Religious freedom, I argued in my Notes on Religious Freedom, is not a special kind of liberty but one of a broader set of freedoms of conscience, belief, assembly and 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, I argued, should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.
It is true that many religious beliefs – about homosexuality, for instance, or blasphemy – imply practices that are often at odds with the norms of a liberal society, and this has been at the heart of many recent conflicts between secular norms and religious conscience. But such conflicts are not unique to religious belief. Racists, communists, Greens, New Age mystics – all could claim that their beliefs enforce upon them certain actions or practices which are at odds with liberal norms. Nevertheless, 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. Society should accommodate as far as is possible any action genuinely required by conscience. Nevertheless, there is always a line that cannot legally be crossed even if conscience requires one to. That line, I suggested in my Notes on Religious Freedom, should be in the same place for religious believers as for non-believers.
A marriage registrar should not have the right to pick and choose whom he or she is willing to marry. So long as a couple have a legal right to get hitched, a registrar should be obliged to perform the ceremony. A Christian marriage registrar should expect to have to perform gay civil partnerships, whatever their religious beliefs. Similarly, we should not accommodate the conscience of a Creationist biology teacher by allowing him or her not to teach the theory of evolution. But, I added, ‘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.’
This argument about ‘exemptions’ for doctors drew some criticism in the debate about my essay on Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True. As one commenter put it in the thread:
I’m not seeing what the ‘fundamental difference’ is between a doctor who believes that abortion is murder, and a teacher who believes that evolution means damnation for his students. The teacher’s horror at being forced to do such a thing is just as real (and just as irrational) as the doctor’s. But you’re willing to ignore that and demand compliance from the teacher that you do not demand from the doctor. Understand that I’m not defending the teaching of creationism. I’m wondering why you think the doctor merits a free pass for his irrational beliefs when the teacher plainly doesn’t.
I find it extraordinary that anyone cannot, almost instinctively, see the distinction between the insistence that children should be taught scientific truth and the acknowledgement that people should not forced to commit what they consider to be murder. Be that as it may, here are (slightly edited) the three points I made on the WEIT thread on the difference between refusing to teach evolution and refusing to perform abortions, and on why we should tolerate one but not the other:
First, evolution is a fact. Certainly, there are some who do not accept it as a fact. But that does not make it any less of a fact. There is no moral issue in insisting that children receiving state-sanctioned education should be taught the facts of evolution. Indeed it would be immoral to suggest otherwise.
Abortion is not a fact. It is an act, the rights and wrongs of which can be complex. Even atheists are deeply divided as to why we should support abortion, to what degree, and what the consequences are of doing so.
Peter Singer and I, for instance, both support abortion. There are few facts about which we would disagree. Yet we differ profoundly about why we support abortion, a difference that arises from holding fundamentally different views about the character of human life, the meaning of morality, the means by which we evaluate norms, etc. I defend abortion on the basis of rights and choice, Singer does so from a utilitarian perspective. This leads him to support ‘post-birth’ abortion – that is, infanticide – and to suggest that animals that possess greater cognitive abilities than young children possess also a greater claim to life. I profoundly disagree on both points.
This is not the place to debate my differences with Singer and the utilitarian approach to abortion (I have done so elsewhere). All I am trying to point out is that even atheists as strongly in favour of abortion as Singer and I are can also be profoundly divided on the issue. Singer and I can have – indeed have had – a rational debate about this. But it is not a debate that can be settled simply by appealing to facts because it depends partly upon the philosophical and moral framework within which we fit those facts.
There are deep debates, too, even among non-believers, as to when abortion should apply. Should the limit be set at 18 weeks? 24 weeks? Birth? Post-birth? There are many doctors (both religious and non-religious) who support a woman’s right to choose but who would not wish to perform an abortion themselves. As someone who believes in abortion on demand, I oppose the current attempts to restrict abortions. I certainly campaign for and defend a woman’s right to choose. But the very fact that we have this debate reveals the complexities and dilemmas surrounding the question of abortion. The debate about abortion, in other words, is not merely one of facts, as is the debate about evolution; it is one that touches on profound questions of what we think it means to be human, and of how we define morality.
Second, a biology teacher who rejects evolution is a poor teacher. As the great biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it, ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. That might be an exaggeration, but understanding evolution certainly lies at the heart of understanding the science of life. To insist that a biology teacher teach evolution is simply to insist that he or she be a biology teacher. A doctor who objects to abortion, on the other hand, is not necessarily a poor doctor. In fact there are many exceptional doctors who oppose abortion. It is not the case that ‘nothing in neurosurgery or oncology makes sense except in the light of support for abortion’.
Third, to force someone to commit what they consider to be murder (even if I do not consider it so) seems to me deeply immoral. Again, this is not an issue simply of religious belief. It is not different in principle, for instance, from accepting that people may have ‘conscientious objections’ to war. I am no pacifist, but I accept that there are people, both religious and non-religious, who have moral objections to killing other human beings in conflict. I disagree with their argument, but I also accept that it is legitimate to hold that moral view.
Similarly, I accept the case for assisted dying. But I do not, for a moment, think that this should require doctors to participate, only that it should allow them to do so.
There are not many, I would imagine, who would fail to understand why it is wrong to force a doctor to commit what he or she thinks is murder. The kind of moral blindness exhibited in this view is, however, an extreme version of an approach that is increasingly finding purchase. There is a growing tendency in certain atheist/rationalist circles to think of morality in terms of abstract logic rather than in terms of the rationality of human life as it is actually lived. A Martian, with no understanding of human emotions, or of human concepts of life and death, etc, may well view opposition to Darwinism and opposition to performing an abortion as equivalent expressions of conscience. As Earthlings, we should not.
I am as in favour of a woman’s right to abortion as I am hostile to Creationism. I recognize, however, a fundamental difference between insisting that all biology teachers teach the theory of evolution and forcing a doctor to perform an abortion against his or her will. I recognize, too, a fundamental difference between defending a woman’s right to choose and insisting that this includes the right to compel a doctor to perform an abortion. Not to recognise such distinctions is to distort the very idea of morality.