Freedom and Institutions

The who study the question of religious freedom often wonder why it should benefit and protect not only individual believers, but also religious institutions. Application of religious freedom to institutions such as the Catholic Church―institutions which, needless to say, are not often themselves models of internal liberalism, equality, or democracy―generates a good deal of criticism. Among other things, the critics point out that religious institutions seem unique in benefiting from a right which, like other rights, normally attaches to individuals. Indeed, many people―and particularly the non-religious, the agnostics and the atheists―do not exercise their beliefs through institutions. They only claim religious freedom (which, it is generally agreed, includes the freedom not to hold any religious belief) for themselves, not for any institutions. Why should believers be different?

But this story from the BBC suggests that they might not be different. It tells of an “atheist church” gathering in London, singing, sermons, and all. As the BBC reports,

The audience – overwhelmingly young, white and middle class – appear excited to be part of something new and speak of the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith.

Now I, for one, find it somewhat perplexing. As Leo Tolstoy supposedly said when invited to join a temperance society, “there’s no need to get together in order not to drink. If you get together, you might as well raise a glass to the occasion.” But never mind. Many people strongly prefer to live their beliefs through institutions―whatever these beliefs are, even if they are non-beliefs. Institutions are an inextricable part of the belief. Attack the institution, and you risk destroying the belief. Claims that we can respect religious freedom without making room for religious institutions―or, it would seem, that we could respect the freedom of non-believers without making room for institutions of irreligion, whatever shape they might take in the years to come―are at best misguided, and hypocritical at worst.

Besides, it is not really true that religious belief is unique among rights in being bound up with institutions. Just as freedom of religion has its churches, freedom of expression has its press (sometimes expressly acknowledged in constitutional texts, as in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution), and, as Yale’s Dean Robert Post argues, its universities (as I explain here). So too the individual right to an impartial trial is connected with institutional protections for courts. And there are probably other examples too. Once you start thinking about it, religious freedom is neither as exceptional nor as exceptionable as some would have us think.

But institutions, however indispensable for freedom, can also stifle it. Universities, according to Dean Post, must be free to penalize professors and students who do not play by the generally accepted rules of the academic game; churches can impose penance and excommunicate their heretics. This is fine―this is part of these institutions’ freedom, which in turn is an inextricable part of how individuals exercise their own freedom―so long as there are alternatives. So long as an excommunicated heretic is free to found his own church, and to criticize the one that rejected him; so long as the mad scientist is free to pursue and publish his work outside the official ivory tower, there is no justification for interfering with the institutions which, internally, rely on authority more than on freedom. But there is a standing danger of such institutions growing so powerful as to capture the state and rely on its coercive machinery to forbid the expression of views disagreeable to them. That danger―the danger of the marketplace of ideas being ruled by state-backed monopolies―is what we must guard against.

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