Smith explains how government is responsible for many of the current controversies over religious freedom.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

A year ago, in my essay posted on July 3, I departed from my normal course of essays in favor of some personal remarks and observations. I decided to make this an annual event on every Fourth of July, so in this essay I postpone my series on “Freethought and Freedom” and offer instead some thoughts about freedom of religion.

While living in Hollywood during the early 1980s, I got a phone call from a local television station. The caller was an assistant to Truman Jacques, the moderator of “Talkabout,” a weekly talk show in southern California that discussed various religious themes and controversies.

I had appeared on “Talkabout” twice before. Those were pleasant experiences—largely because Truman Jacques proved an intelligent and fair‐​minded moderator with a genuine interest in ideas—so I was inclined to accept the third invitation. When I inquired about the topic, the assistant informed me that I would be debating whether evolution should be taught in the public schools. I had heard of my opponent before; he was a Christian defender of creationism whose lawsuit against the State Board of Education was receiving a good deal of attention in the local media. His lawsuit was based on the argument that to teach evolution in a tax‐​supported, compulsory school system, while banning discussion of creationism as an alternative theory, violated his freedom of religion and that of his children.

After learning the topic of the televised debate, I immediately warned the assistant of how my libertarian views on public education would muddy the waters, given how I opposed all state interference in education and advocated a purely voluntary system instead. The assistant replied that Truman was doubtless familiar with my libertarian perspective, so he had probably taken the potential problems into account before inviting me. So long as I believed in evolution and rejected creationism, there should be something to argue about. Thus, despite the haze of uncertainty that hovered over the proposed debate, I agreed to appear on the show.

A funny thing happened on the way to the debate. Before filming began, while chatting with my creationist adversary, it quickly became clear that we shared the same libertarian perspective on state schooling. We both believed that schooling should be a matter for the market, not government; and he stated that he had no objection to evolution being taught in schools so long as he and other creationists were not compelled, via taxes, to pay for those schools, and so long as a curriculum that included evolution was not mandatory. His remarks increased my suspicion that we had nothing substantive to debate.

After my opponent and I were seated on opposite ends of a stage and mic’d up, Truman Jacques said he would be reading brief introductions from a teleprompter, after which the debate would begin. But he wanted to run through the introductions before the filming began, and he started with my opponent. (I paraphrase from memory, of course.) “This is Mr. So‐​and‐​So, who has filed a lawsuit protesting the teaching of evolution in the California public schools. Yada, yada, yada.” Then, after walking over to my side of the stage, Truman said: “This is George H. Smith, an atheist who believes that evolution should be taught in the public schools.”

I interrupted Truman before he could get to the yada, yada, yada part. “Truman,” I said, “we have a problem here. I explained it to your assistant, but I guess he didn’t understand the point. You know that I’m a libertarian, so I would never argue that evolution should be taught in the public schools.”

After I explained my position in more detail, Truman got a puzzled look on his face.” He asked, “You believe in evolution, right?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘believe in’—but, yes, I do think the theory of evolution is a good scientific theory. It is the most plausible theory we have, and it is supported by a good deal of evidence.”

“And you think creationism is bunk?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“So why wouldn’t you want evolution to be taught to public school children, if you believe in the scientific validity of that theory?”

I replied: “That’s not the important question. Even if evolution is good science and creationism is junk science, I don’t think my opponent should be forced to pay to have his kids taught ideas that offend their religious beliefs.”

What happened after these preliminary remarks was quite remarkable. With everything set up and ready to go, and with cameramen and other technicians standing around with nothing to do, Truman announced that there surely must be some area of disagreement between the atheist and the Christian. So maybe we could debate that topic, if only we could figure out what it was.

For twenty minutes or so Truman tried—and I mean he really tried—to find something to debate. But to no avail. As Truman asked additional questions I agreed with my opponent’s answers, and he agreed with mine. We agreed that the core of the problem was not really religion or science per se but the intrinsic nature of tax‐​supported, compulsory education. However much I disagreed with my opponent’s views on evolution, I agreed that this particular controversy was a matter of conscience and religious freedom, not science per se. As for the common argument of secularists that evolution is authentic science whereas creationism is bogus science, I reiterated that this wasn’t the fundamental issue at stake in this dispute. For one thing, someone must decide what qualifies as a respectable scientific theory suitable for teaching children, and in state schools that decision will be made by state functionaries. Official pronouncements of this sort, which are then implemented by coercive means, are an insult to a free society that prides itself on free and open discussions about controversial matters.

