Given the degree of fractious debate recently over ‘religious freedom’ – from questions of  blasphemy and ‘defamation’ to the storm over gay marriage, from the controversy over the banning of  the burqa to the hostility directed at the ‘Obamacare’ plan to include contraception in health insurance cover – I have been rethinking the question of freedom of religion. These notes are a starting point for debate, not a fully-fleshed out argument.


Religious freedom occupies a special place in contemporary political discussions. It should not. This is not because religious freedom is not important but because it is no more and no less important than other forms of freedom of conscience, belief and practice.


Many believers point out that faith plays a unique role in their lives. That is often true. Those atheists who dismiss belief in God as no more credible than belief in Santa Claus or in fairies miss the point. Religion is more than an intellectual exercise or a matter of logic; it often has, for believers, a vital social and spiritual function. But acknowledging the vital and unique role of faith in the lives of believers does not commit us to providing it with a privileged position in society.


The reason that religious freedom has a special place in contemporary political debate is historical. Ideas of tolerance and of freedom of expression developed in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards primarily within a religious framework. Questions of toleration and expression were at heart questions of how, and how far, the state, and the established church, should accommodate religious dissent. We can see this in the arguments of John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship. Locke’s starting point was the insistence that the duty of every individual was to seek his own salvation. The means to do so were his religious beliefs and the ability openly to worship.  The power of the political authorities could not rightfully extend over either sphere.

Written at a time when Europe was rent by tempestuous religious strife, and when intolerance and persecution were the norm, Locke’s was a powerful argument for religious freedom. It was also an exceedingly narrow conception of liberty. Locke’s toleration was rooted primarily in the desire to extend freedom of worship and theological discussion to nonconformist congregations and placed little emphasis on wider issues of freedom of thought or conscience. Indeed Locke was emphatic in refusing to extend toleration to many other groups. Neither Catholics not atheists were, in Locke’s view, deserving of tolerance, the former because they gave their allegiance to a ‘foreign prince’, the latter because their opinions were ‘contrary to human society’ and ‘to the preservation of civil society’.


Locke’s near contemporary, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose views influenced the Radical Enlightenment, proposed a different concept of tolerance. Spinoza’s starting point, was not, as it was for Locke, the salvation of one’s soul, or the coexistence of churches, but the enhancement of freedom, and the quest for individual liberty and freedom of expression. All attempts to curb free expression, he insisted, not only curtailed legitimate freedom but was futile. ‘No man… can give up his freedom to judge and think as he pleases, and everyone is by absolute natural right master of his own thoughts’, Spinoza wrote, so ‘it follows that utter failure will attend any attempt in a state to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinion.’  ’The right of the sovereign, both in the religious and secular spheres’, he concluded, ‘should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he wishes and say what he thinks’.  It is a more inclusive vision of freedom than Locke’s, and a more useful starting point – and conclusion – when thinking about contemporary freedom.


Modern ideas of freedom and tolerance are usually seen, particularly in the West, as having derived from Locke. In fact they draw upon both Locke and Spinoza. The US First Amendment owes much to Spinoza’s conception of freedom. Even in Europe, where freedom of expression is construed in narrower terms, Spinoza’s influence remains important, if unacknowledged. However, despite the broadening of the conception of liberty and tolerance, the idea that freedom of religion is a special freedom, an idea that derives primarily from Locke, remains entrenched.


Today, we live in very different world from that in which concepts of religious freedom first developed.  Religion is no longer the crucible within which political and intellectual debates take place.  Questions of freedom and tolerance are not about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting religious views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive, hateful, harmful to individuals or undermine national security. We can now see more clearly that religious freedom is not a special kind of liberty but one of a broader set of freedoms. If we were think about religious freedom from first principles today, it would not have a special place compared to other forms of freedom of conscience, belief, assembly or action.


Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent, nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.


Many on both sides of the debate about religious freedom continue to treat religion as special. Many atheists want to deny religion the rights accorded to others forms of belief. Many religious believers want to retain privileges for religion. Both are wrong.


Some atheists argue that secularism requires that religion be kept out of the public sphere. It is an argument that cannot be right any more than the claim that the views of racists, conservatives, communists or gay activists must be kept out of the public sphere.  A secular space cannot be one in which religion is not permitted to be present. It is, rather, a space in which one religion is granted no advantage over another, nor over any secular philosophy or ideology. It must also be one, however, in which no religion is disadvantaged with respect to another religion, or with respect to secular philosophies and ideologies.


