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Freedom from religion

By Lady Liberty
web posted November 13, 2006

A recent discussion on a message board to which I subscribe resulted in a very interesting question: Can a person be both genuinely religious and truly pro-freedom? In context, the question not only makes good sense but deserves to receive some thoughtful answers.

Consider that gay marriage is illegal in most of the country and that many are adamantly opposed to it on religious grounds. What some would suggest is a freedom to which they're equally entitled would, if opponents have their way, be kept from them because their beliefs are different. Worse, given the number of same sex marriage referendums on the ballots at election time, there are some who think a religious issue ought to be subject to a majority decision (never mind that government has no business determining how and to whom churches administer their sacraments).

The only way that people can be treated equally by government entities is for them to be treated, well, equally. If religious matters become law, then those who disagree with that particular religious tenet lose both their own freedom of worship as well as whatever freedom it is that's now prohibited thanks to somebody else's beliefs.

Think for a moment about another popular religion in the world. It's one that inspired nineteen devout young men to fly airplanes into buildings and to take away thousands of lives because they believed their religion demanded such an act from them. Other young men and women who adhere to that particular faith are willing to die to honor their god by killing infidels in suicide attacks. Killing people for any reason (other than in defense of your own freedoms) isn't exactly indicative of a freedom loving attitude.

Under Islam, some strict laws are often ruthlessly enforced. Some people live willingly under these strictures, and that's their right. But I suspect that none of the rest of us would dare to suggest that living under Sharia represents freedom in any way, particularly for women! Living within such rules is fine for those who choose to do so, but the imposition of those rules on all is directly the opposite of freedom. We see that clearly from within our own borders, yet there are those who would call this country a "Christian nation" and who would demand that all of its residents — Christian or not — follow Christian mores, preferably with the force of law behind them.

In virtually any argument over the so-called "separation of church and state," there will be somebody somewhere who suggests that there's a difference between freedom of religion — as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights — and freedom from religion — which it seems that some people want. I've always agreed with that assessment, and have shied away from the latter. After all, we can't be offended every time somebody mentions something of a religious nature and curtail such mentions accordingly. That would be an infringement on their freedoms!

But the more I pondered the issue, the more inclined I am to change my mind and say that freedom from religion is the only way any of us can truly enjoy freedom of religion. I certainly don't mean that all references to gods or religions ought to be removed in entirety, or that addresses by public officials or by private citizens in public venues should be scrubbed of all religiosity. But I'm getting mighty tired of those who only seem to truly defend freedom as long as it's something they themselves agree is okay.

There are those — usually Christian and usually conservative — who don't see any problem with official endorsements of religion in public places or out of the mouths of public spokesmen. They say that Ten Commandments displays aren't religious but historic (how they can suggest such a thing with a straight face never ceases to amaze me). They're all in favor of Christmas displays in city parks, but take legal action to ensure that pagans can't include Solstice symbols. They demand censorship of things they — rightly or wrongly — consider to be offensive to their own religious views, and damn the viewpoints or the freedom of others. They want prayers before meetings and in school, but not if they're not Christian prayers.

It's impossible to compare these things, of course, with those that result in people dying. After all, forcing somebody to sit still and listen to somebody else exhort Jesus to answer a prayer isn't exactly on a par with blowing people up. But there's also no denying that both are infringements of the freedoms of others. In either case, a little respect for what other people believe would go a long way. I don't mean you have to stop believing in or talking about your own religion. I just mean you shouldn't force other people to listen to you or demand that they agree with you when you do. And you certainly shouldn't shush them from making their own statements in accordance with their own beliefs.

What makes this kind of thing even more difficult to deal with is that there are those who will lie, hate, steal, and worse under the guise of pretending to be one of the "good guys." Because they appear to be a "good guy," they convince more than a few others to share their opinions. I suspect that no country or religion is immune to such things, but we've certainly had more than our share of headline-making examples in recent weeks!

We all know what ex-Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL) did. But only a few pundits have made pointed comments on the irony of the whole thing. Foley, as you'll recall, got in some trouble when it was discovered that the had sent some salacious e-mails and instant messages to young Congressional pages (that they were male is pretty much beside the point here, though there are some who'd like to focus more attention on that fact).

The ironic part is this: Foley was on the forefront of efforts to make it more difficult for sexual predators to use the Internet to fulfill their perversions. Congressman Foley had his picture taken with child safety advocate John Walsh, and he made a point of touting the benefits of the very law he effectively flouted. Foley was all smiles for press conferences that were held before and after those moments when he was alone and could engage in precisely the behaviors he so sanctimoniously condemned. (In fairness, Foley hasn't been accused by anyone of molesting any underage children, and the scope of the legislation he worked on certainly was intended to thwart those who would do so and whom we can likely all agree ought to be severely punished.)

More recently the Reverend Ted Haggard, who headed up a large evangelical congregation in Colorado — and who, he claims, advised President George W. Bush on a regular basis — was accused of some wrongdoing. An acknowledged male prostitute told reporters that Haggard had paid him for drugs and sex. Haggard resigned his position on a temporary basis to deal with the accusations which were baseless, he said. A day later, Haggard told the press that he got a massage and bought drugs that he didn't consume, but nothing else. Now, of course, Haggard has acknowledged "sexual impropriety" as well as lying, and the Board of the church has fired him.

But before anybody had heard about Ted Haggard's secret life with homosexual prostitutes, Ted Haggard was a foaming-at-the-mouth activist against gay marriage. Tens of thousands of people heard his words and believed what he said. As a result, those tens of thousands will probably vote — and continue to vote — against something on a religious basis bolstered by the rhetoric of a man who is the worst kind of hypocrite and who we now know held the basest of self-hating agendas.

Freedom itself ought to be more than enough to convince all of us that freedom of religion means, by definition, a certain amount of freedom from religion. But even if it isn't, remember that there are Mark Foleys out there making laws, and Ted Haggards who tell us which laws we ought to make and why. Religion should have no place in that process because laws effect everybody, not just those who happen to go to the same church on Sunday morning, or who worship at the same temples or within the same covens.

So can people who are religious also be pro-freedom? Sure, but only if they're willing to grant everybody else freedom from their religion. The only morality that makes any sense under the very broad umbrella of liberty is the one that says you can do whatever you like as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of somebody else. If your religion demands that you make others — either by force, coercion, or "majority rule" — follow along, then you can't pretend you're in support of freedom. Your actions and your votes betray you even as you betray liberty.

Hypocrites like Mark Foley and Ted Haggard would understand that kind of thing. They'd even make excuses for it that are so convincing that not only would their congregations and constituents believe it, they'd believe it themselves. But I don't. Given Americans' tendency to believe in democracy when it suits them and with almost the devotion with which some of them believe in a god, I can only hope that most of you don't, either. ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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