Freedom of religion seems to be a fundamental human right in societies that we consider to be enlightened, democratic and, well, free. I don't know too many people who wish to change that fundamental right. I've never actually met another atheist or agnostic who thinks that people should not have the right to whatever religious belief they wish, so long as that belief does not infringe on others' rights. In theory, this fundamental freedom is a wonderful idea and it should be protected and preserved. But, the key component of that right that so often seems to become eroded and misunderstood (perhaps deliberately so) by those who have particular religious beliefs, is that this right to believe whatever you wish is not a right to bring it into the public domain as much as you wish. There are limits. Anyone with the least ability to think outside their own religion must agree with the key phrase "so long as that belief does not infringe on others' rights." How many American Christians would actually support the rights of Muslims to bring Sharia law into the government of the United States. How many Muslims would support the rights of Jews to start sacrificing animals on the piece of ground under the Dome of the Rock? No, we don't even need to examine extremes to understand that none of us want others' religions shoved in our faces, and we especially don't want practices that infringe on our human rights to be protected by someone else's right to religious freedom. Surely we can all agree on that?
So, what's the problem? Fundamentally the problem is that the religious too often don't seem to understand when they themselves are putting others in that position. It is easy to recognize when someone else is imposing their religion on you or when their religion is too much "in your face." Just think of the uproar in the U.S. relatively recently over the mosque at ground zero issue. If you are a Christian, it is easy to understand the offensiveness of Islam being "shoved in your face" when you don't want it. It is easy to react to the offensiveness of another religion being shoved into government policy. But, is it so easy to recognize when you do that yourself? Why can Christians not understand that issues like having the ten commandments inscribed on public buildings is as offensive as having a mosque built, not at ground zero, but within a public government building?
In the past few weeks I have been asked several times if I am a Christian or a born-again Christian. [I always ponder the difference and whether the questioner even knows the difference. I'm always tempted to say, yes I am a Christian, since in some ways I am culturally a Christian. In the middle east, many people are categorized as Christian, Muslim, Jew, regardless of their actual practicing religious beliefs. This harks back to the classic joke about Northern Ireland in which a hypothetical Irish man is asked whether he is Catholic or Protestant. When he replies that he is an atheist, he is asked: "But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?". I love that little joke because it has so much truth to it. The culture of religion is so important in some places that we need to know how to categorize someone. But I digress. I am certainly not a born-again Christian.] Sometimes this question has been raised in the actual workplace. Hard to believe I know. Of course, I have the right to refuse to answer the question, but that normally doesn't go over very well. People seem to need to know what religion you belong to. They need to know that you have heard the "good news" of the gospel so that they can rest assured that they didn't miss a proselytizing opportunity.
In some countries, such as the United States and to an increasing degree in Canada with the current "conservative" government (which is actually anything but conservative but is rather a thinly veiled party of God), the religious seem to completely miss the point of religious freedom. Religious freedom is not a free pass to bring your religion into the public sphere and into public policy. Are you welcome to make your religious beliefs public? Certainly. Are you welcome to push your religious agenda into policy in the workplace or any other public domain? Certainly not. The hard part for the religious seems to be understanding how to separate their religious beliefs from their public duty. We live in a secular society with secular laws. Whether you are a doctor, lawyer, school teacher, politician or electrician, your religious beliefs take a back seat to the public secular laws. You have no right as a doctor to deny someone a blood transfusion based on your religious beliefs. As an electrician you must respect the building codes above your own religious codes. And, most importantly, as a politician, you have no right to bring your religious agenda into the governance of the country. This last point seems completely lost on many politicians and aspiring politicians. I have no problem if you think abortion is wrong. I have no problem if you think God created the earth 6,000 years ago. My problem begins when you try to change the secular laws to fit those two private religious beliefs.
Inevitably, the religious accuse atheists of exactly the same thing. By keeping society's laws secular, they often become confused about the word "secular" and accuse atheists of trying to bring their religion into the public domain. (And even go so far as to often accuse atheists of corrupting a "Christian nation"). This is a fundamentally flawed concept because atheism is not a religion. By bringing your secular values (as an atheist) into the public domain, one is already in line with the secular nature of the society. The only reason it appears tot he religious that atheists are pushing their "religion" on others is because the religious themselves cannot separate any issue from their own religious biases, and often cannot or will not accept that we live in a secular society.
In short, the religious simply can't be trusted to keep the "freedom from religion" aspect intact within the "freedom of religion."