Religious freedom feels the heat from growth in atheism and irreligion

Aug 30, 2018 by

from Faith and Politics:

It is no secret that religious freedom is under a lot of pressure in Western countries at the moment. A highly controversial ruling in Canada’s Supreme Court in June found that depriving graduates from a distinctively Christian university of professional accreditation was justified because such an institution was inherently discriminatory. This was despite religious freedom being an expressly enumerated constitutional right, and the ruling standing in clear conflict with existing legal precedent. Closer to home in July, a Catholic priest in Scotland was sacked from a university chaplaincy post for giving expression in a service to his Church’s teaching on sexuality.

It is dismaying to see religious freedom struggling for life in the countries which pioneered it. The most important reason must surely be the growth in non-belief and irreligion. For what is the surest foundation on which religious freedom may rest? Is it not the solemn recognition of that great first duty of the moral law, to honour one’s Creator in accordance with one’s best understanding of what it requires?

As James Madison famously argued at the birth of the American republic:

It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.

It isn’t difficult to see how an excess of irreligion will undermine this critical foundation of religious freedom. If too many people no longer accept the reality of God’s existence then society as a whole will begin to lose sight of the importance of allowing people conscientiously to render him his due. Increasing numbers of people will instead regard religion as nonsense (at best) and have little time for it. Some, we can hope, will continue to support religious freedom because they understand the significance of religion for humanity and what is at stake in its disappearance. But more and more will be motivated to support not so much freedom of religion as what is sometimes mistaken for it, freedom from religion – the extirpation of the influence of religion as much as possible from society, and particularly from any spaces that could be construed as public. This hostility to religion is given increased impetus by the abuse scandals that have rocked various religions in recent years. Such terrible abuses of trust and power, while by no means limited to religious organisations, are much more likely than in other contexts (such as education, social care, media or entertainment) to lead to calls to jettison religion as a whole – as witness Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee this morning.

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