Many atheists demand also that religious symbols be banned in the public sphere. Many states and corporations have imposed such bans, from the refusal to allow the wearing of the cross in the workplace to the outlawing of the burqa in public places. Such bans are infringements of the basic freedoms set out in #7. An employer has every right to ban kinds of clothing that might be, say, dangerous in a particular workplace. He or she also has the right, in certain circumstances, and within limits, to insist that employees wear a particular uniform, or to desist from wearing something inappropriate. But there should be no general ban on particular forms of clothing or adornment, and certainly no general ban on specifically religious clothing or symbols.


The real dilemmas with religious freedom arise out of questions not of beliefs or symbols but of practices. Many beliefs, religious and secular, imply particular practices. The belief that homosexuality is a sin requires that one refrain from gay relationships or gay sex. The belief that life begins at conception requires that one does not have an abortion or help anyone else to do so. And so on. As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience. But that toleration ends when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes another’s genuine rights.


It is not just in the case of religion that there is a strong relationship between belief and practice. Racists, communists, Greens, New Age mystics – all could claim that their beliefs enforce upon them certain actions or practices. We do not, however, allow racists, communists, Greens, or New Age mystics to act upon their beliefs if in so doing they harm others or deny them their legitimate rights. A racist pub owner cannot bar black people from his pub, however deep-set his beliefs. It would be a criminal offence for Greens to destroy a farmer’s field of legally grown GM crops, however strongly they might feel about such agriculture.  There is a line, in other words, that cannot be crossed even if conscience requires one to. That line should be in the same place for religious believers as for non-believers. Society should accommodate as far as is possible any action genuinely required by conscience, but not where such acts harms another or infringes their rights.

Of course, a religious believer might claim that he or she faces a different kind of compulsion to that felt by a racist, a communist or anyone else attached to secular beliefs. He or she may feel commanded by God to act in a particular way. It may well be true that a believer feels a different kind of compulsion. But the reason for which someone feels compelled to act in a particular way is not necessarily relevant to whether or not such acts should be legally permitted.


The fact that acts of conscience may sometimes have to be curbed does not mean that in these cases there is a ‘conflict of rights’. Just as there is a right to free speech but no right not to be offended, so there is a right not to be harmed and to equal treatment, but no right to harm or to discriminate. This is essential to protect religious freedom. An atheist bar-owner should have no right, whatever his conscience may say, to bar people of faith, any more than a Christian bar-owner has the right to bar gays. Such curbs on acts of conscience simply mean that we live not alone on a desert island but together in a crowded society.


How would the argument so far throw light on recent conflicts over matters of religious freedom?

  • Should religions have the right to prevent the publication of cartoons or books or plays that are deemed offensive? No. Religious freedom requires that people of faith be allowed to speak or act in ways that might offend others. It does not require that others do not cause offence or promote blasphemy.
  • Is it legitimate for a state to ban the burqa? It is not. Wearing a burqa neither harms, nor discriminates against, others.  Of course, one might well believe that the burqa harms the woman who wears it and is an expression of discrimination against women. A liberal society accepts, however, that individuals should free to make choices that may not be in their interest and that, to liberal eyes, demean them. This applies even to particularly distasteful expressions of degradation, such as the wearing of the burqa. If women are forced to wear the burqa against their will, the law should protect them against that coercion. It should not, however, impose a ban on those who have chosen to wear the burqa. Some suggest that burqas cause harm because they may pose security problems, or be incompatible with the needs of particular jobs.  Such practical problems can usually be solved on a case-by-case basis without the need for draconian legislation.
  • Should an employee be allowed to wear a cross at work? In almost every case the answer should be ‘Yes’. There may be a pragmatic case for, say, banning loose chains that in certain workplaces may be dangerous; but it is difficult to see what right an employer has simply to ban the wearing of a cross as a religious symbol.
  • Should gay marriage be legalized? Yes. This is a matter both of secular equality and of religious freedom. On the one hand, the state should not exclude gays from the civil institution of marriage simply because of religious hostility. On the other, some faith groups wish to bless to gay marriage. For the state to deny them that right because other faith groups disagree would be to undermine religious freedom. What the state should not do is to force religious bodies to accept or consecrate gay marriage.
  • Should a Catholic adoption agency be allowed to turn away gay prospective parents? If the agency receives public funding, or performs a service on behalf of the state, then the answer is ‘No’.  It would then be legitimate for the state to insist that the agency does not discriminate, despite Catholic views on homosexuality. If, however, it is a private agency – if it is simply performing a service for Catholic parents who subscribe to its views on homosexuality – then the answer should be ‘Yes’.
  • Should Christian bed and breakfast owners be allowed to turn away gays? Such owners, even if they are turning their own home into a b’n’b, are providing a service from which a gay couple could reasonably expect equal treatment.   The answer, therefore, is ‘No’.
  • Should Catholic-run hospitals or schools be forced to give employees health insurance that includes free contraception? This is, of course, a source of major controversy in the USA. The answer is ‘Yes’. This is not a matter of religious freedom, but of employee rights.  Churches are not being forced to provide contraception. In their role as secular employers, they are being asked to provide employee benefits that all employers must provide. To exempt Church-run organizations would be to deny those benefits to a particular group of employees.


