The hypocrisy of ‘religious freedom’

FreedomIf you are a regular reader of my writing, you will be aware that I am equal parts baffled, bemused and bewildered when it comes to some aspects of how religion is being practiced and forced upon society in the 21st century.

As for ‘religious freedom,’ I see endless irony in the fact that the very concept was born out of the need to protect adherents of various religions from persecution by … each other.

This was essential for our survival, to achieve public stability, a fundamental condition for a functioning and prosperous society.

Consequently, Western democracies adopted the concept of religious freedom. However, arguments remain about the scope of religious freedom in modern secular, liberal societies.

This remains a difficult issue to resolve, given that even within the followers of the same religion there are often various interpretations and practical applications of their holy text, and over the centuries many teachings of that text became socially unacceptable, even illegal under changing social mores and secular laws.

Article 18
1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966
entry into force 23 March 1976, in accordance with Article 49

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is perhaps the best example of the expression of religious freedom as that concept is understood in Western democracies today. However, there is an interesting history that lies behind the development of this freedom.

The Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and secular sources of religious freedom in the West‘, a panel discussion with Brad Gregory, David Little, David Novak and Dorinda Outram on the historical sources and development of religious freedom at the Berkley Center at Georgetown University (17 November 2011)

Human society has undergone fundamental social transformation over the past couple of millenniums. Our definitions of humanity, law and morality, and our understanding of science and the world around us, had advanced in leaps and bounds.

Arguably, the bible is no more than a story book, reflecting the intellectual capacity and morality of its writers, men who lived close to two millenniums ago. However, to Christians it’s a holy text, the word of god. Many followers of Christianity choose to read the text literally, anchoring them to the morality and understanding of a distant and primitive humanity. Others choose to apply its teachings selectively, and are known to intentionally misrepresent its meaning for personal and political gain.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well established.
The Bible: So misunderstood it’s a sin‘, Newsweek (23 December 2014)

As a consequence of this disparity, religious freedom is coming into conflict with our modern understanding of what human dignity, individual freedoms and civil rights are, with increasing frequency.

In the West religiousness has also decreased over the past few decades and there is an increasing non-religious element in society. This brings with it a very reasonable demand for freedom from religion into the mix by those who wish to live their lives free of the influence of organised religion.

A significant ongoing conflict between religious freedom and our secular, liberal Westerns societies arises from the reproductive freedoms of women and the rights of sexual minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

Organised religions have been traditionally hostile towards other races, women and the LGBTI community. In the past, the bible was used to support slavery and the oppression of women’s rights, including voting, birth control, and abortion.

Today it continues to be used to justify the persecution of the LGBTI community and some of the reasons given for this are verging on the fantastic.

At various times in our history any suggestion of civil rights or equality under the law for people of colour or women have been seen as heinous attacks on religious freedom:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
Loving v. Virginia

Even a retired American Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Spong, has a few interesting things to say about Christianity as it is being practised by some.

LGBT RightsToday, demands for equality under the laws of our secular, liberal societies, and the demand for marriage equality, by the LGBTI community is considered in the same vein: an attack on religious freedom.

Every ideology and religion in existence has extremists, with views on the outliers of the mainstream, but a modern secular, liberal society cannot be expected to cater to such views.

Calling LGBTI people ‘evil’, ‘sinful’ or ‘unnatural’ in the 21st century, purely on the basis of a biblical or other religious view, is intellectually flawed. Doing so disregards our social evolution, our improved scientific understanding of the world around us and the development of our secular, liberal democracies. I would argue that using biblical and other religious arguments to attack the inherent human rights and dignity of LGBTI people, betrays a bigoted and ignorant view of the world that no longer has a place in modern society, any more than misogyny or racism.

Yet in response to the recent recognition of marriage equality as a constitutional right by the Supreme Court of the United States, a backlash appears to be developing in the US. Since that decision has been handed down, support for marriage equality had dropped somewhat and many appear to be of the view that it is more important to protect religious liberties than to protect gay rights.

The protection of our inherent biological characteristics, that cause harm to no other, such as age, congenital and acquired disabilities, gender, race, sex, sexual orientation must always have priority over the protection of beliefs and faith, especially when their institutions ‘instruct’ their followers to denigrate, exclude and abuse a group of their fellow human beings on the basis of who and what they are.

We are all born human; we are not born with ‘beliefs’. Religious freedom must take a bow when it comes into conflict with human dignity. An overwhelming number of Catholics managed to reconcile their Christian faith with the human dignity and rights of LGBTI people in traditionally Catholic Ireland. If they managed, so can you.

The rights of an individual human to dignity, to be who they are, to live free from discrimination should always override the conceptual and derivative right attached to a ‘belief’ and the free exercise of that belief.

The claims of ‘persecution’ by Christians and the legislative attempts in the United States to give ‘religious exemptions’ from providing goods and services to a gay person or couple is intellectual and societal cowardice which sets a dangerous precedent. Imagine a world where a gay person could inquire whether you are religious before providing a good or service to you, because she or he may have a strong moral objection to your faith which causes her or his persecution and prevents her or him from enjoying legal equality. Or where an atheist is entitled to do the same on the basis that he or she has a strong moral objection to your flawed religious moral code. Our modern society cannot function with ‘religious freedom’, used as a weapon of ignorance and prejudice to hurt others, elevated above common human decency, dignity and equality.

In light of the above, I unequivocally reject the assertion that it imposes on anyone’s ‘religious freedom’ to bake a cake, sell flowers or provide other goods or services to a gay person or couple.

Doing so, only imposes on uninformed, bigotry, homophobia, ignorance and prejudice … and there is nothing Christian, divine, moral or righteous about that.

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