Freedom of Religion is Not Fundamental

Rather, it is freedom of conscience which is a fundamental freedom.


The repeated use of the term “freedom of religion”—while omitting “freedom from religion”—is an expression of, and indeed a cause of, religious privilege and discrimination against atheists and other non-believers.

Sommaire en français
L’usage fréquent et répété du terme « liberté de religion » — sans l’inclusion de la « liberté de s’affranchir de la religion » — est une manifestation, et au fond une cause, du privilège religieux et de la discrimination contre les athées et les autres incroyants.

Freedom of religion—the freedom to believe in and practise the religion of one’s choice—is incomplete, even meaningless, unless it is accompanied by freedom FROM religion—the freedom to disbelief, to have no religious belief or practise at all, to be atheist. These two freedoms complete each other and both are subsumed by freedom of conscience (or of thought). Thus, it is freedom of conscience which is fundamental, whereas the others are consequences of it.

And yet, despite this obvious symmetry, freedom of religion is explicitly declared far more often than freedom FROM religion. This situation must change, and it is up to us atheists to initiate this change, and to insist that others follow our lead. In an era when it has become common practise to write “he/she” or “she/he” instead of simply “he”—when failing to include females in a conversation about human beings is considered discriminatory—it is unacceptable that “freedom of religion” be repeatedly mentioned without simultaneously including “freedom from religion” in the discussion. And if brevity is required, a simple mention of “freedom of conscience” suffices to imply both.

A June 2015 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) ) points out, in paragaph [70], that:

[…] freedom of religion includes the freedom to have no religious beliefs whatsoever. For the purposes of the protections afforded by the charters, the concepts of “belief” and “religion” encompass non-belief, atheism and agnosticism.

This is indeed good news as far as it goes, because it indicates that the Court interprets freedom of religion to include freedom from religion as well, and we can expect that future decisions from the Court will, in all likelihood, tend to respect that inclusion. However, it is not enough. In order to assure adequate legal protection for non-belief and for atheists, freedom FROM religion must be explicitly mentioned, not merely implicitly understood, wherever necessary.

Indeed, the same Supreme Court decision also stipulated in paragraph [149] that the infamous reference to “the supremacy of God” in the preamble to the Canadian Constitution

does not limit the scope of freedom of conscience and religion and does not have the effect of granting a privileged status to theistic religious practices.

This completely undercuts the argument used by religious apologists that the reference justifies religious privileges such as prayers at municipal council meetings, rendering the mention of “the supremacy of God” practically null and void. However, I do not think that any secularist would be satisfied with leaving that reference where it is, no matter how weak it has become. There is always the danger that a future interpretation will give some renewed weight to the religious argument; basing a constitution on the unknowable dictates of a hypothetical (i.e. fictional) entity is a recipe for irrationality and arbitrary injustice. Getting rid of it is now perhaps less urgent, but no less essential.

The frequent use of the unbalanced and unaccompanied expression “freedom of religion” in many contexts and over many years has had and continues to have the psychological effect of habituating us to religious privileges as normal and inevitable. We need to unlearn this very bad habit.

Similarly, we cannot rely on future judges continuing to interpret “freedom of religion” to include “freedom from religion.” To consolidate this gain, we need to make the latter freedom explicit.

We must therefore be suspicious of every declaration—especially if it occurs in legislation—of “freedom of religion” alone. Either it needs to be completed by explicitly adding “freedom from religion” or, in some cases, it should simply be eliminated. One example of the latter case is line 17.1.b of the Citizenship Regulations which stipulates that the citizenship judge shall allow:

the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof;

I fail to see why religion or freedom of religion should even be mentioned in this context. It is completely inappropriate. This provision should be repealed.

Another example of the unbalanced approach, where religion is promoted to the detriment of the freedom to be a non-believer, would be the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program which since 2008 has been obligatory in Quebec public schools. This program presents a very sugar-coated image of several religious traditions—disturbingly slanted towards the more pious and strict forms of religiosity—while almost completely ignoring the possibility of atheism.

Yet another example, but worse, far worse in fact, is the self-serving and utterly false “freedom” promoted by Muslim fundamentalists and Islamists for whom apostasy (i.e. leaving one’s religion) is a crime. It is a very chilling fact that, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, millions of Muslims are of the opinion that apostasy should be punishable by death. This is an instance where so-called “freedom of religion” is absolutely worthless because the concomitant freedom to have no religion is completely denied.

We thus see the overwhelming importance of defending apostasy—i.e. the freedom to abandon a religion if one so desires—as a human right.

The frequent use of the unbalanced and unaccompanied expression “freedom of religion” in many contexts and over many years has had and continues to have the psychological effect of habituating us to religious privileges as normal and inevitable. We need to unlearn this very bad habit. Depending on the particular context, the expression needs to be balanced by adding “freedom from religion” to accompany it, or replaced by “freedom of conscience,” or simply removed entirely.

Next blog: Apostasy is a Human Right

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