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Religious Freedom and the Moral Society PDF Print E-mail

Thomas Walsh
International Religious Foundation

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

The premise of this committee is that there are benefits to religious freedom. The word benefits implies the word consequences, or that something is good because it yields or produces good consequences. There is a school of moral philosophy, with people like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, that judges certain things to be morally good because they create what, in essence, we would call greater happiness. And I assume that is what our term benefits imply.

Other moral philosophers did not like establishing a foundation for the moral society on the idea of benefits or consequences. Most notably, Immanuel Kant emphasized consistency and duty more than benefits. I think this notion is perhaps a more secure foundation for the idea of religious freedom. John Stuart Mill talked about the tyranny of the majority, in the sense that a large majority could find their lives more comfortable and happy by levying an injustice on a smaller group. And the very principle of religious freedom often involves how to protect smaller, even unpopular, groups from a dominant majority.

All in all, I would say that the philosophical tradition—moral philosophy—is quite comfortable with and supportive of the idea of religious freedom, including both utilitarian and Kantian philosophers. The contemporary moral philosopher John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice describes the way in which people in an original position would establish the fundamental ideals of justice. If we were in a state where we did not know what our religious perspective or beliefs might be, but we knew that there was a good chance our religious beliefs and ideas were different; and that possibly when we discovered what our religious beliefs were that they would be in a minority; someone like Rawls, who is a kind of Kantian, would certainly stand up for religious freedom even in the self-interest of all people.

But saying that moral philosophy supports the idea of religious freedom isn’t really the major issue. One of the bigger issues is, do religions support the idea of religious freedom? We all know that the history of religion is deeply and profoundly tainted. When we see conflict in the world—in the Middle East, the Balkans, Ireland, or wherever—we often see religion involved or complicit with that conflict. Religion is not the only cause or source of problems, but it certainly is often in complicity.

We see a history of dominant religions oppressing smaller religions. We see that some religious groups instruct their followers in more narrow, exclusivistic ways of thinking, emphasizing virtues that are more closed and inhospitable to people of other faiths. So there is a long history of religions kind of de-legitimating themselves and often being perpetrators of a kind of religious oppression.

And yet, if you talk to members of different faiths—Muslims, Jews, or Christians—often their representation or portrayal of their faith is of those virtues or characteristics that are very generous, openhearted, and hospitable toward people of other faiths. There are ideals within the religions that are supportive of the idea of religious freedom, and those need to be emphasized and brought out. Even passages in various scriptures of the world faiths that support religious freedom can be emphasized more than they already are.

Now let me state a few of the actual benefits that come from religious freedom. First of all, freedom is a condition for the pursuit of goodness. Religions pursue goodness. Therefore, as the conclusion of this syllogism, freedom of religion ensures the optimum possibilities for the attainment of some higher level of goodness.

Second, freedom of religion is consistent with other freedoms, so it serves to bolster the existence of other freedoms.

Third, religious freedom leads to, or one of its outgrowths or benefits is, a moral society. I think it can be shown that historically, and even for the vast majority of people today, the foundation of ordinary morality for most people is religion. Theories about the fading away of religion have just not borne themselves out. Religion persists in dramatic, significant, powerful ways as the primary basis of people’s personal morality.

The stories of Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad become the fundamental stories and narratives—the heroes and heroines—that people want to model their lives after and that serve as the basis of their moral lives. So, despite the unhappy aspects of the history of religion, religion has, in fact, been the fundamental basis of ordinary morality throughout the world. Therefore, there is a legitimate reason to say religious freedom does lend support to the idea of creating a moral society.

Our world today needs to move beyond tolerance of other religions, toward a broader and more respectful, cooperative, and ecumenical, engagement of religions with one another. For this purpose, the movement toward international inter-religious dialogue is critically important. The direction in which we should be moving, on the foundation of religious freedom, is toward ever-greater cooperation, mutual respect, and appreciation across the lines of religious traditions.