The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of religion as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”
The constitutions of many nations (for example: Canada, USA, Germany, Britain, etc), grant their citizens the right to freedom of religion (FoR). In a previous article, Six Reasons to Burn the Bill of Rights, I suggested that FoR was neither good nor possible. To be more specific, freedom of religion encounters two problems 1) freedom of religion is impossible, and 2) limited versions of freedom of religion cause social problems. Here are 8 reasons freedom of religion should not and cannot be granted.
NOTE: I am not saying that all religious people are bad or that any particular religion is bad. This is a philosophical discussion about the ethical/legal notion of freedom of religion, not an attack on any particular religion.
1. Freedom of religion is inconsistent with itself
A simple thought experiment supports this point. Freedom of religion implies that each individual has the right to choose what, if any, religion s/he practices. Suppose part of practicing a religion involves indoctrinating (i.e., brainwashing) one’s children into one’s religion before they have developed the analytical thinking skills to choose a religion (if you can’t think of a religion that does this, look to your own). The contradiction should be obvious: if society allows the brainwashing, the child’s right to freedom of religion is violated; if society disallows the brainwashing, the parent’s right to FoR is violated. Because granting freedom of religion creates this logical contradiction, freedom of religion is impossible.
2. Freedom of religion is inconsistent with itself – AGAIN
FoR implies that people will not be discriminated against based on their religions. Again, a simple thought experiment reveals the difficulty: suppose a religion mandates discriminating against other religions. If you allow members of religion A to discriminate against members of religion B, you violate the rights of members of B. If you disallow said discrimination, you violate the rights of members of A. Thus, yet again, FoR creates this logical contradiction and freedom of religion is impossible.
3. Freedom of religion is inconsistent with itself – ONE MORE TIME!
FoR says that anyone can change your religion anytime. What if one’s religion forbids changing to a different religion (or says your family is to kill you if you try). Here again, whether or not changing religions is permitted, society violates freedom of religion.
4. Reasonable limitation to freedoms impossible
To summarize the above three points, FoR is impossible because religions violate the clauses of FoR. Often, a free society is considered one in which people can exercise their rights as long as they don’t violate the rights of others [quote UDHR]. So you might be thinking, that the above points are invalid, because people can have freedom of religion and just keep it to themselves and not interfere with others. I’m sorry, religions don’t work that way. Society doesn’t get to say, “you are free to practice your religion as long as we approve of it.” That’s not freedom of religion. Religions involve the systematic manipulation of others, especially children.
The above reasons explain why freedom of religion is impossible. Even if it were possible, (or if I haven’t convinced you) here are some reasons freedom of religion is socially undesirable.
5. Immoral Religious Practices
Some African religions practice scarification and female genital mutilation. The latter is among the most despicable practices I can imagine. Many religions actively subjugate women and persecute homosexuals. Many people argue that the Jewish custom of circumcising babies is immoral, citing evidence that penile sensitivity is reduced in circumcised men. Islam recommends beating children and, in some interpretations, killing those who renounce their faith. Many religions support forced marriages (a euphamism for continuous legal rape. Freedom of religion means permitting religions practices whether or not you agree with their morality, and I for one am not OK with this. Now, you might argue that people shouldn’t be able to break the law in the name of religion, but they would argue back that any law that violates their right to practice their religion should be struck down as immoral or against the country’s constitution. Dear US Citizens, how do you feel about the neighbors mutilating their children because the so-called brilliant founding fathers said freedom of religion is a basic human right? Dear Christians, if you think that all the immoral religious practices belong to other religions, go reread the above discussion of brainwashing children. And if you think that following your religion cannot be immoral because the religion defines morality, read the next section.
6. Religion corrupts notions of morality
I’m not going to present arguments for this, I’ll let various religious texts speak for themselves, and the reader can make up his or her own mind.
“Thus saith the LORD, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 11:4-6) – God executes the premeditated mass murder of innocent children of innocent parents to punish their rulers. Sounds like terrorism to me.
“whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words… It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.” (Matthew 10:14-15) – God will destroy anyone who does not listen to Jesus and his disciples – do you listen to homeless people ranting about God?
“Allah chargeth you concerning your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females” (Quran 4:11) – Men should get twice as much inheritance as women.
“tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or
… or their slaves” (Quran 24:31) – their slaves???
“for it (America) is a choice land, saith God unto me, above all other lands” (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 10:19) – God prefers the USA to all other countries.
7. Religion as a human rights blank cheque
Societies go to a lot of trouble trying to figure out what rights, freedoms and privileges to bestow on citizens. Then comes FoR. Religions are made by people. More specifically, religions contain sets of practices, mandated by people. When a society grants freedom of religion, it grants the creators of religions the power to make up whatever additional rights they want. If your religion says you can’t work on Saturdays, then forcing you to work on Saturday is illegal. What if your religion says you have to burn large wooden crosses and have a public orgy once a year? What people seem to forget is that religions are just sets of practices and beliefs that some individual made up. By granting freedom of religion, you write people a blank cheque to make up their own rights. If you don’t think some whacko can just invent his own religion, you might look into the Church of Scientology…
8. Atheism associated with better societal health
So here’s an interesting idea: religious leaders sometimes try to demonize atheists by arguing that atheism is associated with disintegrating morals in society, but the evidence is all to the contrary (Zuckerman 2005) (http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521842709):
“High levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, and low illiteracy rates, as well as high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism. In some societies, particularly Europe, atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the world – particularly nations with high birth rates – atheism is barely discernable.”
While this does not demonstrate that atheism causes societal health, it dismisses the myth that atheism somehow undermines society.
Freedom of religion is impossible because it is inconsistent with religions themselves. Even if it were possible, it would be folly because religious practices have the potential to be, and often are immoral and barbaric. When theists argue that lack of religion causes societal degradation, their claims are simply groundless. It makes no difference whatsoever whether you think these are fair criticisms of your religion. If you think any of the points above could apply to any religion that currently exists or could exist in the future, the argument still holds.