Freedom of Belief

Sat, 25 Jan 2014

Society (in the UK and Australia at least) currently seems troubled by questions of religious freedom (or indeed freedom from religion).  Much of what I see written seems unconvincing to me, at best showing that some extreme positions are undesirable.  I haven’t seen anyone state an approach to religious freedom that I can support, so thought I’d do my best to write down my thoughts.  So, this is a post on how I would like to see society approaching people with different beliefs (and not just religious belief).

Firstly, I recognise the need for belief.  There is a lot that I don’t know about myself, those around me, and the world I live in.  My senses and perception are notoriously unreliable - I am a lot more likely to see what we expect to see, or want to see.  I’m not saying that I should ignore what I see around us, or not think.  After all, having better beliefs will generally a good thing (although not aways - there’s truth in the expression that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing).  But I shouldn’t think that because what someone else thinks is wrong, that what I think is right.

Next, I think that I, and society, is improved by an improving in beliefs.  But it isn't the single driving factor.  It is possible to do good things, and live a good life, despite having imperfect beliefs.  And it is possible to have more reasonable beliefs, but to still do the wrong thing.  This tension is difficult to grapple with.  I need to decide when to try harder to get the truth, and when should I do the best based on what I believe?  When should I work to improve the beliefs of others, and when should I let them live?  I don’t think there is an easy answer.

So, I favour a society that promotes and facilitates positive, respectful engagement between people and their beliefs.  An important note, when I used the word respectful, I don’t mean that I have to respect other people’s beliefs, or avoid challenging them.  It is more about being respectful of the person - and acknowledging that all of us (including me) are coming from different places and have beliefs that aren’t perfect.  And it requires me to listen to the other person, and learn from them.  The conclusion of this process isn’t that we all agree on the same beliefs - I don’t think that would be healthy - but at least having some common understanding.

We can’t force people to have any particular belief.  Once we move from beliefs, to resulting words and actions that impact other people, I believe it sometimes will be appropriate to restrict, in order to balance the rights of other affected people with those of the individual who wants to act.

How does this look in practice?  I'm going to work through a number of questions, not so much to give clear answers but to illustrate my thought process.:

In these examples, I haven’t given any clear-cut or easy answers: I think it will always be a matter of significant weighing-up of conflicting rights, and making judgement, doing the best we can.  But I’d rather recognise that, than hide the complexity with easy but flawed snap judgements.