A Secular Defense of Religious Freedom

Reviewing the late Ronald Dworkin’s posthumously published book, Religion without God, Jonathan Ree details the legal theorist’s idiosyncratic appreciation of statutes protecting religious liberty, such as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights:

[T]heir real justification, according to Dworkin, has nothing specifically to do with religion: there is no special right to religious freedom, but only what he calls a “general right to ethical independence” – or, to put it differently, a restraint on any government activity based on the assumption that one conception of the good life is superior to another. He admits that it may be hard to decide what this principle implies, but has no doubt that it rules out any attempts to criminalise homosexual acts or early abortions, outlaw same-sex marriage or force schools to teach intelligent design.

Dworkin’s secularist defence of religious freedom is thus not as paradoxical as it might seem: for him, it is no more than specific application of a purely secular right – the right to “ethical independence”. But he puts a double lock on his doctrine with an argument to the effect that, strange as it may sound, religion should not be defined in terms of belief in God, and that secular atheism of the kind he espouses should be treated by the law as a form of religion.