A common American myth is that the U.S. Constitution grants freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. The same myth may hold in other countries as well.
This claim is common, but it rests on a misunderstanding of what real freedom of religion entails. The most important thing to remember is that freedom of religion, if it is going to apply to everyone, also requires freedom from religion. Why is that?
You do not truly have the freedom to practice your religious beliefs if you are also required to adhere to any of the religious beliefs or rules of other religions.
Freedom From Religious Requirements
As an obvious example, could we really say that Jews and Muslims would have freedom of religion if they were required to show the same respect to images of Jesus that Christians have? Would Christians and Muslims really have freedom of their religion if they were required to wear yarmulkes? Would Christians and Jews have freedom of religion if they were required to adhere to Muslim dietary restrictions?
Simply pointing out that people have the freedom to pray however they wish is not enough. Forcing people to accept some particular idea or adhere to behavioral standards from someone else’s religion means that their religious freedom is being infringed upon.
Limits of Freedom From Religion
Freedom from religion does not mean, as some mistakenly seem to claim, being free from seeing religion in society.
No one has the right not to see churches, religious expression, and other examples of religious belief in our nation—and those who advocate freedom of religion do not claim otherwise.
What freedom from religion does mean, however, is the freedom from the rules and dogmas of other people’s religious beliefs so that you can be free to follow the demands of your own conscience, whether they take a religious form or not.
Thus, you have both freedom of religion and freedom from religion because they are two sides of the same coin.
Religious Liberty of the Majority and Minority
Interestingly, the misunderstandings here can be found in many other myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings as well. Many people don’t realize—or don’t care—that real religious liberty must exist for everyone, not just for themselves. It’s no coincidence that people who object to the principle of “freedom from religion” are adherents of religious groups whose doctrines or standards would be the ones enforced by the state.
Since they already voluntarily accept these doctrines or standards, they don’t expect to experience any conflicts with state enforcement or endorsement. What you have, then, is a failure of moral imagination: these people are unable to really imagine themselves in the shoes of religious minorities who don’t voluntarily accept these doctrines or standards and, hence, experience an infringement on their religious liberties through state enforcement or endorsement.
That, or they simply don’t care what religious minorities experience because they think they have the One True Religion. Having never experienced social or legal restrictions on expressing their faith, they may not realize their privileged position.