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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Freedom of religion - Quinn O'Neill adds to the confusion

As I said in a comment over at Butterflies and Wheels, I am sick of the way current debates about freedom of religion and criticism of religion show the most elementary misunderstandings. Freedom of religion is all about - and has always been about - the state not persecuting people on the basis that they fail to adopt the state's preferred religion.

In essence, freedom of religion means that the state will not impose a preferred religion (which protects believers from other religions, as well as non-believers) and nor will it single out an especially dispreferred religion for persecution. In any event, if it does so it will need a secular reason (e.g. if an extreme religious cult is committing acts of violence and the circumstances are such that enforcing the ordinary law is inadequate and it's necessary to suppress the cult itself). This will almost never be the case.

By analogy, Soviet communism was a genuinely dangerous quasi-religion, but most of us now agree that there was not a good case for the attempts to suppress it that were carried out in the US and Australia, among other places. If I ever see the equivalent of the McCarthy trials applied to a religion and its followers, I'll protest loudly.

The concept is not all that difficult. Historically, it was necessary to stop the situation of religions jostling for the power of the state in order to impose themselves on others and to persecute rivals by means of fire and sword. O'Neill would do well to study the history of the religious wars and persecutions in Europe, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries but going way back to classical antiquity, to get an idea what the doctrine is really aimed at preventing.

A commitment to freedom of religion means a commitment to avoid the jostling of rival religious groups to obtain and employ the power of the state. It is not a commitment to refrain, as individuals, from criticising the intellectual credibility, moral authority, or social conduct of religious organisations, leaders, and communities. Indeed, widespread commitment to freedom of religion is much easier to achieve in a society where the freedom  to criticise religion - an important aspect of freedom of speech - is widely accepted and actually exercised. If we want to ensure that no religion can get its hands on state power, we should encourage an attitude that no religion is beyond criticism and satire. Religious freedom is likely to flourish in an environment where the various rival religions are not given any particular respect, where they are just as open to criticism as, say, rival political programs and ideologies.

It's a cause of endless frustration to me that this reasonably simple set of concepts - concepts that should not even be controversial in any liberal democracy - is so often misrepresented.

This long post at 3quarksdaily is the kind of thing that frustrates me. The author, Quinn O'Neill, says some things that I agree with. But when she talks about freedom of religion she has things totally backwards. Her view on this is not only fundamentally wrong - it's also very damaging. It contributes to the current confusion about a matter of very great importance. O'Neill promotes a false and dangerous idea: the idea that religious views should be given some sort of special respect by individuals who do not wield the power of the state. No. No. No. Really I'm sorry, but we can't jump hard enough on this sort of nonsense.

O'Neill concludes: Success will be most likely if atheists and religioius moderates unite for a common goal; not the eradication of religion, but a securely secular society that optimizes well-being and respects our most cherished freedoms. 

Yes, that's what we should aim at - a secular, free society. I agree. But O'Neill doesn't even understand what our cherished freedoms are. One of them is the freedom to criticise ideas that we disagree with, including religious ideas, and to criticise individuals and organisations that wield social power, including religious organisations and their leaders. She is actually asking us not to exercise that particular cherished freedom, but what's the point of having freedom of speech it if you don't exercise it? She doesn't understand that a securely secular society will be one that facilitates the very behaviour she is arguing against, i.e. robust criticism of ideas, organisations, and people who wield social power. That's what we should be uniting to support.

O'Neill puts on airs as if she is an expert on freedom of religion, but she is obviously ignorant about it. She claims:

Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom. If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others). Respecting freedom of religion means accepting the fact that not everyone will freely choose our worldview. If we encourage people to think for themselves, we must accept that others will come to different conclusions.

Ugh. This is all horribly confused. Where do I even start in clearing it up?

There is no in-principle conflict at all between supporting freedom of religion and making merely verbal attacks, even personal and vitriolic ones, on others. These two things are orthogonal  to each other. Making such attacks is not something I generally favour, but it has nothing to do with freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is about the state not imposing its preferred worldview by force. It is about people having a political right against the state not to be persecuted or to have a religion inflicted on them coercively. It is not about individuals, operating below the state's protective umbrella, being civil to each other in discussion. The latter is often a good idea, of course, and I'm not a fan of some of the less civil comments that I see in blogosphere even from people who are on my side of an issue. But civility of discourse is an ideal that applies to all areas of debate and has nothing to do with freedom of religion in particular. Civility is nice, and I support it in most circumstances, but people can be uncivil in debate about religion without thereby being against freedom of religion.

