Freedom versus Servitude: Is it Time to Redefine what is Acceptable under the Auspices of Religious Practice?


by Jordan Middelkoop


Executive Summary

  • This article explores legitimate and illegitimate elements in freedom of religion.
  • It aims to raise contemporary issues over conflicts between religious groups and the wider public.
  • The article argues that Australia should reinforce the need for secular political discourse.
  • And it draws on the past by viewing the Enlightenment as a historical precedent that demonstrates the need to challenge religious practices and beliefs.

“We first have to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection.”

Christopher Hitchens.


It is not the purpose of this article to ridicule religion and those whom belong to its varied manifestations. That has been done to death in recent times. It is, however, my deep concern to question whether freedom of religion remains relevant in modern western society? More specifically, to what degree should we tolerate and respect religious practice in political and public life? Modern society currently is undergoing an enormous challenge in trying to define what it will and will not permit both socially and legally, and this challenge seems to be exacerbated and hindered by the influence of religion. Fortunately, however, this challenge is not new; and, much like those during the Enlightenment introduced wider society to notions of religious freedom, we, too, must continue to remind ourselves of the importance of the separation of church and state and continue to evolve and refine this notion. Almost daily in contemporary media, we are reminded of the continual tensions and conflicts between religious groups, which have ignored their own rationality and instead replaced it with blindly unquestioned and unrefined historic dogma. In modern western society can we afford not only to accept such poor arguments, but, moreover, to support the institutions that encourage inequality and intolerance towards others? Furthermore, how can the state remain secular and impartial when so much finance is linked so closely to religious groups? In order to ensure we do not endure anymore exploitation or abuse by pandering to religious figureheads, we must, as a society, take the risk of offending those whom argue their faith is above our rights as free and equal individuals.

This notion of individual freedom is rooted firmly in the historical phenomena now commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. Much of our modern liberal society was founded on the philosophy of great thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant et al. It seems, however, such important and valuable ideas are overshadowed by the loud demands of religious groups. Not only do we accept their opinions as legitimate without objective questioning, but we discount their offences as somehow lesser crimes. In October 2012, as the inquiry into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal intensified in Melbourne, The Age reported that at minimum 1 in 20 but more likely 1 in 15 Catholic priests were guilty of child abuse (or rather rape and torture of children) from approximately 1940 onwards. The reality that such widespread and institutionalized criminal behaviour took so long to be even brought into question illustrates not only the power of religion within society, but also demonstrates our failure to demand that religions meet our most basic of acceptable behavioural standards. Surely those whom are attributed trust within society must be scrutinised and held to an even higher standard than the wider public. I am not suggesting that Australian society accepted these terrible offences; I am arguing, however, that it was specifically because they operated under the guise of religion that we were hesitant or perhaps afraid to judge or question the motives of those involved. This unacceptable behaviour must change.

It is crucial, then, for the term ‘freedom of religion’ to be stripped of any ambiguities and to evolve into a much clearer and better understood concept in modern society. There unquestionably should be freedom to express spirituality as this drive is a healthy and natural aspect of human nature concerning questions of existence. Yet, the jump from this primal philosophy into religious theology is where the difficulty arises. Arguably, our modern understanding of the term ‘freedom of religion’ is best conceived through the First Amendment in the United States Bill of Rights that states in full:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Although this is not directly applicable to Australia, it still is the most prevalent understanding in modern western thought as to how governments should operate in regards to religion. All people unquestionably should have the freedom and right to express themselves in any manner that does not cause harm to other individuals. But anyone who uses religion in any manner that assists or supports abuse or harm to others (be it practical or divine justification) should receive harsher criminal punishment if they are deemed to have broken the law. This evolution of religious freedom is required not only to punish those who seek to exploit others through manipulation and guilt, but also to deter individuals with ill intentions to enter such a field of public trust.

The insidious relationship between religion and politics has made it almost impossible for secular societies to function from a pragmatic and rationalist point of view. One could even argue that it is perhaps impossible for a truly secular political society to exist at all. Nonetheless, personal belief can and should remain separate from political discourse. Since at least the Reagan era in the United States (although it undoubtedly has always existed), the blurring of the lines between religious fundamentalism and politics seems to have become so pervasive that, in many instances, it is hard to determine the motivations behind much of the political discourse. Issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and drug legislation are not being discussed with the interests of the parties involved, or even determined by evidence-based research, but rather decided and enforced by religious dogma that refuses to treat human beings with equal standing and dignity. Furthermore, these divine justifications reinforce prehistoric behaviours and attitudes towards minority groups and even majorities, namely women. It is for these reasons that in recent history organisations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and political parties such as the Secular Party of Australia actively fight any behaviour that attempts to incorporate or corrupt both religious practice and political discourse. Also, it is paramount that such groups actively expose those who abuse and confuse the term cultural relativism in order for self-gain or to distract the wider public from addressing key cultural debates and resolutions. The work of such organisations is essential if we hope to achieve even a modicum of self respect and independence in our public and political lives.

