The idea of religious freedom is one that has been promoted and defended anywhere someone was familiar with the pains of persecution. Everyone should have an equal right to pursue the absolute truth in whatever way they feel is most right for themselves. This is the idea that was immortalized for every heretic who was killed on the rack. This was the idea with the hushed voice when the governments cooperated with the churches in burning heretical works. While it may have been the haunting specter for over a thousand years of witchhunts and state-sanctioned religions, today, religious freedom has finally taken root in many western countries. The individual citizen is allowed to engage in whatever religious ideas that they have determined to be accurate and true. This is not to say that arguments over the matter of religious freedom do not sometimes require the attention of our greatest courts. And this is not to say that the state doesn't still carry some religious symbolism in its rituals, such as when someone takes on oath or the "under god" word in our pledge of allegiance. There are still some of an extremely conservative ilk who still discriminate against other religious faiths, and this is perhaps the extent to which one person's religious freedom is threatened. There is no jail awaiting the newly convert to Judaism, the recently enlightened by Buddha, or the arriving worshipers of Allah. This was absolutely not the case one hundred years ago. It did take civil disobedience and movement-building to overcome the barriers of censorship and intolerance.
The arguments made by those who opposed religious freedom were all accurate predictions. They told us that if we allowed anyone to practice whatever spiritual path they wanted, it would mean that every man could start his own religion, to create a legion of a blind and obedient followers, willing to carry out any orders or directives. Yes, this prediction has come true. Christianity has exploded into hundreds of sects, reformed churches, and amalgamated councils. Other religious influences have born unto us thousands of godly movements, all of them clashing with each other in an endless struggle to have capture more hearts and minds. In response to their overzealous dedication, some of them have pushed to have their religion's icons and ideas officially respected by the state. Others, more sane and much more familiar with human history, have always respected separation of church and state, realizing that their freedom of spirituality is directly related to the tolerance that their society has given to them. A belief system can only enjoy the privilege of existing without persecution when society has finally adopted an open-conscience and the willingness to let every person find their own path to ultimate knowledge. These ideas naturally have appeal to the individual -- they will inspire and empower them to create, challenge, and become active. But to crowds, to people bonded by their unity, held together by their common conviction that only their way can be the right way -- to these crowds and their shepherds, the ideas of tolerance, acceptance, and religious freedom are threatening.
The ideas of religious liberty have found impact in the courts, in the legislature, in the minds and actions of protesters and social agitators, between the words in the manifestos of progressives, and in the hearts of those willing to defend justice. Should religious freedom ever have a limit? Should it ever find itself in constraints and within narrowly defined legal terms? When a person is motivated by what they believe to be the intentions of god, should there ever be a method of recourse for the moments when the community feels their order threatened? Almost all magistrates throughout history have been able to find what they believed to be good enough reasons to suspend religious freedom in peculiar cases. Kings and others holding equally tyrannical positions have been able to force millions under the instructions of one set religion. Some rulers have recognized the need for religious freedom, understanding that there is no population so lacking in diversity that one sacred scripture could fulfill every individual.
The limitations for religious freedom become necessary when we more fully understand the directives that some spiritual disciples are following. Some scripture commands the humble believer to bring death to those who refuse to believe, to sacrifice living human beings and animals, or to commit acts of violence on behalf of glory for some supernatural entity. With this comprehension of the social impact that a religion can have, it becomes absolutely necessary to amend and alter the ideology complete freedom of religion. If a person's religion causes social chaos, in that it violates the rules of social behavior that have brought humans together for mutual cooperation, then such a religion itself becomes incompatible with religion. There should be little need here to make much argument why we would ban violent, cruel, or oppressive activity, regardless of a person attempting to use their ideology or their spirituality as sanction.
