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Why freedom of conscience and religion are good for everyone

When you picture an environmentalist, you may not imagine a nun. If you tried to define environmentalism, you probably wouldn’t use terms like “freedom of conscience”. But the unusual case of the religious order that took on oil company Transco demonstrates that the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion might look a little different than you thought. I owe this example to a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and it helps show that these freedoms often come up when there’s some sort of clash of beliefs and behaviours—in this case, a clash with the nuns’ religious beliefs about care for the environment. Other cases might involve secular beliefs of conscience, but whatever their origin and contrary to popular belief, these conflicts can be a good thing. However, that’s not the only or even the main way these freedoms matter.

In fact, the ability to live out your deepest convictions is good for everyone, whatever your beliefs. It’s good for individuals and it’s good for society as a whole. Why is this? Philosophers and theologians have argued over this for centuries so I won’t try to summarise all the arguments but here, in brief, are four reasons why everyone should appreciate freedom of conscience and religion.

We all use our conscience all the time

First, we simply can’t avoid employing our conscience and living out our beliefs. We all do it, every day. Often we’re unaware that’s what we’re doing, flying on autopilot guided by assumptions and beliefs that we take for granted. But just a moment’s reflection reveals that we’re asking and answering moral questions all the time. For example, your spouse wants to go out and you want to stay home; whose desires do you put first? At the societal level: Do we owe an extra duty of care to the vulnerable? Are we all equal, and what would the answer mean for politics? Should we make decisions today based on what will be good for future generations, people we’ll never meet, even if it costs us something now? That’s why Professor Mary Anne Waldron says that, “Moral reasoning is absolutely essential to the functioning of a democratic society and is inescapable.”

When we answer moral questions like these, we draw on our conscience, our personal sense of right and wrong, and our beliefs about the world including our faith (whether that’s in God or the absence of any god) and what we believe is true. Putting our conscience to work is an essential part of figuring out how to live together.

Freedom to live our beliefs helps us express our humanity

Second, we should embrace using our conscience and our beliefs because it’s part of what makes us fully human. Each of us has agency, the ability to make meaningful decisions guided by our knowledge about what’s worth choosing. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, said: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” From one angle this looks onerous, a necessary evil at best. But Frankl saw it as empowering. He observed that enduring the horrors of the camps meant retaining some reason for hope, for “faith in the future”, allied to a sense of purpose that could respond even to the nightmare that inmates found themselves in. In his words, “man [is] a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning”.

We might recognise this search for meaning in common questions we ask ourselves: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why am I on this planet? What is my task in life? Addressing these existential questions and living out the answers reflects our most important beliefs and forms the core of our identity.

These freedoms protect against absolutist power

Third, upholding freedom of conscience and religion provides a crucial protection against absolutist power. Think of it like this: if you can make people act against their deepest convictions, the beliefs which form the core of their identity, there’s no limit to what you can make them do. Professor Helen Alvaré argues that it is wrong “in light of world history, and in light of the world as we find it—mysterious, beautiful, terrifying, but perhaps most importantly, not made by or ordered by us, as we were not self-made—to impede or to close off ultimate questions”. She asks us to consider the alternative:

“if we do not leave people free to pursue these questions, to judge, and to order their lives in integrity, who or what will supply their system of meaning? The majority view—which has been proved wrong not a few times? The predilections of the rich and powerful? The government in power? … Isn’t there an important sense in which protecting individuals’ ability to interact with and to dialogue with the infinite is a crucial protection against tyranny?”

Protecting a zone of conscience recognises that there must be personal boundaries which state or social power will not cross. Acknowledging and upholding this principle benefits us all, regardless of what we think of any individual set of beliefs.

It’s healthy to have a social conscience

Fourth, promoting freedom of conscience and religion provides something like, well, a social conscience. This can be annoying if you don’t share the beliefs in question, but Bishop Williams points out that “the argumentative grit of the worshipping mentality” forces us into the healthy position of having to give good reasons for our choices which, in turn, requires self-examination and honest debate. He puts it like this:

“the presence within a society of people with strong commitments about what is due to human dignity puts a certain kind of pressure on the whole social environment, a pressure to argue for and justify what society licences or defends in terms that go beyond popular consensus alone. In other words, it helps to guarantee that argument about issues from environmental responsibility to sexual politics will have an element of real moral debate, debate about the kind of beings human beings are.”

We should all be in favour of freedom to live out your beliefs

Next time you hear someone asking for freedom to act according to their beliefs, take a fresh look at the situation. These freedoms deserve more than what Williams called a “repressive tolerance,” a grudging acceptance that seeks to limit their expression to the smallest sphere possible. Upholding freedom of conscience and religion helps us engage in inescapable moral reasoning, embraces our full humanity, protects us against abuses of power, and fosters honest and healthy debate. Whatever you believe in, you should believe in that.

Read "Students and Social Transition"
Alex Penk
May 6, 2024
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