Essay: Freedom from Religion

---- by Steve Geller

I think I know what is meant by freedom of religion. Everyone gets to belong to the church of his choice, to follow his chosen religion, without interference from the government or from his fellow citizens.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees religious freedom. It states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The "establishment" part prevents the government from requiring all citizens to join an official state religion. The US will not be a theocracy like Saudi Arabia or Iran, where the Prime Minister and Parliament can be overruled by the Grand Ayatollah. This prohibition of a state religion has worked out very well; US religious denominations proliferate and thrive.

Does having no state religion imply that citizens have freedom from religion? To what degree am I compelled to participate in someone else's religion, if not by law, then by social pressure?

Ideally, if citizens remain free to follow their chosen traditions in their own houses of worship, and do not engage in violence against the members of the other houses, then everyone should be content with the situation. But this doesn't work because all religions are based on faith. Belief in any concept of God, Angels, Heaven, Hell, Redemption, Predestination, Goodness of Man, Inherent Evil of Man has no basis in rational thinking; such ideas must be taken on faith, and making a commitment based on faith tends to make people insecure.

Sustaining a religious tradition always requires the affirmation of a community. Historically, the affirming group is motivated by some kind of compulsion, ranging upward in intensity from family tradition through peer pressure to fear of military might. A religious tradition can be sustained if enough people give it at least the appearance of affirmation.

Insecurity about faith produces religious intolerance. Believers want the affirmation of other believers. Non-believers present a threat to a believer's religious security.

The need for sufficient affirmation is why public prayer is compelled five times a day in Islamic countries; failure to prostrate when the call to prayer is sounded can get one in serious trouble, if not from Allah, then from the Mullah.

Christians feel an obligation to attend Sunday services, and there is special pressure to show up on major religious holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, but in a secular country, this is only social pressure, unless one belongs to a closed authoritarian community, like the Amish.

In the US, People who choose not to attend religious services do not suffer legal penalties; that stuff went out with the Puritans.

But members of all religious denominations share some degree of discomfort with people who think freedom of religion includes the right to have freedom from religion, to decline to belong to any denomination.

Atheists are especially annoying because they appear to have dealt with the diversity of views about God's Law by denying that there is such a thing as God at all, let alone God's Law. Christian Evangelicals shriek that atheists are trying to avoid the reality of God. The Evangelicals especially, can't understand why (their concept of) God isn't obvious to everyone. In fact, the reality of God depends on faith.

Even if evangelicals don't go to the extreme of insisting that their denomination is the only true religion, they still think that religious belief is an essential part of life. They say nobody should even want to be free from religion.

Well, yes, religion is indeed an essential part of life.

I can't really be free from religion, at least not completely, for two very good reasons:

First, everyone has to make a neighborly accommodation to the religious practice of fellow citizens, especially when living in a locality where the majority of people practice a dominant religion.

Second, everyone needs to make a personal accommodation to ethics, to accept rules for dealing with other people. And one must acknowledge the higher power of the cosmos, to deal with the fact that we humans are a small part of a much larger world, and we are not its ruling power.

Organized religions provide a pre-packaged cosmos and ethics, and part of the package is almost always a set of traditional beliefs about God (or gods), a spirit world, miraculous events and life after death. The big religions have written material, scriptures, e.g. the Bible and the Koran. And there is a set of symbols, such as the cross, crescent and Star of David.

Accepting traditional beliefs, on faith, can provide comfort and an illusion of certainty. Participation in an organized faith avoids the mental strain of accommodating cosmos and ethics (at some cost in freedom of thought). For many people, this is just fine, a desirable deal. They make the decision of faith, join a religious group, accept the authority of religious leaders and can get on with their lives as long as they remain comfortable with their religious choice.

Is there a satisfactory alternative to following a religion, to joining a church? Can I be a free-thinker, free from any religious organization but still have personal religious fulfillment? How do I deal with cosmos and ethics?

There is a system of secular ethics. In a secular country, even one with a dominant religion, there is a local system of laws and customs, which might have part of their origin in something like the Bible or Koran, but these laws and customs are accepted by agreement, not by imposed belief. If I agree to abide by the laws and customs of my country, then I have a secular system of ethics.

