In Defence of Religious Belief and Expression
June 24, 2010 by Paul McKeever
Four men appear on a public street, outside of the perimeter of an “Arab Festival”. The town reportedly has a large population of Muslims. The men hand out free copies of the Gospel of John – written in both English and Arabic translations – to those who approach them. Within 30 seconds, 8 or more police officers converge on the location and approach the men. The men are taken into custody as a crowd of Muslims cry “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great!”). Their video camera is confiscated. They are told by police that they may not distribute the Gospel of John anywhere within 5 blocks of the Arab Festival. They are essentially told that if they distribute the Gospel within 5 blocks of the Arab Festival, they will be committing the crime of disturbing the peace (or assault, or inciting a right, or some such offence). It is arguably a violation of Sharia law for a non-Muslim to proselytize a Muslim.
The men are not in an Arabic country. They are not in a European city. They are in Dearborn, Michigan, USA, and the police arresting them are bound by the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Readers of this blog will know that I do not believe in anything for which there is no physical evidence. There is no evidence supporting the existence of an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient being. A belief in such a being is a matter not of rationality, but of faith.
So, in what I consider to be an ideal free society – in a society the laws of which are wholly consistent with reality, reason, and rational self-interest – is the conduct of the Dearborn police a proper response to the conduct of the four men? My answer is an unequivocal “No”. This case provides a brilliant example of why governance must be strictly rational; why a government must entirely ignore claims based upon faith if those who have faith are to be free; why “freedom of religion” requires secular governance.
In the absence of people willing to provide for his needs, a man’s survival requires that he choose to think, and that he thinks logically about the evidence provided to his senses about the nature of reality. If he lands on a desert island, he must locate water and make it drinkable; he must locate food and obtain it; etc. If he is to survive, he must not be deprived of the values (e.g., the food and water) that he has created or obtained by means of his rational thought and action. He must hold his own life – not his death – as his highest value; his own happiness – not his misery, suffering, and poverty – as his highest purpose; and rationality – not wishing and praying – as his only effective means of achieving his purpose. And, if a man is to survive amongst others, he must not be deprived of his control over his values: nobody must be permitted to take his life, to restrict his liberty, or to take his property, without his consent. Accordingly, to ensure that he is not so deprived of his life, liberty, and property, he chooses others to defend his life, liberty and property from others who would take such things without his consent.
The result is not that he necessarily thinks rationally, survives or achieves happiness. The result is that he is free to think and act rationally so that he can maximize his chances of surviving and achieving his own happiness.
It is not the government’s role to force him to think rationally, to ensure that he survives, or to ensure that he achieves his own happiness. It is not the government’s role to force him to abandon reason and simply believe in and obey – as a matter of faith – the alleged word of an alleged god; or to require him to sacrifice himself for others. In a free society, governed rationally, every man is free to live a life according to the beliefs he holds as a matter of faith so long as he does not deprive another person of the person’s life, liberty, or property without the person’s consent. And, so long as the man of faith does not end another person’s life, restrict another person’s liberty, or take another person’s property without the person’s consent, he is free to profess his faith, and to persuade others to discover and share it.
Should the police have attended where the four men were distributing the Gospel of John? Possibly, in defence of the four men: if anyone was preventing those four men from offering their booklets peacefully to oncoming individuals – and I do not know of any evidence that the men were being so prevented – then most certainly. And, in such a case, the proper response of the police would be to use force to prevent everyone from attempting forcibly to prevent the men from doing so…whether or not the wrongdoers were yelling “Allahu Akbar”. Otherwise, the appropriate decision of the police would have been to do nothing at all.