A humanist perspective on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief by Andrew Copson

Who are humanists?

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.

Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called humanism. Many millions of people in the UK share this way of living and of looking at the world.

Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

The humanist approach is about being free to live a happy and fulfilling life for ourselves and supporting others to do the same. Throughout history, humanists have supported human rights and freedoms and tried to make a positive contribution towards creating a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. With our natural capacities for reason, empathy, and compassion we have the potential to work towards building a better world.

Humanists put human welfare and happiness (and that of other animals that can suffer) at the centre of their ethical decision making and because human happiness depends on human beings being able to be free to makes their own choices and to develop as they wish, have traditionally been strong advocates of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of choice for all – and the protection of these freedoms through legal human rights.

Some people with a humanist approach to life join humanist organisations, which offer: community for like-minded people; non-religious services such as pastoral care, funerals, and weddings; a campaigning platform for social, legal, and political change; and educational resources on humanist beliefs and values.

Online resources



Why do humanists support freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief?

All humanist arguments in support for any values or politics are made on the basis that they will improve human lives. They are based on evidence, experiences, reason, and empathy, and never on tradition, authority, commandments, or faith. The arguments for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief are no different.

‘The freedom argument’

The first main humanist argument for FORB is based on the idea of individual freedom and rooted in a particular understanding of human dignity. It starts from the assumption that, as far as is possible, we want to be free to make up our own minds about important questions, including questions of religion or belief, and that imposing opinions on individuals by state sanction is a violation of this freedom. 

This view of the human being and what are the best conditions for human flourishing is strongly associated with the liberal humanist tradition of philosophy. In 1859 the British writer and statesman John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) published On Liberty, which went on to become a liberal classic. In Chapter One he articulated what became known as the harm principle:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

This political principle is defensible on many grounds but one of Mill’s own justifications was a certain view of human nature. In his essay he says he is addressing ‘the wellbeing of mankind’. His view is that, ‘Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.’

Mill encouraged his readers to value not just experience, but also the discussion and examination of experience, so we can make our choices reflectively, developing ‘the human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and… moral preference.’ He encouraged readers to ask ‘what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive?’ so we can become ‘more valuable’ to ourselves and ‘therefore capable of being more valuable to others’. He believed that ‘human nature is not a machine … but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides’.

All this is only possible with freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, and these freedoms have a correspondingly high value in the social and political thought of any liberal. This value has very strongly informed the argument from freedom that is advanced for secularism.

Humanists think people should have the freedom to develop their ideas and express their opinions, have the opportunity to consider a range of views, and be free to change their minds. This is not possible without FORB.

The fairness argument

The second humanist argument for FORB is that a state with FORB is fairer than the alternatives. This argument starts with the idea that every individual in a society should be treated equally, regardless of their religious or philosophical convictions and not be disadvantaged or privileged because of them. If I am a Muslim in a state that restricts university education to Buddhists, or a humanist in a state that restricts employment rights to Muslims, or a Christian in a state that restricts political office to atheists, I am being treated unfairly. Again, this is an argument strongly associated with the liberal tradition of political thought and relies on an idea in political philosophy known as the ‘social contract’.

At the time of the European Enlightenment, thinkers applied themselves to the question of how government could be justified. ‘Social contract’ thinking emerged as one such justification. In order to avoid disruptive and dangerous anarchy, the argument went, we make an agreement with each other and with government that we will accept our own liberty being curbed to the extent that it is necessary to guarantee the liberty of others. We all benefit from this because it provides a better situation than the unstable alternative. The most famous exposition of this is Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract, which had such great influence on the French revolutionaries.

Whether in the work of Rousseau or elsewhere, the ‘social contract’ is of course not a real contract – none of us is ever asked to sign it or have a personal say in its content. How then, can we be sure that what we are tacitly promising to abide by is fair?

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) came up with a vivid way to test the fairness of the social contract. He suggested a metaphor of a ‘veil of ignorance’. When we decide what a fair society will look like, we have to imagine we are behind this veil of ignorance as to what our own position will be in that society. Behind the veil, as Rawls said, 

…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities…

Starting from this position of ignorance, Rawls says, we will naturally choose principles for organising our society that do not unduly favour any one group on grounds like wealth or talents. The thought experiment gives us a way of deciding what is fair on a social level, grounded in empathy and concern for others as well as for ourselves.

It’s obvious how this argument can be used to support FORB. Behind the veil of ignorance we do not know whether we will be religious or not, and if we will, whether we will be Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, or whatever. In this situation, the state configuration we would naturally prefer is a secular one. That is the only way we know we will not be persecuted and will have the freedom to make our own choices. If we privilege one religious identity or one set of religious beliefs for public funding or preferment, we would run the risk of disadvantaging ourselves if we turn out not to have that identity or those beliefs. If we allow one religion to dictate the common laws of a shared society on abortion or other life issues, we would risk having our own choices denied. If we allow the state to provide religious instruction in its schools of only one type, our children may be indoctrinated against our will.

