Why must liberty rest on freedom of belief? This case is already well established, although it is usually couched in terms of freedom of thought (which is functionally equivalent since all thoughts rest upon beliefs). For example, the US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo stated in 1937 that “Freedom of thought... is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” Consider, for instance, what freedom of expression means if one does not have the freedom to think and believe without restriction. This foundational freedom is protected by the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”), which almost all democratic nations have ratified, and many others besides . This clause does not grant individuals the freedom to act in any way they choose – indeed, it places the boundary of the law clearly at action, and not at thought or belief.
A simple thought experiment will demonstrate why we all need freedom of belief: consider attitudes towards the idea of God. Theists will not tolerate any attempt to force them to deny God, as their relationship with God is central to their lives, while atheists will not tolerate any attempt to force them to accept or worship God, and agnostics and non-participants in this metaphysical issue do not appreciate attempts to compel them into either camp. Given this arrangement, it should be immediately apparent why freedom of belief is so essential: every individual must be free to make up their own mind about what they think and believe, or else one is not truly an individual.
In this regard, anti-theist sentiments expressed by atheists with the valid goal of seeking widespread acceptance and legitimacy for their own belief systems
are counter productive: one cannot secure the freedom to hold belief systems that do not use the term “God” by attacking other
people’s freedom to hold belief systems in which God is a valid and meaningful
term. To do
so is to engage in a weak form of the atrocious denial of freedom of belief
that Christian churches several centuries ago shamefully conducted by forcing
people to accept their doctrine or suffer the consequences.
However, this problem is fairly trivial next to the
widespread denial of freedom of belief in a political context, particularly
common in the United States, which is happy to say that people have freedom and
liberty, but then pillories dissenters when they express their views publicly
(despite the constitution of that great nation enshrining the freedoms of both
belief and speech). When US citizens are socially indoctrinated against speaking
out, it is a grave abasement of the core values of that Republic and its Founders, and when the matter
at hand concerns the deployment of armed forces into an unjust war, it also dishonours the brave
men and women sworn to defend that nation with their lives.
The worst abuses of freedom of belief arguably occur outside of democratic countries. In Iran, the state recognises only four religions (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and members of the Bahá'í faith in particularly have been viciously persecuted, subjected to arrests, beatings, confiscation of property and even executions. This is in defiance of the Qu'ran, which states “There is no compulsion in religion” (Sura 2:257), and especially disappointing since Bahá'í teachings are strikingly similar to the Muslim tradition of Sufi. Furthermore, many non-democratic countries persecute those who campaign for democracy: although the situation in China has improved somewhat in recent years, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 left hundreds dead, underlining the extent to which the Communist party in China denied what people in the West consider basic freedoms.
Presuming that it is now clear why freedom of belief
provides the foundation of all liberty, it is perhaps still necessary to show
why this tenet must hold even in extreme cases. For example, almost no-one
would advocate child abuse, so how can it be necessary to grant something as
abhorrent as the freedom to believe that raping children is permissible? It is
vital to remember that the freedom to believe and the freedom to act are
entirely separate issues – we can revile someone who believes in conducting
child rape, but we cannot stop them from holding this belief. We can enforce
laws against child rape, but we cannot and must not consider a criminal someone
who merely thinks about being a child rapist, no matter how offensive
this might be to our own sensibilities. Consider times when in anger you have contemplated violence or murder, even though you would never follow through on
such extreme acts. Should you be considered a criminal simply for imagining
killing someone who enrages you?
In George Orwell’s shrewdly observed dystopian novel Nineteen
Eighty-Four, an oppressive government tries to control not only the speech
and actions of the populace, but their very minds. Thoughts that elicit government
disapproval are labeled thoughtcrime, and subject to severe
punishment. If this seems fanciful, consider how some Muslim nations (in strict
defiance of the teachings of the Qur’an) punish apostasy with death, or how
denial of the Holocaust is punishable by a prison sentence in Austria.
