The terrible burden of religious persecution »« Priorities: Indigeneity or Secession?

The freedom of religion

I have to admit that I have a massive throbbing hate-on (read it again) for the phrase “freedom of religion”. It is an over-used canard that really has no useful value. The protection of a right to freedom of conscience, along with similar protections for speech, ensures that any religious belief or practice is protected. Carving out a specific protection for religion is redundant.

What it is a reflection of, as far as I can tell, is a cultural obsession with the totems and taboos of worshipping various failures of rational thought. We fetishize our ignorance, call it “religion” or “faith”, and then incessantly remind everyone how important and central it is to the human experience, to the point where people don’t know how you could possibly live a life without it. So of course it has to have special protection. After all, if we don’t protect something so essential to human functioning, how could we have any rights at all?

Bullshit.

And yet, we continue to do it. We enshrine it in our laws, we plaster it on bumper stickers, we even create entire government ministries to oversee it. An office, by the way, overseen by a person who is capable of saying stuff like this in public:

In too many countries, the right to believe in and practise one’s faith in peace and security is still measured in blood spilled and lives lost. This is not an abstract debate. Blasphemy laws target religious minorities.

And then saying this:

Nothing is easy. And you really only get one chance to get it right. We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.

Oh really, Mr. Baird. Thanks for pointing that out. Let’s look at a couple of blasphemy law cases then, shall we?

Greek Church charges playwright, actors, with blasphemy:

The actors and creative team behind a play that depicts Jesus Christ and his apostles as gay face charges of blasphemy in Greece, according to court officials.

The production of Corpus Christi, a 1997 play by U.S. playwright Terrence McNally, was greeted with protests by priests and the right-wing Golden Dawn movement during its run in Athens in October. The Greek-language staging was eventually cancelled earlier this month.

Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus launched a lawsuit against the production and called for charges of “insulting religion” and “malicious blasphemy.”

Because, and I think the whole international community can agree, there’s nothing more important happening in Greece right now than cracking down on people who insult religion. Even though the play is about political corruption. None of that in Greece though…

India arrests two for Facebook status:

Police in India have arrested a woman they say criticised on Facebook the shutdown of the city of Mumbai after the death of politician Bal Thackeray.

A woman friend who “liked” the comment was also arrested, they said.

The women, accused of “hurting religious sentiments”, were released on bail after appearing in court in the town of Palghar, police told the BBC.

Yes, it would be just awful if people were allowed to express dissatisfaction at things that are tangentially related to deeply held religious beliefs! Don’t you get how deeply they’re held, you guys? Deeply! Like… really deep!

It seems to me that religion isn’t exactly under existential threat here. If anything, it’s got quite a bit of muscle to flex. And while the supposed goal of this “Office of Religious Freedom” is supposed to be about protecting minority groups, Minister John Baird expresses this ‘freedom’ in explicitly faith-y terms. Not a freedom to believe and practice according to the dictates of one’s own conscience, but a freedom to “draw upon one’s faith to contribute to the greater good of society—something greater than oneself.”

I’m, it hardly needs to be said, skeptical.

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Comments

  1. Rodney Nelson says

    Many theists seem to think their particular religion needs protection from people who follow a different religion or even (gasp) no religion. As a result, blasphemy laws have become all the rage in various parts of the world. If their religion is so weak it can’t stand the slightest bit of ridicule or dismissal, then maybe it doesn’t deserve to be shielded.

  2. says

    “Blasphemy laws target religious minorities.” is an ambiguous statement. I would agree with it in the context that they target religious minorities for prosecution by the majority. Given the lack of context in this speech, it is difficult to tell what the speaker is trying to convey here.

  3. Riptide says

    This is further confirmation of the scintilla of evidence we saw with Mr. Harper’s victory speech, that he and his buddies really are a bunch of theocratic thugs at heart and would like nothing more than to turn Canada into Texas Junior, minus the (permanent) Mexicans.

