Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

One of the biggest problems facing Christians in the United States is a decreasing tolerance for religious viewpoints. More precisely, there is a decreasing tolerance for people actually living out the religious viewpoints that they claim to believe.

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio.

Image used by CC license. "It depends on the cage that you're in" by Guercio.

Part of the growing pressure on religion is the fallacious assumption that religious thinking is somehow in a different category than non-religious thinking. This assumption is based on a naturalistic worldview that assumes that anything religious is inherently fictitious and therefore arbitrary.

The denigration of religious freedom because of a dismissal of religion as a category fails to recognize the significance of freedom of conscience. It threatens the ability to live in a pluralistic society because it values one totalizing worldview over all others. Opponents of religious freedom think that infringing on the conscience of believers will make the world a better place, but they fail to recognize that religious freedom is simply a subset of freedom of conscience.

The Unfounded Assumption

Making the unfounded assumption that religious thought is somehow inferior to supposedly non-religious thought allows people to argue there is no valid basis for declining to purchase potentially abortion inducing drugs or distribute them to others. When someone makes the assumption that religious thought is purely fiction, then there is no basis for not preferring the supposedly non-religious thought that is dominant in society.

By this way of thinking, religion is just make believe. Therefore, if someone bases a moral determination about a medicine which terminates a pregnancy on that religious foundation, there is no reason to honor that belief. After all, morality based on the make believe doesn’t really count, does it?

But this sort of argumentation—more often assumed than stated—begs the question.

In other words, instead of considering whether someone may have a legitimate basis for choosing not to purchase drugs that may end the life of a child, it merely states that any grounds that do not support unrestricted abortion are illegitimate because they have a religious foundation.

There are several problems with this sort of argumentation.

What’s Wrong With Discarding Religious Reasoning

First, it is incorrect to assume that only religious arguments can oppose abortion. For example, using a basic Kantian categorical imperative, an argument can be made that abortion is wrong because if everyone killed their children, then the human species would die out. Unless that is a desired end, then there is a case to be made in opposition to abortion on non-religious grounds.

There are other cases than abortion inducing drugs in which arguments made on religious grounds could be made on non-religious grounds. The fact that many irreligious people have accepted the dominant worldview that truth is merely a social construct limits the number of people making reasoned arguments contra the current societal consensus. However, unless one assumes that the dominant social construct is always correct, there is little reason to reject all other thinking (religious or otherwise) based on the popularity of post-foundational epistemological assumptions.

Second, simply because an argument has a religious foundation does not necessarily mean that is invalid. In order to rationally hold that belief, one would have to first prove that the religion itself is invalid. While some are convinced that all religion is false, the vast majority of humans in the history of the world (including most currently living) do not agree.

However, the invalidity of religion is exactly what so many contemporary moral arguments in the public square simply assume. This allows people to reject arguments they find inconvenient based on the genetic fallacy, without considering the merits of the opposing position or whether there may be legitimate grounds for dispute. In other words, religion is false, therefore any arguments based on religious principles must also be false, therefore do what popular opinion in society demands.

This is Too Important

If these were merely internet chatroom arguments about the existence of God or the eternal nature of the human soul, then the fallacious argumentation wouldn’t be as dangerous. But the problem is much more significant.

The coercive power of the United States government has grown to the point that it is impacting life or death decisions. The current administration’s regulations that require the purchase of drugs that may cause the termination of pregnancy make a huge moral statement and place a grave moral burden on many believers.

This issue is not one of trivial concern, since it is literally a life or death issue. Those that hold that terminating a pregnancy is a moral evil have reasons for objecting on the deepest level to purchasing or distributing the means by which a life is unjustly ended.

But arguments that hold that abortion is wrong are most often framed in religious terms. In the contemporary social milieu, the assumption is often made that religion is fiction, therefore religious arguments are unimportant. Therefore, any accommodation for faithful religious practice that excludes the purchase and distribution of abortion inducing drugs is invalid.

This sort of argumentation is narrowly circular and fails by being insufficiently self-reflective.

What if every religion isn’t false? What if every belief system isn’t merely a social construct? What if the question of life and death is so important that there needs to be room for dissent, especially in favor of not contributing to needless deaths? What if the social construct that assumes that religion cannot represent truth is incorrect? What if religious and supposedly non-religious thought are in the same category?

These questions are typically not asked, nor permitted to be asked in public debate. Supposedly non-religious thought has gained the ascendency in popular discussions and religious liberty has been pushed into the corner. And yet, religious liberty is nothing more than freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Religion is Freedom of Conscience

Freedom of conscience requires that we do not coerce behaviors when there is a reasonable basis for objection. This is what allows someone who is a non-religious, consistent pacifist to be excused from military service. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the person’s thought, but freedom of conscience requires us to leave room for those who have reasonable objections to live consistently with their convictions. There are cases to be made for exceptional circumstances, where someone might need to be coerced, but those are exceptions to a general practice.

