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

One thought on “Freedom of Religion is Not Fundamental”

  1. The Christian religion has never been anything other than a criminal gang out to steal as much as they can as fast as they can from anyone who fails to appreciate this fact. They have members at all level of western society and this accounts for most if not all of the problems of western society. There is no area of our life which they have not infiltrated and subverted. They have never been FORCED to pay anything for the public services every other member of and organization in the western world has had to as a condition of membership. For this reason alone if they cannot repay western society what they have stolen they should be sold to the highest bidder beyond our borders.

    It is up to us westerners who do understand what this phoney organization called the Christian religion really is to bring their members to justice because we have always been the biggest loser because of their continued existence. One of my methods to do this has always been to no longer trust and support someone, no matter who or what they say or said, as soon as I know that person is a Christian. For example I only recently found some YouTube videos of Putin speaking very favourably about Christianity. This doesn’t prove that he is a practising Christian but it is sufficient to convince me that he is no longer trustworthy. Betrayal of trust is the modus operandi of Christianity, they promise heaven and deliver hell. If you don’t believe that then try putting yourself in the heads of the children recently gassed in Syria and try to imagine how much money they felt they were losing as they started out in life and just what it was they did wrong. Then ask yourself which Christian monstrosity pocketed the most of it, Trump or Putin, or are they both still fighting over it.

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