Added force is given to social contract thinking about secularism by the fact that our religion or worldview – unlike some of our other characteristics – may well change over the course of our lives so that we really cannot be sure from one year to the next what our beliefs will be. A young person with devout Salafi Muslim beliefs may be perfectly content in totalitarian Saudi Arabia, but if she finds herself questioning her youthful beliefs in middle-age, rejecting them, and becoming non-religious, her society will suddenly become a lot less comfortable.

The idea of a ‘social contract’ is most fully expressed in the enlightenment tradition of thought (Rawls himself was a liberal and a humanist) and began as a humanist rejection of the static, divinely-ordained models of the state promoted by Christianity.

The peace argument

Arguments to do with fairness and freedom are not entirely distinctive of any one religious or non-religious tradition and are in principle accessible and persuasive to those of any tradition. Even so, they will not convince everyone. ‘Why should I promote the freedom of the heretic?’ a believer may ask. ‘Her views are a blasphemy and my unshakeable faith tells me I am correct.’ ‘Why should I allow a Muslim to worship freely?’ the atheist communist may ask. ‘Her views are based on fairy tales, empirically falsifiable, and should be eliminated not sponsored.’ Such questions will always come from those who believe that their own ideals should be the ones that rule society, even to the extent of becoming the state’s own aims and ends.

In response to such critics, the humanist case for FORB shifts on to more pragmatic ground. It is the best way to organize a society made up of potentially conflicting groups defined by religion or belief. History tells us how the attempts by various states to prescribe and proscribe religions in Europe led to conflict, war, and gross inhumanity. It tells us how Muslims and Hindus in India were at odds for centuries and the ways in which persecution and oppression fuelled destabilising enmity and hatred. We can all see today that differences of identity and conviction spill over easily into conflict. A political order where coercive and intolerant religion is in authority exacerbates and amplifies that conflict.

Conflict may not mean outright violence. Peace is not just the absence of war. Other conflicts should count in our calculations. The resentment that is fomented when some are treated less favourably than others, discriminated against or privileged in their access to public services, or preferred for state responsibilities, should all count. The prejudice and hostility generated by these circumstances may or may not lead to violence and physical harm, but it certainly leads to a society not at peace and ease with itself. In contrast, a secular state can take the sting out of many potential areas of conflict. As Gandhi said,

What conflict of interest can there be between Hindus and Muslims in the matter of revenue, sanitation, police, justice, or the use of public conveniences? The difference can only be in religious usage and observance with which a secular state has no concern.

This pragmatic argument for FORB is not immune to objection. Some religious believers will never put up with others and waves of violent religious revival will disturb even the fairest of political settlements. FORB for all itself will generate resentment and violence from those who want their own religion or belief to dominate. But in the final analysis, secularists making this argument claim that this is more containable than a war of everyone against everyone else. In general, all parties benefit. To make a war of all against all less likely, we must have a neutral state as the only way to deal with inevitable social diversity.

The democratic argument

Humanists think that, only if there is an open and universally accessible public realm in which people of all different religions can feel welcome, can we all discuss our social views together in shared and equal citizenship. Religious or other unshared beliefs cannot hope to be the basis of a shared understanding between citizens. And if we don’t have that shared understanding, we can’t have democracy. Where the state has a religious character, unshared by many citizens, this will lead to their feeling excluded from the body politic. Even if it is only a nominal religious character, it will at the very best still engender a hypocrisy and doublethink that is at odds with the openness required by democracy. In Norway, the established nature of the church used to entail a requirement that a certain number of Cabinet members must be Lutherans and in the Republic of Ireland the constitution requires that the President must take an oath to God. In both countries, people have performed these roles and conformed when it has been suspected that they were not in fact believers.

This argument about democracy is in a sense a version of the pragmatic argument. Conflict sparked by irreconcilable differences is replaced by a fair and equal democratic participation that can replace violence with debate. At the foundation of this argument is an acknowledgement of the inevitable diversity of beliefs that are found in any society. In theory, it might be fair and peaceful and democratic to have a state without FORB, if every member of society had the same beliefs. Such societies may have existed in the past. Today, however, no society is homogenous in that way.

How does all this affect humanist views of children and education?

Schools in particular have a special importance for all who care about freedom of thought. Every child has the human right to a broad education that will prepare them for modern life. Every child should also be free to learn about the many perspectives and views that exist on all questions in human culture and have their own freedom of thought and conscience respected in line with their growing maturity. Wider society also has an interest in making sure that citizens of the future will be critical thinkers, informed and able to participate in the life of the community.

Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child  says that states, ‘shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion’ and that parents can ‘provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child,’ but it does not say that the state has an obligation to provide this on the parents’ behalf. 

Humanists think that instead education in schools should be objective and balanced, with no religious instruction, and that religions and non-religious worldviews should all be taught in schools. This will help to safeguard children’s right to FORB by ensuring they have the opportunity to consider a range of values and perspectives.