Having said all this, many of these conflicts would be better resolved through the pragmatic use of common sense than through the strict application of principle, particularly when those principles remain socially contested. A religious believer should not normally have the legal right to discriminate. But if it is possible to arrange matters so that a believer can act according to conscience without causing harm or discrimination to others, then it might be worthwhile doing so. In principle, a Christian marriage registrar should expect to have to perform gay civil partnerships, whatever their religious beliefs. However, it might make pragmatic sense to roster others to perform ceremonies for gay couples, not because we should accept prejudice – prejudice, whether religious or secular in form, should always be challenged –  but in acknowledgement of the fact that genuine social conflict exists on this issue. We should not give an inch to bigotry. Someone whose ‘conscience’ would not allow them to work with gays, or to marry Jews, should clearly not be indulged. Nevertheless, many oppose gay partnerships or marriages as a matter of conscience and not simply through homophobia (albeit that ‘conscience’ can, of course, often be a cover for homophobia). We can both challenge such attitudes and accept that on matters of genuine conscience, a little leeway or accommodation that allows someone to live by their principles may be desirable. The law should not make any such accommodation. But as individuals, or as organizations, it may be wise to, though not at the cost of causing harm, allowing discrimination or endorsing bigotry.


There are exceptional cases in which we should set aside these basic principles. A marriage registrar should be expected in principle, if not necessarily in practice, to perform gay civil partnerships. But we should not expect a doctor or a nurse, even in principle, to perform an abortion, if they feel to do so is against their beliefs. Whatever we may think of the belief that life begins at conception, it would be unreasonable in the extreme to expect those who do hold that belief to commit what they consider to be murder.


A pragmatic approach to matters of religious conscience is neither a sign of ‘weakness’ nor a matter of ‘accommodating’ the devil.  Standing by political principle is vitally important, including the principle that people should have the right to act upon their conscience if possible.  Why is that principle important? Because we recognize with Spinoza that ‘No man can give up his freedom to judge and think as he pleases, and everyone is by absolute natural right master of his own thoughts’. To recognize that is to recognize also that it is better if people are persuaded to act in a particular way, by exercising their freedom to judge and think, than being forced to do so by the power of the state. There are times when the state has to wield the big stick, particularly if ‘acts of conscience’ lead to physical harm or discrimination. But such occasions, as a matter of principle, should be minimized as far as possible. To be pragmatic in this matter is to keep to one’s principles.


The aim of rethinking religious freedom is to strengthen, not weaken, it.  It is to establish it not as a special privilege arising out of the turmoil of seventeenth century Europe but as one of a set of indispensible freedoms rooted in the needs and possibilities of the twenty-first century world. To defend religious freedom in this manner is not to defend religion. It is to defend freedom.


The images are, from top down, Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting ‘Freedom of Worship’, one of a series of four inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt’s ‘Four freedoms’ speech; TH Matteson’s ‘Examination of a Witch’, depicting a Salem witch trial; an imam inviting worshippers into a mosque from a sixteenth century Persian miniature; Indian artist MF Hussain’s painting of Draupadi, one of several declared ‘blasphemous’ by Hindu activists; a famous street sign in Salem, Oregon; and one of Marc Chagall’s ‘America Windows’ at the Art Institute of Chicago, created for the US bicentennial and commemorating, among other things, religious freedom.


  1. derek sayer

    Excellent, lucid, thoroughly rational piece with which, as a liberal and tolerant atheist, I thoroughly agree. Trouble is the Taliban and the Tea Party won’t. The flaw in the argument, from their point of view, is its presupposition that reason (and what reason holds to be “genuine rights”) should trump the revealed truths of faith.

  2. This is an excellent list and I can’t disagree with even one point. I think you have hit on an excellent place between relativism and fundamentalism by describing how we can act on principle (e.g. nobody has the right to harm another) while still making decisions on each and every case on its merits. Thereby avoiding rigidity and blunt instrument approaches. This of course takes more work but it is definitely the solution to the knots we tie ourselves into.