What about a secular cosmos? Well, there's science. Long ago, our human ancestors thought of "the world" as only their home valley or island. They then figured out that we live on a large round, spinning object, in a big space among other large round, spinning objects. They grasped that those points of light in the night sky are faraway suns; some are galaxies, collections of suns, even farther away.

Using rational thought and experiment, our human ancestors successfully used science to learn a lot about how the world works. The great benefit has been development of technology.

So along with a secular ethics, I can have a secular cosmos? Not quite: cosmos is only partly covered by science, because even though I have the laws of physics, I still have to fall back on a faith-based belief system to get an explanation of why the world runs as it does, and why we find that the laws of physics work as they do, and why we humans are here at all. But a partial scientific understanding of how the world works does constitute a secular cosmos, for practical purposes. When asked why there is air, why we're held down by gravity, why storms and earthquakes do damage, I can say "that's the way the world works" and perhaps begin a physics lecture.

Saying "because it's the will of God" isn't any improvement unless I understand God's thinking well enough to predict the workings of the world. Air and gravity will be understood by experimentation and rational thought, not by simply reading the Bible or the Koran.

So, with freedom from religion, one still can still deal with cosmos and ethics. But a free thinker is still kidding himself somewhat, because secular ethics tends to be heavily influenced by religious traditions, and science doesn't tell one the why of the cosmos.

I can get free from the obligation to attend church, but I'm not totally free from religion. .

Very well, how free from religion should I or anyone else actually want to be?

A distinction should be drawn between "following no religion" and being "secular."

People who nominally follow a religion but seldom practice it by attending services, performing prayers, celebrating its religious holidays and so on, may call themselves secular, but they do not usually say that they have no religion.

A secular state is one with a large portion of secular citizens. There is no official religion, even though one religion may predominate among its citizens.

The US, with its Christian predominance, is still a secular state, because it is not a theocracy. Turkey, with its Muslim majority, is still a secular state. In both countries, active religious groups try hard to get everyone to dutifully follow the dominant religion, but they do not generally have the law to back them up.

Historically, nobody was free from religion. Governments imposed a dominant religion for political control and to promote cultural cohesion. During the Reformation in the 1500s, the st te religion of countries in Europe was either Catholic or Protestant depending on the religion followed by the country's King. Religious wars were fought over which religion would be followed by a given country. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated much of northern Europe; it was fought between Catholic and Protestant Christians.

Today, possibly as a result of those wars, European countries are nearly all secular, even historically Catholic Italy and Spain. In Britain and France, those with no religion may now actually be in the majority.

In countries with a Communist history, where religion was either banned outright or suppressed, many people profess "no religion" today. But Poland is still Catholic, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has become active.

Israel, the Jewish State, is actually (almost) secular. Jewish religious leaders are active in Israeli politics but don't have the last word about running the government. About 80% of Israelis describe themselves as secular Jews.

A secular state does not base its laws and governmental practices directly on religious teachings. Traditional religious beliefs of its citizens may strongly influence how the state is run, but the ultimate authority behind laws and practices is the legislature, not the religious leaders. As a practical matter, freedom from religion requires a secular state.

So what is to prevent me from being free from religion?

Well, in a theocracy, such freedom could be dangerous to my health, so I should definitely live in a secular state, where I will occasionally be subjected to evangelism and political pressure, but I will still be free to practice or not practice an organized religion.

The second part of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, "... or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," has given more trouble than the first part, because free exercise, for some religious people, is taken to mean freedom to compel their religion on other people. Some religious people want to have their religious teachings incorporated into law, and to have their religious symbols displayed in public places. It was very important for one particular US Judge to have the Ten Commandments carved in stone near his courthouse.

And some people very much want to have public prayer compelled along with the pledge to the flag.

School prayer was a regular event in the US until about 1962. The beginning of the school day began with a prayer, recited by a teacher or one of the students in a classroom or by the school principal over the PA system. Then came objections to compelling all public school students to participate in prayer. Despite strenuous efforts to keep the prayer non-denominational or to give equal time for non-Christian prayers, the objections were not satisfied. Either the prayers were too insipid and vague (often the subject of jokes and parodies) or they were too overtly Protestant Christian.

The objections to school prayer led to over-reaction. Today, public prayer in US public schools is not allowed.

