Atheism and Freedom of Religion: Thoughts On Independence Day

John Carlton, whose work has done me immeasurable good, and whose blog—The Rant—I read with considerable enthusiasm, has a post up on “Why We Blow Stuff Up On The Fourth Of July.” 

Which is, actually, about the right of freedom of speech in America.

Generally I read without replying. This time, though, I noted that while he was giving deserved attention to the second clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, he had skipped right over that much touchier subject, the first clause, with its guarantee that Congress would make no law regarding the establishment of religion, or restraining the exercise thereof.

So I did post. And because this is not an issue I’ve taken up here before, I’m copying my reply to his thread, and explaining why I, an atheist, am both an atheist and a fervent supporter of freedom of religion.  Read his whole post. It is, as always, well-thought-out and delightfully phrased.

But my response stands alone below.

To answer the first part of your question, I deal with cynics by walking away—cynicism is the art of remaining blind to opportunity and potential by artfully denying their existence. I don’t choose to be blind, but neither do I choose to fight with some idiot over his wish to remain so rather than remove the bag over his head.

As for freedom of speech, it is essential.

But as an atheist, I want to point out that the framers of the Bill of Rights got the order of the provisions of the First Amendment correct when they noted first that:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

…and made freedom of speech second.

Which might seem to be a damned odd thing for an atheist to say. But. Religion (or philosophy) is what people think…and in the better class of discussion, debate, reasoning, argument, and policy-making, people think before they speak.

The first item of the First Amendment does nothing less amazing than guarantee freedom of thought—that you can choose to believe, or disbelieve, any damn-fool thing you desire, and the government has no right to forbid you, or to make any laws regarding or restraining the contents of your brain.

Before you can speak freely, you must be able to think freely, to be able to study all options and pursue those you believe to have value.

I was raised the child of lay missionaries, I had an on-the-ground education in comparative religion and watched religion, like sausage, being made, and I discovered by the time I was sixteen that I have a congenital inability to believe that which I know to be untrue.

I came to my own thoughts by hard work and hard study—read the whole Bible end to end several times, read the Koran, read the Book of Mormon, went through the tenets and beliefs of multiple other religions looking for something that did not demand the sacrifice of reason for faith. I am no fan of religions—ANY religions—and vocally so.

But the presence of the first clause of the First Amendment protects our rights to our own minds, and it is no small point that those who argue vehemently for “freedom FROM religion” are arguing for the right to eliminate freedom of thought, of belief, of the right of the individual to choose and own the contents of his own mind.

So, because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, I’ll make my stand on that portion of Bill of Rights that mandates Freedom of Religion.

I judge it to be in even greater danger now than freedom of speech.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

17 comments… add one
  • Ruth Jul 19, 2013 @ 11:28

    I completely respect and applaud Holly’s stance. A fairer person never picked up a pen. One of my best friends of all time was an atheist and we had some of the most enthralling conversations I’ve ever had with anyone.

    I knew how Holly felt and I still love her work and her views. She’s fair. She’s honest.

    And I have only this to say about religion. The very man, Jesus Christ, of whom Christians base their beliefs (me included) hated religion. The end.

    Thanks Holly, for speaking up and defending the most basic of our freedoms. The right to think it, then speak it.

    • Holly Aug 2, 2013 @ 5:26

      Reason cannot contradict itself. If the freedom to think is our inborn right (and since we cannot survive without it, it is our first inborn right) then freedom to think must extend to every human being, and is unbreachable.

      You cannot stop a human’s ability to think independently unless you kill him. Which, for those who would control how others think, is ALWAYS the final solution offered, and usually the final solution taken.

  • Cathy Hildebrand Jul 14, 2013 @ 11:47

    Thank you for your comments and to the other comments as well. I’ve just discovered your website/blog and had to respond to this column.
    I have just finished “Talyn” and am half-way through “Hawkspar” when it struck me that that you were writing about this very topic. Many people do not realize how important freedom is, especially freedom of religion. Freedom of religion means that we all should respect each others’ faith, beliefs, thoughts, and opinions, while holding true to our own faith, beliefs, thought, and opinions (or in search of such).
    I also am impressed how your thoughts have reflected my own, even though I call myself a Christian and a Mormon. I am enjoying your books. I am also glad that they have led me to this page.

    • Holly Jul 15, 2013 @ 4:34

      First, I’m delighted you enjoyed Talyn, and are enjoying Hawkspar. Thank you for reading them.

      Freedom of thought/religion has been one of my themes for a long time, worked through a number of my books.

      But I don’t agree that “we should all respect each others faith, beliefs, thought, and opinions.” I think we must respect each other’s right to hold them.

      But, just as one example, most opinions are based on ignorance of the reality of how things work, and if followed would lead to disaster. I don’t respect those opinions in the least. I do, however, respect the rights of those who hold them to form opinions that have no basis in reality. As long as I am not forced to adopt them as fact, I don’t care what other people think.

  • Sam Conley Jul 7, 2013 @ 21:31

    Thank you for allowing me to comment without having to “register.”

    People use the term “Freedom From Religion.” to mean “Freedom From Christianity.”

    The anti-Christian zealots don’t want school children to say a prayer before beginning their day. They don’t want the Ten Commandments in a courtroom. They believe they have the right to ram homosexual marriage down the throats of organizations and groups who oppose it. (Whether that opposition is religious or for some other reason.)

