Freedom is an Odd Thing…..
Freedom is an odd thing. Hard to define, often easier understood in its absence than its presence. Yet it is the fountainhead of creativity, happiness and lives lived in human dignity. It is also one of the most misused and abused words in the moral and political lexicon.
My old prof used to say that to make a rights claim was the most powerful statement one could make in the moral world. Consequently we must be careful about such claims; we must avoid debasing the language of rights by spreading the fabric so far that it must inevitably tear. We live in an age where the reverse is happening. Governments and similar low institutions are never happier than when creating new secondary rights of which Dworkin never dreamt. The right to a job, the right not to fear, the right to indoor toilets, the right to have babies and be called Loretta. At the same time our primary rights are nibbled away, day by month by year. The right to life, the right to property and recently most clearly freedom of religion is being undermined and eroded.
The basis for all virtues is the virtue of courage, for without courage none of the other virtues could flourish. Freedom of religion has a similar position in the family of freedoms we enjoy in liberal democracies. It is not a simple or single freedom but a compendium of important freedoms gathered in to one moral space. What it is not is a mere freedom to worship and to construe it as such is a deliberate attempt to limit the liberty of religious people. Religion is not a liturgy or a prayer meeting but a way of life. The word come from the Latin for Rule, not for Sunday service. If a state wishes to pretend that it guarantees freedom of religion then it must guarantee the right of religious people to live according to their rules. Of course as long as the way they behave does not harm others.
HARM. I said harm and I meant harm. I did not mean offend, or annoy or enrage or baffle or amuse or tick off; I meant harm, real measurable harm. A tort. This vital for a free society and in no way exclusive to the freedom of religion. A society where I am not free to offend is not free. Freedom of speech without freedom to offend is no freedom. Freedom of the press must carry with a freedom to offend or it is toothless. We must refuse to allow our governments to treat us as children who need protection from bullies in the playground. We must demand that they treat us as adults, and as adults we must patiently endure the name calling and brickbats of idiots.
Other than the continued infantilisation of society the other agenda pursued by our over lords against religious freedom is the desire to attack certain kinds of conscience defences. A pharmacist in downtown Berlin was named and shamed for his refusal to stock the morning after pill. His shop was attacked and badly damaged. Sympathy for him was in short supply as he was placing lives at risk by refusing to stock what he, a Lutheran Christian, considered an abortofacient.
Since he was the only chemist in the city of Berlin to take this action it seems unlikely that the product was not very easily obtainable in a host of other outlets and he was in no way compromising anyone’s health, even if we accept this dubious premise of a threat in the first place.
In Britain and Sweden concerns have been raised that the conscience clauses of local national and European rights agreements are leading to a shortage of qualified personnel capable of performing abortions. The numbers of staff refusing to train in abortion technique has increased steadily over the last twenty years. In the region of Lazio in Italy eighty per cent of doctors and nurses refuse on grounds of conscience to assist in abortions. The response has been to suggest limiting the scope of conscience claims so that certain predetermined procedures would remain easily available to any woman who sought them.
What is happening here is that one kind of conscience is being privileged over another. One kind of belief is being place above another. If interrogated about this the answer is that one is scientific knowledge whereas the other is merely religious belief. This is a staggeringly naive and arrogant position. It confuses a non religious morality with a scientific one. There is of course no such thing. One could read every obstetrics text book there is, deriving the ought you desire from the is of science will remain a statement of belief. Beyond that is of course the fact that many people who oppose abortion do so for reasons which they regard as grounded in science and have no religious faith. There is no justification for the current process of distinguishing one kind of conscientious objector over another simply because we like that to which they object. In fact if you don’t understand that you have utterly failed to understand the notion of conscientious objection.
Liberals have never liked the masses. For the most part of the second half of the Nineteenth century tiny liberal elites ruled over France, Italy, Germany and occasionally Britain. They feared the religiosity of the demos as much as did the revolution of Mr Marx. The Whig enjoys his own company, his own jokes, his patron’s money and most of all his personal sense of superiority. To the extent they ever agitated for freedom of religion it was because with that freedom is freedom of belief, and disbelief. Now that disbelief is de rigueur and no longer in need of religion’s protection the elites seek out those vulgar religiosities to remove. The Crib in the hospital, the Cross in the school, the Angelus on the radio are all valid targets. These are offensive to others in our now multi cultural society.
The odd thing is when asked the Chief Rabbi said he oppose the removal of these offensive things, The Mufti was of the same opinion. So, who is offended? Bearing in mind offence is in itself not a reason to do something anyway. Yet again the liberals are using minorities as a Trojan horse to smuggle through their personal agenda.
When we start to attack and unpick a freedom like freedom of religion we are set on a dangerous path indeed. These core freedoms we have evolved and defended for a few centuries now are not simple atomic freedoms. They are not attached to or based on one simple primary right. This is a moral Matryoshka Doll where right hides within right, and one freedom protects and uncovers another. Or it is a carpet of rights and obligations woven together, strands over and under, in and out. The work has taken generations to slowly assemble. Sometimes additions were tried and discarded, while others approved of were worked into the fabric.
Contemplating the American revolutionaries Dr Johnson noted thast the loudest yelps for liberty came from the drivers of slaves1. There is undoubtedly a rich and savoury irony to enjoy in the spectacle of certain uber-Catholics today crying out for understanding and demanding toleration. These self same bods were far from embracing the values of pluralism back in the 80s. It would be perfectly human to indulge the temptation to see how they might enjoy a dose of repression: human but wrong. Freedom is not something we deserve nor are rights merited. We possess our rights even if we chose to with hold them from others. They are universal and inalienable. To put it more crudely it behoves us all to remember that the best reason to defend the nasty offensive practices of others is that the day may come when we are the nasty offensive minority hoping against hope that freedom is alive and well and not just a folk memory.