Religious Liberty for the Non-Religious

By Gerry Schulze, J.D. Gerry is an ordained minister in the Church of the Subgenius, a freethinker, and a polyglot. He practices law in Little Rock, Arkansas, and has successfully litigated lawsuits revolving around the separation of church and state.


I was asked to provide the perspective of a non-believer on the topic of religious liberty.  Although I have no religion,[1] I am as entitled to religious liberty as any other American.  I understand why religious people, with sincerely held religious beliefs, can ask in good faith what a non-believer wants in the way of religious liberty.  It seems somewhat self-contradictory.   Yet non-religious people like me ask for – and sometimes demand – the protection of religious liberty.

I can, of course, speak for only one non-religious person: myself.  Those of us without religious faith have no dogma, no catechism, no holy book, and no leaders who can speak with spiritual authority for the community.  Non-religious people come from many different perspectives and self-identify as atheists, agnostics, humanists, and in other ways.  The difference between these groups is never clear and is the subject of endless and fruitless discussion.  Personally, I self-identify as “not religious.”  I do not object when someone identifies me as “atheist” or “agnostic,” as I meet some common definitions of either term, but I believe my belief system is best described as the absence of religious faith.

What is an “atheist”?  According to a surprising study by the Pew Research Center, fourteen percent of self-described atheists also affirm belief in a God or a universal spirit.[2]  Likewise, far more Americans say that they don’t believe in a God than self-identify as atheist.[3]  So about all we can say about an “atheist” is that there’s a roughly eighty-six percent chance that he or she doesn’t believe in God.

It should go without saying—but it doesn’t so I’ll say it—that nonbelievers are neither Pagans nor Satanists.  I only mention this because of how often Christians confuse atheists with Pagans or Satanists.  Atheists—or at least eighty-six percent of us—don’t believe in the God and Goddess, don’t believe in other Gods, and don’t think there was a Satan.

Contrary to the contention of many believers that there can be no morality without God, I have a strong, often unbending moral code.  It’s just not enforced by a fear that there is a God who will punish me for violating it.  I’m not worried about an afterlife because I don’t think there is one.  But I don’t need God to punish me for my moral transgressions.  My conscience is quite capable of standing in for any God in that regard.  I acknowledge that I would be a sinner if there were any such thing as sin.  My conscience lets me know it.  My moral system generally coincides with the moral systems of believers, with a few exceptions and variations.  I see no vice of any kind or version of sexual conduct among consenting adults, and I see no virtue in believing things without evidence.  As to stealing, lying, killing, maiming, defrauding, and the like, my moral system is identical to that of most believers.  “Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston, the executive director of the Disciples Center for Public Witness, feels that, “On a practical level, secular humanists affirm many of the same ethical principles as progressive people of faith.”[4]

Legally, the general principle of religious liberty is found in the United States Constitution.  The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The Fourteenth Amendment provides that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”  The incorporation of the protections of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments has a long and complicated history, and the process is not complete even yet.  But United States Supreme Court decisions recognizing the incorporation of the establishment clause[5] and the free exercise clause[6] were among the earliest decisions extending the protections of the Bill of Rights to actions of the states.

Courts have struggled, and will always struggle, to apply these general principles to the innumerable fact situations that can arise because of the innumerable different religious traditions.  There are many different kinds of sincerely held religious beliefs that we have some obligation to accommodate if we can.  For example, some people object to working on the Sabbath.  And we must remember that the Sabbath is not the same day to everyone.  The Christian majority, for the most part, celebrates the Sabbath on Sunday, while the Jewish tradition[7] and Seventh Day Adventists[8] celebrate the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.   The nature of the celebration of the Sabbath varies greatly from tradition to tradition.  For some people, however, the restriction on performing work on the Sabbath is taken very seriously.  Failure of an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs about working on the Sabbath can lead to charges of religious discrimination.[9]  The concept of a day of rest is not unique to the faithful.  “Some nonreligious people also value a day of rest as a hedge against the pace and demands of modern life.”[10]  But the context is different.  No doctrine requires the nonreligious to enjoy a day of rest.

Some religious traditions require adherents to dress in a certain way.  Recently, the United States Supreme Court allowed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to bring suit on behalf of a Muslim woman had a right to sue Abercrombie and Fitch for enforcing a dress code that would have prohibited her from wearing a headscarf on the job, as her religion required.[11]

Jehovah’s Witnesses often feature prominently in religious discrimination litigation.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently resolved a suit involving a Jehovah’s Witness’s refusal to raise the United States flag.  The employer entered into a consent decree and agreed to make reasonable accommodations.[12]

Most people in this country self-identify as Christian and practice either Christianity or ceremonial Deism.  Member of the majority seldom encounter the problems faced by members of religious minorities.  But that does not mean that they cannot understand the problems or sympathize with the religious minorities.  I can ask how you would feel if we opened city council meetings with the short affirmation that “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”[13] or “An it harm none do as ye will.”[14]  Can you truly deny that you would feel somewhat excluded?  What if you were asked to violate a ceremonial tenet of your faith?  How you would feel if some Italo-Roman Neopagans were to sacrifice a goat to Mercury and then offer you a bite.[15]  Would you not feel that you were being asked to violate the sacred tenets of your faith?