They are only against freedom of religion if they argue that the might of the state should be brought to bear to persecute those with whom they disagree. Some people do say that, of course: I've seen random commenters on some websites say that religion, or certain religions, should be banned. But that's a very naive position. It's not what any of the serious contributors to the current debates are saying. If someone prominent like Christopher Hitchens says such a thing, and it's drawn to my attention, I'll be right here to denounce him or her, just as I'm denouncing O'Neill.

Frankly, Quinn O'Neill is tying herself up in knots. To the extent that it concerns freedom of religion, her post lacks intellectual merit. She has freedom of speech, so she gets to write whatever nonsense she wants without the power of the state being brought to bear to shut her up. But the rest of us likewise have freedom of speech, and we get to point out when she is writing nonsense.

30 comments:

robert n stephenson said...

Not sure I can fully agree Russell, and that isn't from the relious standpoint but more the political and legal standpoint:

Wowbagger said...

Well said, Russell. I'm getting more than a little tired of reading about how I, as an atheist, shouldn't be allowed to criticise religion or its adherents if I choose to.

Robert, if you're going to make such an objection, it's probably a good idea to explain why you feel that way - otherwise you sound like you're just being contrary for the sake of it.

Greywizard said...

Wonderfully well and clearly said. Thank you for this. I, like you, am getting quite fed up with all the nonsense that is being written and said lately on this subject, and, as you say, it is desperately confused. So many people seem to misunderstand what freedom of speech is all about, and why it is so important. It's good to hear it expressed so clearly. (Good news about your book, by the way. I look forward to reading it. If this is in any way a digest of what it is about, it will be extremely timely.)

J. J. Ramsey said...

People supporting freedom of speech support the right of people to say things that they may find utterly loathsome. I would think that the same would apply to matters of freedom of religion. Do I think that Dawkins is being foolish to coin a playground insult like "faith-head"? Sure, and I've got plenty of other complaints as well, and not just about him. People who aren't government agents, though, have the right to say foolish things and even hateful nonsense about religion. That's not infringement of religious freedom, but rather an exercise of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm getting pretty pessimistic about this sort of thing. It's getting to look like religious "moderates" and the Secular Defenders of Civility are intent on telling the more acerbic atheists what they think and why it's wrong regardless of what they actually believe.

-Dan L.

Anonymous said...

"They" in "What they think" refers to atheists. SDC are telling atheists what atheists think. Speaking of playground insults, it's about the equivalent of the old "Stop hitting yourself" chestnut.

-Dan L.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Yes, that's what we should aim at - a secular, free society. I agree. But O'Neill doesn't even understand what our cherished freedoms are."

Quite funny, isn't it. Our dear darling cherished freedoms, she burbles, blithely giving one of them away.

Kirth Gersen said...

My boss, an otherwise very nice fellow, once told me: "If there were really freedom of religion in this country, we'd be allowed to MAKE everyone pray to Jesus in school But the ACLU took away our freedom."

If that's what the religious "moderates" in the U.S. think "freedom of religion" means, then we've got more of an uphill struggle here than most people probably realize.

Theist said...

J.J. Ramsey: People supporting freedom of speech support the right of people to say things that they may find utterly loathsome.

Maybe in the U.S. it's free for all but I very much doubt it. What about slander? In Australia there are legislations which temper some aspects of the freedom of speech,for example, the racial vilification act.

Religious freedom in Australia, aside from what Russell has pointed out in his post, is this: Individuals are free to express a diversity of views, as long as they do not incite religious hatred.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Australia on the whole is a secular society, this is obvious when you examine it laws and even social structure. The government makes decisions based on a secular system - yes, there are still some old religious traditions within how systems present, but there are in themselves not part of any decision making process in this country.

No law is passed or denied on religious grounds - though in the parliament relion is brought up in debate by those members who have such convictions.

Freedon of Religion isn't what the government itself enforces, it is a law enforced by social attitudes as mcuh as anything else.

To suggest the government not be secular and be more atheistic is then suggesting this Freedom be governed by a system that not only doesn't have this faith dynamic but in many cases goes out of its way to display an open, and sometimes, abusive, position against such religious types.