    And it seems that the vast majority of Canadians simply don’t give a flying fuck that this government, elected with just over a third of the vote, considers itself to have an unassailable mandate to wave around its faith-based agenda. There seems to be not a single policy proposal of the Tories that is actually based on, you know, *evidence*. It’s disgusting. And John Baird is a mouth-breathing embarrassment to us all.

  4. steve84 says

    Freedom of religion needs to be turned back into what it used to mean: you won’t be jailed or executed for simply professing to belong to a certain religious group. Nothing more.

    Today – especially in the US – it has been perverted into “the freedom to do whatever the fuck I want” and “the freedom to oppress anyone I want” and “the freedom to ignore any laws I don’t like”

  5. says

    Baird states:

    We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.

    … wait, what?

    In private spaces, depending on the tastes of the owner(s), that’s exactly what it means.

  6. Julie says

    And it seems that the vast majority of Canadians simply don’t give a flying fuck that this government, elected with just over a third of the vote, considers itself to have an unassailable mandate to wave around its faith-based agenda.

    I would say it’s more likely that the vast majority of Canadians know there is absolutely nothing we can do about Harper. Once this party got its majority (even when it really isn’t) we lost any chance at being able to change what that dumbass party wants to do. I can write to my MPP but even if they agree with me there is bloody nothing they can do.

    We can just hope they don’t screw us up too much in the horribly long time left to them.

  7. says

    I’m surprised you missed it (or perhaps you’re saving it for a follow up), but even worse is that Baird goes on to say how “religious minorities” basically means Christians.

    Yet far too often those targeted are Christians.

    Christians, in particular, face persecution in countries around the world.

  8. says

    I did miss that. He’s not wrong when it comes to Egypt, and not exactly wrong when it comes to China. But he is wrong to look at Christianity in the aggregate and single it out as particularly persecuted.

  9. Sastra says

    Not a freedom to believe and practice according to the dictates of one’s own conscience, but a freedom to “draw upon one’s faith to contribute to the greater good of society—something greater than oneself.”

    A freedom, then, to violate the separation of church and state by claiming you are simply “drawing on” your faith. What a convenient way to avoid accountability.

    Secular philosopher Austin Dacey is right. Religion can’t be considered the most important source of knowledge and inspiration and yet treated like a private and personal hobby. That isn’t going to work. If it’s that important it will bleed — should bleed — into what is neither private nor personal. Debates and arguments about the truth of religion therefore need to be dragged into the public square and put out into the open — just like we do with every other claim of truth. That means blasphemy is allowed.

    “Freedom of religion” can’t mean we treat religion as sacred. The sacred is not “sacred.” When it is, it’s inconsistent with freedom, for freedom entails the right — and the ability — to dissent. I see the same problem you do.

  10. says

    Maybe I’m just being bombarded by images and messages of indigeneity and Earth-worship because it’s the second time this year people are “celebrating” the arrival of the first Settlers on North American soil (i.e., giving “thanks”, not acknowledging what they should actually be grateful for — like having access to clean drinking water, literacy, and the freedom to be whoever you choose without having your life micro-managed by a government that has the explicit intent of assimilating you — and then going into a tryptophan-induced coma instead of doing anything to give back to the people who died defending the carving out of this space for everyone else)…

    BUT…

    I have to say it seems transparently clear to me that Baird is only interested in defending the freedom to be Christian. And that was my impression even before reading the quote Ian picked.

    Then again, I’ve sat many times next to a desecrated gravesite that is still under 24/7 surveillance by the indigenous community who descended from the people (un)buried there. It’s been over 200 days now, and they still haven’t been re-buried, the government keeps approving ways for the whining fucking condo developer to stall (they’re really just trying to break the will of the people whose ancestors are laying there), and the condo developer has absolutely zero interest in permitting the indigenous people waiting and watching there to observe their traditional burial rites in the resolution of the problem the condo developer created hand-in-hand with the province’s Premier (who is a white chick who thinks she’s Filipino).

