During the Second World War, the Freethinker continued to adopt a critical stance towards organised religion, while opposing fascism from a non-religious point of view. In the article below, published on 19th January, 1941, the editor, Chapman Cohen, criticises the notion of freedom as ‘obedience to God’ which had been proposed by William Temple, then Archbishop of York. Looking back at the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in English history, Cohen argues that, when a previously oppressed religious group gains political power, ‘the conviction of obeying the voice of God rather than the reasoned conclusions of men, inevitably leads to coercion.’
In Cohen’s view, ‘freedom of conscience’, as advocated by the Archbishop, ‘ought to mean that in matters of opinion there should be at least equal freedom of expression, with the understanding that with some questions that freedom cannot be absolute.’ But in fact the Church’s understanding of ‘freedom of conscience’ extended to religious privileges, such as enforcing blasphemy laws on non-believers, keeping bishops in the House of Lords, and requiring the King to swear a coronation oath in which he had to ‘avow his belief in a special form of religious belief.’
This article was written at a time when the ideas and values of civilised society were being threatened on all sides. The abuses of the War would eventually lead to the drafting of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). In both of these documents, ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ is a separate right from ‘freedom of expression’. In contrast, Cohen here analyses freedom of conscience as effectively a form of freedom of expression. He notes the extent to which religious organisations can use ‘freedom of conscience’ as an excuse for imposing their views on others, thereby restricting freedom of expression for them. The clash between the two rights continues today.