I’ve just had an interesting conversation about freedom of belief with Mark at A Deo Lumen. Mark is responding here to Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions. He asked me: Don’t we all want our own preferences and convictions enshrined as the law for all to obey?
Well, yes and no. I have a whole bunch of personal preferences and convictions, which I do not especially want “all to obey” however much I think they’re good. I’m vegetarian, lesbian, atheist, etc – I do not want the government to make other people copy me!
But I do have some wider preferences and convictions that I do believe are something that should be enshrined as law: I believe in religious freedom, liberty of the mind – the right of everyone to believe – or not believe – what they choose. (I’ve just been discussing on another blog (to John at Have I Told You Lately?) why I think everyone in California who supports religious freedom ought to oppose Proposition 8, regardless of their personal views on same-sex marriage, because this is an attempt to get religious discrimination into the state constitution.)
I wrote to Mark “I don’t want ‘everybody to be an atheist’ – I want my right to be an atheist respected as much as your right to be a Christian. And I would fight for your right to practice your faith without infringing on other’s liberties, regardless of whether you felt the need to fight for mine. Because that is a conviction of mine that yes, I do think should be enshrined in law – because if it is, in countries where it is, such law maximises freedom of belief.”
I don’t believe that you can simply say “Well, I believe in freedom of belief, but my opponent believes that one religion should be imposed on all people, so we must be tolerant of each other’s beliefs”. “My opponent” in such a case is arguing for “tolerance” of their belief only because it suits their end – and their end is absolute intolerance of all beliefs but their own.
And that, I think, is the classic problem of the Sowell doctrine (which I may be misunderstanding completely, of course: I haven’t read his book): in a free society, in order to safeguard that freedom, there are some things that must not be tolerated: and any attempt to enforce religion on others by law is one of those things.
A religious blogger recently and with admirable sincerity responded to the query: “Why oppose same-sex marriage?” – “Because God says so!” I think too many people whose first instinctive response was “God says so!” have been unwilling to take the obvious next step – “Because I believe God opposes same-sex marriage is exactly why my opposition to same-sex marriage ought not to become law.”
(A couple of rather good anti-Prop8 videos follow under the cut.)