Atheism and Religious Pluralism: Navigating Between Freedom of and Freedom from Religion

Kile Jones

What happens to atheism in a liberal democracy when religious beliefs are respected? And more important, how can atheism show its respect for the right to believe as one wishes while considering such beliefs contemptible? Much work done on religious pluralism elevates religion to a place of sanctity and often confuses the right to believe with respect for any and all beliefs. If you do not respect someone’s religious beliefs in a pluralistic society, you are often seen as intolerant, even if you respect the right of the person to believe so. This article attempts to locate a place where one can respect the right of people to freely hold and express their religious beliefs while allowing for others to consider such beliefs false, misguided, and hazardous. It examines the ways atheism may relate to totalizing beliefs, religious pluralism, and liberal theology and tries to find a balance between freedom of and freedom from religion.

Religious pluralism differs from religious diversity in one notable way. The former is a call to engagement; the latter simply describes a state of affairs. As a way of engagement, religious pluralism seeks to bring about interreligious understanding, break down walls of hostility, and promote unity based on cross-religious similarities (for example, every faith teaches a variant of the Golden Rule). As a state of affairs, religious diversity simply describes the presence of different religious groups in a given society. The irony of modern religious pluralism, though, is that its umbrella houses the very people and ideologies pluralism is thought to stand against. Conservative religious leaders, many of whom see themselves as “engaged exclusivists,” still believe that their beliefs are the truth, that everyone else ought to believe them, and that there is a punishment for not doing so. Such beliefs have the ultimate aim of doing away with religious pluralism. On the other hand, many liberal religious persons, the very thinkers who pioneered interreligious dialogue and modern religious pluralism, do not wish to exclude the exclusivists. There is a general fear of being seen as intolerant for drawing a line in the sand and condemning conservative religious ideologies. After all, wouldn’t that make you like the very people you condemn?

Freedom and Totalizing Beliefs

Many think there must be a way past this dilemma. They think there ought to be some consensus among educated leaders, a kind of common sense that compels them to stand against ideologies that seek to strip humans of their autonomy and mold them into a form suitable for divine acceptance. It is the striking resemblances between totalitarian political regimes and large organized religions that cannot be underestimated. It was Christopher Hitchens who, in his God Is Not Great, compared George Orwell’s analysis of totalitarianism to the God who keeps humans under constant surveillance: “Religion even at its meekest has to admit that what it is proposing is a ‘total’ solution, in which faith must be to some extent blind, and in which all aspects of the private and public life must be submitted to a permanent higher supervision. This constant surveillance and continual subjection, usually reinforced by fear in the shape of infinite vengeance, does not invariably bring out the best mammalian characteristics.”

As Orwell put it in 1984, “you had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” Totalizing religious beliefs, as with totalitarian political regimes, attempt to do the impossible by erasing doxastic differences. It is the religious forces of assimilation, control, and power that modern atheism stands against and publicly condemns.

A typical critique believers employ against atheism is that it is a secular program aimed at ridding the world of religion. When they think of atheism they imagine the totalitarian governments of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China censoring religious gatherings, practices, and beliefs on the one hand and the social anarchism of revolutionary-era France on the other. To some extent they are justified in holding these images; yet in other ways they are not. They are justified in the sense that atheists, like any other group of people, have committed evils; but they are not justified in assuming that there is some clear “atheist program” or political agenda that is entailed by believing there is no God or supernatural realm. After all, atheists have been communists (Karl Marx), socialists (Bertrand Russell), anarchists (Noam Chomsky), and even capitalists (Ayn Rand).

The problem is that in the West, as with the majority of places around the globe, it is religion, not unbelief, that holds the power of public approval. Atheists are in the minority, and the “dominant programs” are religious groups doing what they can to create converts. The point I wish to make is that given the current state of the world, freedom from religion, not freedom of religion, should be the pressing issue. If the moral burden of proof were to lie anywhere, it should lie on the side of religion.

Approaches to Religious Pluralism

Atheism, historically speaking, has held an explicit disregard for religious beliefs and institutions. Religious pluralism, on the other hand, has promoted an acceptance of differing religious beliefs. Decades ago, it was considered progressive simply to tolerate divergent religious beliefs, but now “tolerance” is thought of negatively. Diana Eck, the founder of Harvard’s Pluralism Project and one of the leading spokespersons for religious pluralism, explains why tolerance is problematic: “Tolerance can create a climate of restraint, but not a climate of understanding. Tolerance is far too fragile a foundation for a religiously complex society, and in the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.”

The problem for atheists in the modern world is that many religious beliefs appear to be so unreasonable, so damaging to individuals and society, that to “understand” them is next to impossible. Acceptance and understanding run awfully close to condoning, and that is the last message atheists want to convey. How then can atheists respond to religious pluralism in general and religious beliefs in particular without appearing bigoted on one hand or compromising on the other? How can love and truth unite?

The truth is that regardless of the attempts made by religious pluralists to promote conflict resolution and multicultural understanding, religion has lost none of its malignant force. The notion that religions can unite in peace, liberalize themselves, and become “a city on a hill” is “pretend pluralism,” to borrow Stephen Prothero’s poignant phrase. As Hitchens has noted: “It is not possible for me to say, Well, you pursue your Shiite dream of a hidden imam and I pursue my study of Thomas Paine and George Orwell, and the world is big enough for both of us. The true believer [the title of Eric Hoffer’s seminal work] cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.” Their sacred texts and traditions promise them land, economic prosperity, an apocalyptic demise of unbelievers, privileged access to God, and heavenly rewards for martyrdom, and these cannot simply be liberalized away or utterly reinterpreted. If they were, it would only be for a small portion of people who study in a liberal setting, not the majority of believers who still adhere to the folk understanding of their religion.