    But these same people have no problem with Muslims demanding that school children be taught the Holocaust never happened. They have no problem with Muslims demanding that airports and other public places install foot baths for the convenience of followers of The Prophet. They have no problem with Muslims parading through the streets with signs reading, “Behead Those Who Insult Islam.”

    Time-after-time they make excuses for and defend Muslims who commit acts of violence. Remember the terrorist who shot up an Army base in Texas a couple years ago?? Just a coincidence that he happened to be a Muslim. Boston Bombers?? Yep, just a coincidence.

    I happened to be listening to a talk radio show last Sept, the day Muslims murdered the U. S, ambassador and his staff at the Benghazi embassy. Naturally, the host talked about nothing else, and of course, his callers weighed it.

    Now, we had seen on TV and on the Internet Muslims dragging the body of the ambassador through the streets. One guy called the show I was listening to, and claimed, “They were simply carrying that poor man to a hospital.” Muslim-apologists will actually go to that extent, to make a ridiculous claim that anybody can see is completely false.

    So if the Freedom From Religion crew expects to get any respect from those of us who pay attention to the world around us, they’d better start demanding freedom from ALL religions.

    • Holly Jul 8, 2013 @ 7:19

      Hi, Sam. I understand your frustration. The “Freedom FROM Religion” movement does seem to be almost exclusively focused on Christianity as the thing it wants to rid from the world, and I, like you, am damn tired of apologists claiming that Americans are simply misunderstanding the actions and intent of the fundamentalist Muslims who are killing our people and dancing in the streets about it.

      But demanding freedom from ALL religions would still be a call for the censorship of thought, and would still take us into the worst of the realm of Big Brother.

      Freedom of Thought is the largest of the essential cornerstones of individual freedom.

  • Cindy Blair Jul 7, 2013 @ 18:33

    I am a Christian and I acknowledge your God given right to accept or to deny God. I, however, am tired of the stance that many atheists take wherein they believe that the First Amendment grants them and everyone else the Freedom From Religion. It is refreshing to hear from an atheist who acknowledges that those of us who are religious have as much right to our beliefs as they do.

    Surprising enough, many atheists with children periodically take them to church. Not for the religious exposure, but for the social exposure.

    Thank you for expressing yourself so well on this touchy subject.

  • Kathryn Kistner Jul 7, 2013 @ 14:30

    I completely agree with what you have written. I refuse to call myself either a Christian or an Atheist. Each person’s personal experience differs, and in their mind they might attribute traits that aren’t true of me at all. Sadly, labels come with their own baggage.

    I have vehemently supported a neighbor’s right to make up and spread false rumors about me because it’s her right. The realization of that shocked me at the time. I supported her position for the reason you have stated… she was essentially verbally stating her ‘religion’… the tenants and beliefs by which she runs her life.

    Fortunately, it’s also a person’s right/ responsibility/curse(?) to live with the consequences of the execution of those rights. Almost always, lies eventually bite back; a self-leveling field, in my experience.

    LOVED this article. Glad you re-posted it here.

  • Deb Salisbury Jul 7, 2013 @ 13:28

    I agree wholeheartedly. The freedom to believe – or disbelieve – is one of the great strengths of our nation.

    • Holly Aug 14, 2013 @ 9:25

      As long as we can hang onto it.

  • Ann Jul 7, 2013 @ 13:21

    Hear, hear. I’m in total agreement. Freedom of religion means the freedom to have any religion (not just Christianity), or the freedom not to have a religion, or even the freedom to make up your own. It also means freedom from (someone else’s) religion.

    • Holly Aug 14, 2013 @ 9:27

      If you can figure out a way to have both freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion, I’d love to hear it. Aside from sitting in the middle of a woods in a cabin with no connection to the rest of the planet, that is.

      • Holly Aug 14, 2013 @ 9:28

        …Because that is a solution. Certainly not one I’d be interested in taking, though.

  • Liana Mir Jul 7, 2013 @ 12:45

    Amen and thank you. I am a Christian, but it is my reasoning power that makes me wholly oppose the “freedom from religion” movement. I want atheists to be able to believe what they wish, but not at the expense of my beliefs or anyone else’s unless those beliefs cause harm, such as human sacrifice.

    • Holly Aug 14, 2013 @ 9:24

      Beliefs don’t actually cause harm. Following them up with action—human sacrifice being one of the ever-popular biggies, for example—cause the actual harm.

      And anyone across whose lips have passed the words “you have to make some sacrifices for the greater good” has found the magic euphemism for human sacrifice. Because you can bet your granny’s knickers they weren’t suggesting THEY were the ones to be sacrificed.

  • D. X. Logan Jul 7, 2013 @ 12:10

    I wish more people understood this and shared this view. It is far too common that people fail to understand the ramifications of what they are attempting to do. They more often assume that because they come to a conclusion that they feel is the absolute truth, that all other options should be stricken from view to ensure that no one else is led astray.

    This seems true of every side of the field on this topic. Many people of varied faiths feel that the best way to promote their view is to remove all others from sight. Atheists are all too frequently no different on this count, trying to remove all forms of religion from public view.

    I just want to say thank you for expressing a view that runs contrary to this vein of thinking and shows a much higher level of understanding about how everything is tied to everything else around it. I am so glad to see someone with a major format to express their opinion on is not just bashing, but instead enlightening. Again, thank you.

    • Holly Jul 8, 2013 @ 7:20

      You’re welcome. Thank you for being willing to read what I had to say.

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