Libraries & Spaces
The Right to Unbelief 1
John Courtney Murray, S.J.
In 1962, a French translation of Murray's 1945: "Religious Liberty: The Ethical Argument" was published in seven issues of the Montreal-based Relations.2 The appearance of these translations leaves several open questions. By 1962 Murray had, of course, moved at least three steps beyond his 1945 argument,3 and the Council was just warming up to a full scale discussion of religious liberty. Who initiated this resurrection of Murray's earlier (tolerance) argument, and why, appears to be lost to us.
Accompanying the French version of "The Ethical Argument" was a further brief article, under Murray's name, entitled "Le droit a l'incroyance." This was not taken from the preliminary argument that Murray had sent to Mooney (1945e), nor is there any record in the Murray Archives of its English original, (although the French versions can be found there, indicating Murray's awareness of its publication). How and from whom Relations acquired it remains an open question.
Yet, on the basis of internal evidence the attribution of this article to Murray seems certain. "Le droit" operates within the premises of a natural law. It argues against any claim for immunity in the face of the state's curtailment of atheistic propagandizing. Murray was insisting in 1945 that a theoretical (philosophical) consensus was necessary for post-war international reconstruction. One necessary premise of that consensus was belief in God. In principle, though not pragmatically, the atheist had no valid claim to participation in that conversationEditor.
Those who attempt to set up a declaration of human rights will quite naturally inscribe there the right to freedom of religion, although it may be easier to praise religious freedom than to describe it, and easier further to describe it than to define it. One might proclaim that, in the name of reason and of conscience, the individual enjoys the right to believe in God, to render adoration to him, to live, to act according to his belief, to express it, to propagate it, to raise his children in it, to set boundaries for himself where, if he wants, he can abjure and change his religion.
Further, one could claim that a list of human rights also ought to include the right to not believe in God, and, consequently, the right to deny all religion, to act, to speak or persuade, to educate, and to associate in a manner conformable to this unbelief and to this atheism.
It would appear, then, that in the name of reason and of conscience, the right to believe and the right to not believe, are to be both legitimated, and that, in a fully adult democracy, the State not only will never make a law establishing or interdicting a religion, but that the law itself, as the "midday of justice" will extend the bounty of its impartiality as much on antireligious propaganda as on religious propaganda. The right to work for religion would imply the right to not work for religion; and the right of promoting it, the right of combating it.
Such is the paradox of tolerance in the heart of the entirely free city.
To demand thus without reserve, as rights of the individual and of associations, the right to unbelief and to atheism, is to sow a grave spiritual confusion, all the more inasmuch as one appears to measure these rights on the same footing as the rights of the true religious conscience. What principle might be formulated to justify this need of equality? None. In the fashion in which the problem is posed, it must be believed that the rights to unbelief and to atheism derive, in the same manner, from reason and from conscience as do other rights with which they would go as equals. Reason and conscience are taken in a very large sense, evidently. Far from being opposed to divine revelation, reason and conscience in the case of unbelief signify, as in the case of belief, a response of man to the call of God. But it is here an aberration. It is impossible that unbelief and belief would be equally legitimate human responses to the revelation of God, and that the voice of human reason and conscience would demand both atheistic zeal and religious zeal of the human person. To affirm that the human being, facing God and the moral law, has the right of not believing and of refusing obedience, is to deny that there is a God and a moral
law. By the voice of conscience, the entire question of human rights does not hold up.
But can one not claim that unbelief and atheism have rights which can prevail upon the authority of the State? Quite certainly the conscience of the atheist, as erroneous as it may be, remains an inviolable sanctuary against all State sponsored intrusions or constraints. The atheist has the right to the private practice of atheism. This right, however, is uniquely founded on the law which limits the authority of the State to its proper end which is the common good of the human person.4
Let us push further. Has the atheist the right of diffusing his atheism within society by propaganda, teaching, and group activity? And does the State find itself in the moral obligation of abstaining from all repressive measures in his regard? Such a position would be intolerable. It would be equivalent to denying that the State has a moral function as well as a material function. To affirm that the State has a need to regard with equal satisfaction the public movements in favor of religion and morality, and the public movements which work to destroy them, is equivalent to saying that religion and morality are in no way relevant to the common good of society. It would follow from this that they are indifferent matters to the State.
Now, there is no one of sense in the world who could accept this conclusion. Ethics has always taught and experience confirmed as evident that the negation of God and of the moral law, the diffusion of anti-religious and anti-moral ideas are the most dangerous enemies of the social order. They tend to corrupt the virtue of the citizen in which repose, in the first place, the common good of society. They tend likewise to undermine the material and social conditions favorable to the practice of virtue and indispensable to the pursuit of the temporal common good. The freedom of religion is a political problem of immense implications. Unless you regulate the problem and regulate
it well, you incite a grave disorder in the temporal order, as is evident in past and present history.
One cannot claim, then, that the State, to which falls the obligation of protecting the good order (even its moral values) of society, would leave the sphere of its mandate, if it would suppressnot certainly with an arbitrary violence but by the application of the law (by due process of law)the public propaganda and teaching which strives to praise unbelief in God and in the moral law. And there exists no law which the atheist can invoke and which would confer on him the "rights" contrary to the legitimate rights of the State. In virtue of what would he be able to cry injustice if one restricted his plot of propaganda? Surely he can only plead that his reason and his conscience command him to similar initiatives because his reason and his conscience are clearly in error. And they cannot then be a source of valid juridical rights.
