Five principles of freedom of religion

A fresco by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
A fresco by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The release of Philip Ruddock’s report to Malcolm Turnbull into the principles that should govern religious freedom in this country has been long delayed. It was commissioned when record numbers of Australians declared on census returns that they were not religious and in a climate of social tension over the relationship between religious institutions and sexual morality.

We would do well to remind ourselves that religious belief often has been the subject of serious contention in the past. Reas­onable and civilised people differ widely in their opinions on the subject, and generating social wisdom on it is a non-trivial ­challenge.

Religion has played a profound role in the development of human civilisation since the Palaeolithic period. Those secularists sceptical of this claim should read Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) or Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Palaeolithic to the Axial Age(2011).

However, religious claims increasingly have become problematic in the light of the modern sciences, and various religions make all kinds of strange claims. What exactly do we mean by ­religious freedom in such a ­context? Freedom from persecution? Freedom to proselytise without restriction? Freedom from criticism or from civil law in certain cases?

The modern era has seen radical secular attacks on religion and on religious freedom. The French Revolution involved radical Jacobin attempts to uproot the Catholic Church. The Russian Rev­olu­tion involved wholesale assaults on the Russian Orthodox religion by Vladimir Lenin’s League of Militant Atheists. The Turkish Revolution suppressed Islam.

The Chinese Communist Party guarantees freedom of religion constitutionally but in fact suppresses it and seeks to keep a tight rein on religious practices.

A decade ago, young arch-rationalist Sam Harris called for the abolition within a generation, no less, of the monotheistic religions worldwide lest they bring down civilisation. He has since modified his youthful position considerably but remains a robust critic of “good old-time religion”.

A besetting problem with rather too many participants, religious or secular, in this debate is the sectarian nature of their thinking. ­Either they adhere to some specific religious body and see its claims as unchallengeable and in some sense “transcendent”; or they, like Harris, Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, see religion as baneful and benighted, and would like to replace it with some form or other of post-religious culture.

There are quite a few others — and I count myself among them — who no longer lend credence to religious dogmas or claims of revelation but who come from long cultural traditions that they cherish in often subtle, humanistic ways and do not want to see these ransacked or assaulted.

My personal index for this is my love of Christian music, from Gregorian chants and Ave Marias to Palestrina’s madrigals, Bach’s cantatas and the great requiem masses, climaxing, arguably, with Verdi’s magnificent 1874 requiem for Alessandro Manzoni.

While the debate about religious freedom seems to centre on several moral issues, such as the status of homosexuality, gender fluidity, birth control and abortion or genital mutilation and so forth, we need to remind ourselves that its roots lie far deeper and have profound implications for 21st-century civilisation. There is far more at stake than the baking of wedding cakes, as the US Supreme Court tacitly acknowledged in its 7-2 decision overruling the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in the recent Jack Phillips case.

Fanatical and violent conflict between religious sectarians and persecution of heretics, apostates or infidels go back right through the histories of the three famous Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and earlier — witness the upheaval in Egypt in the 14th century BC over monotheism, dramatically rendered in Philip Glass’s 1983 opera Akhnaten.

All this included not simply persecution of these religions by “pagans” or by one another but also persecution of internal dissenters and non-conformists of many kinds. The brutal suppression of the Manichaean Cathars by the Catholic Church in the 13th century and the ferocious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries are only among the better known cases.

Those unfamiliar with these complex histories are not well placed to discuss religious freedom. Those who are should be chastened by them.

It was notable that, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church reversed its longstanding opposition to freedom of religion. It called for abstention from all coercion in matters of belief and the pursuit of interfaith dialogue about what different religions have in common, as regards both questions and answers. Yet some Catholic conservatives still speak and write as if Western civilisation depends on Catholicism and badly needs to turn back to even its most arcane and dubious dogmas to avoid irremediable decay.

This, too, is on the table when we talk about religious freedom in the contemporary world and what we are trying to accomplish.

There is an ancient and civilised way to approach this matter that seems worth considering. It might be called educated condescension towards religious contention and dogmatism. There is a famous story in the Acts of the Apostles (18: 12-17) about the Roman governor in Achaea, Gallio (brother of Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher and adviser to the emperor Nero). Asked to resolve a dispute between St Paul and the Jews, Gallio told them to resolve their differences peaceably and disdained to be the judge between them.

Two hundred years earlier, writing for an educated Greek elite, histor­ian Polybius expressed the view that his readers, similar to educated Romans, did not, of course, believe in the gods. The Romans, however, were perhaps more pragmatic than the Greeks, he suggested, because they understood that religion had certain social functions that could not readily be replaced by philosophy or secular law. They therefore kept up traditional cults to foster social cohesion.

This attitude made something of a comeback during the 18th-century Enlightenment, on its more sceptical and conservative wing. David Hume and Edward Gibbon are representative of this attitude, as were many of the American founding fathers, most of whom were Deists or Unitarians, even Epicureans, rather than dogmatic Christians.

Their view was that the dogmatic claims of the major religions were ­errone­ous and prone to be ­pestiferous. Provided, however, that they did not disrupt the civil peace, conducting themselves with dignity, they should not actively be suppressed.

In the wake of the centuries of war and persecution between sects within Christendom and between the Christian and Muslim worlds, this was surely a very restrained attitude. Enlightenment radicals — the Jacobins and their heirs — did not settle for such restraint and actively attacked established religion. Anti-clericalism remains a strong force in France to this day.

The upheavals of the 20th century and widespread militancy in the Islamic world over the past few generations raise questions across a spectrum of concerns about freedom of religion: its relationship with secular society, its subordination to civil law and its tractability with regard to textual or archeological criticism or the findings of the rigorous sciences. Attitudes to the face-off between “creationism” and evolutionary biology are a touchstone in this ­regard.

