Let me explain with a story. I once had a colleague who was an accomplished amateur photographer. Every now and then he hosted an informal ‘Photography 101’ lunchtime seminar. He pitched it as: “Curious about photography? Well, I’m passionate and knowledgeable about it, and can provide some insight. Attend and maybe you’ll start to love photography too!” Now substitute ‘Christianity’ for photography in his pitch and try to imagine the response.
Religious beliefs are often denied the allowances we make elsewhere, like amateur photography. I am almost certain HR wouldn’t allow a ‘Christianity 101’ lunchtime seminar. On the other hand, we grant allowances to religion we don’t grant to others. Religious organizations are exempt from certain Obamacare provisions, for example.
Agellius and Victor argue that this special treatment arises because religion is more than just a belief. It is a way of life above man-made laws. Many religions both compel and prohibit certain actions.
While I agree with that stance, I question whether it uniquely applies to religion. Secular pacifists might also argue that their conscience compels them to act in a certain way. Ethical vegetarians are probably in the same boat, as are people opposed to modern agriculture. Religious faith may impact your way of life in multiple dimensions, and may do so strongly. But it’s a spectrum rather than something unique to faith.
Which is why I think that, in an increasingly secular age, we who care about religious freedom should stress these commonalities. We should highlight that freedom of religion is a subset of freedom of conscience, and that all of us would be aghast if we had to violate our conscience. Christians aren’t special in that regard.