It is easy to understand how requiring individuals to perform certain acts might conflict with the obligations of their faith.  It is much more difficult to understand how to accommodate those religious feelings without adversely impacting others.  In the employment context, when a religious person’s sincerely held objection to working on the Sabbath entitles him or her to a day off, some other non-religious employee must take that employee’s place.  But there is a clear analytical difference between the concerns of people who have religious scruples against performing particular actions and the concerns of people who lack any religious concerns at all.  I cannot say, in good faith, that my religious belief requires me to wear any particular clothing, refrain from work on any particular day, or raise the flag of my country.  I wouldn’t even mind eating meat sacrificed to idols since I don’t think idols are real.  Even when it comes to actions that conflict with my lack of religious belief, such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance as modified—to my mind unconstitutionally—in 1954, I have no moral scruple against doing so, except to the extent that I might be actually misleading someone.[16]

I personally have little objection to the quotidian ceremonial deism we experience in everyday life.  It does not bother me to hear the clerk of a court intone “God save this honorable court,” so long as I’m not expected to join in the affirmation.  It really doesn’t bother me that the slogan, “In God we Trust” is printed on my money, although it seems to me that if I did believe in God I would be quite upset about this self-serving lie.  A nation that trusts in God wouldn’t find it necessary to spend more than the next ten countries combined on armaments, or to lead the world in the percentage of our citizens we imprison.  I’ve read the New Testament numerous times.  From that study, it seems obvious to me that a nation that trusted in Jesus’s Father would never tolerate the level of poverty, homelessness, and starvation that we accept as inevitable in 21st Century America.  But I don’t think there’s a God to be offended by this deity-slandering fabrication, so I don’t have to worry about it.

But what I do object to is not being treated as an equal.  I refuse to be a second-class citizen in the country I was born in.  Ceremonial deism is fine, and I don’t begrudge my fellow citizens the few seconds they want to honor their God, but I will not be left out of the conversation.  If there is a public space for speaking, I demand an equal right to be heard.

Sometimes this means that I will offend people.  I am fully aware that the mere expression of my lack of faith is offensive to some people.  I regret that, but ultimately I cannot remain silent just because there will be some people who do not like what I say.  I understand that sometimes nonbelievers, like believers, can be insensitive and occasionally innocently ignorant.  I recognize I may have gone over the line in anger from time to time and for this,  I apologize.  But I will not apologize for my perspective on religion, which is, I guarantee you, every bit as sincerely and deeply held as any religious belief you can imagine.  Free speech is as sacred to me as Jesus or Allah is to someone else.

Nonbelievers argue endlessly about whether we should make snide remarks about Jesus or draw pictures of Muhammad.  I think Jesus—or whoever wrote his material—was an interesting and sincere, if somewhat megalomaniacal and uncompromising, moral philosopher.  It’s his followers who have earned the ridicule. I have no idea what Muhammad looked like, and neither do the people trying to draw pictures of him.  Since so-called Muhammad cartoons are usually just racist caricatures of modern Middle-Easterners, I find those drawings not funny.  I don’t think we should offend people simply to be offensive.  That conscience I mentioned earlier reminds me of that when I go too far in criticizing believers.  But I will continue to fight against any attempt to restrict my right to go too far.

Nonbelievers have religious rights even though we don’t have religious rites.  Ultimately, by standing up with us to protect our freedom, you are protecting your own.


[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I am a minister in the Church of the Subgenius, registered as a minister with the Pulaski County Circuit Clerk for purposes of performing secular ceremonies.  No faith in the supernatural is required for membership.  Just send your $35.00 to “Bob.”  www.subgenius.com.  “Eternal Salvation or Triple your Money Back.”

[2] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/23/5-facts-about-atheists/

[3] Id.

[4] Speckhardt, Roy. “Hey Atheists: You’ve Got a Friend (Posted 2013-02-01 16:49:58) ; Do Atheists Have More Religious Friends Than They Realize?.” The Washington Post. 2013. HighBeam Research. (June 17, 2015). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-34197711.html

[5]  Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)

[6]  Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940)

[7] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/633659/jewish/What-Is-Shabbat.htm

[8] http://www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/documents/article/go/0/sabbath-observance/

[9] http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/litigation/selected/religious_discrimination_facts.cfm

[10] Christopher D. Ringwald, A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians, and Muslims Find Faith, Freedom, and Joy on the Sabbath (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 11.

[11] Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 575 U.S. ___ (2015).

[12] http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/litigation/selected/religious_discrimination_facts.cfm

[13] The Muslim Shahada

[14] The Wiccan Rede

[15] Christians are admonished to abstain from food sacrificed to idols.  Acts 15:29

[16] Actually, I ordinarily simply remain silent during the second or two it takes my compatriots to intone, “under God.”