On what ground can someone argue for these limitations of religious activity? Naturally, no matter who is being restricted by these restrictions adopted by society, they are going to use their religion as a defense. They will claim that their activity is a spiritual behavior, one which falls under the protection of religious freedom. If a religion's followers commit murder, sexual abuse, or other attacks on the innocent, due to the intentions of the their leaders teachings, then such a religion could reasonably be restricted. Regardless, the arguments of those in this religion will not change: they are fulfilling the requests of what their belief system demands. The most apparent argument one could offer to such a religionist would be this: If it was truly the command of a real, powerful, unseen force to attack or hurt others, then why would such a being fail to let the rest of the world know? Most religions admit a certain degree of omniscience and omnipotence in the role of their creators. It seems illogical for a god to communicate to a very small portion of the world, giving them commands to slaughter those around them; would it not make much more sense for god to communicate with the whole world and to give everyone the same message? Restricting the word of god to just a small section seems almost like infantile childsplay. The culminating thousands of years of religious wars, persecutions, inquisitions, and witch hunts, of all religious intolerance, was because god was giving different messages and different ideas to people in different areas. It's a bold indictment to hold against the creator of the universe, but it is one that stands up to all the evidence throughout history.
Asking a religionist "why would god tell you and not me?" is very disarming. Questions, doubts, and skepticism are all rushed out. Christianity has occupied regions of Europe for centuries, where all non-religious books and artwork were destroyed. Behind the mob burning the library, there stands a very strong, very influential religion; there are few exceptions in history. Theologians have managed to develop an enormous array of reasons why god would specifically talk to only them and to no others. Millions of books have been published on the subject and distributed with the hope of converting the masses. Some will argue that their lord can only work through their people, or that it was the plan of the unseen that our situation should be where it is at. Or, perhaps god is giving those who disbelieve a final chance to give up their current religious following and to join the fold. When it comes to explaining the inconsistencies of a religious text with the world people have, theologians know no limit to their imaginations. We are dealing with a topic on the supernatural: something unfounded, unproven, and non-demonstrable. If we certain humans are convinced that they can make detailed instructions on what most have described as "a vague feeling," then they are assuming much more than their religion tells them. The question "why would god tell you and not me?" will give more answers to the person inquiring than to the religionist who is responding. There simply is no satisfactory or convincing answer that can be given.
If people are so thoroughly convinced of brutal, archaic religions, then that is their right. What is not their right is when they take their freedom of religion outside the realm of what is between just them and their lord, and they bring other people into that equation. Worship, faith, and prayer weren't enough to satisfy the inner hearts of those practicing this religion. They had to advance their ideas and their beliefs forcefully onto others. Islamic law endorses the beating of women. The old law in the Torah, as well as the law in the New Testament, endorse slavery. Both the foundation of Christianity, which is Judaism, and its religious text, the New Testament, endorse slavery (Ephesians 6:5). Scripture from every culture generally has certain laws on how to behave and act towards other individuals; many of these rules are persecutive and violent. The spirit of kinship slowly developed from the ruins of the Dark Ages, a world of political oppression, poverty, and the most powerful church. Some religious groups have pealed off these rules and laws that their scripture demands of them, understanding the importance for social harmony. This is not quite the case with all religions, though.
It is a sound idea to restrict religions that threaten the general social order with violence, murder, slavery, or other vices of ancient law. In fact, it is part of the duty of the progressive thinker, society's agitator, to bring attention to religions that torture, to shine light on churches organizing lynch mobs, and to let the world know the casualties of religious fanatics. Authoritarian-structured organizations like churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious organizations, are simply ripe for corruption and abuse. Throughout the later part of the 21st century, a massive international press effort discovered evidence that priests in the Catholic Church have a history of sexual abusing children for over half a century; one can only naturally assume that this behavior has been a constant, almost irremovable staple of the church's history. The Hare-Krishnas organization, which portrayed itself as a peaceful and non-violent religion, went bankrupt after countless lawsuits from many countries accused the high officials of rape, sexual abuse, and physical torture. The victims included every age group. [BBC News Online, Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK, "Krishnas face huge abuse claim."] Where there is a massive group of people who are under the impression that they are the direct hand of god, it is easy to see the necessity for the "trouble-making Freethinker." A religion will never find itself responsible to human beings. It can only claim responsibility to a higher power. With this formula, can we be surprised at how much unnecessary suffering and abuse is caused by these belief systems?