Freedom of religion is simply freedom of conscience built on a reasonable basis that is not purely naturalistic. Just as those who believe that eating meat is murder should not be forced to purchase meat for the office barbecue, those who believe terminating a pregnancy is murder should not be forced to buy abortion inducing drugs for their employees. Similarly, those who believe that some religious services denigrate their religion should be permitted to decline participation in those services.

Religion is not another category of thought from non-religious thinking. At least, it is not for those who actually believe what their religion teaches.

This raises an important concern. Couldn’t someone falsely claim their conscience did not allow something simply because of personal dislike or bias? Yes. However, just as we must allow for some abuse of the welfare system to occur so that a necessary safety net is available for those that actually need it, we need to allow for some abuse of freedom of conscience due to irrational and unjust biases.

This is part of the tolerance needed to live in a pluralistic society. There needs to be room for people to disagree with us, even if we don’t like the basis of their disagreement. This is especially true when it comes to issues of prime significance, like desacralizing religious ceremonies and issues of life and death. If people are not free to disagree in those significant issues, then there really is no room for freedom of conscience.

We need to learn to disagree with respect, but there needs to be room for open disagreement if we are to have any legitimate freedom at all.

Secularism is not the Answer

NOTE: This is not a post about Islam. Although the story that inspired this post was about opposing Islam with secularism in France, this is not a commentary on the validity of various forms of that religion.

I listened to an NPR story the week before Christmas that piqued my interest. The story was about an important issue in light the contemporary debate about religion, terrorism, and the public square. It dealt with an attempt by one French woman to promote secularism to young Muslims in France. 

The whole thing is about four minutes long and is worth a listen.

While the author of the article, Eleanor Beardsley, doesn't provide overt commentary on the woman's activity, this is an article that is promoting a particular view of religion. The activist, Ziaten, is promoting secularism and Beardsley is implicitly lauding it.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript that illustrates the argument:

Amand Riquier, the principal of the high school Ziaten is visiting in the northern suburbs of Paris, says so far, no students have radicalized. But teachers are always looking for the signs, such as a sudden and zealous display of religiousness.
Secularism is one of France's most important values, up there with equality, fraternity and liberty. In French schools, neither students nor teachers can come to class wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim veil or the Jewish skullcap.
Riquier says Madame Ziaten's visit is important.
"She'll be able to explain to them that secularism in schools is not meant to constrain their faith, but is a necessary principle for us all to live together in harmony and equality," he says.
Ziaten tells the students how she moved to France from Morocco at the age of 17. She tells the kids this country gave her — and her French-born children — every opportunity.
She says boys like Mohamed Mehra, and those who attacked Paris this year, were abandoned by their families and society. She says they are utter failures who know nothing about Islam.
Islam is not at war with Europe, Ziaten emphasizes. She tells the students that some are trying to turn Islam into an identity. But it's a religion, she says, and it's a private matter.
"Your identity is French," she says. "And you have a future to build in France."

Enforced Secularism

Based on this worldview, religion is a private matter. It doesn't belong in the public square. 

The argument here is that banning religious expressions in public is necessary for living together. The signs of trouble are when students begin to live religiously.

Used in unaltered form via Creative Common License:

Used in unaltered form via Creative Common License:

In other words, religion is ok unless you actually live like it's true. The only forms of religion that are acceptable, by this standard, are those that don't make a difference in the way that you live.

Unfortunately, that defies the very nature of religion. Every meaningful religion makes demands. Sometimes those are consistent with the standards of the world and at other times they are not. Telling people they can't live out their faith is telling them that their faith does not matter, and that their religion isn't true. That is problematic.

In this case, it makes the assumption that the values of secularism are superior to all other religions. 

The Values of Worldviews

There is no such thing as a neutral worldview. Every worldview has values.

Beardsley acknowledges this in her article, "Secularism is one of France's most important values, up there with equality, fraternity and liberty."

The naked public square isn't naked; it's filled to the brim with values that make totalizing demands on life. In this case, one of the most significant values is 'secularism,' which in this context appears to mean denying the significance of religion.

So secularism is making religious claims, but without the argumentation. This doesn't promote liberty, it promotes a tyranny of the mind and soul. It makes absolute claims on every part of life, but without the warrant for it.


I've heard it said that Europe is usually a generation ahead of the US culturally. Many people make moral arguments based on what Europe does, especially about social policies. The assumption appears to be that they are doing it right and the US is dragging behind. However, before we support the tyrannical secularism that France has, we need to consider whether true religious liberty should be sacrificed for that purpose. Not allowing people to practice their religion openly and being overtly hostile to public demonstrations of faith may make it easier to live together, but it may make it harder to live.

While France's anti-religious policies may limit the radicalization of Muslims in public, it may also override the basic right to a freedom of conscience. That seems a high price to pay for peace.