So, in a polical sense and perhaps to a lesser degree in a legal sense, does this kind of shift actually advantage or disadvantage the wider population and communities? After all this is why many political decisions are made - the larger advantage for the population must always be in the forefront of any reasonable decision.

It is not that I fully disgree with Russell at all and to always aim for absolutes in argument or discussion is very primitive.

While there are ideals in an atheistic view, in a realistic world where religions do actually play a part in millions of people's lives, politics and laws need to reflect at least a minor understanding of this.

Will there one day be a change to something more considered as Russell states? Quite possibly, but it will take calm heads and a great deal of respect across many walks of life to reach a reasonable consensus. In time, in time change does come - but rarely does change come to the loudest of yellers.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Well that didn't come out quite how I intended --

but I hope it is understood I agree with the possision in principle and Russell makes a solid argument, but in a practicle and political sense it is difficult and will take much time...

We had an atheist PM in Bob Hawke, and later in Julia GIllard -- not all that long ago such things would have been viewed as impossible. Now we have gay members of parliament. So change does come...

Deepak Shetty said...

+1

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Maybe in the U.S. it's free for all but I very much doubt it. What about slander?"

Slander is flat-out illegal in the U.S., but there is no equivalent to a racial vilification act. Judging from what I've read from Dr. Blackford, I think he'd prefer the harder line on free speech seen in the U.S. than the approach of Australia.

Jacques Rousseau said...

Thanks for this, Russell. People often conflate tolerance and a generalised desire to avoid conflict with issues relating to freedom of religion. Any desires to effect social change are impossible to satisfy without criticism - and criticism is often perceived as rude or hostile by those being criticised. Just as believers may become irritated by us heathens telling them they are wrong, likewise, I'm pretty irritated (all too often) by the respect and column-inches afforded to Bronze Age mythology. But they are free to speak their minds, as am I. The issues of how best to engage - whether to be a dick about it or not - are an entirely separate matter.

mryana said...

DM: are you little brian b?

I thought you collected yourself back on D'Souza's blog a long time ago.

Looks like you may need to do some more recollecting -- you know, just for your own soul's sake, okay?

Chris Schoen said...

I think you get a couple things wrong here, including the definition of freedom religion,and I've responded here.

http://underverse.blogspot.com/2010/08/on-not-letting-human-feeling-stop-you.html

There is an important distinction between defending our liberties and talking about how best to use them. We can reject such a discussion as nobody's business but our own, but this seems to me not a very inquisitive stance to take. O'Neill, for her faults, does not seem to me to suggest we yield any speech rights legally, just that we reflect on our social means and ends. We can disagree without arguing she is trying to take anything away from us.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"O'Neill, for her faults, does not seem to me to suggest we yield any speech rights legally, just that we reflect on our social means and ends."

True, but when she writes, "Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom," she comes off as confused. Even the most childish and stupid attacks on religion are no more inconsistent with freedom of religion than racist diatribes are with freedom of speech.

Chris Schoen said...

Even the most childish and stupid attacks on religion are no more inconsistent with freedom of religion than racist diatribes are with freedom of speech.

I agree.

But I don't see O'Neill making the argument that we should legally constrain speech to protect religious feelings. Do you? She's making an appeal to civility and tolerance--not particularly original, but not the assault on civil liberty Russell and Ophelia are making it out to be--unless you want to argue that how we conduct our discourse is nobody's business but our own, which might stave off the "tolerance" critique, but at the expense of defeating any attempt to criticize religious discourse.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"But I don't see O'Neill making the argument that we should legally constrain speech to protect religious feelings. Do you?"

No, and I don't think Dr. Blackford does either. I think we both see O'Neill as confused. Heck, I don't even see Benson resorting to hyperbole about O'Neill.

Chris Schoen said...

Heck, I don't even see Benson resorting to hyperbole about O'Neill.

Quite funny, isn't it. Our dear darling cherished freedoms, she burbles, blithely giving one of them away. (OB)

J. J. Ramsey said...

Okay, I stand corrected.

jdhuey said...

Not that it impacts the main point made but there are two slippery slopes to the separation of Church and State. One is the one explicitly mentioned in the original post: the attempts by religious groups to obtain the power of the state to impose their religious views. And the other is the attempt by the Government to ally itself with religious groups.

Here in the USA there are ample examples of both. The 'faith-based initiatives' started by the Bush administration and continued by Obama is an example of the second type.