The increase in people who wish to identify as not having any kind of religious affiliation (including those who openly state their agnosticism or atheism) in recent times thus has no consequence. A recent poll in Europe (Eurobarometer Poll 2005) illustrated that in many nations (for example Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France and countless others) the belief in no god or unwillingness to belong to a religious group had grown rapidly. Over 20 percent of the population in these states believed there was no god at all. In the United States, a 2008 survey found that approximately 15 percent of the population claim to have no religion. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has calculated that, between 1960 and 2001, Australians who identify as having no religion increased from a virtually non-existent number to almost 20 percent of the population. Since 2001, many observers argue it has experienced another boom. These statistics are not meant to ridicule or denigrate those who believe in any particular religious practice; rather, they reinforce claims that religious groups have lost support and damaged their reputation and message by abusing the public trust and their privileged position within many communities. Furthermore, such statistics reveal a growing number of people who desire to place their trust in empirical discovery, science, and understanding, rather than blind faith. Spirituality will always exist, and as previously stated it has great value. It is nonetheless important to question the motivations behind individuals, especially in the political sphere.

The tension between religious groups and society is an ongoing issue, and one which is demanding much attention from the intellectual community. Alain dé Botton suggests a new way of understanding religion called Atheism 2.0, whereas Martha Nussbaum, in her article The Role of Religion, openly struggles over the conflict between modern society and religious practice. Susan Moller Okin interestingly asserts that there is a conflict between multiculturalism and gender equality for women as cultures heavily entrenched with religious teachings often has unfavourable attitudes towards women. This conflict is demonstrated regularly in honour killings and female genital mutilation not only in third world countries, but also the developed world by individuals who cannot reconcile or let go of their irrational faith-based behaviour. Under the suggested developments, those whom commit crimes and try to justify their behaviour through religious moral teachings should not receive compassion or understanding, but rather harsher sentences to demonstrate that such actions are abhorrent, unjustifiable, and not divinely acceptable.

Perhaps the most difficult question to reconcile is why such groups receive such generous tax exemptions. This is not to say that religion has no beneficial influence within the wider community, far from it. Religious groups contribute generous donations, assistance, help, and support to many in need; but what does this have to do with religion? If these groups wish to behave in such an altruistic manner, why shouldn’t they simply be defined as charities? Generosity should not be informed by guilt or a desire for a pleasant afterlife, but rather by compassion and solidarity. There is something sinister in those who argue that their opportunity to help others should also give them the right to indoctrinate or promote their religious teachings. This disingenuous behaviour should not receive a tax benefit, as those less fortunate seeking assistance should not be manipulated into thinking a certain way simply because they are in need. Additionally, most religious groups are littered with wealth, whether it be through government support, financial investments, or property ownership. The Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest land owners in Australia, and yet many religious groups tend to advertise themselves as on the brink of financial collapse. Tax exemptions and incentives should be rewarded to charities and individuals who desire to help their fellow men and women, not because they were instructed to, but rather because they desire liberty and equal opportunity for all human beings. Religious practices should no longer use the excuse of charity as a way to manipulate financial outcomes. In addition, they should not be able to use their financial power to influence political outcomes; whether this is possible remains to be seen.

All these issues are important in the debate over freedom of religion. There are countless others that also deserve much attention; however, the scope of religious practice extends far beyond this article. What is needed, regardless, is the ability by those in power to remain rational and critical in their policymaking, and for the public not to accept behaviour that falls short of the agreed consensus. The continual reminder of the importance of separation and state is critical in the development and advancement of critical thought and serves as a historical reminder of the importance of free speech and the right to protest. Many forget that, historically, religious groups held a monopoly on not only how people acted, but also how they thought. The Age of Enlightenment was a step towards not only advancements in technology, but also an evolution towards greater intellectual developments and independence. Thus, if we are to continue this progress we must remember our history, so that we may not fall into the trap of blindly following those who claim to know more than humanly possible. We must not let these charlatans convince us that our intellect matters for little but our obedience is integral. We must hold religious practices to a higher standard than we have historically, and continue to define and redefine what is acceptable through debate and study. And, when faced with the choice between our innate liberty, equality, and religious practice, we must not be afraid to offend.


Selected further reading:

Australian Bureau of Statistics website, retrieved 21 October 2012,  http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/1020492cfcd63696ca2568a1002477b5/fa58e975c470b73cca256e9e00296645!OpenDocument

American Religious Identification Survey, retrieved 20 October 2012, http://www.gc.cuny.edu/GC-Error-Page/Page-Not-Found?aspxerrorpath=/faculty/research_briefs/aris/key_findings.htm

Dé Botton, A, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, London, 2012.

Eurostat poll on the social and religious beliefs of Europeans (PDF), retrieved 20 October 2012, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

Freedom from Religion Foundation website, retrieved 22 October 2012,  http://ffrf.org/

Hitchens, C, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, New South Wales, 2008.

Nussbaum, MC, ‘The Role of Religion’, in Women and Human Development: the Capabilities Approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

Secular Party of Australia website, retrieved 20 October 2012,  http://www.secular.org.au/


© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Jordan Middelkoop, Freedom versus Servitude: Is it Time to Redefine what is Acceptable under the Auspices of Religious Practice? Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/freedom-versus

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/freedom-versus