Why not a secular religious freedom?
SECULAR DEFENSES OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM trivialize the significance of religion and even seek to remove it from the public square, which conflicts with natural law and democracy, former American diplomat Thomas F. Farr explained to a recent seminar hosted by the Witherspoon Institute.
“Non-religious or secular arguments for religious freedom do not protect the right to believe so much as they do the right not to believe,” said Farr, formerly with the United States Office of International Religious Freedom.
Presenting to the seminar on Islam and Religious Freedom, held July 5-9 at Princeton Theological Seminary, Farr laid out his view of what religious freedom is, and what it is not. He repeatedly contrasted the secular view of religious freedom with his proposed general and brief definition: "The right to believe, and the right to act on belief.”
“The right not to believe is implicit in religious freedom… [It] is an act that is constitutive of human dignity and cannot be coerced,” said Farr, currently the Director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. “But I do not believe that the reverse is true,” he stressed. A religious choice is “not like choosing the red dress or a green dress, as the secularists say. It is a choice that has enormous significance for human beings…”
As a Catholic, “my church’s position is that that is not a choice without consequences. It’s not a matter of indifference to the Catholic Church that you say 'I don’t want to be Catholic anymore.',” Farr told the participants, which included Islamic scholars, Christian and Muslim lawyers and journalists, and students of religion and philosophy.
But for religious freedom to mean anything at all, there cannot be civil or criminal penalties for a choice to enter or exit a religious community, Farr cautioned. Religious groups have the right to accept or deny entry according to their own principles, norms and disciplines, he argued. And if there is the right to enter religious communities for individuals, there is also the right to exit, the right to apostasy.
It is also the right of religious actors to take their religious ideas “into the public square, into the political life of the nation, to make religious arguments about the public policies of their country, and to make religiously informed moral arguments,” Farr added. “If the Catholic Church or any other religious institution is interested in the welfare of all people, and it really believes that committing apostasy or blasphemy or defamation or heresy has eternal consequences for human beings, it is difficult to just remain silent about that.”
Farr acknowledged that religious arguments often compete with each other in the public square, which can be bothersome to those who do not believe in transcendent truth. But it does not follow that such arguments should be banned, as some Western European countries have sought to do. An outright ban "is untenable, because human beings are religious persons,” Farr asserted.