This is one of the best, most concise explanations of the importance of religious freedom I’ve ever read.
[I]nter- and intra-religious battles aren’t really fought over doctrine, but over freedom.
We Americans look at the civil war fought between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and cluck our tongues at these violent fanatics, forgetting that the freedom of religion we take for granted is not a right enjoyed by most people in this world. Where there is no reliable protection of the freedom of religion its opposite holds sway — the establishment of one official legal religion. Yes, the Sunnis and the Shiites disagree over matters of doctrine, but that’s not why they’re fighting. They’re fighting because they are not protected by something like the First Amendment and without such protections — without the guarantee of free exercise made possible by the prohibition of legal establishment — they lack the freedom and space in which they might peaceably agree to disagree. Someone is going to establish a legally enforced religious hegemony and they’re fighting to determine who will get to do it. They’re fighting for hegemony because, absent the guarantee of the right of free exercise even for minorities, hegemony is the only way to ensure their own right to worship as they see fit.
You don’t have to be some kind of religious zealot to understand that. You don’t have to be religious at all.
I think some of the more anti-religious zealots forget this when they dismiss sectarian conflicts as wholly the result of dogmatic delusion. I appreciate that someone like, say, Christopher Hitchens doesn’t share the impulse that would lead someone to fight on behalf of Shia Islam. But that person is also, most importantly, fighting for the right not to be a Sunni. And I suspect that the right not to be a Sunni is something that Hitchens himself would readily fight to defend.
Ironically, the existence of sectarian violence is often raised as a rationale for the abolition of religion. If we could just get rid of religion, we could put an end to all that religious violence.
But that’s the opposite of the only solution that has ever worked. It is, in fact, just another variation on the root cause of all sectarian violence — the attempt to impose religious hegemony and to deprive others of the freedom to worship or not worship as they choose. The only way to put to rest the cycle of sectarian violence is to eliminate the threat of imposed religious practice. Prohibit the legal establishment of religion and guarantee religious freedom for all and no one will need to take up arms to defend their freedom not to be something else. Doctrinal disputes will persist, but they will remain only that — arguments and differences of opinion.
- Fred Clark (Slacktivist), embedded in one of his usual deconstructions of the World’s Worst Books.