Atheism, Liberalism, and Freedom of Religion

politics religion, liberalism

The French report calling for a ban on women wearing Islamic face veils worries me, for a number of reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I think the world would be a better place in general if religion ceased to exist, but I don’t think banning it, or specific religious practices, is the way forward.

I’d base my reasoning, in part, on John Stuart Mill: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. The wearing of a veil, when done willingly and without coercion or manipulation, harms nobody; therefore, it should be permitted.

The supporters of the report claim that “it is the symbol of the repression of women”; while ending the oppression of women is a goal I’d wholeheartedly support, I’m not entirely convinced that fining women for being oppressed is a particularly helpful solution. Punish men who force women to wear the burka; don’t punish women who are forced to wear it (and, for that matter, don’t punish women who wear it by choice).

The report also recommends that anyone showing signs of “radical religious practice” be refused citizenship or residence. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, assuming for the moment that “radical religious practice” is harmful to others; however, I suspect that the burka is a much more obvious symbol of “radical religious practice” than anything that might be worn by men, leading to disproportionate punishment of women.

In discussion with members of TermiSoc, I took my position further: though in many cases, religion is harmful to liberty, banning or restricting religion and most religious practices would be in contradiction with the Harm Principle quoted above.

It does not hurt others, for example, for someone to believe that the world was created by an omnipotent being. It does not hurt others, even, for someone to believe that the world was created in six days 6014 years ago, any more than it hurts others for someone to believe that the sky is green or that there is a china teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. They are almost certainly incorrect, but they have the right to be.

The point at which it becomes legitimate to oppose religion is the point at which it begins to affect others. When people demand that children are taught about the orbitting teapot as if it were fact, or at least likely, oppose it: being taught something as if it is fact when it is not is harmful. When people demand that women wear robes that covers their entire body aside from their eyes, oppose that, and oppose violence against women who don’t wear it (in fact, oppose violence against all women) — but don’t, as explained above, punish the victims for being victims. Conversely, when people try to demand that someone not wear a symbol of their faith, oppose that — a crucifix or turban harms nobody, and thus there are no grounds on which to forbid it.

When people try to pass laws based solely on their religion, oppose them, because while people may opt into a set of religious laws if they like, such laws shouldn’t be enforced upon others. In fact, any laws that are not simply an application of the Harm Principle should be opposed: government has no right to exercise power over individuals for any other purpose, and neither do other individuals.

This was written for week 4 of project52.