On making arguments for religious freedom

Alan Jacobs asks us to look beyond the here and now when we consider the value of religious freedom:

The farther we project from our own moment the harder it is to guess what political and social roles Christianity will play; and the farther we get from our own geographical territory the more peculiar (by our standards) the public role of Christianity tends to be…And yet if we’re going to think wisely and well about the value of religious freedom, it’s vital that we extend that thinking beyond our locality and our moment. Whatever conclusions you draw on these matters, please don’t rely solely on the evidence that the News puts before your eyes. Think wider; think longer.

When he made a similar argument in response to Brendan Eich’s forced resignation, I accused Jacobs of trading in “vague hypotheticals.” My thoughts weren’t fully formed at the time and I’ve been mulling over what I meant. It took me a while, but I’ve figured it out. It’s the same reason the above passage also strikes me as vague. Let me try explain with a climate change analogy.

There are vigorous debates in the climate community on how to convince people that climate change matters. Should the basic science be emphasized or not? Should climate skeptics be refuted or ignored? How do you balance the tradeoffs between activism and scientific accuracy? And most relevant to the religious freedom debates: should possible catastrophic outcomes be highlighted? I’m not as caught up on the research as I used to be. But I believe it shows that most people discount the future and have a hard time thinking too far beyond the present.

None of this means you shouldn’t discuss the possibility of extreme sea-level rise. But it does mean you should consider whether such arguments will be effective at convincing people who don’t already agree with you.

And that’s where I think Jacobs’s arguments fall short. Defenses of religious freedom must account for how people actually behave, not how we want them to. It’d be great if we could think “beyond our locality and our moment.” But most people cannot or will not do that. Most people won’t accept that we should value religious freedom because it helped us in the past and will benefit us at some point in the future, and especially if they perceive it has costs today. No amount of examples and analysis–and Jacobs provides much of both–changes the fact that his basic argument is vague and abstract. The future itself is vague and abstract.

An intellectually strong defense of religious freedom is not necessarily a convincing one. There’s an overlap to be sure. But as the climate community can tell you, the overlap isn’t perfect. Effective persuasion is a distinct problem that needs to be addressed on its own terms. As people like Jacobs and John Inazu continue discussing religious freedom, I hope they give it the attention it needs.


  1. I’m reading your excerpt from Jacobs out of context so I might speak incorrectly. From looking at the excerpt, he actually might agree with you. In other words, he might say or think 2 things.

    1) People don’t think about the future (or future generations, more specifically). This seems obvious as causes a host of social problems even outside of climate change.

    2) He wants people to begin to do so.

    To say it another way, he might recognise what you recognise and is taking an opportunity to push people in a new direction. His words seem more like exhortation rather a statement of how things are or how people currently think.

    1. Really good point. I like it, and I suspect you’re right. But we could still have a debate about communicative effectiveness like we do in climate…right? And I think that’s the debate we need to be having. One of strategy as much as anything else. Appreciate the comment as always…

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