Boundaries of religious freedom

Freedom of religion is important. No one should be forced to believe something as long as their beliefs do not impact other people, although that doesn’t mean that unfounded beliefs shouldn’t be challenged. Unfortunately some people don’t realise that their beliefs belong to them and cannot just be passed onto their children, who neither have the knowledge or capabilities to yet understand the arguments, weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusion. At times this imposition of a parent’s religion onto their offspring is relatively harmless but this is not always the case and there is a disturbing precedent where people feel that freedom of religion includes the freedom to impose their beliefs on others.

This can be seen in a recent article in The Telegraph concerning how parents religious beliefs are at times responsible for a child being put through unnecessary suffering when there is nothing more that can be done medically. Naturally, some people see this as infringing the parent’s religious freedom.

But in an accompanying commentary, Charles Foster, an Oxford University legal expert, argued that there was a place for religion in life and death decisions. “They seem to think that because we are becoming an increasingly ‘secular society’ there is some sort of democratically ordained mandate to impose secular values on everyone,” he wrote.

This misses the point though. Yes, there is a place for religion in life and death decisions so long as it’s the religion of the person whose life and death must be decided. The problem here is that the parent’s religious beliefs are being imposed on a child that is not capable of making a decision concerning the existence of god, the origin of the universe or what happens to a person after they die. The problem is when the imposition of a parent’s religious beliefs is leading to unnecessary suffering for their child. It’s not that secular values are being imposed on the parent but that the rights of the child need to be protected.

If an adult wants to go through suffering because of their religious belief then I am certainly not going to stop them. I might advise against it but if that’s what the believe then they are free to do it. I would stop them from making someone else suffer because of what they believe. For example, if someone were to starve herself to death under the delusion that a human can survive on nothing but sunlight then that’s her choice. However, if she decided to starve her children to death, believing, against all evidence, that they will survive on nothing but sunlight then someone needs to intervene.

If Christopher Hitchens consents to being waterboarded then that is his decision. However if a 13-year-old’s parents and a monk perform a similar act on her as an exorcism then that should not be tolerated. Not only is there no credible evidence for demons, souls or possession but a 13-year-old can not consent to such actions. She reportedly was strapped to a chair and held down as her face was doused with water so it’s clear she wasn’t even participating willingly. She fell unconscious during the treatment and was declared dead the next morning.

It would be great if this sort of thing never happened but it does. Just earlier this month a three-year-old was killed during an exorcism in Malaysia. But these cases keep popping up of parents withholding medical treatment for their children because they would rather pray or parents, waiting for a miracle not accepting when there is nothing more that can be done medically. When this happens children needlessly suffer and die. Children are not the only victim’s of others’ beliefs but they are one of the most vulnerable. They are the ones society should be doing its best to protect and it is unacceptable that we will stand by and let them suffer to appease parents’ sense of entitlement to force their dangerous beliefs on others. Freedom of religion should be defended but not at the cost of people that do not share those beliefs or are incapable of making such a decision.


3 thoughts on “Boundaries of religious freedom

  1. Pingback: Quick links: Dawkins, religious freedom, blasphemy | Evidence & Reason

  2. I agree with the general message of your essay, i.e. that it is immoral for a parent/guardian to impose religious beliefs on children for whom one is responsible. However I do wish to add a couple of critical notes.

    Although I concur with your general moral message, the logical means by which you reach it presents a problem. Your logical crux for not imposing religion on children is the assumption that they are vulnerable by definition. This use of logic would lead to the following, ironic, conclusion: Cognitively intact adults, not being vulnerable to the assertions of others, wouldn’t deserve any protection from imposition of religious beliefs. Obviously anyone who understands the dangers of religious persecution would reject this notion outright. “Bring on the ten christian commandments in public places! They don’t alienate anyone at all” (sarcasm).

    Therefore, I must question one or more premises in your argument. I could firstly question the suggestion that vulnerable individuals require special protection from imposition of beliefs. If I were to do so, then I could support it by demonstrating that imposition of religious beliefs has an injurious effect on all individuals, not merely the vulnerable ones (which can easily be done).

    On the other hand, I could also question your assumption that children are especially vulnerable to harm due to imposition of religious beliefs. On this note, I would add that I wholly rejected the idea of the supernatural – with a passion – since before I could verbalize it, and as an adult I continue to have the same reasoning that I did as a child (I would suggest that there is no rational alternative, but that topic should rest for another post). Children are not idiots. They usually know lies when they hear them (rather like adults). Although most people do not develop to the fullest of their cognitive potential until their twenties, it is not to say that humans don’t use their rational faculty strongly before then.

    So how do I reconcile the ideas that even children can generally reason the falsehood of religious lies yet they don’t deserve to have religious beliefs imposed on them?


    Religious beliefs are lies. The whole institution of religion is 100% fraud, pure and simple. It is a fraud used to manipulate the behavior of masses of people in order to maintain certain power relations which benefit from such oppression.

    Yet we live in a country where this fraud is legal yet insider trading is a crime. Religious individuals are legally protected for spouting off nonsense (often hateful diatribe), yet businesses are incriminated for pricing competitively. Churches may openly denounce others’ reputations and even promote violence against them, and it is protected as “religious freedom”.

    We have our values backwards.

    NO religious beliefs are valid, and NONE should ever be imposed on anyone. If some deluded individual hoping to leech off the productivity of others decides to buy a building and invite others to join in some sort of ritual – that’s their right. However they don’t have the right to pass it off as education. They don’t have the right to pass as healthcare providers. They don’t have the right to pretend they are something they are not or to pretend that their beliefs are actually based on reality. That’s fraud, and it’s unacceptable whether the victim is 50 or 5.

    Hopefully I have shed some light on a very important issue. Every day children (and adults) are cheated out of truth by people treating mythology as though it were real.

    Incidentally, any sort of physical force such as the exorcism you reference are out of the question. No individual (for religious beliefs or secular reasons) may ever initiate force against any other individual.

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