There is more to the matter of religious freedom than simply limiting groups that hold an apparent threat to society. In the minds of the United States government of the 1950's, there were enough Communists in the Soviet Union to deem all Communists as enemies of the American people. They did not consider that Communism is simply an ideology, a belief, a theory. It is just another social idea. If a new group of Communists seeks the slavery of the American people, that does not mean that all Communists seek the same end. It would almost to say that a single pastor's suggestion of using nuclear weapons means that all Christians believe in using nuclear weapons. The government did not consider that many individuals in the United States who sought a communal ownership of property were highly opposed to the violent, brutal, and authoritarian methods of the Soviet Union. Rather, all Communists were considered a potential threat to the national security of the United States, despite the fact that the theory of Communism is over a century older than the Soviet Union. This state-generated hysteria was used as a blanket to defend agencies of the United States government who persecuted individuals for their involvement with progressive groups or their anti-establishment ideas. In 1950, the book Red Channels was published. Among the 151 names listed as "Red Fascists," there is Orson Welles and Lillian Hellman. What was allegedly started with the intention of preventing individuals from hurting the public turned into a witch hunt on those with social or cultural differences, but without any threat to the people or national security. "Protecting the public" was the guise for tyranny. Political oppression rarely comes in other forms.
Understanding the condition of those who were victimized during the first and second waves of the Red Scare expands our horizon on the idea of religious freedom. These individuals were attacked, slandered, libeled, and misrepresented to the public based on associations they've held and books they've read. A few of them strongly believed in the abolishment of the Capitalist system in favor of Communism; some of them held progressive and Leftist ideas; others considered themselves completely without political ideology, but held close relations with those in anti-establishment groups. These people were attacked for an idea. It must fairly be said that the religious liberty of these individuals was attacked. It would be just as unjust to publish a list of "Vicious Worshipers of Mormon," and then to detail those in the church, those who read their books, and those who just held associations with Mormons. There should be no differential treatment between those persecuted for a religious ideal and those persecuted for a political, social, or cultural ideal. Should the right to religious liberty have strict definitions of which types of beliefs and what types of organizations are capable of qualifying, we will be sanctioning the tyranny of state to determine who will be legal and who will be illegal. If religious freedom applies only to ideologies that hold supernatural details, then we can be guaranteed that many legitimate groups will be denied and many illegitimate groups will be accepted; when given the opportunity to profit by widening society's class gaps, power rarely withholds.
The situation of those blacklisted during the 1950's is only one instance of oppression in the vast histories of organized government. Around the same era, the Chinese government had enacted a much more aggressive campaign against its own people; their targets also included Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, unionists, and Left-wing activists. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, gives an accurate description of Mao Tse-tung's implementation of the so-called "Chinese Cultural Revolution"...
Hao Jiangtian is a Chinese-American, opera star in New York City. A news article describes his past: "...he grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution when classical music was considered capitalist and decadent. His piano teacher was thrown into prison. His musician parents destroyed all their classical records to avoid the same fate, and many of their colleagues committed suicide." ["Cultural Revolution Memories Fade," by Dan Griffiths, BBC News, Beijing, Tuesday, 16 May 2006.] I could give ample more evidence of the effect the Cultural Revolution had on the Chinese people. More than just political rights, but cultural rights were attacked. Severe prison sentences were given for producing your own food, crafting instruments and playing music, writing or distributing "unofficial literature," practicing your religion, and belonging to an organization not sanctioned by the state. All of these individuals were imprisoned for engaging in activities that did not effect the stability of Chinese society; the state-run media never let an inkling of that message be heard.
