Religious Rights and Freedom

Author: Pursuing Equality Can Result in Denying Equality

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MAY 25, 2012 ( In the light of the ongoing debate in the United States over religious freedom due to the health regulations obliging religious organizations to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients, a book published earlier this year provides some interesting reflections.

Roger Trigg, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick, England, authored a book titled, “Equality, Freedom, and Religion,” (Oxford University Press).

There is, he said, an ongoing tug of war between demands for equality, the struggle for individual freedom, and religious freedom. Should beliefs important to individuals be protected if they challenge basic assumptions about equality? Why does religious freedom matter? How important is the right to freedom of religion compared with other rights and freedoms?

The drive to equality has sometimes led people to believe that any judgement by the state must never imply that some views are preferable to others, Trigg explained. Yet, he argued, state neutrality is impossible.

“In the context of religious freedom, no state can abdicate all responsibility to the extent of refusing to make judgements about the character of any religious belief,” he argued. For example, simply because human sacrifice is religiously motivated does not make it acceptable.

The demand for state neutrality can also lead to the view that there is no place for religion in the public sphere, he continued.

Secularism, he observed, is never neutral, but always takes a view about the proper place of religion and which principles are to guide the state. Compare, he commented, the secular states of France and Turkey, and the separation of church and state in the United States.

On the topic of freedom of conscience Trigg explained that conflicts arise when religion is pitted against rights, with religion often being sidelined. When apparent rights clash, he noted, there is often no middle ground and one side wins at the cost of the other.

Integral part

This is the wrong way to deal with such conflicts and Trigg maintained that: “Religious liberty is not contrary to human rights, but an integral part of our understanding of what human rights are.” Many, he observed, consider that religious liberty is crucial for all freedom.

Religion, Trigg commented, points to an alternative, and higher, source of authority than the state. While this makes if vulnerable, it also means it is all the more worthy of protection.

“The exaltation of the state, even if it is made to appear ‘the will of the people’, can crush the individual conscience. Thus public policy, in the name of eliminating discrimination and ensuring equality can result in a secular orthodoxy.”

British courts, Trigg said, have consistently refused to accommodate religious belief when faced with the demands of equality. Such a position, he accused, is based on a mistaken view about a hierarchy of rights and the epistemological status of religion.

Too often today, he noted, religious views are denigrated as being subjective and freedom of religion becomes reduced to freedom of worship. Why then, should religious views be protected, Trigg asked.

Religion is deeply rooted in human nature. This does not prove their truthfulness, but it does explain their centrality in human life. Religion is an integral part of what it is to be human, Trigg affirmed, and to ignore it or treat it as an individual choice of no social significance is a major underestimation of its power and significance.

Basic human good

Arbitrary restrictions on people’s religious freedom is like starving people or refusing them shelter, as religion is a basic human good. Some may wish the world were free of religion, and they should be allowed to make their case, Trigg said. They should not, however, impose this view on others or pretend that religion is of no concern in the public sphere.

Discounting religious principles in pursuit of equality treats some citizens and their interests as more important than others. “The pursuit of equality can itself produce a denial of that equality,” Trigg warned.

Therefore, when the priorities of a democratic country appear to run counter to the policies of religious institutions or to the conscience of individuals, every effort should be made to accommodate both, Trigg argued.

This applies not only to individuals but also to institutions. Religion needs institutions, which are seen by believers as repositories of truth and a means to pass on beliefs to future generations.

In the end, he concluded, public policy is always based on assumptions about what is important. Moreover, at root, such judgements will be implicitly philosophical, and even religious.

If we believe human rights matter then we must have a conception of human nature and in the West this has long been bound up with Christian principles. The challenge we now face, he explained, “is whether a strong conception of human dignity can survive long without the Christian roots that have undoubtedly nurtured it.”

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