Free to Believe?

George Bishop outlines the importance of religious freedom and speaking out against its ruination.

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Freedom of religion is a fundamental tenant of the classic liberal tradition. It is a principle which at its core is about ensuring that individuals who profess to follow a religion have the freedom to exercise it, live it out and be involved in a community of people who likewise profess such a religion. However, the reach of the principle extends beyond this core notion of protecting those who profess to belong to a religion to allowing individuals who do not belong to a religion, or belong to a different religion to be free to hold that position and to seek out religions if they so wish. Importantly, freedom of religion represents a safeguard against a secular government intervening inappropriately in issues of religion.

This freedom, like all freedoms and rights, cannot be pushed to the extreme at the expense of all other rights and responsibilities. This is because in a secular society, the separation between church and state necessitates a compromising approach towards the balancing of rights and freedoms, including those rights and freedoms held by persons of religion. It is also because the assertion of religious freedom at the expense of everything else can have undesirable consequences. For example, if a particular religion empowered its individuals to engage in activities which made obscenely loud noises late on a week night in a suburban residential area, this would likely be seen as inconsistent with the rights of neighbours to the reasonable use and enjoyment of their land – a right which is protected by the law of nuisance. In the Jehovah’s Witness Case, the High Court of Australia also recognised the need for freedom of religion to be balanced with issues of defence and national security and in that case held that those issues overrode considerations of religious freedom.

Recognising the difficult task of balancing rights and responsibilities in a secular society, I now wish to turn to considering just why society has agreed, to varying degrees, on the importance of this freedom. There is of course the pragmatic reason of protecting those persons of religion. However, its importance, and even existence, can be traced in my opinion to a more fundamental concept. Humans and by extension society, in a deeply ontological way, have a craving to search for a meaning, a purpose or an explanation for their lives and for the world around them. For many individuals, this has historically been found though belief in a deity. In order for this search to be well informed and fruitful, society must enter, and has entered, into a ‘spiritual contract’ to allow individuals to undertake that search and feel the ramifications of a successful search by living out their religious beliefs. This is the foundation of religious freedom.

While many  individuals have found meaning in a deity others do not. Christians for example, take great comfort and hope in knowing that their meaning, purpose and explanation comes from a real person, Jesus Christ, who promises a relationship and a life to come for those who believe in his death and resurrection. Atheists, on the other hand, have found meaning through order in nature, science and in the undertaking of a ‘pleasure/pain calculus’ in pursuance of, depending on the branch, self-interest or the continuance of humanity. It is not important, for the purposes of freedom of religion, where or if individuals find meaning. Rather, it is important that they are free to explore, find and live out this meaning.

Having spelled out both the structure of rights and freedoms to which freedom of religion fits and its deeply ontological roots underpinning its importance, I now wish to turn to a particularly contentious issue which is testing the bounds of religious freedom around Australia and even here at the University of Sydney. Namely, whether the identity and demarcation of religious persons as followers of a religion is inconsistent with an ideology, usually championed by those of the Left, of equality of access to such groups.

Proponents of such an ideology would claim that individuals who wish to be part of religious groups, such as perhaps religious societies on campus, should be allowed to associate with the identity of the group while not professing to the fundamental tenants of such a group. Put more tangibly, the issue is about whether persons not of religion should be allowed to be called ‘members,’ with all rights and responsibilities associated with that, of religious groups without conforming to the well held mainstream beliefs of that group.

While I am all for ensuring that individuals are not unfairly discriminated against as they seek to undertake their ontological search for meaning, the assertion of equality of access in this context is misguided. This is because in order to maintain a clear identity as a group professing a particular religion, a group needs to ensure a clear demarcation between individuals who are part and not part of the group.

This need not, and in many cases should not, be a physical demarcation but rather a demarcation of identity. If this demarcation does not exist, then how could one define the religion and separate it from anything else. How could an individual be a Christian without believing in Jesus Christ? How could an individual be Jewish without following the applicable Mosaic Law and believing in Yahweh? How could an individual be a follower of Islam without believing in Mohammed as Allah’s messenger? It is preposterous to think otherwise, yet this is the exact kind of demarcation which is being challenged in the name of ‘equality.’

However, more than a mere definitional necessity, this demarcation is necessary because many religions stress the importance of the endowment of privileges and benefits only to those who are followers of that religion. Take for example, the Abrahamic religions; Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All of these religions believe that one will only receive the blessings of God, namely a life to come and a place in God’s people, if one is a follower of that religion to the exclusion of other religions. This internal demarcation means that religious groups need to be able to exclude from the identity of such a group those who do not follow as to do otherwise would do contrary to the very epicentre of their religions and thus the ontological search for meaning, purpose and explanation. It is not that these religions purport to be exclusive and limited in their membership. Indeed, the vast majority seek to convince other individuals that their religion and beliefs are real, correct or the best and indeed this is entrenched in many religions. Some call this evangelism. Indeed, I would argue that religious groups are actually some of the most inclusive places, in terms of inviting individuals in and creating a welcoming environment for those who do. Such invitation does not discriminate and is equally accessible. However, to take the notion of equal accessibility the step further to encroach on the identity of the group is seriously misguided.

Readers, this encroachment is happening at our very university. The Catholic Society, with its significant support from the Church, and the Evangelical Union, the 5th largest evangelical Christian university group in the world, are both being required by the University of Sydney Union to, though not without a fight, alter their constitutions to allow for individuals who cannot confess the basic tenants of Christianity to be both members and, in the case of the Catholic Society, leaders. It is being done in the name of ‘equal access’ despite both clubs having events open to all individuals and, in the case of the Evangelical Union, even funnelling financial resources into assisting non-Christians attend their larger events. The action goes to the very core of the identity of both of these societies and is a completely inappropriate. Conservatives, both on campus and more broadly, must continue to speak out, lest the fundamental tenants of religious freedom be eroded to the point of destruction. I hope that in reading this article, one might once again be energised about the importance of religious freedom and the importance of speaking out against its destruction.

George Bishop is a a fourth year Economics/Law student and serves as the President of the SU Evangelical Union.

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