Atheism and Liberal Theology

Usually atheists are seen in juxtaposition with conservative religious persons. It is obvious why this is the case—conservative religion being an easier target and all—but what about atheism and liberal religious persons? How should atheism respond to liberal theology? Surely there are places of agreement between them: a denial of the inerrancy, inspiration, and authority of the biblical canon; an acceptance of the historical-critical method and higher criticism; hostility toward dogmatic stances on theology proper, soteriology, and eschatology; and general liberally minded stances on politics, ethics, and society.

Yet many atheists have spoken out against liberals, secular and religious. Sam Harris, in a Los Angeles Times piece titled “The End of Liberalism,” argues that liberals “should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.” Two years prior, Harris spent a good portion of The End of Faith arguing that “religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.” Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, said, “even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” These and similar statements are tantamount to saying that liberals are too “liberal” toward religious extremism and what Victor Stenger has called “the folly of faith.” They naïvely believe that religious conflict will subside when religious persons educate themselves and change their religion “from the inside out,” when in fact it has been secular advances—the rise of modern science, the revolt against religious hegemony, and an understanding of human rights—that gave liberal religion its impetus. Liberal religion is an honorable enterprise and certainly more positive than conservative agendas, but it is an unrealistic take on the malevolent nature of traditional religion.

Another problem is that modern liberal theologies have created an atmosphere of ambiguity concerning what exactly one believes about God; it is not like the clear definitions given by conservative and creed-based religions. Daniel Dennett, in a recent study on nonbelieving clergy, pointed this out: “The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century or more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all. This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God.”

Atheism says something different: we should honor their right, not honor their beliefs. It seems to me that liberal theology is both an ally and an enemy of conservative theology. It can be an ally by allowing a context where religious beliefs are validated and esteemed, and it can be an enemy by providing critiques of the method and content of conservative religious beliefs. On a spectrum, some liberal theologies are closer to being allies and some closer to being enemies. It is not as easy as simply lumping them together with conservative beliefs.

Freedom from and freedom of religion must be continually balanced in order for a liberal democracy to survive. Governments cannot and should not outlaw the free practice of religion or atheism, except when such beliefs generate actions that infringe on the rights of others or cause them physical harm. John Stuart Mill made this point when he argued in his On Liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Suicide bombings, polygamous sects, child abuse, and religious laws (Sharia, Halakha, and biblical) are examples of this infringement. Religious terms on currency, in courtrooms and public schools, or located on any state-owned public area (parks, intersections, monuments, and the like) are clear violations of the separation of church and state and should be treated as such. Humanist Manifesto II navigated freedom from and freedom of by saying that “The state should encourage maximum freedom for different moral, political, religious, and social values in society. It should not favor any particular religious bodies through the use of public monies, nor espouse a single ideology and function thereby as an instrument of propaganda or oppression, particularly against dissenters.”

With all of these issues in mind, we can now locate a place where atheism can respect the right for religious persons to believe as they wish without respecting the content of such beliefs. This right to believe is not to be equated with immunity from critique or the freedom to act immorally toward others. If the action sourced in somebody’s religious beliefs infringes on the rights of others, the believer should be considered misguided and hazardous because he or she may impose the beliefs on others. Freedom from religion means that no religion can infringe on others or impose itself, in requiring what to believe and how to act, on those who disagree and dissent from such a religion. If this were to happen it would be taking away people’s rights to believe as they wish.

As Mill has pointed out, beliefs are one thing and actions are another. How closely connected, or causally related, a belief is with the actions that follow it is debatable. Many religious persons openly admit how connected their beliefs are with their actions, as do many atheists. Actions done “in the name of” or “because of” certain beliefs ought to be evaluated based on their social consequences and merits. If they harm someone psychologically or physically they are infringing on the rights of the harmed. How to determine what counts as “harm” is another problem, one that must take into account the whole range and scope of a person’s beliefs. If an action is directly causally related to its prior belief, it follows that if one “fixes” or “changes” the content of the belief, then in principle it should change the action. The more an action is not causally related to its prior belief, the less this will be the case.

Nonetheless, in a liberal democracy, critique of religious beliefs should not only be practiced but encouraged. To the best of its ability, a liberal democracy ought to see the hazardous and dangerous effects of religious and supernatural beliefs, challenge their content, and protect those whose rights are violated by the actions sourced in such beliefs. This does not mean outlawing religion or religious beliefs, but it does mean keeping a close watch on them and the effects they have on others. Maybe if this occurred more often, religiously influenced child abuse and domestic abuse would be greatly diminished. In other words, religion has earned the public’s paranoia about it. Without outlawing religious belief or practice, there is still a way to navigate the thin line between freedom of and freedom from religion.


Thanks to Dr. Philip Clayton and Dr. Phil Zuckerman for their academic support.

Kile Jones

Kile Jones holds a Master’s of Theological Studies and a Master’s of Sacred Theology from Boston University. He is currently working toward his PhD in religion at the Claremont School of Theology.

What happens to atheism in a liberal democracy when religious beliefs are respected? And more important, how can atheism show its respect for the right to believe as one wishes while considering such beliefs contemptible? Much work done on religious pluralism elevates religion to a place of sanctity and often confuses the right to believe …

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