Sound Judgement
Back in the Green Room

Freedom of Belief

205535056_27bac0841a_o_2 Freedom of belief is the foundation upon which all our other freedoms rest, and to deny it is to oppose liberty itself.

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 United States.

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 in the United States, for instance, is that it is acceptable to wage war in order to promulgate democracy. Such an attitude denies freedom of belief, since the autonomy implied must include the freedom to believe in other systems of government, including non-democratic government, and even including systems of government that deny freedom of belief. This seems like a paradox: freedom of belief requires that we allow people in other countries to deny freedom of belief?

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.


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To throw in a few curve balls... sorry, I've been working more than usual with mental health concepts recently...

- Where does freedom of thought interact with insanity, if at all?

- Is expression action?

- Does one have to express a thought before one "is" insane, or merely think it? Is this sidestepped by the notion that insanity is socially defined, so one "is not" insane; instead one is *declared* insane on the basis of examination, and hence observation and/or communication?

- Given that we can't put the genie back in the bottle with respect to observing thoughts of others, how (if at all) does that change (say) notions of sanity?

Peter: the issue of sanity is an interesting one. Should a delusional megalomaniac be given freedom of thought? (Well, better that than political office *laughs*!)

When people are declared insane and institutionalised, there is a certain sense in which they are denied freedom of belief - in so much as, if they ever want to be let out of the asylum they have to conform to more conventional beliefs. Does this constitute a violation of what I'm talking about in this piece?

My intuition says that it does not, but it may take me a moment to get a handle on why. I suppose it rests on a chain of logic rather like this: insanity, if our societies were perfect at dealing with it, represents a medical condition (really, many medical conditions), and so insane beliefs do not represent free choice of belief, any more than the fevered ramblings of a sick person represent free expression.

There is an equivalent boundary to freedom of belief not dealt with in this piece, which is a child's freedom of belief. Our children, being in our care, are not yet fully actualised individuals. They need their parent's (and to a certain extent, their culture's) guidance to form their own belief systems. Since in the case of the insane person the duty of care has re-emerged, I'm going to lay claim that these situations are broadly equivalent. I suspect there are easy counter arguments, but this satisfies me on this issue.

Is one insane by thought or by speech? As you say, because one is declared insane by a society (there's no "insanity tricorder" - yet) it must begin with either speech or behaviour, else there is no way of knowing.

Is free expression action? Yes, I think it's clear that it is, but fortunately the same democracies that protect freedom of thought and belief also protect free expression - at least in their laws, if not in their behaviour. So although free expression crosses over into action, it has its own protected zone on the other side of the border. I am hopeful the US will regain this 'safe zone' soon.

And lastly, given that the genie is out of the bottle, what does brain scan tech mean for sanity? Well, it might give us the possibility of that "insanity tricorder" I mentioned in passing, but my instinct is that while psychosis will be physically detectable, most neurosis will not be.

I'd like to see a wider recognition that neurosis is a part of normal human behaviour, and that it is only when a person is debilitated beyond the point to live their normal life by neurotic problems that we cross the soft border into insanity. In these instances, all the brain scan can do is (for instance) measure the degree of anxiety or some such aspect.

It seems, having explored the issues you suggest, I can live with the use of brain technology in this one legal context, namely the establishment of legal insanity, because this context is in effect medical - and furthermore, declaring someone insane in a legal context is usually to their benefit, and not their detriment. (Although there are exceptions).

Excellent set of curves there - hard to hit the balls out of the park from such an angle, but I think I just about got the bat to connect with a few of them. ;)

Let me take this opportunity to say that it's been a supreme delight to have you as a major "player character" in the Ethics Campaign. You have been consistently thoughtful and often challenging in the points that you raise. It wouldn't have been the same without you!

Best wishes!

What sort of arguments are you talking about when you use the example of "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."?

I have, of course, encountered numerous examples of arguments that religious beliefs are worthy of derision, and plenty of actual derision (supplied with varying amounts of grace and good humour). There's plenty of atheists arguing that a belief in (a particular form of) God should not entitle one to special treatment or support for those beliefs. And there are, alas, some atheists who argue that belief in God is akin to, or actual is, a mental illness.

Essentially, those seem to me to be arguments that people shouldn't believe in God. That, to me, seems entirely different from an argument that they shouldn't be allowed to believe in God. Which is, for the reasons you elaborate, a very bad position to take.

To take a more trivial example, I might think that people shouldn't play Manhunt 2, and try to convince them. I might appeal to their better nature, make lengthy and well-referenced reasoned arguments, or resort to crude derision. But all of that's an entirely different activity from seeking to have the game banned so that nobody can play it.

The first is part of the crucial freedom to exhort people to change their behaviour or beliefs. The second is directly preventing them from doing what they believe to be right.

I'd be very interested (and, of course, rather disappointed!) if you have examples of atheists arguing the latter.

Michael - examples of banning particular religions are common. Examples at the top of my mind are 17th century England and 20th century Russia, but I have no doubt there are better examples. In one case it was theists banning theists (and atheists), in the other case it was atheists banning theists. Or you might wish to look at the current plight of Christians in North Korea - it's educational, if unpleasant.

Re: the Rothko painting,

I have to confess that I also nicked it from a website, and have had no complaints so far. I also have no idea about the copyright implications that could possibly arise, but like yourself if anyone makes a fuss I will simply remove it...

Btw. a very interesting post!

As for using images and saying "I'll take it down if someone objects" this is akin to downloading music and saying "I'll buy the CD if someone objects".

