“Freedom is more important than la ilaha illaAllah because without freedom we are not free to believe whatever we choose.”

This is what one Syrian academic/activist told me several years ago regarding the Arab Spring. Seemed like he was setting up a false dichotomy, but he was just trying to emphasize the place of freedom as a value compared to everything else.

But freedom is a misunderstood concept. The truly free person, according to liberal philosophy beginning with the British empiricists of the seventeenth century, is the person who starts off with a blank slate, i.e., the tabula rasa. This person has no prior beliefs or commitments. His mind is not contaminated with falsely imposed ideas about the world, about God, about the state of nature. This person, with his free mind, is then able to form his own authentic beliefs from scratch. Ideally, those beliefs will be formed on the basis of sound scientific investigation — that’s what the empiricists hoped for at least in their philosophy of mind and epistemology. But, even if a person does not develop beliefs scientifically, at least he does so authentically and, hence, freely. In this way, it is ok for a person to be religious so long as that person started from a blank slate, which for all intents and purposes is a starting point of non-religion.

It’s interesting when you put it like that. If I was born into a family with a certain religion, and that family taught me that religion from Day 1, and I grow up professing that faith, does that mean I did not freely choose that faith for myself? I might argue that, as an adult, I am making a conscious choice and exercising my free will to commit to my particular faith. But, then, how can I know that it is really “me” making that choice and not the “me” that grew up in a certain household and is a product of a certain kind of “religious indoctrination”? Maybe I’ve been brainwashed, in which case my “choice” is not really a choice at all.

But if that’s the case for children growing up in religious households, then the same kind of indoctrination happens in non-religious households too. It’s just brainwashing of the non-religious variety. If a child is raised to not believe in a Higher Power and to not think much of faithful devotion, then if he grows up and decides to be an atheist and mock religion, etc., then was that truly a free choice? Or is he also the product of his environment?

Point being that the tabula rasa does not exist and neither does the neutral blank slate liberal thinkers imagined we could freely develop our beliefs from. There is no blank slate. We all are born into a certain condition and raised to believe certain ideas and values that are imposed on us as children and then throughout our adult lives. The only question is, are those ideas and values true and just? If yes, who cares if one arrives at them from a position of freedom, i.e., a blank slate that, in reality, does not exist? And if those idea and values are false and unjust, then the only way to counter that is with truth and justice, not with an abstract notion of freedom, which again, is a figment of the Enlightenment’s imagination. Either way, la ilaha illaAllah, as the ultimate expression of truth and justice, comes out on top.

Put another way, freedom of religion in secular nations assumes a starting point of non-religion. But why is non-religion the starting point, the neutral ground? Why are non-religious values the default? One might say, well, there are a variety of religious beliefs so rather than prefer/endorse one, the secular state chooses none. But this is a gross mischaracterization of the reality. Non-religion is also a particular set of beliefs. If the secular state chooses non-religion, it has still preferred/endorsed a particular belief system over others. This is fundamentally no different from a theocratic state that also chooses one particular set of beliefs over all others. The difference is, the theocratic state does not delude itself into thinking it is neutral.