Freedom from religion or freedom for religion?
Do we want freedom from religion or freedom for religion? Professor Derek Burke, former Vice Chancellor of UEA, examines the arguments presented in Norwich recently by Prof Roger Trigg.
A recent letter to The Times (March 19, 2012), from Tom McIntyre, described one view of the present situation: “But … already nurses can lose their livelihood if religious conscience forbids them to help with abortions. Innkeepers are prosecuted if religious conscience forbids them to accommodate gay couples. Adoption agencies have to close down if religious conscience forbids them to allow gay couples to adopt children in their care….. Religious conscience has no rights.”
This was the issue addressed by Professor Roger Trigg of Oxford University at the 2012 Keswick Hall Lecture at the University of East Anglia on March 21. Indeed, as Western Europe becomes more secular, will religion be seen as purely a private affair, which should not have any direct influence on public life?
Recently the remains of an unknown Saxon woman, buried in 680 AD, was found to be wearing a cross. So we know she was a Christian, but for how much longer? The courts have recently said that wearing a cross is not an obligation of Christian faith – we can choose to wear it or not – and since some might object, crosses should not be worn. Surely, Roger Trigg argued, we should allow those who want to do something which matters very much to them to do it, even though we might disagree?
The Council of Europe has said that separation of Church and State is ‘one of Europe's shared values’ (not true of course), and that religious principles must not limit human rights. Roger Trigg argued that such categorical statements must be challenged; otherwise they will be accepted by default. Surely religion is a foundation of human rights, so “secular rights” should not trump “religious rights”.
Roger Trigg argued that religious freedom must protect all those who have religious views, of whatever religion. We not only have a right to believe, but a right to manifest this belief; for a false distinction has been drawn between core belief, which is private, and it’s manifestation, which is public, and so subject to the State. This is why wearing a cross has been rejected and these ideas are also influencing both the current debate on marriage, and that over Sunday working, where the State’s needs, defined in purely commercial terms, has trumped religious objections.
Why is all this happening? He suggested that it is because religion is seen as outmoded, even as a threat, to be fenced around, and kept at the margins. Religion too claims a higher authority and that also might be why it is politically unpopular. Roger Trigg instanced recent work in Oxford that shows that growing children think religiously first – their default position is theism. Roger Trigg claimed that religion is a part of what it is to be human and for this reason religion should be protected, not trumped by other views.
To summarise, freedom of religion is more than freedom to worship, and religion is more than the formal practice of worship, because inevitably it will affect the public debate. We have to decide in the UK whether we want freedom from religion, like France, or freedom for religion like the US? All faiths have a common agenda here.
Professor Roger Trigg (pictured above) is Academic Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Kellogg College, University of Oxford.
For further reading see: Roger Trigg, Equality, Freedom and Religion, Oxford University Press, 2012.