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An Atheist’s Case For Religious Liberty


I am an atheist, which puts me firmly on the secular right. There aren’t a whole lot of us, but we’re out here, in some surprising places.

Yet I consider the current campaign against religious liberty—the attempt to coerce Christians into providing service to gay weddings or to provide abortifacient drugs to their employees, against the dictates of their faith—to be a deep cultural crisis.

Why? Above all, because the sight of a bully using a club to force someone else to violate his conscience is inherently repugnant. As a humanist, what I regard as “sacred” is the power of the human mind to think and make judgments. To put this in terms borrowed from religion, when someone uses coercion to overrule the judgment of their victim’s mind, they are defiling my temple.

But there is another, more practical reason. History shows that the only way to fight for freedom of thought is to defend it early, when it comes under threat for others—even people you strongly disagree with, even people you despise. So I’m willing to fight for it for people who are much worse, by my standards, than your average Christian.

It’s like the old poem from Pastor Niemoller, except this time it’s: “First they came for the Christians.” I don’t see the threat of coercion as something being done to those backward Christians over there. I see it as something that could just as easily be done to me.

And it will be, judging from the principles that have been laid down in the campaign against Arizona’s religious liberty law and in the Supreme Court hearings in the Hobby Lobby case.

The left and its sympathizers have put forward two main arguments.

The first is simply that Christian opposition to gay marriage and abortion is backward, bigoted, and offensive. I agree in regarding these views as backward. Providing services to a gay wedding or providing insurance coverage for contraceptives doesn’t violate my principles. But like I said, the test of tolerance isn’t how you treat the people you agree with. It’s recognizing the freedom of people who don’t share your values and principles.

That’s what’s disturbing about the current campaign: that it is built around a refusal to accept those who don’t share the values and principles of the secular left. It’s not merely a refusal to accept their liberty. It’s a refusal to accept their very existence.

There is a crude majoritarian triumphalism to this argument. The attitude is: we won the culture war, our views are now the accepted norm, and so they must become the rule for everybody. You have no right to resist, no right even to retreat into your own private sphere and ask to be left alone. We must reach into that private sphere and require your active endorsement of the new social consensus.

Thus, in The Daily Beast, Gene Robinson lectures us that “being pressed to conform to…a change in majority opinion” is not really a “violation of religious freedom”—even though he acknowledges that the “pressing” is being done by force of law. Oddly, Reverend Robinson is an Episcopal bishop. But I guess that just shows that syncretism isn’t dead, it’s just operating in the opposite direction. The forms and institutions of the old faith, belief in God, are being subsumed by the new faith, belief in society.

As someone who accepts neither faith, I still have a personal stake in this, because the next thing they’re itching to do is to lock up the climate skeptics as heretics to the new faith. The idea that you can be compelled to conform to the social consensus unleashes the basic principle of totalitarianism.

The second big argument in the current battle over religious liberty is that Christians may have a private right to religious liberty, but they give that up when they start a business and enter the “commercial sphere,” at which point they must submit to unlimited regulation of their activity by the state.

All that this demonstrates is the artificiality of the left’s historic division between property rights and all other rights. The left has always had something of a transactional relationship with free speech; they love it when they need it to protect themselves and forget about it when somebody else’s neck is on the line. But this argument shows the exact mechanism by which the left’s rejection of economic freedom inevitably leads them to reject all other freedoms. It is hardly possible to do anything in life without in some way engaging in or affecting commerce. In fact, the left has elevated to an art form the practice of justifying anything they want to do, anything at all, by connecting it to the federal government’s power to “regulate interstate commerce.” In the arguments over the individual mandate in ObamaCare, they even argued that not engaging in commerce is covered under the power to regulate interstate commerce.

So the result is that you can think what you like in your own brain, maybe, but don’t dare lift a finger to act on it. Many years ago, Ayn Rand—an atheist philosopher if ever there was one—summed up the left’s outlook: “The liberals see man as a soul freewheeling to the farthest reaches of the universe—but wearing chains from nose to toes when he crosses the street to buy a loaf of bread.” Some concept of “freedom” that is.

The oldest rule of free speech is: I may disagree with every word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it. Because if I don’t stand up for you, then by my silence I am accepting a system in which might makes right. I am helping to establish the rule of the jungle in the realm of ideas.

In sum, I’m for religious liberty because there really is no such thing as religious liberty. There is just freedom of thought and freedom of conscience, period. For all of us. And if we let the left knock it down, they are coming for all of us in the end.

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