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The Meaning of Religious Freedom

I have argued on several occasions that the Peace of Westphalia was synonymous with religious freedom long before it took up its modern association with sovereignty. And yet, religious freedom is a contentious subject, even for people who believe in it in principle. The Peace of Westphalia did not grant freedom to all religions, only to certain Christian ones. The idea that non-Christian religions could be a part of a Christian commonwealth would have been scoffed it by almost anyone in 1648.

Even among accepted Christians in the Empire (for this freedom is only relevant to those in the Holy Roman Empire, which the Peace of Westphalia regulated), actual freedom of religion varied by region. Some were granted simple right of conscience; others the right to worship in their own homes; and others the right to use churches for public worship. Building new churches was often circumscribed, and performing public ceremonies, such as processions, was among the most contentious elements of religious practice.

I mention these things as a reminder that “freedom of religion” is not a simple concept that can be honoured or not, but a disputed one that can be respected and restricted at the same time. This is one of the main points of an article in the Jerusalem Post by Rabbi Ari Folger. While the West remains committed, at least superficially, to freedom of religion, it also has little compunction about constraining religious practice (the hijab, dietary practices) that conflict with the elite secularist outlook.

I would also take this occasion to point out that “freedom of religion” was never intended to mean “freedom to believe anything.” That is, of course, the logical extension of freedom of religion: since we have no objective means of determining the validity of a particular religion, we must accept whatever anyone thinks up as his religion. While someone who, for example, adopts a pacifist religious outlook might expect some accommodation even if he has no fellow believers who support him, another person who believes in, for example, sacrificing live animals would gain much less sympathy. In general, something that is believed by an individual carries less weight than something that is believed by a whole community; and the larger the community, the more weight it carries.

People who don’t believe in any religion tend to take the extreme view that authorities have to sanction any religious beliefs held by an individual, and this is manifestly not true. A personal belief is not a religion. Freedom of conscience is a separate principle that carries weight in our society, but not the same weight as freedom of religion. Followers of “Pastafarianism” (wikipedia) sometimes use their supposed religion as an attempt to push the boundaries of religious freedom, presumably with the idea of undermining them. One apparently even won a case with the argument that “it was ‘not up to the government to decide what qualifies as a religion’.” That is, however, manifestly false. Religion is not anything that people say it is. Religion is a sincerely held belief by a body of practitioners. It is not trivial to decide what views are sincerely held, but this is something our courts do on a daily basis when judges weigh whether criminal defendants committed crimes with malice aforethought, and whether they sincerely repent of their deeds. Religion is no different, in principle, and if we were abandon this idea and truly allow anyone to practice whatever religion he felt like on a given day, it would end by making a mockery of freedom of religion and destroying the principle as meaningless.

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