A few impertinent but overdue questions about religion

In countries that uphold freedom of association as well as freedom of speech and expression, why does freedom of religion require special mention?

Let’s see how these are expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) and in the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution (1789).

So the Canadian Charter upholds freedom of religion and conscience, as well as thought, belief, opinion and expression and freedom of assembly and peaceful association. The older Canadian Bill of Rights proclaims the existence in Canada of freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly and association; and freedom of the press.

By contrast, the First Amendment to the US Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

While the Canadian documents express the freedoms of religion as positive rights and the US document expresses the rights as  limitation on the rights of Congress to legislate in respect of religion, the question remains, why is religion plucked for special mention?

How can the freedom of religion be abridged except by also abridging freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of the press?

There are two possible answers to this question?

The first answer, is that freedom of religion is included for emphasis, because it is said, that religious freedoms are the first rights that are undermined. So declaring that freedom of religion must be upheld, is really a symbolic declaration, which though redundant, acts as a canary in a mine: Undermining the freedom of religion is an advance signal that other freedoms are in jeopardy.  This answer makes sense in many third world countries, where the freedoms of expression, assembly and association are routinely abridged.  The Pew Center recently released a study that catalogs how restrictions on religion have increased in recent years. But a careful reading of the report shows that in each case where religion was being restricted, freedom of association or expression was being undermined. Freedom of religion was precarious precisely because freedom of speech/expression and freedom of assembly and association are themselves in jeopardy. Unfortunately in many third world countries, religion resonates with the public more that other more intellectual modes of thought. So upholding freedom of religion is really a proxy for other freedoms.

The second is that there is something special about religion and that adherents should receive special recognition and privileges, eg special considerations in law, exemptions from generally applicable law, etc. In the context of advanced Canada, the United States and other free countries, this response doesn’t make any sense, and undermines equality before the law. It is not clear why religion must be accommodated and privileged. In the recent polygamy prosecution in British Columbia, the polygamists defended themselves by arguing that the regulation of polygamy was an infringement on their freedom of religion. The examples of the special accommodations of religion in both Canada and the US are too numerous to list.

The question to religionists then, is Why? What makes you think that your beliefs deserve  special accommodation and privileges that are not afforded to comparable secular philosophies. It is high time you explain yourselves, rather than assert a dubious entitlement to special consideration. This debate: Against Religious Freedom” inspired me to write this blog post. Read it!



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