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.