2014 Sir John Graham Lecture – When Freedoms Collide from Maxim Institute on Vimeo.


Should pacifists be forced to go to war? Should a parent be forced to allow medical treatment for their child that goes against their religious beliefs? Should a woman be allowed to wear a face veil in public? Should an employer who respects the human embryo as equal in dignity to any other human being have to provide abortifacient birth control for female employees? Should a doctor have to refer a patient who wants an abortion or euthanasia to another doctor who will oblige, rather than simply decline the request?

These familiar dilemmas were touched on in an address by George Mason University law professor Helen Alvare in Auckland, New Zealand, recently. “When Freedoms Collide” surveyed the reasons why freedom of conscience has become a major issue in free societies – reasons ranging from the intrusion of government regulation into “fraught” areas of life to the growth of human rights consciousness and the portrayal of religion as irrational by secularist movements.

Professor Alvare aimed to give people a framework for assessing competing claims about freedom and  arguments for protecting and maximising freedom of conscience. Given that this issue most often boils down to religious freedom, her arguments on that score are particularly helpful. Here are four of them:

The search for meaning. Human happiness and freedom still depend upon people being able to search for ultimate meaning and then to live their life in accordance with what they find. There is interesting neurological evidence of this, that people are hardwired to seek meaning, there’s global, historical evidence of people doing just that.

Further, do we really want to hobble adults’ capacity to evaluate things, to decide about right and wrong, to order their lives accordingly? Is this not a basic human task for achieving adult identity? Is it not a basic task for achieving a modern society?

If not religious answers, then whose? A second connected argument states that I think it could be considered objectively unreasonable in light of world history and people doing this but also in light of the world as we find it, as a beautiful, mysterious, sometimes terrifying. But perhaps, most importantly, a world not made by you and me or ordered by us, a world in which you and I were not self-made – there was a time when we did not exist and there is a time when we will no longer exist. In such a world is it really reasonable to impede or close off ultimate answers or living in conformity with ultimate answers? Questions about the meaning of my own life, of relationship, about our life together in community?

There is also the fact that if we don’t leave people free to pursue these questions, to judge to order their lives in integrity, what will be left to supply their system of meaning? The majority view, which has been proved wrong now and again? The predilections of the rich and the powerful, of the government in power? Are we satisfied to leave to the government control over even natural, pre-governmental institutions like the family, like worshipping communities? Isn’t there an important sense in which protecting individuals ability to interact with the infinite, and to dialogue there, is a crucial protection against tyranny?

Religious values and the common good. Interesting new literature emerging from an institute at Georgetown and has now taken on a life of its own – Religious Freedom and Business.org – has been demonstrating causal links between religious freedom and social peace, between religious freedom and women’s freedom, between religious freedom and freedom of the press and economic prosperity, increased volunteering, and family stability and social cohesion.

Religion’s track record. The fourth argument is the pretty impressive track record that communities of conscience have built up in certain human rights arenas, even movements that don’t command a lot of people at any given time, have gone on to exert corrective influences and sometimes to drag whole countries in the right direction.

Here Professor Alvare referred to the influence of Sister Helen Prejean against capital punishment, the movement for civil rights, for pacifism, anti-slavery, civil rights movements, disability rights, those opposing discrimination against LGBT persons – all of which had started small “but dragged society in the right direction.”

And finally, an examination of conscience:

If you’re someone who desires generous conscience protection I think you have to own up to the fact that you are not going to get a very good hearing or have much success unless you better communicate with people what it is you share with the wider community. What are the goods and goals you have in common? Maybe you just want to get there in a different way.

And maybe you’re going to have to step up and prove with experiences elsewhere, or with reason or with data that your argument will not provoke anarchy or chaos. Of course, if you are going to get these arguments out it means the media, the government has to be open to these kinds of associations and communications [which is often not the case].

Communities of conscience will also have to demonstrate integrity in their own affairs. They need to be able to offer evidence that their preferred behaviour will contribute to human flourishing, that it is for the common good.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet