Over at The Claremont Institute, Hadley Arkes considers whether religious freedom is a “natural right.” His exploration of the question is lengthy and complex and, as with everything Prof. Arkes writes, worthy of serious consideration. Here is his conclusion:

It may be jarring in some quarters to say it, but it is eminently reasonable to be a theist, and quite as reasonable to understand that not everything done in the name of religion and theism is reasonable and defensible. What else explains the refusal of the law to allow a religious exemption from laws on homicide or theft or evading the laws on child labor or paying social security taxes? But the deeper truth reveals itself when we recognize that the Catholic church has been making natural law arguments in the public arena even as the bishops invoke religious freedom. The bishops invoke the claims of religion, but the uncomfortable truth is that the Church and its allies among Protestants and Jews have become the main sanctuaries for preserving the tradition of moral truths in a society in which the currents of relativism have eroded the academy, the media, and the professions. The Church and the religious stand contra mundum today, and appear so much at odds with the world, not because they, more than others, exalt “beliefs,” but because they have become the last redoubt for the insistent claims of reason. Among our major institutions they have become the main force in declaring publicly the understanding of those moral truths and natural rights that underlay this constitutional order from the beginning.

Without that underlying moral understanding and the doctrines of natural law, it would be impossible to explain a regime in which a system of law is built upon a body of first principles forming a fundamental law (or a “constitution”). Without that accompanying faith it would be hard to explain why we seem to think that human beings, wherever we find them, will have an equal claim to our sympathy and respect; that they are made in the image of something higher; that they are creatures of reason who deserve to be ruled with the rendering reasons for the laws imposed on them. Without all of that, it becomes harder to explain why we can accord to them the standing of “bearers of rights” flowing to them by nature. In short, then, without the moral understanding sustained now mainly by the religious, it would be hard to take seriously the notion that there are natural rights that command our respect because they are grounded in truths about “the human person.” That is the case for religion as a natural right, and the measure of our desperation is that, in the current state of our public life, the bishops find the gravest test of their preparation and learning as they try to explain the matter to their own public in a post-literate age.

(Via: Mirror of Justice)

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  • Robert Landbeck

    Natural law as the basis of morality and ‘right’ or rights or first principles is a delusional conception that attempts to convey a view of human nature that has not only failed but which history continues to erode. The environmental crisis founded upon a gross materialism virtually demolishes the idea that our species is ‘spiritual.’ As for morality, until our knowledge base reaches something called ‘sustainability’ that claim is derisory. The only positive spin one can put on a species, rooted in a evolutionary past is that we continue to be ‘aspirational’ for the unrealized Dream of a more rational, more just, a greener and peaceful planet and there may yet be some potential there for progress.
    http://www.energon.org.uk

    • Roger McKinney

      If man is the accidental product of evolution, then no morality exists. Aspirations are the delusion. Survival of the fittest is all that matters, and that doesn’t matter much.