One phrase that is quite common in the United States is simply this: “It’s freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion”. This is the typical sentiment whenever atheists try to assert the position of the Constitution with regard to government entanglement in religion.
Here’s a sentiment of mine: the Constitution doesn’t talk about establishing a religion, but the religious establishment.
Typically those who tout the “freedom OF religion” sentiment try to justify using the arm of the State to put on display things in line with a particular religious belief or set of beliefs. ‘Tis rather troubling how people feel the need to use the government as a vehicle for spreading their religion rather than doing it with their own expense of time and energy. And this includes the public schools.
I’ve already written in depth about the First Amendment and its restrictions regarding government and religion in great detail (here and here), so I invite you to give them a read. They are long, so consider yourself forewarned.
But let’s look at the both ideas – freedom of religion and freedom from religion – by looking at a complementary and related natural right: free speech.
It has often been said that the freedom of speech has several facets. And the right involves actually four rights: the right to express, right to withhold expressing, the right to seek out others’ expressions, and the right to avoid certain kinds of expressions. Let’s briefly discuss each of these before discussing how they relate to religion.
First, it’s obvious that you have the right to express your opinions, so long as in so doing that expression does not cause harm to another or foreseeably lead to harm to someone. There is a caveat: if you say something that harms another’s reputation, what you have said or published had better be demonstrably true, and you’d better be ready to defend it.
But then you’ve also got the right to seek out other opinions, but doing so cannot be compelled of you except in certain, limited but justifiable circumstances. Along with this is the right to avoid certain kinds of expression. This doesn’t mean you have the right to tell someone else they cannot express something. This doesn’t mean you can censor someone else. It means only that if you start to experience a kind of expression to which you do not want to be exposed, you have the right to escape that expression, to remove yourself from that expression’s audience.
This is why the notion of the captive audience holds so much weight in our system of law. A person is part of a captive audience when they are a member of that audience through compulsion. Students in a public elementary or secondary school are the classic example. When someone is in a captive audience, extra consideration is necessary with regard to the kind of expression to which that person is exposed, as they are not their of their own volition.
So how does this apply to religion? It fits quite well.
First you have the right to make various expressions in line with your religious beliefs, and you also have a right to withhold such expressions. And I have the right to seek out what you or others holding similar beliefs might have to say, and I have a right to avoid or escape said expressions if I don’t wish to experience them. For example if a church rents a billboard along my route of travel to work, I don’t have to continue following that route knowing the billboard is there. I can take a different route that avoids that billboard if I so desire. And I can plan a route throughout a city that avoids all churches if I desire (and have the extra money to spend on gas).
This is where atheists say that you cannot have freedom of religion without also having freedom from religion. For there to be true religious freedom, I must have the right and ability to escape any expressions related to your religious beliefs, and you must have the right and ability to escape any expressions of my beliefs.
But when the government speaks through its various acts, decisions and legislation, we are its captive audience. This is why the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the several States restrict how a government may speak, and specifically restricts government speech with regard to religion.
So when a display of the Ten Commandments is authorized on a courthouse, or a prayer banner is displayed in a public high school, the government is engaging in religious expression. And when the government engages in religious expression, it is no longer acting in the best interest of all individuals subject to that government’s jurisdiction.
This is why religious expression by a government is unconstitutional. We are all part of a captive audience with regard to the government. And when the government speaks, everyone is affected.
The freedom of religion includes the freedom from religion. One cannot have the right to express one’s own religious beliefs without having the complementary right to escape the religious expressions of others. Your right to express Christianity is dependent upon your right to escape the expressions of Islam and Judaism, and vice versa. This also means your right to express Christianity is dependent upon your right to escape any religious expression of the government. And the only way to escape religious expression by the government is by prohibiting religious expression by the government.