Just as in the case of the Red Scare in the United States, the Cultural Revolution disguised itself as a defense of the Chinese People. Mao Tse-Tung, Lenin, and Stalin always spoke constantly of the "counter-revolutionaries" in their speeches. By rooting up those who oppose the people's rights, the government is protecting the public. At least, that is the partyline story -- and that will always be the partyline story. The effect of Mao's "culture revolution" was massive oppression of the Chinese people, with their civil, economic, political, and cultural rights smothered by an absolutist, authoritarian state. The targets of the Cultural Revolution were not individuals who posed a threat to the Chinese people. Like the case of the Red Scare of the 1950's, the individuals targeted were those who doubted or questioned anything the social elite-dominated media published. Another war against the people is waged on behalf of the state's concern of "national security." For many, what makes them a target is their culture: the habits and ideals they've practiced. The pain suffered by those oppressed for their culture is not indifferent than that of those oppressed for their religion. Each group is classed as an enemy of society and the state based on what they do in private. It is something that has no effect on others in society. Religion and culture, both of these are done by the individual as a means of being personally satisfied. Necessarily, each one ought to strictly between the parties involved and their own ideal. To say that we would grant an individual the right to religion, but not of culture, is to create an inescapable paradigm; oppression of religion is followed by oppression of culture and vice versa. They are both disseminated from the same attitude, the same social polarity. Where the citizens are free in religion, their culture will not be at risk, and where the people are terrified of an inquisition, few will be bold enough to proudly practice their cultural rights.
The idea of religious liberty is broadened. It cannot simply extend to those whose ideas and customs are religious; it must extend to all ideas and customs of the individual, so long as their behavior is not directed upon others. Why is it that the right to religion must intrinsically be tied to the right to culture? The difference between religion and culture is simply the idea of spirituality. A culture can be completely absent of the ideas of the unseen. It would be illogical to apply a different value to one and not to the other. To affirm that an individual can do as they please in private habit and idea, so long as it is for a religious idea and not a secular idea, is the equivalent of religious oppression. We grant the right to religion for the same reason that we grant the right to culture: it is something between the conscience of the person and what they understand to be right. If we introduce the laws, the courts, the prisons, and finally, the gallows, to this equation, then we can be guaranteed that the only effect will be an oppression of those who never posed a threat to others. History has rarely demonstrated anything different from this. So long as it does not interfere with others, an individual's personal habits must be completely protected. Otherwise, the term "religious liberty" cannot and does not apply.
Consider, hypothetically, the situation of those who practice non-traditional sexual relationships. That can encompass a mass group, from those who believe in promiscuity to those with homosexual attraction. Today in America, many Christians and right-wing groups are advocating a national ban on gay marriage. They are trying to enact laws where something once was between an individual, their consenting partner, and whatever higher power they may believe to exist. Many states have legislated constitutional amendments to ban the right to marriage for same-sex couples. Less than fifty years ago, the United States government was hellbent on a war against interracial marriage; today, it seems that few people have learned anything from their state-regulated history classes. Society is now willing to war against same-sex marriage. Once again, the oppression of personal rights has the sanction of both the state and the church.
Some Christians and others of Western civilization claim that their religion "owns" the idea of marriage. It is something that belongs to them. To let others do what they will with it is an infringement on their right to religion. If Homosexuals are allowed to marry each other legally, then it will be an attack on the rights of Christians and others who believe in "the sanctity of marriage" -- a cute term for the belief that marriage must be kept between a man and a woman. It is amazing that Christians can be rallied so powerfully when their prejudices can be threatened. For thousands of years, Christian women have been beaten, brutalized, raped, and killed by their husbands; it wasn't until the idea of same-sex marriage that the churches decided to become so involved in the government's policy-making on the subject. When it came to the right to own property, the right to live without physical abuse, or the right to vote, the churches remained quite silent. It wasn't until this great, looming "religious injustice" posed its threat upon society, that our great spiritual organizations were motivated to action! They can claim to own the idea of marriage, but it is mute. Christianity is just patchworked from a thousand archaic, meaningless religions. Roman mythology frequently had their gods copulating with earth women, to give birth to saviors of men. There are many other gods before Christ or Judaism existed. Perhaps we should honor their right to be the only religion that believes in a god? If we were to do so, it would only be a campaign of burning bibles, churches, and torturing Christians. As stated above, it would be an infringement of their right to practice what is between their conscience and their creator. Just as Christians do not own the idea of marriage, nobody cannot own the right to the idea of a god. What is between a person and their consenting partners should not require the law or the community's interference.
