Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom of Belief?

What is the role of religion in society today? And what is the role of belief? I’ve pondered upon these questions the last few years. Here are some thoughts I’ve had.

1st Amendment

Researchers have consistently shown that the percentage of active participants in religion in the US is in decline; that’s not surprising to anyone.

I have wondered if this change will perhaps precipitate a discussion about the meaning of the establishment religion clause of the 1st of Amendment of the US Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment 1

What is the purpose of religion in today’s society? Is it a force for good, or for ill? Should religion be protected any longer?

Religion vs Belief

I’m not a linguist, but I suspect there have been changes in the meaning of the word religion since the constitution was written. For purposes of this article, I don’t think it is important to understand what exactly the authors of the constitution meant then. But I think we can gain insight by contrasting religion with belief.

What if, instead of the word religion, the amendment had used the term “belief?” “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of belief, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

To my mind, that seems to fit very well with all the other elements expressed in that amendment.

Our Collective Search for Truth

Some today would suggest our society should have progressed beyond the need for belief. We should be able, with all the knowledge in the world today, to deal with facts, and not beliefs. And certainly the explosion in knowledge since the writing of the constitution supports much more reliance upon proven facts.

It is difficult to argue that fact and knowledge shouldn’t transcend belief. At the bottom of all of our collective work should be a search for the truth. Truth is immutable. It is not impacted by our beliefs. Our desire for something different from the truth will not serve us well, either individually or collectively over time.

Scientific Method

But I’m convinced the world of facts is much smaller than many in our modern society believe that it is. I am sure there are many ways to define fact, but if I narrow my definition to one sense to make my case, let’s just consider how few facts are proved by the scientific method.

The scientific method requires controlling variables in whatever phenomenon is being evaluated. This is not an easy thing to do. So much of life is impacted by scores of things, from what we ate, to how much sleep we’ve had, to our cultural background, and our age and life experiences.

This is an interesting article on this point “Science as Storytelling” by David A. Grandy Author Barry R. Bickmore two individuals deeply trained in the scientific method from BYU Studies, a peer reviewed scholarly journal. They point out that scientific facts of a few decades ago are in many ways outdated; that truth as defined by the scientific method changes frequently.

This does not mean everything changes, and there is no way to know the truth. My point is that a great deal of your conscious actions today will not be informed by scientifically proven facts: they will be based upon your beliefs.

Importance of Belief

One example of this point is to ask the question how would one construct a scientific experiment, or even a set of experiments, that would prove this statement from the formative document of the United States of America celebrated at the founding of the government:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence: A Transcription from the US Archives.

I believe this statement to be true; but I cannot conceive of a method to prove it. Controlling all the variables that distinguish each of us to prove that we are equal in a fundamental way is impossible. This is a statement of belief; it is not a proven fact.

If this statement cannot be proven scientifically–this statement that is so fundamental to our form of government–then is not our government itself formed on the basis of belief, our collective belief?

A Hypothesis is a Belief

In my religious tradition, I was taught that faith is a principle of action. Faith is belief in something that cannot be proved empirically to such an extent that for the person it is as if it true, and such a belief compels them to act as if it is true.

It is interesting to me consider that the act of conducting an experiment in the scientific method begins with a belief, a belief strong enough that something might be true that it produces energy enough to investigate it more deeply. That belief is a hypothesis, the beginning of the scientific method. A hypothesis is a statement of a belief, or something that may be possible.

Recognition of Belief

This point about belief is critical to our understanding of the First Amendment, and continued effectiveness of a civil society. When we recognize how much belief we deal with, it changes the nature of our speech–a very important point which follows belief in the 1st Amendment. When dealing with beliefs, we are more open to new inputs, our communication moves towards one of persuasion, less confrontation. Respect is maintained, and even has a chance to grow through greater understanding.

Belief is, and will continue to be, a huge factor in everyone’s behavior. Our government cannot change that; our government is built upon respecting it. Our society will function more effectively if we as citizens recognize and respect that fact as well. Each of us should consider in any interaction with the potential for conflict how much of what we think we know is really our beliefs.

Header Graphic Source Detail of Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Studies (2007 and 2014). Aggregated Pew Research Center political surveys conducted 2009-July 2019 on the telephone.  “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace”  © Pew Research Center 2019 
Header Graphic Source

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