Semantics are important. They’re tricky, too. I was recently asked “What’s the difference between freedom and religious freedom anyway ?”. It seems to me the difference is a misunderstanding of the world “freedom”. For the purpose of this post the word freedom is interchangeable with”liberty”, as it is in common parlance.

Freedom/liberty is the base of a pyramid. It’s the broad idea that underpins everything above it. For example you need freedom to have freedom of speech. You need freedom to freely associate. It follows, then, that you need freedom to be religious. That is, to have freedom of religion, you must have freedom.

For Americans, there is no other word more emotionally or politically charged. So what does an American mean when they say that their “religious freedom” is being curbed, or, is under attack? Do they mean their liberty is being taken away? Are they less free to be religious? Is a fundamental and inalienable right being eroded?

The answer is no. There are no laws prohibiting an American from being religious, be it belief in an Abrahamic God or a Spaghetti Monster. Millions of Americans are free to attend church, temple or their mosque whenever they choose. The Sikh wears his turban and the Muslim wears her hijab while they eat their New York style pizza. Ther is no state apparatus that says they are not at liberty to do this.

So why do people like Michael Novak say that religious liberty is under attack? They do this because they are frustrated and fearful that their notion of social norms are being challenged. But utilising the word “liberty” is a clumsy way of attempting to add weight to their argument that Christian values are important and should remain a key factor in modern social fabric, as they were in the past. American Christians in the 21st century are struggling with the fact that their worldview is no longer dominant.

The irony with taking this line of defence is that, in some instances, Christians will actively seek to deny others their freedom and rights. A case in point would be Kim Davis – the lady in a sheriff’s office that refused to sign the maririage documents of the newlywed gay couple. She was gaoled for it because she refused to recognise the law of the land. She attempted to posit her values, derived from the bible, onto other citizens.

in his independence day post on the national review, Novak infers that Christian values are the basis for the good and moral decisions that America has made throughout its history. His World War II example is particularly weak, though.

Whereas the abstract imperative “unconditional surrender” could have led to abject punishment, humiliation, and submission across generations, that code was tempered by a guiding narrative that demanded forgiveness, cooperation, and the rebuilding of ties of friendship, even brotherliness.

That Americans were benevolent in their victory because of the teachings of Jesus doesn’t take into account the fact that millions of lives lost, the unleashing of atomic destruction and the necessity of global economic rehabilitication may have lessened the quest for vengeance. When I read that example another pivotal moment in American history immediately came to my mind. While preparing the nation for the eventual abolition is slavery, Abraham Lincoln (a devout Christian fellow) was at pains to ensure that the basis of  the need for doing so did not come from a higher power. Often people will argue that because the founding fathers were all Christian, it must follow that the Declaration of Independence is guided by and imbued with Christian principals thus Lincoln’s deferral to the declaration rather than the bible still equates to him exercising Christian principals. Novak plays on this but uses an unfortunate example:

Thus, for instance, Thomas Jefferson asserted, with reference to the Jewish and Christian God, that “Almighty God hath made the human mind free, and free it must remain.”

As we know, Jefferson was a slaveholder.

In fact the difference between his view and approach was at odds with Salmon Chase who used this to a political end and demonstrates a genuine difference in motivation. More than once Lincoln needed to re-assert that he was motivated by the Declaration of Independence, which explicitly states that all men are created equal.

Novak argues that is is the Christian hegemony (i.e the imposed worldview) that is what drives the moral outcomes.

…the ancient Greeks and Romans could, without any crisis of conscience, bow their knees to gods in whom they did not believe…

This just isn’t true and is actually a bizarre statement.

So, it is not that religious people have less freedom, it is that they have less freedom to impose their religion on others. These are two entirely different matters. Using the term “religious liberty” serves to cloud this, quite intentionally.

Actually, the more an atheist might think about this issue, the more she might conclude that not only “religious liberty” but even the concept of “liberty of conscience” might be done away with.

This paragraph is the crux of the linguistic trick that Novak’s entire article was written for. By positing that religious values (tolerance, love, the smiting of sodomites) are analogous to moral values, the deprivation of religious values would naturally lead to the deprivation of morals. But as shown above, the world does not require religious values to be able to act morally.

Change is difficult. Nobody likes losing what they are comfortable with. But as the 21st Century progresses, organised religion will continue to diffuse and lose its relevance. And since there is no doubt that ethics can and are derived from sources other than ancient mythological texts, we can be confident that the dire predictions of Novak and others are nothing more than desperate attempts to frighten people into remaining under their control.