Fears of "corrupting our idea" are usually just stemming from unhealthy Xenophobia and ingrained bigotry. An individual who is fully satisfied by their relationship with what they consider the ultimate ideal will have no need, no desire, and no willingness to interfere with the way any other person might seek the same fulfillment. Realizing one's full emotional, mental, and social development is something that cannot be forced, hurried, or coerced. Unless all individuals are granted their full rights to religious liberty, the effect will only be antagonistic towards development in culture, community, and society. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for example, exercised his authority and cut funding to a museum because it had a piece of artwork of the virgin Mary that used elephant dung and images of female genitalia. ["New York, Brooklyn museum settle funding dispute," March 27, 2000, Web posted at: 5:28 p.m. EST (2228 GMT), CNN.com.] Certainly, the right to create, appreciate, and publish art should be unhampered by government interference, as it is within one's cultural freedom. Did Giuliani's reaction to the museum stem closer to his concern for the security interests of citizens of New York City? Artwork and literature never seem to pose a threat to the lives of average citizens. Without this vanguard of the state and the church, how else would the people know that they are constantly at risk to the looming daemons of hell? Giualiani's decision had nothing to do with protecting the rights of the majority against a small, radical minority; in fact, it would have been ridiculous to advance such a campaign. Instead, he claimed that the idea of the virgin Mary belonged only to certain people. Only certain members of society can paint her, talk about her, or worship her. State action was taken against those who believed they had an equal right to truth and wanted to express what they found. The decision of Mayor Rudy Giuliani was based on his personal prejudices. Its only effect could have been to undermine the common welfare of the New York people by denying them a free and unbiased education.
What is between an individual and their ideal cannot be limited or restricted in any way. Conservatives will always claim that this freedom truly means social corruption. The same thing was said by the same economic elites about interracial marriage, abolishing slavery, women's suffrage, and freedom of speech. Their argument is that by granting these personal freedoms to these individuals, an ideal which belongs to them is being destroyed. If this is not a strong enough reason for us to believe that men, women, and children should still be bound in slavery, then how could it possibly be strong enough to convince us that gays shouldn't marry, that women shouldn't have abortions, or that individuals shouldn't intoxicate with drugs? The position of the Conservative is always unreasonable. If it weren't, then bloody and violent revolutions against authority would not have been needed on a yearly basis in order to achieve freedom. And when I speak of bloody revolutions, I'm talking of the women who were beaten by police for trying to put ballots in voting booths. I'm talking about the unionists and the picketers who were gunned down by private security guards. There are hundreds of urban guerrillas that I owe my gratitude and thanks to. Leftists today honor the French resistance and the countless underground workers who built bombs to be used against Nazi troops and vehicles. These were real individuals who lived, suffered, and died to change the way the world would forever be for future generations. The demands of those who love liberty are not unreasonable; the status quo as it is exists and as it is defended by the economic, social, and political elites of society, is unreasonable. Every type of oppression is going to be defended by tradition and heritage. It is the easiest and most readily available argument.
How could it be argued that the suffering and misery of those persecuted for a cultural or political idea is not a type of oppression equivalent with those persecuted for a religious idea? It is completely irrational and illogical to draw a line in the way society reacts to the "type" of idea that an individual might have in private. No matter what it is, every person has the absolute right to all belief and action, so long as it remains between that person and their god, their political belief, their interest or hobby, their consenting partners, their volitional use of drugs, or the choices they make with their body. Until this idea of religious freedom is truly realized, we face imprisonment and persecution for fully practicing our culture as we desire.