    I might be a little mad. I can certainly appreciate your feelings towards the phrase “freedom of religion”.

  11. says

    Bingo. All the rights and freedoms that religion — either as institutions or as personal belief and practice — can legitimately claim in a free society are covered under other rights such as speech, assembly, and (probably, though I haven’t thought this through enough) some reasonable accommodation for conscience. There is no need and significant mischief in valorizing religious freedom as an enumerated right among the others.

  12. says

    Taken in that context, I can see where the objection to that phrase is coming from. As it was highlighted originally, I don’t see the problem with it: blasphemy laws by definition target religious minorities, by defining blasphemy in the context of the local majority religion. That’s why we shouldn’t have them. Given the rest of his statement’s though, I get the impression that Baird doesn’t have any intrinsic problem with blasphemy laws, just with the ones that are written by non-christians.

  13. Sastra says

    Too often “religious freedom” is translated as “the freedom to worship God according to your conscience.” If they’re trying to sound liberal, they’ll say it’s “the freedom to worship God (or not) according to your conscience” — so that even the atheists are included.

    But wait! Did you spot the trick?

    Yes … I thought you would. The existence of God is assumed. We start there. Then we worship, acknowledge, pay tribute to, recognize, follow, believe in God — or not. But the “Freedom of Religion” definition sets up the situation in favor of the theists as if there’s no controversy over whether God is. All the dispute comes down to what God is like, with the atheists refusing to acknowledge God at all. Which they are free to do, according to the freedom of religion. Nobody is forced to believe in God, even though He is of course real.

    I hate that. It’s as subtle as a jackhammer — but all they hear are the sweet tones of liberty.

  14. F says

    I have to admit that I have a massive throbbing hate-on (read it again) for the phrase “freedom of religion”.

    Yeah. It should be “freedom to relig”.

    We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.

    I know, right? Because freedom to relig means being able to go religging all up in people faces. (Which is why “freedom of religion is more than freedom of speech or conscience.)

    Golden Dawn

    They do realize that the name of the group is blasphemy right there, right?

    Even though the play is about political corruption. None of that in Greece though…

    Not at all. Not from the bottom to the top, or anything. Not a nearly 100% corrupt society duking it out with each other.

    Police in India have arrested a woman they say criticised on Facebook the shutdown of the city of Mumbai after the death of politician Bal Thackeray.

    Because some deeply held beliefs trump others. It really does matter who is disrespecting whom.

  15. steve84 says

    They actually hate the phrase “freedom of worship” because it implies that religion is a private thing that only happens in churches. To them they have the freedom to go out into the world and force their nonsense on everyone.

  16. says

    Good point. The phrase “freedom of religion” is kind of an anachronism.
    It more or less captures the feeling of the brits who colonized America. They were running away from a Britain where essentially everybody was christian, but large numbers of people were killed in battles over which form of christianity would be the “established” church. Many died as the winds changed directions, be they catholic, CofE, puritan, calvinist, …
    So the original sense of “freedom of religion” would be freedom to choose which flavor of christian to be.

    Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience should cover our needs pretty well, and “freedom of religion” should go onto the shelf up next to that moth-eaten stuffed owl.

  17. jedibear says

    This doesn’t look as alarming to me as it seems to to you.

    It’s worth noting that “freedom from religion” is ambiguous. It can be parsed at least two different ways, and I’ve seen it used in both ways.

    In the first usage, typical of atheists, it’s technically a subset of freedom of religion, no one is compelled to believe anything or to practice in accordance with any belief. This usage sticks out of that speech like a sore thumb. It’s not inconceivable that it was meant that way, it just seems unlikely.

    There is a second way to parse “freedom from religion,” and religious people do typically parse the phrase differently. In this second usage it refers to a society free of religion, either the extinction of religion or the prohibition of it. This usage fits the speech better, a religious person assuring religious people that the force of the state is not needed to assure the continued existence of religion and will not be turned to extinguishing it.

