Why Should Atheists and Agnostics Care About Religious Liberty?

Written by Whitman H. Brisky

Religious liberty means the ability to believe and to worship, or not believe and not worship, as one chooses free from government intrusion or coercion. It means being able to change your faith without fear of punishment. It means being able to freely speak and write about your faith in the public square and in your daily activities, and to seek to convince others of your faith. And it means not being forced to act against one’s faith or conscience by the government.

Most people of faith recognize that religious liberty for people like themselves and others of their own faith means extending liberty to those of other faiths, and of no faith. They understand that religious liberty will also involve seeing and hearing things that are contrary to their faith, or things that may offend them because of their faith. But why should an atheist or an agnostic care about religious liberty?

1. Where there is religious liberty, there is also the freedom not to believe or to observe any religion and to tell others why they should not have religious faith. Historically, and around the world today, the alternative to religious liberty has not been a non-religious society, but rather a society in which adherence to a particular religion is required, or at least strongly favored, by law.

2. Strong protections for religious liberty, particularly the liberty not to be forced to act in a way contrary to one’s religious conscience, has led to broader protections for acts of conscience without religious basis. The existence of religious exceptions to overreaching government regulation of our lives makes it more difficult to enforce that overreaching regulation against those with conscience objections which are not based on faith. For example, conscientious objector status to the draft need not be based on religious reasons alone, but can be based on sincerely held secular moral beliefs.

3. People of faith speaking their consciences in the public square, and participating in the political process, have been at the forefront of such things as the fight against slavery and for civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, I would suggest that without such men of faith as William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, Jr. the progress on these issues would have been much slower and perhaps more violent.

4. Faith communities in our neighborhoods, ministering to the social needs of those neighborhoods, provide great benefits to those neighborhoods that governments cannot provide, usually far in excess of the tax revenues that could be generated by a secular use. People of faith also generally give a higher percentage of their income to charity. These activities, and charitable contributions, benefit the entire society, not just believers.

5. Churches and other religious organizations are an essential part of “civil society” which consists of the various organizations, groups and cultural habits which make up society apart from government. In addition to churches, there are secular non-profits, universities and colleges, artistic and cultural organizations, community organizations, political parties, businesses, labor unions, and a host of other organizations which serve as checks on government power, and places where, and from which, minority views can be protected, defended and espoused.

Anyone who is concerned about the power of government over our lives should recognize that religious organizations and people of faith are important allies in the fight for all our liberties. When we defend religious liberty, we defend all liberty. 

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