Why “Freedom of Religion” can never mean “Freedom from Religion”

A friend I met via this very blog sent me two articles earlier this week about a move in Quebec to remove all religious symbols in the public sector. Read this news article about it and then read McGill University’s response. My thoughts follow.


So-called Western democracies pride themselves on being harbingers of freedom, equality, and acceptance for the world and everyone in it. As popularly perceived, “freedom of religion” was established and promoted by the first colonist to the new world. Social memory in the United States says these brave pioneers had a vision to make the world better and wanted everyone to practice religion as he/she saw best fit. In reality, of course, Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620) were far from being the first colonies established by Europeans. Additionally, the first goal of colonies was to make money. We can fairly say that while some individuals did settle in the so-called New World for religious reasons, it was usually not to promote religious freedom, especially at first – it was to practice their religion and their religion only.

As I’ve written about before, like all celebrated “rights” – voting, pay, marriage, etc – a gap exists between rhetoric and reality. We say freedom of religion, but do we really mean it? Look at our nation’s history and consider how many few non-Protestant Christians have been elected to political offices, consider the discrimination different groups have faced. 

Quebec’s move to obliterate all “overt” religious symbols, except those of an “acceptable” size, is not only an attack on what are considered indispensable freedoms but is actually impossible. (By the way, I love this line in the article: “The plan also would exempt elected officials, raising the possibility that the premier of Quebec could some day wear a veil while the janitor who cleans her office could not.”)

Take Quebec’s plan to ban Muslim headscarves. Muslim headscarves are clearly a very overt symbol of religious, cultural, and personal mores. But, consider the opposite. An individual in the United States or Canada, for example, without a Muslim headscarf is wearing just as an overtly symbol that s/he is likely not Muslim and likely Christian, at least culturally speaking. Now, you may be thinking, “not having a Muslim headscarf doesn’t mean anything, that’s just the way it is.” And I would respond, “likewise, if you’re in a culture that is primarily Muslim – that’s the way it is, people wear headscarves.”  

Veils BBC News Web Article

Indeed the very clothes we wear and don’t wear and many other things (such as hair length to some) are very outwardly and overtly Christian, Muslim, or something else in many cases. They express a ton about who we are and even more about what our culture expects. 

As a result, Quebec’s plan is not at all about promoting religious freedom or religious-free zones, it is about requiring religious and cultural conformity. And Quebec is not alone in such a move. Schools around the United States, for example, have or have tried to pass similar rules for students and employees.

religion-symbols-religious-thumb1139037Such rules require a person to violate core beliefs the same way that requiring a Christian man to wear a Jewish kippah would violate his core beliefs. Additionally, considering that most people in the U.S. and Canada are Christians and considering human nature, Church and State are impossible to separate. We should keep aiming for true equality and laws that really are not based on the mores of one religion, but freedom of religion and ideals for secular governments do not also mean freedom from religion. Freedom from religion is simply impossible at this time in world’s history. (See the second comment, please, for some slight clarification on this last point.)