The Freedom to Believe

December 22, 2021 Updated: December 27, 2021

Commentary

Freedom is nothing if it doesn’t include the freedom of personal belief. More integral to the concept of freedom than even bodily integrity or corporate behavior, the right of belief extends into a deeply personal space where countries exercise no authority.

For a world weary of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and never-ending anxiety over everything from virus variants to military actions, the Christmas season brings both hope and lessons about what free societies must represent.

Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian, posited that action flows from belief as the first order of events. All of our beliefs about freedom of bodily integrity or collective behavior originate from the first order freedom, which is to believe in what an individual feels is right.

Frequently thought of as freedom of religion and embodied in the United States in the First Amendment, freedom of belief forms the unspoken core of key political rights. Freedom of association and freedom of speech represent extensions of this core belief that individuals carry the right to believe in whatever they would like, as well as the right to associate with others of similar beliefs to pursue collective aims.

The political policies we pursue and our behaviors follow the beliefs and values that we hold. Restrictions on public action against individuals, such as the right to own property and protection from government action, originate from the beliefs that we form as individuals and as groups. Political parties form from different groups seeking to share with other groups policies based upon the beliefs that they hold.

Democratic thinkers around the world have always strongly believed in protection from government intrusion, whether it be into the mind or upon the body. Modern technology gives governments the ability to move beyond making physical threats, allowing them to intrude upon an individual’s right to believe.

No government’s use of technology to restrict its people’s freedom to believe is more apparent than that of the Chinese regime. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policies to restrict beliefs range from the obvious and tangible to the comically absurd. Millions of censors working through tech companies to flag sensitive words help to limit the flow of information.

An atheist state, China claims sovereignty over the afterlife for all religious adherents as a matter of law. Portraits of Chinese leader Xi Jinping replace icons and saints in Catholic and Protestant churches, signifying his replacement of religious deities. The CCP admonishes Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, forcing them to bring their teachings in line with the socialist state of China. Beijing places limits on religions and seeks to place itself above the deeply held beliefs of its people.

China Protestant House Christians
Chinese Christians pray during a service at an underground independent Protestant church in Beijing on Oct. 12, 2019. China, an atheist country, places a number of restrictions on Christians and allows legal practice of the faith only at state-approved churches. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Democracies also struggle with reconciling conflicting claims and priorities over beliefs, with the pandemic showing their importance and value. The tribalism of democratic politics in many countries gave way to debates over a priority of rights. For example, does the right to remain unvaccinated supersede the right of the vaccinated to feel safe?

Rights in a political sense typically concern freedom from—or involve what are known as negative rights, which protect us from—other individuals or government action. However, what about those rights that an individual “owes” to others in the name of protection and duty? Much of the current debate about belief dwells upon the rights of others forcing action upon individuals.

Beliefs are tricky things. They cut to the core of our identities as individuals and to how we think of ourselves and the groups that we associate with. They don’t need to be rational or scientific, and many of them can be based on values that we hold that others don’t hold or are even opposed to.

Technology-enabled governments seek to understand and mold our beliefs, cataloging and quantifying our desires, emotions, and opinions. The wave of data surveillance pioneered by China has spread to open democracies in the West, with governments pushing for mandatory electronic real-time records and surveillance that seeks to mold our beliefs. It should come as no surprise that citizens of democracies around the world are pushing back against the even well-intentioned overreach of governments that are attempting to monitor and enforce beliefs.

Beliefs are deeply personal, giving us hope and purpose outside of the monopoly on violence held by the state. Even if I exist in a partisan bubble, it’s a partisan bubble of my own choosing. By encroaching upon the last domain of the individual, pushing required beliefs that place governments or approved institutions as arbiters of acceptable belief, we remove a pillar of what it means to be free.

As individuals, we aren’t and shouldn’t be required to approve of the beliefs of others, but they should be free to have their beliefs. Freedom of belief means that we must permit others to have their beliefs, but not be required to approve of their beliefs. This is the tension between individual rights of belief.

The traditional Christmas hymn notes that “the soul felt its worth, a thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices.” The beliefs that we hold dear, whether one lives in China or in the United States or whether they deal with religion, politics, or science, give us purpose and hope.

Secular and political parties should never seek to replace or control the hope and joy that we receive from deeply held personal beliefs. Render unto the government that which is the government’s, and let the believer hope and rejoice this Christmas season.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Christopher Balding was a professor at the Fulbright University Vietnam and Peking University HSBC Business School. He specializes in the Chinese economy, financial markets, and technology. A senior fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, he lived in China and Vietnam for more than a decade before relocating to the United States.