We generally think of religious freedom in terms of coercion by others, political or social imposition of certain religious or irreligious beliefs and practices on people who would choose to believe and practice differently. That’s not what I’m talking about here. My concern is with the internal freedom people feel to practice and believe as they are drawn to do and the freedom they offer to others who might believe differently. The two are linked. I wonder if people who are highly critical of others’ beliefs can themselves be deeply free to practice and believe in the ways that might work best for them.
We don’t invent our own beliefs and practices from scratch. We take them, to one degree or another, from existing traditions. But no one simply practices and believes according to some fixed tradition — we discover traditions, interpret them, give them meaning for ourselves. As much as we may try to adhere to a fixed tradition, we end up mixing in bits we have made up ourselves or have taken from other sources.
The process of elaborating and living by our own beliefs and practices is fluid, but it is liable to get blocked up. Aware of it or not, we experience certain restrictions in our ability to take in an external beliefs; or, having taken in an external belief, we get stuck in it, closed off from the possibility of changing it or adding to it in ways that might suit us.
Internal religious freedom involves two contradictory motions:
- Freedom to believe deeply and completely, to accept received wisdom, an existing tradition, in all its profundity, opening ourselves to all its implications, allowing it seep into every corner of our being and let us see ourselves and the world anew.
- Freedom to honor and play with other beliefs and traditions; to hold our own beliefs without denigrating others’ beliefs, without closing ourselves to others’ beliefs; retaining curiosity about others’ beliefs and exploring with an open mind where those beliefs accord with our own and where they do not; maintaining a willingness to question our own beliefs and adapt them to what we learn and resonate with when we expose ourselves to the beliefs of others.
Those who struggle on behalf of the usual idea of religious freedom, freedom from coercion, are to be applauded and supported in every way. The internal religious freedom described here is impossible without a foundation of basic religious freedom in the political sphere. At the same time, as long as some people hold to beliefs in a rigid way, insisting on their superiority to other beliefs we all live in danger of those people gaining political power and imposing their beliefs upon us. Freedom from coercion by others will only be secure when the norm is freedom from internal coercion and from condemnation of others’ beliefs. Freedom of belief requires intelligence and sophistication. It is not easy to believe something passionately and also to believe that those who hold contrary views are also right. To people without considerable philosophical sophistication this sounds completely illogical, impossible, or steeped in vacuous relativism. But it is possible and desirable to embrace contrary beliefs in the dialectical way I’m suggesting. I do not myself have the skills to explain clearly how to do this to those who don’t already know, but others do — maybe they will help.