But even this should not be viewed in simple-minded binary terms, as David Sloan Wilson has shown in Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (2002). Religion is a complex, many-faceted phenomenon and needs to be understood with some sophistication, if the debate about freedom of religion is to proceed on a constructive, rather than a radical or acrimonious, basis.

Tara Westover observes in Educated: A Memoir (2018) that breaking free from a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho and getting a serious education in philosophy and history created a painful gulf between her and her family. Apostasy very often exacts this kind of price; all the more so within conservative religious traditions or from cults that actively coerce their devotees.

Conversely, as Peter Sloterdijk argues in You Must Change Your Life (2013), the religions have been wellsprings of metanoia — visionary and motivational thinking — since ancient times and need to be understood in this complex, psychological context, rather than on a simplistic propositional basis.

Terry Eagleton, similarly, in Radical Sacrifice (2018) argues that our religious tradition, more than the secular philosophical one, has motivated many human beings to look beyond their own, private utilitarian calculus and to think with compassion of others and of the possibilities for social renovation. All this is at stake in our debate over religious freedom.

I would like, then, against this summary background, to advance five principles that may constructively inform the debate we are having; which will certainly not conclude with the report that Ruddock has prepared for the federal government. In doing so, I have in mind as a model Timothy Garton Ash’s Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016).

These principles, I should add, are not derived from any religious tradition. They are philosophical in nature and owe their reasoning chiefly to the tradition of critical thinking that is associated with figures such as Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell, rather than with the claims of theologians or clerics of any kind.

They will, nonetheless, surely make sense to any who see themselves as grounded in the more tolerant and eirenic religious traditions, such as Moravian or Quaker Christianity, Reform Judaism, certain strands of Sufi Islam, the Baha’i or classical Buddhist thinking. Their intention is to facilitate the development of sound, civilised norms that advance human wellbeing and mitigate conflicts based on bigotry or excessive dogmatism.

First principle: Each and every religion, sect or cult will be encouraged to accept that it is based on a story that others do not share and that such stories are seen by others as fables or myths, not “revelations” or truths.

Second principle: Dialogue across religious boundaries or between intra-religious sects will proceed on the basis of getting to understand the story that others live inside and the motivations this provides them to live according to certain rules, practise certain kinds of rituals or observances, or dissent from them.

Third principle: Provided such rules, rituals or observances do not violate the civil law or infringe the ultimate freedom and dignity of individuals, whether within or outside the religion in question, there will be no restriction on or interference in the freedom of believers to conduct themselves in their chosen manner.

Fourth principle: No dogmatic claim or “sacred scripture” will be accorded immunity from criticism in society at large, nor will assertions based on these things be accorded “sacrosanct” status. It will simply be agreed that these things are constitutive of the story that binds together the religious communion in question.

Fifth principle: There will be active dialogue about the larger story of science and human civilisation that transcends the stories constitutive of religious communions, in order that their members may exercise informed choice about adherence to their communities and that the larger society may cohere around agreed realities and workable meta-rules.

It will be immediately apparent that these principles are broadly consistent with the outlook of Polybius or that of Hume or Kant, but less so with the passionate beliefs of sectarians of all kinds, including radical secularists. But they are intended to generate workability, progress and civil peace, not recrimination, sectarian conflict or the ascendancy of any given set of religious doctrines — even Christian ones, despite the long role of Christianity in Western society at large and in Australian society.

What do I mean by story here? The term narrative often is used in such cases. The simplest and most obvious instances are the Bible story or stories, or the Muslim stories about Mohammed’s real or apocryphal revelations and deeds. The story of creation in the Book of Genesis, or of Moses and the Exodus, or of the public life and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth are cases in point. None of these stands up well as history but all are impressive simply as stories and have held religious communities together for millennia.

But let’s take a more recent case, that of the Book of Mormon and its fable about the origins of the Native Americans in Judea in the 6th century BC. No one but a Mormon gives this any credence and the scientific evidence against it is conclusive. Yet there are millions of Mormons, in the US and around the world, who seem to believe it. It is constitutive of their story. My suggestion is that the five principles enunciated above allow us to grasp this, talk with Mormons, respect their liberty and humanity, and embrace them within civil society.

Thirty-five years ago I dated some young Mormon women, whom I’d met through two old Catholic school friends who, to my fascination and puzzlement, had converted to Mormonism. One of the Mormon women, after an evening out, said to me that she couldn’t marry me unless I converted to Mormonism. Since I hadn’t even raised the possibility of marriage with her, I was rather surprised by this statement on her part. I responded candidly that it was inconceivable that I would ever become a Mormon but that I liked her and wished her well.

She subsequently gave me a copy of the King James Bible in its Mormon version as a parting gift, before she headed off to California to work as a Mormon missionary. Inside it, in the neatest handwriting, she had written a letter. I share it here because, after many years, it seems to me to illustrate the spirit in which the five principles I have proposed can be acted on without those of genuine religious belief or none at all coming to blows or recrimination, even if they go their separate ways.

She wrote:

To my friend Paul

As the days grow nearer to our Saviour’s return, I reflect on the meaning and importance of our life here on earth. At these times, it is gratifying to have friendships that I know are never-ending.

May I urge you to read this most inspired book of books, with a mind and heart receptive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. We are all given the gift of life itself and are on a path leading back to our Heavenly Father. How joyful to be able to return and live with him ever more. Paul, I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the one true church and I leave this testimony with you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It has been a wonderful experience to get to know you and I wish all the best of everything to you in your future.

Love, ( — )

Whatever our differences in religious or philosophical belief, whatever the stories we live inside, if we can all communicate in this spirit, we will not have a problem with religion in 21st-century society.

My proposed principles are conceived with a view to furthering that possibility.

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