"Is Religious Freedom for Everyone?" a Commentary by Michael Novak

May 17, 2007

Author: Michael Novak

Source: Spero News


I want to talk a little bit about three different approaches to religious liberty: one in atheist countries such as France and two different approaches within the United States. Then I will conclude with a few words about Islam—a story not yet fully developed but of great importance to the rest of this century.

Atheists in Europe have their own approach to religious liberty. In personal life, they take religion seriously, as a dangerous social reality that needs to be curbed. Politically, the atheist aim since the French Revolution of 1789 has been to expel religion from public life, and to confine religion to the private sphere. They have attempted to place the state firmly over the church, synagogue, and mosque, in such a way that the state dominates all spheres of public life. They keep religious bodies on the margins. This process goes by the name of "laicization" (in Europe), and in America as "seculariza­tion." The secularists' unexpressed hope is that religion over time will wither away, along with other "old-fashioned" things that are inexorably being abandoned. They think that the future will be less religious, more secular than today—and that that will be a good thing.

In America, the pattern has been somewhat different. Some Anglo-American atheists do share the sentiments of the French atheists. But most have recognized that religion has a serious place both in the public and the private life of nations. The Anglo-Americans have developed two different defenses of liberty of conscience, one of which is based on non-religious premises, open to atheists, too—at least those atheists who value philosophical argument for its own sake. The other is based upon religious con­ceptions, and expressly on the Jewish and Christian vision of a Creator and Sovereign over all things.