A Little More on Religious Tolerance

In last week’s essay, Religion in the Modern World, I cited the works of John Locke who argued for religious tolerance and played an important role in promoting the basic freedoms that our modern democratic society is based upon. I thought this week I might expand on that theme a little more.

Inevitably, in such a discussion about religious freedom, we have to contend not only with the belief system under consideration, but also with the nature of individual freedom.

Let us begin with the latter.

Respect for freedom of religion is a form of respect for individual sovereignty. It is a manifestation of a belief that an individual should have autonomy in choosing their way of life whether others agree with that particular way of life or not. But importantly, if we believe in such a right, there must be caveat that the belief system chosen does not impinge on the rights of others to make their own such choice.

This immediately provides challenges for fundamentalists.

For example, if I am free to choose my religious beliefs, then if through exposure to other belief systems, access to more or better information, increased life experience or whatever, I decide to change my mind about such belief, then that must be permissible as well! Hence, in any civilised society where individual freedom is promoted, apostasy cannot be a crime. But yet we still have fundamentalists who believe that apostasy is the most heinous crime and should be punishable by death!

Similarly, if we champion freedom of religion, then it automatically assumes that each of us has the right to believe in a different God or gods. Even if we agree that there is only one God,(as per the monotheistic religions), we have the right to view that God differently and ascribe different characteristics to such a God. We should also have the right to believe in no God at all or to admit our uncertainty that any such God exists.

Now unfortunately, these options provide multitudinous ways of viewing (or not viewing) God. For the fundamentalist, unless my view of God aligns with his, he will most likely charge me with blasphemy. Again, in a society where religious tolerance is promoted, charges of blasphemy, on such a basis, should not be entertained.

So, if we are to embrace religious freedom, most claims of apostasy and blasphemy, which have seemed to have worried most of the world religions for centuries, should be put aside.

But, as usual, even if we allow that religious freedom must prevail, we will most likely exaggerate the options that are then available to us. We have come to understand, through the efforts of philosophers and neuroscientists, that the dimensions of human freedom are minimal, to say the least. As much as we might want to believe in our personal autonomy, there is little doubt that our behaviours and beliefs are greatly shaped by our genetics, our early socialisation and our environmental circumstances.

When it comes to religious beliefs (or indeed any of our beliefs), very few of us reach independent conclusions that are rationally informed. We seem compelled to take on the belief sets of those around us, our families, our regions, our peer groups and so on.

If we understand this dynamic, we should be reluctant to be too critical of individuals for their religious beliefs. If we understand the nature of humanity, we must acknowledge that individuals have the right to make decisions regarding their religious affiliations (even though few of us consciously do so) and to deny them this choice would constitute a gross violation of their rights. And given the influences I have mentioned on our limited ability to choose, we should not be too surprised if some of those choices seem, at least to us, to be irrational.

The problem we have with religion is that, whilst most of us unconsciously adopt a belief system, too many of us believe such a belief is a large determinant of who we are. Once we believe that our religious belief is a major underpinning of our identity, we are bound to defend such beliefs tenaciously and often mindlessly. And because most of us come to such beliefs by accident (by virtue of our circumstances and history) we have little ammunition with which to defend our choice (which we, in any case, most likely did not consciously make). And so we find a challenge to our beliefs is very threatening and must be avoided at all costs if our sense of identity is to be maintained. In this sense, because our particular beliefs are largely accidental, we can’t afford to have them questioned. This deficiency in human nature has plagued us for millennia and resulted in much of the conflict that the human race has had to endure.

Of course most of the major world religions have this problem. Dissent from what each of them hold sacred is held to be blasphemous. But even though they have certain similarities in belief, the differences are such that every time they rub up against each other, there will be fertile grounds for claims of blasphemy. Their literature reflects their insecurities regarding blasphemy.

In Judaism prohibitions about idolatry and blasphemy are in the forefront of their commandments.

Christianity, which was built on the pillars of Judaism adopted similar sentiments. As it was laid down in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), “No sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the profaning of his name.”

The Koran reflects similar sentiments by posing two rhetorical questions: “And who does more wrong than he who invents a lie against Allah or rejects the truth when it reaches him? Is there not a home in Hell for those who reject Faith?”

