Liberty and Religious Pluralism


To what extent are freethinkers religion-free?


Does religious liberty mean freedom from religion?

The First Amendment frees each and every American from the need to accept anyone elseís beliefs. It gives each person his or her own liberty of conscience. This means the First Amendment provides simultaneously a freedom from any religion as well as a freedom of choice in religion.  

Freedom of conscience is inclusive--the liberty is for everyone. All Americans are free to belong to the religious organization of their choice, thereby rejecting the claims of any other faith system. At the same time, Americans are free to create new religions, thereby rejecting all other established religions. They are also free to choose not to belong to or believe in any religion. No matter what the choice, each and every American maintains full status as a citizen.

The rights accorded all Americans by their Constitution have been widely recognized and acclaimed, not only by those in the legal profession, but also by those in religious circles as well. For example, the American Baptist Churches have had a long history supporting individual human rights. Resolutions by the American Baptist Churches over the years have particularly sought to reflect the denominationís basic principles of freedom of thought and belief, and the right of dissent.

As American Baptists we declare the following rights to be basic human rights, and we will support programs and measures to assure these rights: 1) The right of every person to choose a religion freely, to maintain religious belief or unbelief without coercion...

It is important to note that this portion of the Resolution recognizes the rights of persons who endorse "unbelief" in religion as a basis for life. The rights that the resolution claims for those who "maintain religious belief" are the same rights afforded to those who choose not to maintain such beliefs.

On May 26, 1988, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin addressed the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, University of Chicago Hospital. His subject was "Euthanasia: Ethical and Legal Challenge." He began his address as follows:

One of the hallmarks of our democratic system of government and our social environment here in the United States is the fact that a plurality of views informs our public discourse regarding fundamental human questions. At times, these views flow from religious beliefs. At other times, they derive from philosophical or pragmatic judgments about the meaning and purpose of life. This pluralism is the result of the free speech accorded by the Constitution to each citizen as well as the right both to freely exercise oneís religion and to practice no religion.

As one might expect, Cardinal Bernardinís guiding principles were derived from his Roman Catholic faith. However, the Cardinal, like those of the Baptist faith, recognized and acknowledged the rights of other Americans to accept no religion and to base their guiding principles on a philosophy (or philosophies). This idea has important overtones regarding the responsibilities of both government and education.


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Last Updated 5/15/2005

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