Freedom is to act as one’s real and true nature demands and so only the true exercise of that choice which is of what is good can properly be called ‘free choice’. A choice for the better is therefore an act of freedom . . . Whereas a choice for the worse is not a choice as it is grounded in ignorance . . . it is then also not an exercise in freedom because freedom means precisely being free of domination by the powers of the soul that incites to evil.

A statement by a conservative Catholic, perhaps from the “error has no rights” era? Actually, it’s Muslim, and from 1995. It’s a quotation from Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, one of Islamic thinkers favored by Ali A. Allawi, used in his recent The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. Allawi is very much a moderate Muslim; he served in the US puppet government in Iraq.

A sense of freedom is, perhaps, one of the most attractive emotional features of going without religion. I can’t say much about this directly—I’ve never enjoyed any faith, so I can’t compare states of belief from personal experience. But a sense of freedom is a constant theme in those writings I have encountered by people who have dropped out of faith. Being free of the cosmic authority proclaimed by certain religions apparently comes as quite a relief to many nonbelievers.

From the perspective of a believer in a religion that obsesses about a transcendent moral order, things must look very different. The very freedom a nonbeliever celebrates is a false freedom, a freedom for the baser instincts. Nonbelievers say they find freedom without religion; a common theme among Muslims is to say they find peace in submission.

From where I stand, the “freedom” of al-Attas is no freedom at all, and the peace achieved by the devout holds no attraction. I’m sure that from the standpoint of many a devout Muslim, the freedom I enjoy is a calamitous slipping of my moral moorings, and my lack of attraction to their peace is at best a deep folly, and probably a sign of dire corruption in my soul.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University