    I was also taken with the point that atheists often see religious belief as optional for people (like fairies or Santa) and don’t really see living out of a religious conceptual framework as a true matter of conscience. This has been very helpful to me as it goes some way to explaining why many human rights initiatives don’t want to include the very many people who are in prison all around the world because of their religious beliefs. (Mind you, this is not true of Amnesty who do recognise religious persecution – it is, however, unfortunately true of many other organisations and even journalists)

    I have always wanted to ask people who fall into this category why they think it is right for someone to recant a religious belief but unreasonable to ask that a social or political belief be recanted? But thanks to you I am beginning to see why this might be the case. It is perhaps part of the blindness of fundamentalism which has always existed on both sides of this particular fence.

    One of the biggest problems with the inability to see religious belief as holding an ordinary place in the pantheon of freedom of conscience and belief is that these issues get sidelined and filed as minority interest issues e.g. Middle Eastern/African problems – and therefore thought to only be of interest to people particularly interested in this ‘niche’. Freedom of conscience and belief is a human rights issue regardless of what constitutes that belief (with provisos as you stated). And human rights issues themselves are of a lot more fundamental importance to those of us lucky enough not to be suffering than is generally realised. It’s like the man who is happy that the hole in the boat is not at his end – it doesn’t take that long for the water to flood up from the other end.

    Thanks a lot for this – I found it most useful.

    • Felix

      “I have always wanted to ask people who fall into this category…”

      Can you give examples of such people?

      I don’t think that I have ever seen anybody express the view that a religious belief should be _easier_ to give up than a social or political belief.

      On the off chance that you may indict the ‘new atheist’ ‘leaders’ such as Dawkins, Hitchens etc al. I will defend them thusly (if they are not your target then this will be irrelevant):

      What they have sought to do in their books and lectures, is to look at the claims of religious groups and show why each claim is invalid. e.g. having a special message, being a (or the only) source of morals, being a force for good in the world, explain facts that nowadays are considered matters of science.

      These individual refutations are meant to cause the believer to re-evaluate their beliefs and to say, seperately and for each, ‘On that subject you have changed my mind’.

      This process, could be equally applicable to social and political beliefs and since such beliefs are less central to a persons cultural and personal-identity such beliefs would presumably be easier to change.

      I don’t believe that anyone expects reading a single book over the course of a few days to cause deconversion. Why not? Precisely because religion is so deeply wound with other aspects of self identity that it takes a very long time to make the journey.

      That they sometimes compare religious belief to belief in fairies or Santa is not because they think that it should be equally easy to give up, but merely because, from the outside, it is no less ridiculous, and that ridicule is an effective weapon.

      (As an aside, what is new about the ‘new atheists’ is _only_ the refusal to refrain from criticising religion openly and publicly, that is to refuse to give it special treatment and thereby to treat it more like other social or political beliefs.)

      • I was referring to a general trend that I notice. It’s a trend that I figure has probably emerged because some people think religious conviction is the only valid type of conviction. But a trend that I notice nonetheless. Do you think I am mistaken? I like being right as much as the next person but to be honest I’d love to be mistaken about this. I’d love to think that I had misunderstood something and really everybody’s convictions were considered as being equally valid and equally in need of protection. So – here’s to me being wrong…

      • Felix

        I may be being obtuse, but I’m still not sure exactly who or what you were refering to previously.

        However, in response to a new point that you make:

        “I’d love to think that I had misunderstood something and really everybody’s convictions were considered as being equally valid and equally in need of protection”

        Should the convictions of those you think that they have been abducted by aliens or white supremacists really be held equal with those of vegans or pacifist conscientious objectors?

      • Robert Conrad

        I was the child of scientists and I was raised to be a Darwinist. My mind is sharper than that of my parents, and I used it to attack the true children of God. Fortunately, no person can truly choose God; God gives belief to whom he chooses. (2 Tes. 2). No rhetoric-filled book or lecture could ever keep any of God’s chosen children away from Him. Ridicule only strengthens the children of God in the long run. People obtain a false sense of purpose from rhetoric-filled books and lectures in the same way an ostrich obtains a feeling of safety by burying its head in sand.

  3. arkenaten

    Probably the single most damaging aspect of religious belief is it is almost unimpeachable due to the other-wordlyness of god/gods.
    Thus if people wish to believe in something that has no basis in reality then this is freedom. Freedom of choice. But true freedom must include the consequences of choice.
    Therefore, Is it morally right to allow christian adults for instance, the freedom to indoctrinate children that if they fail to follow Jesus they will spend eternity in the ‘fires of hell’?