In the US today, religious symbols can't be displayed on public buildings. During the Christmas holidays, neither Manger scenes nor Menorahs are allowed in public places. Santa Claus is OK because Santa is thought to be secular, or at least comfortably non-denominational. Public prayer before football games is still popular and accepted, especially in the "Bible Belt" of the South.

This is not a completely comfortable situation for everyone. For Evangelical Christians especially, the prohibition on public religion actually violates the First Amendment, because it amounts to the establishment of the religion of "no religion." They claim that religious people are being compelled to affirm an absence of religion.

It's a touchy situation. Public facilities such as meeting rooms in a school should be available for use by any religious group, but the general public should not be compelled to participate in these meetings. Wearing of religious symbols cross, crescent, scarf, star can be tolerated by everyone, but aggressive proselytizing in a public place can become annoying.

It's arguable that conflict over public religion is the result of the religious belief that "my religion is the only true religion." This intolerant attitude is really dangerous only if people holding such beliefs get into political power. Saudi Arabia and Iran allow only Islam, and base their laws on Sharia. The book "The Family," by Jeff Sharlet, describes a group in the US that wants to run the government according to Christian doctrine.

Some Evangelical Christians feel justified in calling for public practice of their religion because they think the US is a Christian nation. While definitely not every American is a Christian, it is true that, if an American practices any religion, it is most likely to be some variant of Christianity. ome Christians think this predominance means that people of other religions should politely accept Christian prayers and symbols as part of public functions, because that's what most of their fellow citizens are comfortable with.

That idea is not totally unreasonable. We all mention Jesus when we sing Christmas carols. It's not much of an imposition for unbelievers to keep politely silent while Christian prayer is recited in public.

Some Americans think that the motto "In God We Trust" on their money amounts to establishment of theistic religion. That objection may go overboard. The motto helps some Americans feel secure, and the words definitely do not interfere with earning or spending the money.

Is freedom from religion dangerous? Is it important that everyone follow some faith? Is someone with no religion some kind of ethical outlaw, a danger to others? Is it dangerous to deny the ultimate authority of Almighty God? Well, it can be, when people in power think that government authority is divinely delegated.

Freedom from religion is important because some people can get deadly serious about religion and take the attitude that doctrine trumps democracy.

Back in the 1500s, Catholic and Protestant Christians fought major wars over sectarian differences, even though they supposedly shared the same nominal beliefs.

Today, Protestants and Catholics occasionally fight in Northern Ireland, but those wars are more about ethnic political authority than religion.

Today, India and Pakistan, which together originated from a religious split between Hindus and Muslims, still are in conflict.

Today, Christians and Muslims attack each other in Egypt and in Nigeria.

Today, in Iraq, some extreme Sunni and Shia Muslims murder each other over who was the true successor to Mohammed, even though both sects apparently agree on the Five Pillars of Islam.

Orthodox Jews tend to regard Reform Jews as not really Jewish.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more familiarly known as the Mormons, sound like they ought to be a Christian denomination, but many Christians claim that Mormons aren't Christians at all.

The reason for all the different denominations of Christians, Muslims and Jews is historical experience and the different understandings of "God's Law." All three religions claim to be monotheistic, and to have received divine revelation. But it's often unclear whethere these monotheists all see the same (presumably unique) God. If God has not gotten through to all the religious leaders to get everyone on the same page, then some of these denominations either have been misled by the devil or are simply wrong-headed, in denial.

The biggest benefit of freedom from religion may be avoiding involvement with strife over sectarian issues. Religion itself is necessary, but sectarianism is not.

So, freedom from religion mostly means dodging domination by religious authorities, which usually means denying that anyone receives revelation. This strongly challenges most religions.

God? What's that? Attitudes range from atheists who reject the concept to people who claim to have a personal relationship with God. There are mystics who talk with God. God, be it concept, personal deity or "higher power" is totally a matter of faith. There are a wide variety of ideas about the nature of God, but basically God provides the "why" of cosmos and the ultimate authority behind ethics. Christianity, Islam and Judaism supposedly believe in one God. Hinduism conceives of many gods, or many manifestations of Brahma. Buddhism appears to get by without any concept of God, at least none recognizable by the monotheistic religions. The Buddha is not a god, but rather a human being who achieved enlightenment.