    Now, to freedom of religion, since you’ve got that a little wrong. Freedom of religion encapsulates two rights in a religiously plural society: freedom from compulsion to religious practice (disestablishment, protected by our “High Wall of Separation”) and free practice of religion. These rights are incompletely protected by such rights as freedom of speech and assembly and as such a right to freedom of religion is not notionally redundant with these. A freedom to assemble does not imply a freedom from being compelled to assemble for religious purposes. A freedom of expression does not protect religious (or anti-religious) practices that are not inherently expressive in nature.

    Freedom of religion is not intended and is not generally taken to include a freedom from compulsion for legitimate secular reasons, including to protect the rights of others. Religious freedom does not protect religious killings, for example.

    If your Canadian institution follows the lead of our American institution it will to all appearances generally be a force for good in the world, promoting religious pluralism (and consequently secularism) globally with the diplomatic weight of a first-world power.

  18. tussock says

    Come on people, freedom of religion is thing that was big in colonial times. They’d just done two centuries of genocidal wars in Europe entirely about which layer of nobility got to decide which flavour of Christianity everyone in an area had to follow. They seriously butchered tens of millions of people in arguments about how exactly each principality of Germany would have its local monopoly on religion determined.

    That’s how the US ended up with so many funny little cults early on, they were the people in Europe who refused to change religion when the local head of state decided they had to.

    Blasphemy laws are the opposite of that, they were a tool to protect the local King’s decision making from criticism: it was the King’s religion, so it was equally beyond reproach with the King, and anyone who said otherwise was probably plotting something nefarious (which they often were, modern nationalistic propaganda quells such plots much better than the old purges).

  19. says

    I’m a little uncomfortable with how a non-specific protection of freedom for religion would be used against minority religions in practice. In Merika, we’ve had enough trouble with allowing muslims practice as is. Without a specific protection for religion, I suspect we’d go well out of our fucking way, as a government, to stonewall them; say, preventing muslim or buddhist, or hindu preachers into prisons to convert the prisoner population.

    If your Canadian institution follows the lead of our American institution it will to all appearances generally be a force for good in the world, promoting religious pluralism (and consequently secularism) globally with the diplomatic weight of a first-world power.

    You have no idea what the actual situation is with Meriken on the ground in afghanistan, do you? Because I’ll give you a hint: it’s not that, at all.

  20. says

    Without a specific protection for religion, I suspect we’d go well out of our fucking way, as a government, to stonewall them; say, preventing muslim or buddhist, or hindu preachers into prisons to convert the prisoner population.

    Wow… You must not actually pay much attention. This crap is at least “attempted” all the time in the US, and in some places, its done all the time, where they can conveniently claim, “Ah, well, we didn’t look to hard, but we couldn’t actually find any non-Christians to pray in the state legislature, before we voted on that new abortion law.” But, yeah, its a BS bit of special pleading that cuts both ways. On one hand, it keeps the sane people from committing the truly crazy ones for proper medical treatment in the US (resulting in them instead getting jobs in government), but it also has kept the crazies from committing the sane people instead.

    Unless you are arguing that, in the US, removing the law would be a disaster, but.. well.. That is about like arguing that the problem is removal of fire extinguishers, in a paper mache house, not the fact that we spent 200 years inventing new, and more flammable paper, instead of figuring out, like most of Europe did (ironically, because they actually had state religions), that maybe we needed to stop building houses out of fraking paper (i.e., treating every cult, mythology, etc. as though it was gold plated, for 200 years, until even the people reapplying the gold leaf went, “Wait.. you mean that if I get to slap my views on a billboard, or bumper sticker, or bus, those other damn people get to do so to?! Oh, hell no!”

  21. says

    Ah, I was unclear. I am paying attention, and a bit more nakedly, rather than covert jackassery to minority religions, we’d see more overt gestures from the government. With all due respect, I’ve seen all too frequently how we establish Christianity in our Criminal Justice systems and in our military, so I’m aware we already way overstep our bounds; I’m pretty sure it’d be even worse if there weren’t a specific protection for religion.