While the financial (and likely illegal) support by the Mormon Church for California's Prop 8 (a ban on gay marriage) is, I think, an example of the second.

While slippery slope arguments are frequently unsound, in the case of Church/State separation the slipping is real and dangerous.

jdhuey said...

Oops. I meant for the Prop 8 case to be an example of the first type, not the second type.

Bruce Gorton said...

Chris Schoen

The net effect of not criticising religion is that people forget just why religion doesn't belong in politics - because nobody dares point out the bad bits.

EG: The Catholic Church. If all anybody says about them is that they run good schools, hospitals and world charities, heck I would vote for them.

But when you throw in the systematic cover-up of child abuse, the wide scale missapropriation of funds going to those charities, the horrors of the nunneries, their frankly genocidal irresponsibility when it comes to condoms in Africa (as well as the odd priest involved in genocide such as in Rwanda) and various other abuses of power...

Suddenly, well I wouldn't want those priests anywhere near political power anymore.

And much the same happens with all the other faiths. This is because, well what would you expect in the one field where comparing people to sheep isn't seen as an insult?

And if you don't have anybody pointing all of this out, well why not have the Pope set up your child protection policies?

Sean P said...

Great post Russell. I believe you discussed the issue with clarity and wit.

Chris Schoen said...

Bruce Gorton,

Please show me where I or O'Neill said that people should not expose religions to criticism. That is not what this debate is about.

Russell Blackford said...

No, it's precisely what the debate is about. Or at least it's about whether religion should be exposed to the same robust criticism as anything else - secular ideology, political policies etc. O'Neill claims that freedom of religion demands we not criticise religion robustly. Or if that's not what she's saying she damn sure needs to clarify her position.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"O'Neill claims that freedom of religion demands we not criticise religion robustly."

If I were O'Neill, the response I'd give would be to differentiate between matter-of-fact rational criticism, which need not be vitriolic, and vitriolic attacks, which need not even be rational. Then I'd contend that the latter don't belong in any discourse. I'm not O'Neill, so I won't defend that contention (though I partly agree with it), but it seems like an obvious move to make.

Chris Schoen said...

No, it's precisely what the debate is about. Or at least it's about whether religion should be exposed to the same robust criticism as anything else - secular ideology, political policies etc. O'Neill claims that freedom of religion demands we not criticise religion robustly. Or if that's not what she's saying she damn sure needs to clarify her position.

I agree with you that this part of her argument is confused, and I agree with you that freedom of religion does not put any constraints on freedom of speech that would not already be in force (e.g. incitement). If she meant otherwise, she is mistaken (she has a follow up today on 3QD I have not read).

However: nothing in her piece that I can see miliates against "robust" criticism. It seems to me to focus only on the distinction between criticism and abuse. Whatever you feel about the right to be (verbally) abusive, I don't think she argues that the religious should have legal protection against such abuse. Rather she seems to me to argue the wisdom of the matter, which is a much different thing than it's legality. Not everything we are permitted is prudent; should we not have a dialogue about which is which?

By the way, I was glad to see your post about the CFI press release, which helped answer my outstanding question of whether you supported freedom of religion from private, not just state, discrimination. (This was missing from the definition in your post in this thread.)

Kirth Gersen said...

When any of us talk about the need to use freedom of speech in this respect, I don't think anyone is in any way advocating the hurling invective or personal insults -- as Robert correctly points out, let's separate that, and call it "inappropriate to any debate."

Likewise, we all seem to agree that freedom of speech needs to include the ability to make simple assertions like "the Earth is not 6,000 years old" openly enough that it is no longer considered a deadly insult of some kind.

The problem in the U.S. (and it seems in Australia to a lesser extent as well) is that the very definition of the term "insult" is now skewed so far out of whack that (a) for a U.S. president to suggest that atheists shouldn't really be considered citizens is A-OK, whereas (b) a simple statement of "I am an atheist" is often somehow considered a vitriolic attack against Christianity and some sort of crime against humanity.

Coming from this standpoint, there is little need to protect the poor Christian majority from these "horrible insults," and a great deal of need to defend the ability of the non-Abrahamic minority -- Buddhists, Atheists, what have you -- to be able to criticize anti-democratic attitudes like Sharia law and erroneous truth statements like "evolution is false," without automatically being accused of being strident, militant, hateful, antireligious, or whatever.

O'Neill seems not to be clear on a lot of that, and it fatally damages the essay.