It is dismaying to see religious freedom struggling for life in the countries which pioneered it. The most important reason must surely be the growth in non-belief and irreligion. For what is the surest foundation on which religious freedom may rest? Is it not the solemn recognition of that great first duty of the moral law, to honour one’s Creator in accordance with one’s best understanding of what it requires?
As James Madison famously argued at the birth of the American republic: ‘It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.’
It isn’t difficult to see how an excess of irreligion will undermine this critical foundation of religious freedom. If too many people no longer accept the reality of God’s existence then society as a whole will begin to lose sight of the importance of allowing people conscientiously to render him his due. Increasing numbers of people will instead regard religion as nonsense (at best) and have little time for it. Some, we can hope, will continue to support religious freedom because they understand the significance of religion for humanity and what is at stake in its disappearance. But more and more will be motivated to support not so much freedom of religion as what is sometimes mistaken for it, freedom from religion – the extirpation of the influence of religion as much as possible from society, and particularly from any spaces that could be construed as public.
This hostility to religion is given increased impetus by the abuse scandals that have rocked various religions in recent years. Such terrible abuses of trust and power, while by no means limited to religious organisations, are much more likely than in other contexts (such as education, social care, media or entertainment) to lead to calls to jettison religion as a whole – as witness Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee this morning.
There is something of a paradox here for supporters of religious freedom. Religious freedom permits people to embrace irreligion, yet irreligion isn’t so good at returning the favour, since it is typically hostile to religion and apt to dismiss it whenever it clashes with fashionable views. To address this problem, at least in part, it is necessary for believers to ensure that the first duty to honour the Creator remains a staple of public life, and does so, as far as possible, notwithstanding the growth in irreligion. To do otherwise, even as a concession to increased secularisation and loss of belief, would be to surrender the logical and moral ground on which religious freedom stands. And not just religious freedom, but the moral law more generally, with all the personal freedoms it underpins – freedoms of conscience and speech and assembly, alongside key ethical commitments such as truthfulness and human dignity. It is after all very difficult to regard anything as sacred when the Source of sanctity itself is disavowed.