Claudia Mendoza: Freedom of Belief Goes Both Ways - Freedom To and Freedom From

A recent Economist article highlighted the growing trend of liberalism amongst Britain’s youth. They believe that people have a right to express themselves by what they consume and how they choose to live, translating into an unprecedented tolerance for social and cultural difference.

The young are now, for example far more tolerant of homosexuality than were previous generations at the same age. This trend should be applauded by all who wish to live in a more open minded and tolerant society, especially if you are what society might define as a ‘minority’ – black, gay, Jewish.

We can be forgiven for believing that this trend means religious freedom is held as dearly as sexual or racial freedom. If society is becoming more liberal and liberals are promoting tolerance for social and cultural difference, religion must surely be part and parcel. Sadly, evidence suggests otherwise.

There is a growing cohort of people who call themselves ‘liberals’, yet decry anything to do with religion, since to this supposedly enlightened group, religion – something which cannot be proven - is seen as basically irrational. However irrational faith may seem to the non-believer, it is a fundamental part of the life of a believer.

Ronald Reagan once said “the frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance, freedom and open-mindedness.”

Indeed, the intolerance of the campaigners for tolerance is truly perplexing. Think of those who would fight for equality for sexual minorities but see nothing of stamping on the rights of the religious.

A recent outburst between Mehdi Hasan, a devout Muslim and evolutionary biologist and atheist, Richard Dawkins perfectly exemplifies the secularist intolerance towards those of faith. Dawkins questioned the credibility of the New Statesman - where Hasan is a blogger – for allowing him airspace. How could a man who believes that the Prophet Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse be seen as rational or taken seriously?

Even if one thinks that a person’s beliefs are implausible, the principle of tolerance means that a person has freedom to hold and pursue whatever beliefs he wishes.

There are examples aplenty which prove that there is an increasing trend of intolerance towards those who express their beliefs and attempt to live out their faith. Taking just two – faith schools and circumcision – will reveal the intolerant attitudes when it comes to religious practice and freedom.

The secular attack on religious circumcision is often compared to female genital mutilation as a way of discrediting the age old religious practice. The argument to justify this spin is that in both cases, the act is done without the child’s consent and causes permanent damage. As any parent can attest to, many difficult choices are made for their children before they are old enough to do so for themselves. Circumcision is another one of these choices.

Faith schools are equally scorned upon. For example, teaching that Darwin's theory of evolution is only a theory has caused uproar amongst Professor Dawkins and his ilk but this is a fundamental part of Jewish belief. Why should it be the secularists who force schools to teach only what they deem to be an approved set of beliefs? Parents should be entitled to choose how they bring up their children and part of that choice is where they send them to school and how they are educated. In keeping, a secular school should be entitled to teach evolution without interference from the religious.

One just needs to scratch the surface to see that in effect, those who oppose faith schools or religious practices wish to impose their values on people of faith. If the latter were trying to force secular parents to send their children to faith schools, it would quite rightly be deemed outrageous. These scenarios are two sides of the same coin and true tolerance cannot exist when intolerance is practiced by simply disguising it as tolerance.

Ultimately, freedom of belief – the epicentre of liberalism – has to work both ways: freedom to embrace and freedom to reject.

We should be supportive of a freer and more tolerant society where people of any belief and of no belief feel safe and secure.  We should however, fight to ensure that increased freedom for non-believers does not undermine our own freedoms. When any one set of voices becomes dominant, it makes it harder for those who hold different views to be assertive about their own. By submitting to someone else’s agenda we will lose all that has kept the Jewish community and society at large from flourishing.