    Technically, abortion laws are worded secularly, so that’s not really the same issue at all, though.

    instead of figuring out, like most of Europe did (ironically, because they actually had state religions), that maybe we needed to stop building houses out of fraking paper (i.e., treating every cult, mythology, etc. as though it was gold plated,

    Not to belabor the point, but on paper, religions in europe have roughly equivalent protection as they do in the USA. Europeans are not, on average, as religious, but legally they enjoy protected status, just as they do here. Granted, unlike here, it is somewhat conditional; the church of lawology was hurled out of Germany, for instance, but not until they did their usual criminal bullshit – they were just fine preaching that aliens are responsible for human souls until they were kidnapping people.

    So if we built our house out of paper by acting like religion should be protected out of freedom, so did they.

  22. steve84 says

    Freedom of religion only became relevant in the US in the 18th century. In the 17th century there was none. All of the Puritan colonies were theocracies. They didn’t want freedom of religion but the freedom to persecute anyone they didn’t like. The first colony founded with freedom of religion in mind was founded by people who fled from the Puritans: Rhode Island. Their neighbors obviously hated them.

  23. lirael_abhorsen says

    Well, in the US, there’s the Establishment Clause, which as an atheist I consider really important for protecting my rights.

    On the whole, I don’t want to get rid of “freedom of religion” protections, even if some idiots use “freedom of religion” to mean “freedom to have Christian supremacy and never be called on it”. I’ve read my share of 1st Amendment law. I think the Christian supremacist stuff would be even worse in the US without that bit.

  24. says

    Not to belabor the point, but on paper, religions in europe have roughly equivalent protection as they do in the USA.

    No, we went farther, because while it may be “protected”, over there, its not presumed that its something that has to be “in your face” all the time. That is our cultural quirk. That we have been, for a long time, so willing to ignore/avoid/dance-around things, like Scientology’s criminal activity, claiming that its OK for them to do things to each other, as protected, that we would arrest anyone else for, for example, that the general public has never come out and said, “Enough is enough.” Even now, one whole political party has become infested with those who don’t believe in environmental issues, think wars are fine and dandy, and that economics, and just without the violent pillaging, should revert to the days of warlords, nearly half the public stood up and went, “Gosh, sounds great.”

    So, maybe Europe still uses paper mache, but they have, as a result of being badly burned a few times, fireproofed the paper, and stopped, for the most part, lighting matches. We here in the good old US, react to this with, “Oh, no one would be ‘that’ stupid.”, on one hand, and, “Here, have some more matches!”, on the other, and then, when something burns down its, “It couldn’t have been them. Sure, they where lighting fireworks in the house, but no, it had to have been those ‘other’ people down the street, who don’t even own matches!”

    Because, after all, religion is specially privileged, so **nothing** can be its fault. Somehow.. I don’t think that argument would fly very well in most of Europe, regardless of what is says “on paper”.

  25. says

    Except that, I suspect, given that the people who would do such things represent a tiny percentage of the population, without the clause, their actions would take less that one generation, maybe two, to eradicate any sympathy anyone currently has for their views. Its precisely the fact that, outside their own backward communities, they can’t act, and cause suffering, to the rest of us, which has resulted in the perception, on their part, that it would be tolerated, and on everyone else’s part, in presuming that its isolated lunacy, which will never effect the rest of us.

    No, the sane people have them vastly outnumbered. But, even a lion looks “friendly”, if the only place you see it from is the outside of the cage its in. That is what the clause is, a thin cage. With it in place, we can sit back and think, “Well, yeah, that’s nuts, but at least it will never get out.”, even while one of them are chewing through the bars (i.e., becoming governors, or running for president). So what if, as long as parts of the cage are still intact, like the courts (oops.. how many morons do we have on scotus now?), etc., they are still muzzled, to some extent, they are still being “allowed” to claw at everything through the holes in the cage. And, I am not so sure those holes won’t get drastically bigger, with the wrong sort of people in public office.