Consider also the chilling possibility of using brain imaging techniques (such
as MRI or CT scans) as evidence in court. This latter idea was explored in a
recent episode of David E. Kelly's legal drama Boston Legal, in which a man was charged with a hate crime
on the basis that when shown images of black men his amygdala (the part of the
brain which registers fear) was demonstrated to be active. This was a work of
fiction, but it is a disturbing fact that lawyers are already attempting to use brain scans as court
evidence in the
A central problem with the idea of punishing thoughts is that for beliefs to be considered a crime requires the
law to specify which thoughts are to be disallowed. At this point, a government can dictate what it is or is not a permissible belief. An absurd extension of this state of affairs would be the
government of a nation controlling political views by criminalising opposition
– a situation that did occur under Communist rule in certain countries,
not to mention similar episodes in the history of autocratic rule in general. The only
absolutely safe way to prevent anything of the kind from taking place is to
enforce the boundary of the law at action, and not thought or belief,
which is already the case in the law of democratic nations.
However, a problematic boundary results from the
recognition that freedom of belief is the foundation of liberty: how to deal
with other nations that do not afford freedom of belief. A commonly held view
To unfold this absurdity, one must understand the
relationship between law and freedoms. Lawmaking is a process that occurs within
a particular nation – it's people collectively agree to laws that bind themselves , including laws that grant essential rights such as freedom of belief. No country can pass a law to bind the inhabitants of another land without
first invading and seizing control of the other nation, and the populace of an invaded
country cannot be free in any tangible sense while a foreign power is in control.
International law comes from treaties that are negotiated between nations acting as equals (as much as this is possible), not from individual legislatures forcing their influence further afield. Each state under democratic ideals represents the collective will of the people, and the boundary of that will is the nation itself. If people wish to influence other nations, the just means for doing so is negotiation and eventual treaties – war cannot be a mechanism for enforcing a nation’s values abroad if it is to remain just in any sense of the term. Thus, even nations which deny freedom of belief must be granted the freedom to do so, although other countries may still exert influence on the international stage to encourage movement towards greater liberty via mechanisms such as trade incentives, sanctions and conditional foreign aid. For democracy or some other condition of liberty to emerge in any given country, the impetus for transformation must come from the people of the nation in question, or it could not truly be freedom.
Part of the problem in respect to freedom of belief in the context of ethics is that people all too frequently attempt to intellectually evaluate other peoples’ moral values, instead of choosing to respect them. Consider, in the case of beliefs concerning God, how narrow-minded Christians dismiss atheists as inherently immoral because rather than respecting the moral values that atheists hold, they attempt to evaluate them in terms of their own metaphysics and conclude (erroneously) that atheism is implicitly immoral. Some atheists make exactly the same mistake in reverse: they evaluate religious metaphysics and ethics as insane, rather than respecting the values such people hold irrespective of how they are derived. In the context of relative ethics in which the modern world finds itself (not the abyss of moral relativism, but an acceptance of the diversity of ethical systems) it no longer matters how one derives one’s values, it only matters that one holds particular values. It is the duty of anyone who claims to value liberty and freedom to respect other peoples’ values as those peoples’ freely chosen ethical beliefs, irrespective of how they are derived.
Freedom of belief is not an easy standard to uphold, but it is a vital principle if we are to
have any hope of achieving a lasting world peace. Arrogant realism – the
contention that one’s own belief system is absolutely true and thus all others
must be in error – denies freedom of belief, and thus stands in opposition to
genuine liberty. Ironically, under the auspices of freedom of belief we must
allow people to hold such views, just as we must permit racism and religious
bigotry no matter how offensive we may find them. But anyone who holds in
esteem the democratic value of liberty should extend freedom of belief to
everyone else on the planet – the freedom to choose their metaphysical beliefs,
their ethical beliefs, and their consequent political beliefs, even if those
beliefs inherently deny the very freedom that is being extended! For to deny
the free choice of beliefs is to suppress the liberty of the imagination, of
heart and of mind, and to render everyone vulnerable to a tyranny of
truth which by its very nature threatens to extinguish the grand diversity of perspectives that is
humanity’s most precious creation.
The opening image is Mark Rothko's Light Red Over Black, which I found here on a blog discussing famous art. I'm not sure if there is implied copyright infringement, but as ever, I will take the image down if asked.