No-one is obliged to have a sense of conviction

Lately the bugbear of negative freedom of religion has appeared in the speeches of the clergy. In commenting on the citizens’ initiative for equality in religion and faith, the Bishop of Espoo, Tapio Luoma, claims (Helsingin Sanomat Opinion 22.1.2014) that “equality between faiths is always defined from the perspective of some point of view in a way that makes a neutral definition of faiths impossible. In the background of the citizens’ initiative that has now been made, an influential factor is a form of faith called a lack of faith which drives the realisation of one’s own conception of a freedom of religion, the so-called negative freedom of religion, within society. It is not a neutral attitude towards religion, the church and the societal significance of religion.”

Negative and positive freedom are concepts that were put forth by the philosopher and social scientist Isaiah Berlin in his inaugural speech at Oxford University in 1958. Negative freedom (the freedom from something) represents a situation in which the state leaves the citizen in peace to do what they want and what they are capable of. Positive freedom (the freedom to something), on the other hand, is based on the idea that citizens have certain inalienable rights, which require the support of the state to be realised. Recent discussion about the statutory duties of municipalities is discussion about the limits of positive freedom: about what every community member has a right to irrespective of their wealth.

Luoma seems to be claiming that negative freedom (the freedom from religion) is logically contradictory because all views of the world, including atheism, are comparable to religion or ‘belief-based’. So, in the eyes of the clergy, negative freedom of religion is an attempt by the atheist world view to take over the field of views – the former Soviet Union, where the state restricted the practice of religion, is readily brought up as a warning example. So in a society that respects the freedom of its citizens, the only remaining enlightened alternative is positive freedom of religion (the freedom to religion). An atheist has the right to their world view just as a Christian, Muslim or Mormon does. From this perspective, negative freedom of religion is a principle bound to a certain conviction and atheism an active ‘denial of God’, a faith-based movement that seeks to destabilise the position of the main religions.

The notion of atheism as a politically driven activity is in some way similar to seeing homosexuality as a revolutionary movement dedicated to bringing down the heterosexual family institution. As a liberal thinker, Berlin warns against placing positive freedom before negative freedom as the principle on which to build society. An individual must ultimately have the right to determine on what they base their own freedom. An envisaged threat of the dominance of positive freedom is the nanny state that determines what citizens are to desire in ensuring the realisation of these freedoms. The band Ultra Bra mock this kind of caricature of the nanny state in their song Me yhtenäistämme (We Are Unifying): “The same kind of hand-operated corkscrew for all girls, a hammer and stone wall nail and lots of electronics for boys. Every gets their own lane on the motorway to Lahti and everyone can stay up until 2.”[1]

According to the principle of negative freedom, the institutions that exercise power in society must be constructed in such a way that leaves the individual the right to establish their own will without outside direction. According to Berlin, fixing the inequality that arises from the differing starting positions of individuals is addressed with institutions which build up positive freedom, but when they start to rule over the individual by telling them what they should want, we are moving in the direction of totalitarianism. One distorted image of positive freedom is the last electoral process in North Korea, where one could vote for precisely one candidate in each constituency.

So I would dare to assert that clergymen who propagate scare stories about negative freedom have got the wrong end of the stick. Negative freedom of religion is not – at least in the original sense of the concept of negative freedom – the same thing as banning or restricting the practice of religion. Negative freedom of religion requires that the freedom of an individual is not restricted to the freedom to choose which view they want to commit to: the individual has to have the right to freedom from the ‘conviction’ or ‘belief-basedness’ sought by Tapio Luoma.

The idea of ‘the pupil’s education in their own religion’ (that has become a central point of debate, with confessionalism out of bounds these days) belonging within the sphere of compulsory education is problematic in the sense that the secular authority demands that the citizen takes on board a particular ‘conviction-based’ scholastic element. It is not possible to opt out of a ‘conviction’. A religious or ‘religionless’ conviction is set as a required citizenship skill alongside proficiency in mathematics, languages and history. Refusing to undertake a religious study task requires one’s own, or one’s parents’ abandonment of membership of the religion; the faith set by one’s own society cannot readily be shaken off.

The modern compulsory education that relates to religion is an example of an institution of positive freedom which denies refusing to have a conviction. A secondary school student is granted the freedom to decide whether they study psychology or physics, for example, but not the freedom to go without choosing a scholastic element which is decreed as part of belonging to the religion. The feared principle of the negative freedom of religion is truly not realised in Finnish society: instead, the state still operates as a spiritual disciplinarian.

I believe, in the light of the best available knowledge, that the Earth was formed from a spinning gas cloud. I also think that my notions of good and bad are innate tendencies for human beings and reinforced by upbringing. I do not accept that either assertion is ‘faith-based’ or belief-based’ thinking. Arguments can be presented for and against both assertions, some of these being from conviction-based perspectives. Knowledge changes and develops through new experiences and research results and many institutions in society, including religious bodies, take part in constructing views of the world. Some people hold all though to be conviction-based and a prerequisite of a free society is the protection of diverse beliefs. In a discussion which is dominated by the main religion it is easy to forget that no-one has an obligation to have a conviction. Negative freedom of religion is not a totalitarian principle but the basic right of an individual.

[1]Or who knows, maybe the target of the mockery is in fact some well-earning critic of the welfare state, divorced from life, who is trying to understand positive freedom.