Some people with intense religion, frantically insist that misguided people who refuse to accept the "true religion" package are deliberately dodging God, when all that is being dodged is the imposition of human theocratic authority.

I recently received an email from a religious friend, forwarding an article about "God Awareness." Here, slightly edited, is the main message:

"Enlightenment is always somehow to see and touch the Big Mystery, the Big Pattern, or the Big Picture. Jesus called it the Kingdom or Reign of God; Buddha called it enlightenment.

"Both Buddhists and Hindus speak of nirvana. Philosophers might call it Truth.

"Most of us just call it love. Theres no answer, no problem-solving, simply awareness. You cannot NOT live in the presence of God. You are totally surrounded by God. St. Patrick said it well: God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you."

For a free-thinker, the easiest way to deal with God is to say that somehow, God sustains the cosmos and instills humans with ethics. Beyond that, God is unknowable. God is not a person; God is a something which is manifested as reasons why. If that's too simple (or not detailed enough) then you can't be free from religion; you'll have to pick up one of the packages.

In his book "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World," the Dalai Lama writes:

"We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others' generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect and resentment?

"In view of this, I am of the firm opinion that we have within our grasp a way, and a means, to ground inner values without contradicting any religion and yet, crucially, without depending on religion."

The book goes on to propose "secular ethics," not locked to Tibetan Buddhism or any other organized religion. The Dalai Lama isn't free from religion, because he serves as a religious leader, but his thinking seems quite free.

He points out that we are wired for warmth and compassion, because we are mammals, born helpless, needing a mother's care and the support of the rest of the family. God is within us when we are born.

Freedom from religion does not mean rejecting all religious ideas. It only means declining full acceptance of a traditional religion. One may still go along with some practices and prayers of a dominant local religion. In the US, freedom from religion does not mean promotion of atheism; it doesn't even mean "no religion." It just means freedom to find one's own accommodation to cosmos and ethics, perhaps within some traditional religion, perhaps not. It means freedom from compelled church attendance, from compelled religious practice, from political domination by dictatorial religious leaders.

People holding to traditional religions tend to think that everyone needs to feel some external religious authority, not go it alone. They say that people in general are not intellectually equipped to be free thinkers. The theocratic countries make freedom from religion illegal. They impose one religion as a matter of law. All US politicians feel pressure to profess a belief in God in order to be elected. Too many voters want to think that their political leaders will accept divine guidance. That's what "under God" really means.

Freedom from religion can run afoul of the Apocalypse. A very popular religious belief these days is that the world will soon come to an end, and God or his representative will come to collect everyone into the one true religion and recycle the free-thinkers. At the end of days, freedom from religion will be a thing of the past.

In every age, there have been people predicting the apocalypse. Various preachers have given a date, and watched it pass. Since 1945, it's been easy to envision a nuclear holocaust wiping out all humans, regardless of religion. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes the famous count-down clock.

The apocalypse is a great way to bring people to religion. Repent, for the end is nigh!

Jesus himself predicted that the end was near. He said: (Matthew 24:33-34) So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

The generation Jesus spoke of has now passed, and there have since been numerous horrific wars, but the world is still here.

Come the Apocalypse, many Muslims expect the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, to appear. Many Christians expect the second coming of Jesus. Many Jews expect the Messiah. Both Christians and Muslims expect the end times to bring mass conversions to their faith. It's not clear whether many Jews expect everyone to revert to the faith of Abraham.

Some people actually think that believers have an obligation to promote war and chaos, because God needs that situation to start the events of the end of days.

If we are to survive as a species here on our planet, we need to be able to think clearly and rationally, to deal with actual reality. Freedom from religion should be a goal for everyone, even if they personally follow a faith.

Beliefs based entirely on religion can be dangerous, all the way from promoting civil war by sectarian fighting to igniting a global nuclear war. We already have enough possibilities for the end of the world, like a global pandemic, nuclear winter, global warming, an asteroid strike or a nearby supernova. Nature is dangerous enough; we should keep free from religious beliefs which cause us to bring on the end by ourselves.

Freedom from religion is easily demonized as rejection of religion, but that doesn't make sense. People can be comfortably involved with a traditional religion and still be free from the negative aspects of religion. Religion is good for us, but one should still think freely and not take everything seriously that's said in the name of religion.

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