    The clause won’t do a damn thing, if they are tolerated right up until they can ignore/append it. Are we sure its protecting, and not simply created a false sense of security?

  26. jesse says

    Late to this, but I think there’s a lot of issues here with the way people discuss this.

    First a bit of history: the reason there is an establishment clause in the US Constitution is precisely because nobody could agree on an established church. While some states had one for a long time (Virginia was one) the idea of a religious test for federal office fell flat because people realized that it would not work, and could not, given the fractious nature of the states at the time. Now, they were thinking, likely, of various Christian sects/ denominations.

    But the reason they carved out a specific space for religion was that, for example, in England, the principle of freedom of speech was already well-developed — a good chunk of the argument for such was based on a lot of English tradition, which the Founders then expanded on. But it should be clear that even after freedom of speech was recognized as a right in England, it wasn’t until 1829 that Catholics, for example, were granted the right to own property. That alone should demonstrate why disestablishment and anti-establishment clauses are important. But in the US the anti-establishment clause has been an important part of protecting minority religions — as well as atheists. (See: Madeline Murray O’Hair).

    Now, one can get into a whole discussion of the truth claims of religions an how they are all wrong. I submit that the reason we carve out a special spot for religion in most western democracies (and some non-western ones like Japan) is precisely that the truth claims can’t really be tested. That’s just the way religion is. Or rather: the truth claims can be tested in a scientific sense, but that doesn’t matter.

    When atheists, especially of the scientifically inclined variety, bemoan that people are idiots for believing in something like that, I’d argue they missed the point entirely. The reason people band together in religious groups has very little to do with the specific claims of any religion. Heck, the Navajos don’t (supposedly) have a word for religion. Yet I don’t think you could argue that their practices aren’t religious.

    Every human society has developed something like a religion. There are lots of epistemological reasons, but again, given that whether or not the Earth is 6,000 years old has very little bearing on my ability to go buy groceries in the morning, I don’t think that’s why Christian fundamentalists like to hang out together.

    That would say to me that religious communities appear because they are communities — like-minded people who fundamentally, like hanging out together.

    We atheists/skeptics do the same thing. I like to go meet with other science writers and the fact that I like sharing a beer has zero bearing on the relative robustness of quantum theory, and while I dig physics the fact that QM is a good descriptor of the world has nothing to do with why I like sharing that beer.

    And it is the fact that such communities exist that we do need to carve out a space for freedom of, and from, religious practice. Because it is a central piece of human development whether we like it or not. It is a fundamental way people build communities, whether we like it or not. And those communities deserve protection.

    Do religious nutjobs in the majority like to try and get around this? Yup. They do. And in the US, anyway, the First Amendment’s establishment clause has been instrumental in stopping them.

    You think that Native communities deserve to practice their religion and culture without interference? The establishment clause makes that possible, even if they had to fight for it. The application of constitutional rights to the states (14th, 15th, 16th Amendments) meant that the established church was no longer possible in Virginia. No more religious tests for office, then. Which also protects atheists.

    Given that atheism is by definition a lack of religion, then it’s vital to have a “carved out” space that protects exactly that, especially since most people come from cultures where religion is kind of important — even if the specific claims of that religion don’t impact daily lives.

    By the way, this doesn’t mean you can’t criticize the way religions work. But criticism of the truth claim is easy; many of the claims religions make are moral claims, and those aren’t as amenable to scientific scrutiny. (I’d argue that any moral claim is fundamentally a priori and basically made up, but that’s another discussion). Cultures pick moral claims and practices because they work. If they didn’t people wouldn’t do it because you’d starve or nothing necessary could get done, like building a shelter or caring for children. That’s a whole other discussion, tho.

    And again, it’s why an anti-establishment clause is important. It gives a starting point so that competing moral claims can find a way to work together in a democratic-like system.

    sorry, end rant.

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