Freedom of Belief

Society (in the UK and Australia at least) currently seems troubled by questions of religious freedom (or indeed freedom from religion).  Much of what I see written seems unconvincing to me, at best showing that some extreme positions are undesirable.  I haven’t seen anyone state an approach to religious freedom that I can support, so thought I’d do my best to write down my thoughts.  So, this is a post on how I would like to see society approaching people with different beliefs (and not just religious belief).

Firstly, I recognise the need for belief.  There is a lot that I don’t know about myself, those around me, and the world I live in.  My senses and perception are notoriously unreliable – I am a lot more likely to see what we expect to see, or want to see.  I’m not saying that I should ignore what I see around us, or not think.  After all, having better beliefs will generally a good thing (although not aways – there’s truth in the expression that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing).  But I shouldn’t think that because what someone else thinks is wrong, that what I think is right.

Next, I think that I, and society, is improved by an improving in beliefs.  But it isn’t the single driving factor.  It is possible to do good things, and live a good life, despite having imperfect beliefs.  And it is possible to have more reasonable beliefs, but to still do the wrong thing.  This tension is difficult to grapple with.  I need to decide when to try harder to get the truth, and when should I do the best based on what I believe?  When should I work to improve the beliefs of others, and when should I let them live?  I don’t think there is an easy answer.

So, I favour a society that promotes and facilitates positive, respectful engagement between people and their beliefs.  An important note, when I used the word respectful, I don’t mean that I have to respect other people’s beliefs, or avoid challenging them.  It is more about being respectful of the person – and acknowledging that all of us (including me) are coming from different places and have beliefs that aren’t perfect.  And it requires me to listen to the other person, and learn from them.  The conclusion of this process isn’t that we all agree on the same beliefs – I don’t think that would be healthy – but at least having some common understanding.

We can’t force people to have any particular belief.  Once we move from beliefs, to resulting words and actions that impact other people, I believe it sometimes will be appropriate to restrict, in order to balance the rights of other affected people with those of the individual who wants to act.

How does this look in practice?  I’m going to work through a number of questions, not so much to give clear answers but to illustrate my thought process.:

  • Should you be allowed to kill people because your beliefs say it is appropriate?  Generally, I would say no, as the impact on the people killed is so extreme.  (I’m not painting this as an absolute no, as I could think of situations I’d accept where not killing the people causes other people to die.)
  • Should you be allowed to tell people what you believe?  I generally think yes, unless it is done in a harassing way.  (That said, people will form a view of you based on what you say – if you tell colleagues, even in a non-harassing way, they are going to hell, they might question your judgement more generally.)
  • Should people be allowed to wear clothes or accessories that highlight their beliefs?  My gut reaction is to say, “of course”, but it doesn’t take priority over an employer’s right to enforce a reasonable dress code (e.g. no jewellery).  In addition, I think historical context can also make some clothes so offensive to be justifiably prevented.
  • Should governments promote beliefs?  I’d say, sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I’d look at the degree to which the beliefs are opposed by others in society, and the degree of certainty of the beliefs.  So, I’d have problems with them promoting religious beliefs (based on some people reasonably disagreeing with these beliefs), but I’m more ok with them promoting belief in responsibility or respect for others.
  • Should parents be restricted from teaching their children whatever they like?  Children are impressionable, and society bears some responsibility for them (along with the parents). Once again, there is a balance to be had between the rights of the parents, the rights of the child to learn, and the rights of society not to have a child raised unable to learn or integrate into society.
  • Should schools be restricted from teaching whatever beliefs they like?  I believe that schools have a special responsibility to society, to produce members of society that are able to interact positively with all people and learn.  I therefore consider schools that are overly restrictive in membership (eg limited by religious group, class or nationality) to be undesirable.  I’d also be concerned if a school’s teaching was reducing its students ability to interact positively and function in society.  So yes, where the beliefs being taught limit the intake, or the students’ ability to learn and integrate, I feel they should be restricted.
  • Should institutions based on belief be restricted?  I generally support the right of people with like-minded beliefs to associate.  My main grounds for restricting such institutions was to prevent them limiting people’s interaction with different-minded individuals, and to prevent them gathering sufficient power that they end up using that power to limit alternative view points.

In these examples, I haven’t given any clear-cut or easy answers: I think it will always be a matter of significant weighing-up of conflicting rights, and making judgement, doing the best we can.  But I’d rather recognise that, than hide the complexity with easy but flawed snap judgements.

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