Did this mean that I would defend the teaching of irrational doctrines in schools? Absolutely, provided those schools were purely voluntary institutions financed by voluntary means. My defense here was essentially no different than my defense of the many irrational ideas presented in countless books, articles, and other media. Historically, the defense of a free press and free speech was predicated on the conviction that free and open competition in the realm of ideas will promote the progress of knowledge, however nutty many of those ideas may be, and however offensive some readers may find them. So why should schools operate by a different standard? Suppose a private Christian high school teaches creationism, with the result that many of its graduates enter college believing that evolutionary theory does not hold up. So what? The world of science will not collapse; and, at the very least, defenders of evolution will be motivated to brush up on fundamentals so they can better defend their own theories. A little competition is always a good thing, especially in the realm of ideas, and there is no reason to suppose that authentic science has anything to fear from competition.

Truman, faced with two would‐​be debaters who agreed that the only ultimate solution to the problem of teaching evolution was to abolish public schools and privatize everything—in which case parents could pay only for those schools that didn’t offend their core beliefs—persisted in the hope that he could find something else we could argue about. This proved a futile quest. After additional probing yielded nothing except more agreement, a frustrated Truman gave up. He said we had nothing to debate and told us all to go home. He also expressed regret that the preceding conversation was not filmed, since that would have made a fascinating show in its own right.

Truman said that he never expected to see a Christian creationist and an atheist evolutionist agree on this hot‐​button issue. I added that many of the conflicts between secularists and Christians over freedom of religion are solely the result of political interference and would disappear if government stayed out of ideological controversies altogether, whether in science or in other fields, and let the invigorating breeze of unfettered competition operate in the formulation and transmission of ideas. And that was that. The debate was never filmed.

Earlier today (June 30) I recorded a podcast interview with a freethinking broadcaster. (This should be available in a week.) After covering some details about my first book, Atheism: The Case Against God (1974), I explained my disappointment with how many modern freethinkers have reacted to a number of recent incidents, such as the Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, and various Christians who have claimed that some provisions of Obamacare violate their religious freedom. With the exception of libertarians, many secularists and freethought organizations have come down on the side of government coercion instead of defending the Christians who have been compelled, under penalty of law, to act against their religious beliefs. I said that if anyone should be sensitive to the violation of religious freedom, it should be freethinkers, since that minority has historically been a primary target of religious persecution. Give to government the power to ignore or override the right of free association, according to which we should be free to interact or not to interact with others according to our own convictions, and it will only be a matter of time until freethinkers themselves are the victims of the selfsame laws which they now support.

This is not to say that Christian protesters are exempt from criticism, such as those who object to gay marriage, or those who fight tooth and nail against removing overtly Christian symbols from government property. Some Christian activists will oppose any measure favored by secularists, arguing, in a suitably vague fashion, that America was founded on Judeo‐​Christian values or that the First Amendment does not prohibit the expression of religion in the “public square.” (My brain nearly explodes every time I hear the expression “the public square.” What is this supposed to mean, exactly? Government property? Private property? If the latter, then private property owners should be free to do anything they like in regard to religion. But if government property, such as a courthouse or a public park, is meant, then different principles obviously apply.)

Many participants in both sides of this debate fail to understand the true meaning of “freedom of conscience.” Those people would do well to read the libertarian literature from previous centuries. During the nineteenth century, for example, it was not uncommon for secularists and religious believers to join hands to oppose any incursion of the state into matters of conscience, regardless of which side those measures might appear to benefit in the short run. In England, many Dissenters, especially Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers, opposed all state interference in education because they believed no curriculum can be free of religious implications, however tacit those implications may be. These “voluntaryists,” as they called themselves, defended the separation of school and state for the same reasons that they defended the separation of church and state. They did so consistently.

Although the Christian voluntaryists believed that religious values should be an integral part of education, they did not want the government to teach those values through a system of state education. Such matters should be left to parents, children, and other consumers of education, not to the heavy hand of state bureaucrats. Likewise, the nonreligious voluntaryists, such as Herbert Spencer and Auberon Herbert, favored secular education, but they didn’t want their secular values taught in government schools. Both sides agreed that government should be restricted to the protection of the individual rights of person and property. Government should have no voice whatever in personal matters of religious beliefs and values. Ideas, including scientific ideas, should be communicated by the voluntary method of persuasion, not forced upon people by the coercive method of government.