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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Freedom of religion and belief

I did a twelve-hour shift yesterday to finish my submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission project on freedom of religion and belief. Honestly, I did intend to stop at some point but there was one more task to do, and then another, and another one. You know how it is. So thanks to Jenny for being understanding that I was in the zone yesterday ... and for bringing me the glasses of water and the macaroni, while I forgot about things like eating and drinking (but how am I going to return the favour when she gets into the more intense sequences of the fantasy novel she's working on)?

I'm surprised to see that I managed to write a fairly tightly-worded submission of nearly 24,000 words in three days. Admittedly, I had a lot of words lying around already in quite good shape that I was able to paste in. Anyway, at least I hope it's tightly worded: I may have been losing my judgment by last night after I spent yesterday writing a lot of them, revising the whole thing twice, re-reading Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, and reading the second half of the Commission's 1998 report on the same subject.

I'll read what I've written again today, or tomorrow, and see if it makes sense.

What struck me during this exercise is how much our religionist friends want to distort what is essentially a negative right against the state - the right that the state will not try to suppress your beliefs or impose someone else's beliefs on you - into a positive right that everyone else will go out of their way to nurture your religion of choice. This seems to mean that we are not even supposed to criticise your beliefs, must "respect" them (however silly they sound), somehow provide the resources to guarantee their survival, and be upset if some beliefs die out, etc.

Worse, all of this seems to creeping into international law and a lot of popular and academic thinking on the subject.

Sorry, but I'm not buying it. There are good reasons why people should have religious freedom in the sense that the state shouldn't tell you what religious beliefs to have or not have. We don't want to bring back the days when supposed heretics were burned at the stake (when Locke talks about fire and sword being brought against people, he is, of course, speaking quite literally ... that's how they did things in those days). But - I'm sorry - that doesn't mean I have to like your religion, or hope that it will persist, or think that it does good on balance, or even that its doctrines deserve any respect.

I won't vote for a government that will burn you at the stake (or lock you up behind iron bars, as we prefer to do to people in these more civilised times). I'll probably even be polite to you about your religious beliefs, because I'm not the sort of person who's out to upset the folks he deals with face to face. But if you imagine that your prophet of choice went up to heaven in a flaming chariot or rode around on a flying horse, or you think that the evil in the world was caused by the (literally) fiendish plot of a talking snake that danced about on its tail in the original Edenic paradise, or you've convinced yourself that a wafer of bread is simultaneously the flesh and blood of your demi-god or quasi-god ... well, great. I won't go out of my way to upset you, but I won't take your ideas very seriously, and I won't think it sad if a time ever comes when no one believes in that stuff anymore.

What's more, if you start trying to suppress criticism and satire, or if you vote for a government that wants to impose your moral code on me with fire and sword (sorry, I mean iron bars and guns), then I'm not going to go around saying how nice and quaint your ideas are. You have your freedom; I have mine. I want to keep it like that.

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