation's mission, vision and values.

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About the Author

Hugh Harris is a freelance writer who owns a blog called The Rational Razor on philosophy, and rational thought, and is a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

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