Just before leaving office, a law signed by President Obama explicitly extended freedom of religion to non-religious people. Obama Signs New Religious Freedom Act Protecting Atheists, reports Tyler O’Neil for PJ Media. The subheading of O’Neil’s article states, "Non-theists are now recognized as a protected class."
The Act supplements the 1998 Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Tyler reports:
The new version restates America's commitment to freedom of conscience abroad, and strengthens existing law in a few direct ways. It directs the president to sanction individuals who carry out or order religious restrictions, it instructs the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to report to the secretary of State, and it requires foreign service officers to be trained in the "strategic value of international religious freedom.
But perhaps the most eye-catching part of the updated legislation is the explicit guarantees of religious freedom granted to non-believers.
The "freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs, and the right not to profess or practice any religion," the updated act now states.
It’s refreshing to see America firmly standing up for its principles. Encouragingly, the Act received broad approval. “Both Christians and atheists praised this change,” O’Neil reports. And its certainly appropriate for America to non-sacrificially promote and stand up for these principles as a matter of international policy. But I have a few qualms. As O’Neil reports:
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the non-religious American Humanist Association (AHA), praised this "historic legislation," and said his organization "looks forward to working with the US Department of State to ensure religious liberty for non-theists and religious minorities abroad."
"That non-theists are now recognized as a protected class is a significant step toward full acceptance and inclusion for non-religious individuals, who are still far too often stigmatized and persecuted around the world," Speckhardt added.
The emphasis is mine. In a country founded on the principle of unalienable individual rights protected equally and at all times under the law—political equality—there is something inherently wrong with the idea of a “protected class.” It implies that some people are “more equal than others.” It is thoroughly collectivistic. Given that the heart and soul of Americanism is individualism, the protection of classes (groups) rather than individuals is an un-American idea.
Despite the wording of the First Amendment, which specifically singles out religion for protection, the spirit of the First Amendment is to protect freedom of conscience. The Founders used conscience and religion interchangeably. Based on the original social compact as stated in the Declaration of Independence, American constitution and law presupposes the primacy of personal liberty based on unalienable individual rights as the starting point of law and politics. It is not necessary to single out specific “classes.” It is only necessary to protect individuals—all individuals, regardless of group characteristics—equally and at all times.
I also think O’Neil’s phrase about the new law “explicitly extending religious freedom protections to atheists and other non-believers” needs elaboration. Being an atheist is not just about being against religion or a non-believer in religion. Atheism is not a belief system. It’s not a philosophy. Religious freedom—that is, freedom of conscience—is about living by your own ideas, morals, and philosophy, not merely rejecting the idea of a God. I have encountered religionists who assume that not having a religion means not believing in any guiding principles. But being an atheist does not automatically make one a non-believer. For example, I am an Objectivist, the philosophy of reason and individualism developed by philosopher Ayn Rand. It’s a guide to life based on well-developed and reality-based principles. It differs from religion in several key aspects. Take morality. Whereas religion holds that morality is derived from God as a kind of unchallengeable dogma as espoused in sacred texts by people who claim to speak for God, Objectivism holds that morality is science, with proper moral principles derived from a study of the facts of human nature and man’s relation to broader nature. .Religious freedom is not just the freedom to reject religion, important as that is; it’s about freedom of conscience. I am an atheist. But I am primarily a believer in Objectivism.
The bill Obama signed makes a clear statement that religious freedom is not just about freedom of religion. It’s about protecting people from religion. That’s a good thing. Whether the term “protected class” appears in the text of the Act or is Speckhardt’s interpretation, we’ve got to get away from the growing practice of ascribing rights protections to groups—a practice encouraged by the proliferation of anti-discrimination laws targeted at the private sector. Only individuals, not groups, have rights.
Philosophy: Who Needs It—Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics—Ayn Rand