It's wrong. I'm not saying don't do it, just warning you.

The more heinous crime would be to bandwidth steal it too - that is, to leave the image where it is and link to it on your blog. As long as you download it and store it on your own server, then at least you are only committing a minor crime :-D

Several interesting points...

BondBloke: Fascinated that you were aware of my use of the image you posted. :) How did that happen?

Neil: I don't agree that it's wrong to use an image without copyright clearance. I don't have time to seek clearance for all the images I use, and it often benefits the artist when I use their pictures because they get better exposure and a link. If the artist doesn't like it, which has only happened once, I take the image down. This seems to me a fair and equitable approach to image copyright.

The copyright laws allow for "fair use" but are vague as to what "fair use" means. Personally, in these sort of situations, I feel it is reasonable to take whatever steps one considers fair, but stand ready to make amends.

I don't think the parallel with music holds - if I download music I am expected to pay for, that's a form of theft. But if I display an image that is already on display on the internet, that is not theft - these images are for sale only in their physical form. The use of that image in other contexts falls into the cracks of the copyright law, and I believe is "fair use" since it promotes the artists work.

The internet mandates a new approach to copyright. Sometimes justice requires that we solve problems without the intercession of the law. ;)

Michael: The modern anti-theists - principally Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - have danced very close to the line on this one. When Dawkins advocates denying religion to children, that is right on the line - if a law was drawn up in that form, that would be an express denial of freedom of belief. (See the Ethics of Metaphysics piece for more on this).

I defend their right to exercise free speech - I wish they would also exercise good judgement! :)

As for atheists actually denying freedom of belief, the anti-theists I mention thankfully don't have the influence to make laws, but it's not hard to find examples of atheists who did, and who denied religious freedoms as a consequence. The classic case for this would be in the Communist countries of the twentieth century when religion was effectively outlawed. China has recently relaxed this, but both it and the USSR denied religious freedoms for quite some time.

The point I'm trying to make in this piece is that denial of freedom of belief is heinous whichever beliefs are being denied.

Modern atheists would do better (in my opinion) to defend freedom of belief - which protects them and everyone else - rather than attacking religion and trying to belittle beliefs they don't hold by characterising people who hold them as insane or otherwise impaired.

Since in our societies the mentally impaired are denied rights in order to be rehabilitated, I do think that accusations of this kind are tantamount to denial of freedom of belief. One might even say it was "incitement to deny freedom of belief".

Because of my own personal history, I also worry about the religious children who I imagine being persecuted in playgrounds by atheists emboldened by intellectuals throwing around ideas of the kind "religion is insanity". Since I was persecuted in school by atheist children in the 1970s without any incitement by noted figures, I dread to think what might happen now. Of course, I hope that this is just my paranoia.

If a person's words cause persecution, have we crossed the line from persuasion? It's a difficult line to draw. I find it troubling that we should have to draw it at all.

Thanks for raising this point for discussion!


I wasn't really stating my beliefs about copyright - I was stating what I thought to be the law.

As for the copyright the image in under - how can you tell which particular copyright the artist used and if he/she considered fair use?

And just because something is on display in one place on the internet, this does not suddenly mean anyone can take that image and display it elsewhere. I agree some artists may benefit - but that is not the point (although it is *a* point :-) ).

My point was basically, sure, people do this, but it is still not the correct way of doing it. If you argue you haven't time to check up on everything you "borrow" (steal whatever) then perhaps you should do something different?

It certainly wouldn't stand up in a court that you were too busy to stick to the law ;-) Of course, if you got the image from the artist's own site with their own copyright on it and it said there that "use is acceptable" then no-one has any problems.

Once again, I am not saying *don't do it* just beware of the lines you are crossing :-)

Neil: Sure, I understand where you're coming from. :) But my point here is that "fair use" is a legal concept that has nothing to do with the opinions of the copyright holder - people can use certain text extracts and images under the concept of "fair use" without gaining express permission.

So my point is I am sticking to the law - and under the law, anyone who feels what I have done isn't "fair use" is free to protest. I'm telling them expressly: tell me, and I'll take it down. As far as I understand copyright law, this is a legitimate approach. I've made no money from the image, so there would be no damages to pay unless my use was shown to accrue detriment to the copyright holder somehow - but as already noted, I can in fact show precisely the opposite! ;)

"Fair use" has taken a beating in the US recently, but here I have the luxury to not go all namby-pampy as most book publishers have done. There is an underlying sense in which the law is there to support us, not to constrain us, so I say: let's use copyright materials sensibly and respectably under the "fair use" concept and not be so afraid of crossing fuzzy legal lines.

This is a strange sidebar discussion to have in the comments for "Freedom of Belief", but it's an interesting subject all the same. :)

Best wishes!

Yes it appear "fair use" gets around this - specifically by saying that showing a thumbnail of an image is considered "transformative" and therefore more likely applicable usage under "fair use" (although it isn't a shoe-in - but then what is?).

I guess making sure you link to the original rather than a reproduction would be a cautious approach, and obviously some have their works under Creative Commons licences which allows for more varied usage...

For those interested, the EFF have an excellent bloggers' reference which includes a legal FAQ covering these sticky issues. :-)

I have been a bit remiss at the old houskeeping and checking things out lately, and I came across tour use of the image on the previous occasion in the same way I did tonight; I was checking out the incoming links on the blog...

BondBloke: Ah, right. Thanks for stopping by to let me know! Its fascinating how data passes between people on the internet these days. :)

Best wishes!

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