Some of this dubious dogma seems to be built on the assumption that blasphemy offends God. This to me is laughable. It reinforces the idea that Man was not so much made in God’s image, but God has been made in Man’s image. It is beyond my comprehension that a supernatural being, who is omniscient and omnipotent, could actually be offended! It is implausible to me that God should have an ego!

Yet on the other hand, if we honour individual freedom and a person’s right to choose their own religious beliefs, it is not appropriate that we should then set out to belittle people for the particular beliefs they hold. In a free society it should be just as intolerable to demean a person on the basis of their religious beliefs as it is to demean them on the basis of their political beliefs, their race or their gender.


In this regard we must avoid a society that runs to the extremes of either the exclusion of religion from the public space or allowing the public space to be exclusively dominated by one particular religion of belief set.

How to balance the conflicting demands in a modern democracy was addressed by two North American academics Jocelyn MacLure and Charles Taylor in their book Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. MacLure and Taylor argue that we can meet the challenges of modern democracies only with a model of political society that is “founded on the one hand, on an agreement about basic political principles and, on the other hand, on respect for the plurality of philosophical, religious and moral perspectives adopted by citizens.”

Yale based theologian Miroslav Volf, whom I quoted in last week’s essay, believes that the following principles must be in play for a society to realise such an ambition:

  • Freedom of religion,
  • Equal moral value of all citizens,
  • Separation of religion and rule, and
  • Impartiality of the state.

(These principles are self-evident and I don’t have the opportunity to expand greatly on them in this essay. If you want to know more, refer to Volf’s book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World.)

But I would submit that these are excellent principles that we would do well to formally adopt.

As a consequence we could use them as a template to inform immigrants of what our society expects of new arrivals and our expectations for them to integrate into our society.

Now I believe it is our right as Australian citizens to mandate the conditions under which immigrants are accepted and it is not unreasonable (in fact I think it would be very helpful) to be explicit about the values we hold which we would expect new citizens to conform with.

So what might these principles mean in practice.

  1. Every Australian has the freedom to choose a belief system (religious or secular) subject to the caveat that that chosen belief system must not restrict the freedom of others to make their own choice. As well any attempt to coerce others, through any means whatsoever, to comply with a particular belief system must be repudiated.
  2. All Australians regardless of race, gender or belief are equal under the law. With respect to beliefs, no religion should be given special opportunity to either advance its cause or to avoid debate and public scrutiny about its inherent fundamentals.
  3. There must be absolute separation between the state and any particular belief system. The only role of the state in this regard is to ensure each religion or system of secular belief might peacefully pursue its ideals provided they are lawful and don’t impede the rights of others.
  4. The state may not legislate or act in any way to promote or impede any lawful system of belief except that it can demonstrate that it does so in the national interest.

I have written this essay in a dispassionate way without any specific mention of radical Islam. Although many of us perceive this religious perversity provides a great threat to our society, our response should always be measured and based on principles that don’t unduly vilify any particular set of beliefs but have a general application.


I believe that what I have proposed meets these criteria. What’s more, egotistically perhaps, I am convinced that if we could reach agreement on what I have proposed, it would produce a far greater benefit to our society than any plebiscite on marriage equality or any referendum on indigenous recognition!

3 Replies to “A Little More on Religious Tolerance”

  1. Hi Ted – I would certainly support your four principles, freedom of religion (or any other belief) is a fundamental principle of liberty. I have always struggled how a society can effectively function with the tension that is created between this view (ie freedom of religion) comes up against the very opposing beliefs that are taught within the religion itself!

    We should not just be asking immigrants to sign up either, there are plenty of multi-generational Australians who would claim to value our freedom, but do not extend this to their views of others.

    1. Thanks Peter, it is great to hear from you again! And you are right that we would benefit if all Australians and not just immigrants shared these views.

  2. Ted.
    What if we accept the principles in your essay, would it mean that the state should remove its monetary support to religious schools unless they all agree to those principles. The wider implications I can’t even begin to think through at this stage but they would be significant and I feel political suicide for the implementing party.
    Keep up the good work.

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