Religious Freedom

When the political philosopher Ronald Dworkin died earlier this year, he left behind a rich legacy. Although he is perhaps best known for his work on jurisprudence, his arguments for liberalism have influenced me more.

Dworkin argues for liberalism as follows. People ought to be able to freely choose how they want to live their lives, both because as autonomous agents we know best how we want our lives to go, but also because our lives don't go better if others choose our values for us. Even if I choose a life project that I might later regret, and that everyone else thinks is a mistake, being forced to change won't help me unless I believe for myself that I am mistaken. People can tell me that I'm wrong, but they can't force me to change. (Although there are limits: the state is justified when I risk causing harm to others, or when I'm a risk to myself because of mental illness.)

This is why liberals oppose paternalism and perfectionism. If the state acts paternalistically by telling me how to live my life, they don't actually make me better off. This applies to political and religious belief mostly. In some cases, such as forcing citizens to wear seat belts, the state perhaps is entitled to protect people from themselves. A different justification for such paternalism is that the loss in liberty is justified by promoting another benefit, but then we need to be able to point to the way in which society benefits. Seat belts save taxpayers money, for instance. And liberals aren't concerned only with liberty—they defend other values, such as equality and well-being.

Dworkin argues that perfectionism is self-defeating. The state might convince me to practice a certain religion, but it does so at the cost of me believing for myself that religious practice is valuable for me. I must believe for myself that a practice is worthwhile, which perfectionism can't do.

From this argument we get two liberal conclusions. First, we must have the freedom to decide our life projects for ourselves, including religious and political affiliation. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we must have the freedom to change our minds in light of new experience and information. I might practice one religion for a while, but then decide to change later. Both are necessary in order to decide what we value.

It isn't hard to find examples of such freedoms being violated. On June 19 the Associated Press reported that two Muslim women in Burma were recently convicted of insulting religion, one by bumping into a Buddhist monk. Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma is becoming increasingly common. On June 20 the New York Times ran a story about the country's conflict, which has mainly consisted of Buddhists attacking Muslims. In the past year Buddhists have killed 200 Muslims and displaced 150,000.

Egypt is also increasingly imprisoning and fining citizens for insulting religion, but this time it is Muslims filing the cases. A Christian lawyer was sentenced to one year in jail for insulting Islam in private, while another was fined $14,000 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad while teaching. The Times quotes a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood saying “Contempt of religion, any religion, is a crime, not a form of expression.” A different lawyer, this time a Salafi, accused Christians of a “systematic campaign” to insult Islam.

These cases illustrate the way in which basic liberties are being violated in Egypt and Burma. The state religion of Egypt is Islam, and its constitution protects freedom of religion only for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It's legal to convert to Islam, but those who convert from Islam to a different religion usually face legal difficulties, such as getting identification papers. Even some Muslim minorities face open discrimination. Shia Muslims are prohibited from attending certain universities, for instance. Nor is it that the government forces this onto citizens: in a 2010 Pew survey 84 percent of Egyptians support the death penalty for Muslim apostates, which is as clear an example as you'll ever find for why majority rule needs limits. Burma has no state religion, but the problems are much the same for Muslims there as it is for non-Muslims in Egypt.

Obviously, lynchings and forcing people from their homes because of their religion is bad wherever it occurs. The reason limiting religious freedom is wrong—the reason liberals disagree with the Egyptian lawyer who claims insulting religion is not justified freedom of expression—is that expressing one's beliefs and hearing the expression of others is necessary to form an opinion about the best way to live one's life. Without the freedom to criticize, citizens can never access the information necessary to decide for themselves.

Although Egypt permits conversion provided that it's to the right team, the lack of freedom to revise one's views means that individuals are always worse off. Justice according to liberalism means, among other things, preventing harms to citizens, and it's a clear harm to be unable to choose one's religion freely. At the same time, harms need to occur to something that can actually be harmed. A religion can't be harmed. Opinions, no matter how coveted, can't be made worse off. People, however, can be, and it is humans, not ideas, that are the worse for restrictions on religious liberty.