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Does religion restrict freedom?

Published in Christian Today   01 June

The word ‘freedom’ is one of the great buzzwords of our culture. In the words of the rock band Queen, we all want to “break free”. Whether it’s Mel Gibson shouting “Freedom” as he is hung, drawn and quartered, or Martin Luther King crying “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last”, we all want freedom.

But as Rousseau famously observed: “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”. What chains our freedom? Economics, certainly. After all I may be theoretically free to visit Australia, or live in central London, but if I don’t have the money to do so, that ‘freedom’ is worthless. Politics also. There are many countries in the world where freedom of action, thought and religion are greatly restricted. Physical limitation, of course, inhibits freedom. I might believe I can fly, but if I were to jump out of a 20 story skyscraper I would soon be brought down to earth! Mental capacity is also a restriction – much as I would love to discuss nuclear physics and Tolstoy in Serbo-Croatian, Chinese and Russian, I am unlikely to be able to do so.

But there is one restriction on human freedom that is being dealt with today in the Western world – the debilitating and corrosive effect of religion. The narrative is that for far too long religion has held the world in its chains but at last humankind is beginning to move away from our enslavement to man-made gods, and walking into the freedom of the Enlightenment. At least in the West, that is. Other parts of the world are still backward and ‘less-developed’, but as is evidenced by the rise of atheism in the US and the decline of the Church in the UK, the dream of Rousseau, Voltaire, Nietzsche and Russell is at least beginning to come true. Soon we will be free of religion and all its restrictions on sexual, emotional, personal and societal freedom. Or so the utopian dreams of the atheistic secularists go. But is it true?

Does religion restrict freedom?

Christopher Hitchens certainly thought so – “The urge to ban and censor books, silence dissenters, condemn outsiders, invade the private sphere, and invoke an exclusive salvation is the very essence of totalitarianism”.  We have to agree that often religion does restrict freedom. But again we come back to tarring everyone with the same brush. It is clearly demonstrable that anti-religion can also restrict freedom. By definition there has to be some kind of restriction. Would you really want to live in a society where everything could be published? The minute you state that the dissemination of child pornography should be illegal you have breached the principle of absolute freedom of speech. Every society is going to offer some kind of restriction; the only question is where you draw the line.

As a historian and student of politics I would argue that societies that have been based upon biblical principles tend to offer a far greater freedom than those that have replaced God with the State. Have any totalitarian states in the modern world been Christian? I am struggling to think of any that could seriously be called such. It’s not difficult to think of atheistic or other religious states that fit the bill.

While Hitler may not have been a card-carrying atheist (the jury is still out on that one), Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot definitely were. Stalin is particularly interesting. As a teenager he came across The Origin of the Species and after staying up all night reading it he found atheism. “God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived. If God existed, he’d have made the world more just,” he said. When asked how he could be sure, he gave his friend a copy of Darwin. This lack of belief in God was not just a simple atheism but also rather a bitter anti-theism. When he went to visit an old church with a friend who was the son of a priest, Stalin encouraged him to pull down an icon, smash it and urinate on it. “Not afraid of God?” asked Stalin. “Good for you!”

Now, of course, comes the standard retort from our atheist friends: “Stalin was an atheist – so what? He also had a moustache, but you don’t blame everyone who has a moustache for Stalinism”. I hope you can see the facetiousness of that argument. If Stalin had attacked barbers, or sought to impose moustaches on everyone, then it would be relevant. The reason he destroyed churches, banned Christianity from public education and sent thousands of Christians to their deaths was not because he had a moustache! Furthermore, this argument misses the point somewhat. Stalin (and, incidentally, Hitler) did not believe there was an afterlife, or a Jesus to whom they would have to give account when they died. Therefore they felt free to use their ‘absolute’ power to do as they pleased, as they were ultimately answerable to no one. It is a logical consequence of atheistic politics.

Hitchens argues that “if religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.” Can you see where that leads? Not to tolerance and freedom but to suppression, closing schools and banning books which do not agree with the atheist agenda. When their Brave New World just does not happen atheists will just get more and more frustrated – and as they have replaced God with the State, they will seek to use the State to suppress and intimidate. We are already beginning to see tasters of that in British society where in the name of tolerance and diversity, biblical Christianity is increasingly not tolerated, nor allowed to be part of the ‘diverse’ community that people say they want.

And its not just biblical Christianity. Universities in the UK and the US are rapidly becoming bastions of intolerance where any view which does not fit the liberal zeitgeist is ‘no-platformed’ or excluded by the whole concept of ‘safe space’. In a recent poll, more than a third of students surveyed thought UKIP should be banned from speaking at any university. Pro-life groups have been banned and even people like Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell have been censored. If you want to keep tabs on how freedom of speech, thought and religion are being attacked, then have a look at the wonderful Marxist writer Brendan O’Neill, whose incisive commentary on this growing intolerance is spot on.

On the other hand, in cultures where biblical Christianity has thrived there is greater freedom for a diversity of views. I find it ironic that the anti-religious Christopher Hitchens preferred to move to one of the most religious countries in the world, the US, rather than stay in an increasingly secularised Western Europe. As his brother Peter points out, the worst place to be an atheist is in an atheist country, the best place is in a Christian country.

In the dumbed down, consumerist, secular humanistic societies of the West, many of our people do not realise that the very things they say they prize, such as freedom, equality and diversity, are in fact founded upon a Christian view of society and humanity. If you take away the roots then the fruits will stay on the tree for a while, but they will not last and indeed, will soon be lost.

If I am given the cliché about religions restricting freedom I will always agree that it is true. Religion without Christ is always a bind. But so is anti-religion. Lets return to Rousseau. What many do not realise is the second part of the quote. After stating “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” Rousseau added: “One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” Will we ever be free?

The greatest limitation and threat to our freedom is sin – both ours and others. Greed, anger, lust, pride, selfishness and sin in all its forms are the chains that bind. Who can save us from ourselves? That is where the Good News comes in. Jesus Christ said that he was the truth and if we knew the truth we would be set free. It is an enormous claim, but one that millions of us can testify to. “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth, and followed Thee”.

This weeks recommended book is a small but powerful one that shows how we can obtain freedom from our selves: Tim Keller’s wonderful The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.