One must add here that if one claims as legitimate the right for the atheist to propagate his ideas, this claim is nonsense when one maintains at the same time that the State itself is responsible before the moral law and before God. Certainly, God and the moral law forbid open attacks against the foundations of religion and law. Does then the citizen not have the right to demand of the State that it conform to the law? Can he not insist, since it is within the limits of its mandate, that the State fulfill its strict obligation and, by the appropriate juridical means, place a restraint on the public initiatives which violate that law?5 If such are the rights of the citizen and such are the
obligations of the State, they cannot be annulled by the fictitious rights of atheism.
Here, in very simply terms and in the point of view of ethics, the enunciated paradox is brought to an end.
In fact, there exists only one reason which can justify atheistic propaganda. And that reason is not founded in a moral right but on the legitimate considerations of practical order (the ground, not of moral right, but of legitimate expediency).
Political experience demonstrates, in effect, that, in our modern societies, the censure of the State and the measures of police are bad means of assuring the repression of ideas and activities, even those which work to sap the foundations of the common life. The worst evils which follow this type of repression are more grave than the evils one seeks to eliminate. In this conjunction, a government could not prefer to exercise its right to repress atheistic propaganda.
In our day and in my view, the general pattern ought to follow this practice. However, the motive guiding this decision does not derive from some moral obligation to respect the rights of atheism. No one can thus disarm a society in the face of its enemies. Its unique motive is that the State ought to pursue the common good by choosing between various political methods (none of which are without risk nor evil) that method which in fact is the most appropriate to the circumstances.
For a number of reasons, today, the defense of religion and morality ought to return, in large part, not to repressive measures of government, but to the pressure of the common conscience and of public opinion. I say "in large part" because I do not intend to allow the belief that the State ought to endorse a "neutrality" impossible in fact and immoral in obligation. The State has a positive obligation in regard to religion and morality. The direction stamped by its influence and its action ought always to tend toward their positive support. But the problem (precisely which we have addressed here) is limited to the repression of atheistic propaganda.
In order to avoid all unintended misunderstanding, let us remark yet one more time that I have treated this subject only from the point of view of morality and of natural law. This point of view imposes itself for an initial critical study of these matters. It is of sovereign importance, in this entire matter of religious liberty, to have clear and exact ideas. Such a critical study is imperative today since there is afoot a manner of treating the problem that presupposes, even from the point of view of morality and natural law, that religious liberty is unique and particular, a liberty which subsists by itself and for
itself, absolutely untouchable and absolutely valid, when even its demands trouble the good order of society.6 This separatist tendency seems to be colored by a Protestant dogma: that of the absolutism of private conscience.
A clear and exact idea of human rights requires that unbeliever and believers ascend to the realm of principle, and to the end of political society, and to the source of all authority among us. How can we move to erect a list of human rights, if we do not even know why these are rights?
(1)Editor Note: Originally published as 1962a: "Le droit a l'incroyance" (Relations (Montreal) 22 (Avril 1962): 91–92).
(2)Editor Note: See the entry for Murray 1945e for information on the Relation publication.
(3)Editor Note: For my own outline of the stages of Murray's religious liberty argument, see pages 27–36 of the "General Introduction" to Murray, 1993: Religious Liberty.
(4)Editor Note: Murray had not yet restricted the state to control over public order, not the common good. That distinction firmly entered his argument in 1951 in a heated exchange with Francis J. Connell and Joseph C. Fenton of Catholic University (see 1951b: "The Problem of `The Religion of the State'" and 1952b: "For the Freedom and Transcendence of the Church").
The following paragraph extols the moral function of the State. By 1964 Murray could rejoice that Pius XII had abandoned Leo XIII's moral state for the contemporary notion of the state as juridical (1964e, 65 [1993, 166]).
"We acknowledge and deeply respect the impulse to seek truth implanted in human nature. We acknowledge, too, your moral obligation to conform your life to truth's demands. But, sorry to say, we judge you to be in error. For in the sphere of religion we possess objective truth. More than that, in this society we represent the common good as well as religious truthin fact religious truth is an integral part of the common good. In your private and in your family life, therefore, you may lawfully act according to your errors. However, we acknowledge no duty on our part to refrain from coercion in your regard when in the public life of society, which is our concern, you set about introducing your false forms of worship or spreading your errors. Continue, then, your search for truth until you find itwe possess itso that you may be able to act in public in keeping with it."
(5)Editor Note: In Murray's last published article on the foundations for religious freedom, he imagines the following monologue by the state as a counter to Dignitatis' principal argument that religious freedom is founded in the obligation to seek the truth:
"We acknowledge and deeply respect the impulse to seek truth implanted in human nature. We acknowledge, too, your moral obligation to conform your life to truth's demands. But, sorry to say, we judge you to be in error. For in the sphere of religion we possess objective truth. More than that, in this society we represent the common good as well as religious truth—in fact religious truth is an integral part of the common good. In your private and in your family life, therefore, you may lawfully act according to your errors. However, we acknowledge no duty on our part to refrain from coercion in your regard when in the public life of society, which is our concern, you set about introducing your false forms of worship or spreading your errors. Continue, then, your search for truth until you find it—we possess it—so that you may be able to act in public in keeping with it."
Is this proclamation imaginary? Hardly! (1993: Religious Liberty, 235).
(6)Editor Note: In the mid- to late-1940s, any claim that religious liberty "subsists by itself and for itself" indicated to Murray a hidden theological underpinning. In his own manner of arguing, only the Roman Catholic Church could claim a right to religious freedom that had a source distinct from all other natural rights, or, in the terminology of the time, a sui generis right. The church's right was grounded in the redemptive will, not the creative will, of God. This led Murray to mistake any Protestant assertion that the American people conferred special and distinct importance on religious freedom as an appeal to the theological premise that all churches stood equally as instruments of God's creative will. For this exchange, see 1945a, 1946d, 1948b, 1949a. Also of interest, although not discussed here, is his response to Paul Blanchard's Protestant support (1951a).