  4. Is there any wider connection to the current debate around religious freedom? I ask because I was struck by this passage from Engel’s ‘Preface to Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’:
    “…all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religioius, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence of and thereby the collision, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it.”
    It may be that I am expecting, in some reductionist manner, that everything needs to be related to ‘expressions of struggles of social classes’, and I’m not criticising your knowledgeable, unhysterical, perceptive and helpful analysis in any way. I’m just wondering if there is a deeper connection with the present crisis-ridden era than on the surface appears?
    (great illustrations too!)

    • I have written quite a lot about the wider context of the ‘return of religion’ and in particular about the relationship between the rise of contemporary notions of faith and the shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity. As I put it in a talk I gave earlier this year on the changing idea of the ‘sacred’:

      In recent decades, faith has… transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics. Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness.

      It is not faith, in other words, but identity, that has created the faultlines of contemporary conflicts, and it has done because of the collapse of politics of ideology and the narrowing of the political sphere. I develop some of these arguments in From Fatwa to Jihad.

  5. Felix

    An excellent post, which which I almost totally agree. The issue of banning the burqa is one on which I am still undecided.

    My question would be to what extent should employers be allowed to demand certain things from employees as necessary for the job. For example:

    Should a woman expect to be allowed to wear a burqa whilst working in an office environment, or a post office or shop?
    (If not, then what jobs are suitable?)

    Should a person working in a late-night pharmacy be allowed to refuse to sell the ‘morning after’ pill?

    Should a delivery driver or lorry driver be able to refuse to carry pork or alcohol?

    • The issue I was raising was that of a state-enforced ban on burqas in public spaces to which I object. In most of the cases you raise, and certainly in any job that deals with the public, there would be a legitimate argument against the wearing of a burqa or niqab. Nor do I think that, in most cases, delivery workers should have the legal right to refuse to deliver pork or alcohol. The case of the morning after pill might seem trickier because it takes us close to terrain of abortion. Nevertheless, if you take a job knowing that this might be one of the tasks, then it would be difficult to make the case that you should have the right not to carry out that task. However, while there may not be a case for legal exemptions, it might be wise, as I wrote in the piece, to provide on a pragmatic case-by-case basis some leeway for people not to act against their conscience.

      • Matt Maletz

        The problem with “providing leeway” outside of legal exemptions is that people with strong beliefs will take the leeway until they are ordered by law to meet the expectations of their job. Pharmacists in small-town America, for instance, will refuse to provide not only Plan B, but also Plan A until someone has the gall to make a public issue of a very private manner, and perhaps incurring the scorn of family and community to press their rights. My sympathy goes to the patient, not the sanctimonious doctor.

  6. An interesting read given the number of articles I’ve been reading on religious freedom recently. There is one other point I would add, however, which is: upon whom should the burden of religious belief (or any philosophical belief) fall?

    I mention this because para 16, whilst an interesting argument, I think fails because the doctor (in this case presumably qualified to perform an abortion) has an issue of conscience that is at odds with what is permitted by law. In this case you appear to be arguing that the doctor’s conscience outweighs the needs of the woman. I’m not sure it’s that simple, especially when one considers that certain religious elements believe that even the provision of contraception is an issue of conscience, such that providing contraception is tantamount to murder. (and that’s not even to start on such subjects as medically necessary abortions or contraception, which would be wholly beside the point).

  7. A well written and enjoyable post. On a whole, I can say we see eye to eye on this.
    I think that we should go by the concept put forth by Confucius known as reciprocity, and we would avoid so much trouble in our lives.

    Zigong asked, “Is there a single saying that one may put into practice all one’s life?”
    The Master said, “That would be ‘reciprocity’: That which you do not desire, do not do to others.”
    Confucius(551–478 BCE) Analects XV.24

    Thank you for your writing.

  8. Interesting article, an interesting excercise in what essentially comes down to the art of stepping into each other’s shoes. Something which most people today cannot fathom, because one has to buy shoes at a specific place and walk specific streets in order to be part of what really comes down to participatory systems of redistribution & dependancies.

    If only the subject here was not humans 😛

  9. Step Left

    just a minor point. While the Church of England remains the established State religion, questions of conscience and practice, say relating to accepting same sex marriages cannot be exercised. I presume (a potential pitfall of course) that you would accept the the State, its services and institutions are part of the public sphere and should be run in accordance to principles of equality. As the C of E is part of the State and until such times as it is disestablished, the C of E should be compelled to process same sex marriages (if legalized) and have no argument about freedom of conscience to oppose it as it is part of the State.

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