Robert P. George: what is religious liberty? what is conscience?

From the Public Discourse, an article that explains why freedom of religion is a human right. (H/T Chris S.)


In its fullest and most robust sense, religion is the human person’s being in right relation to the divine—the more-than-merely-human source or sources, if there be such, of meaning and value. In the perfect realization of the good of religion, one would achieve the relationship that the divine—say God himself, assuming for a moment the truth of monotheism—wishes us to have with Him.

Of course, different traditions of faith have different views of what constitutes religion in its fullest and most robust sense. There are different doctrines, different scriptures, different ideas of what is true about spiritual things and what it means to be in proper relationship to the more-than-merely-human source or sources of meaning and value that different traditions understand as divinity.

Religious liberty is the ability to use reason and evidence to determine the truth about religion:

For my part, I believe that reason has a very large role to play for each of us in deciding where spiritual truth most robustly is to be found. And by reason here, I mean not only our capacity for practical reasoning and moral judgment, but also our capacities for understanding and evaluating claims of all sorts: logical, historical, scientific, and so forth. But one need not agree with me about this in order to affirm with me that there is a distinct human good of religion—a good that uniquely shapes one’s pursuit of and participation in all the aspects of our flourishing as human beings—and that one begins to realize and participate in this good from the moment one begins the quest to understand the more-than-merely-human sources of meaning and value and to live authentically by ordering one’s life in line with one’s best judgments of the truth in religious matters.

If I am right, then the existential raising of religious questions, the honest identification of answers, and the fulfilling of what one sincerely believes to be one’s duties in the light of those answers are all parts of the human good of religion. But if that is true, then respect for a person’s well-being, or more simply respect for the person, demands respect for his or her flourishing as a seeker of religious truth and as one who lives in line with his or her best judgments of what is true in spiritual matters. And that, in turn, requires respect for everyone’s liberty in the religious quest—the quest to understand religious truth and order one’s life in line with it.

Because faith of any type, including religious faith, cannot be authentic—it cannot be faith—unless it is free, respect for the person—that is to say, respect for his or her dignity as a free and rational creature—requires respect for his or her religious liberty. That is why it makes sense, from the point of view of reason, and not merely from the point of view of the revealed teaching of a particular faith—though many faiths proclaim the right to religious freedom on theological and not merely philosophical grounds—to understand religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

Here’s the definition of conscience – it’s not just autonomy to do whatever you want:

Conscience, as Newman understood it, is the very opposite of “autonomy” in the modern sense. It is not a writer of permission slips. It is not in the business of licensing us to do as we please or conferring on us “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Rather, conscience is one’s last best judgment specifying the bearing of moral principles one grasps, yet in no way makes up for oneself, on concrete proposals for action. Conscience identifies our duties under a moral law that we do not ourselves make. It speaks of what one must do and what one must not do. Understood in this way, conscience is, indeed, what Newman said it is: a stern monitor.

Contrast this understanding of conscience with what Newman condemns as its counterfeit. Conscience as “self-will” is a matter of feeling or emotion, not reason. It is concerned not so much with the identification of what one has a duty to do or not do, one’s feelings and desires to the contrary notwithstanding, but rather, and precisely, with sorting out one’s feelings. Conscience as self-will identifies permissions, not obligations. It licenses behavior by establishing that one doesn’t feel bad about doing it, or, at least, one doesn’t feel so bad about doing it that one prefers the alternative of not doing it.

I’m with Newman. His key distinction is between conscience, authentically understood, and self-will—conscience as the permissions department. His core insight is that conscience has rights because it has duties. The right to follow one’s conscience, and the obligation to respect conscience—especially in matters of faith, where the right of conscience takes the form of religious liberty of individuals and communities of faith—obtain not because people as autonomous agents should be able to do as they please; they obtain, and are stringent and sometimes overriding, because people have duties and the obligation to fulfill them. The duty to follow conscience is a duty to do things or refrain from doing things not because one wants to follow one’s duty, but even if one strongly does not want to follow it. The right of conscience is a right to do what one judges oneself to be under an obligation to do, whether one welcomes the obligation or must overcome strong aversion in order to fulfill it. If there is a form of words that sums up the antithesis of Newman’s view of conscience as a stern monitor, it is the imbecilic slogan that will forever stand as a verbal monument to the “Me-generation”: “If it feels good, do it.”

Where are these rights under attack today? Well, in this country we have situations where Christians are being forced to act like atheists in public in order to avoid offending atheists. The view that Christianity is something that should be kept private because it is offensive to atheists is an atheist view. So what this really is then is atheists forcing their atheism on Christians. You can see atheists attack religious liberty today when valedictorians are forced to hid their true beliefs in order to avoid making atheists feel bad. Conscience is under attack in many places, but one of them is the abortion mandate in Obamacare, which requires Christian business owners to provide their employees with drugs that can cause abortions. So there are very real threats to religious liberty and conscience today. If you value religious liberty and conscience rights, then you should oppose expanding the power of any government that is hostile to those rights.

3 thoughts on “Robert P. George: what is religious liberty? what is conscience?”

  1. Business owners cannot over-rule the consciences of their employees. Just because you own the business and pay the wages, that doesn’t mean you can dictate religious ideas to the staff. Employees have equal rights. They have just as much freedom as business owners.


    1. So you think Christian businesses should be forced to subsidize the abortions of their employees after the employees freely choose to have sex? Wow, you would have fit in great in Nazi Germany or some Communist country. They really need fascistic people like you who are willing to force religious people to affirm and subsidize killing there.


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