Earlier this year, when the British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told an incredulous TV presenter that he objects to abortion even in the aftermath of rape, some secular commentators extrapolated a moral. A religion like Rees-Mogg’s, they explained, is a matter of limiting one’s freedom, even in very minor matters. David Aaronovitch asked why “so many believers insist on His interest in the relatively utterly insignificant minutiae of human behaviour,” such as whether one “should and shouldn’t turn on a light switch, should and shouldn’t wear a scarf, should and shouldn’t swap a skirt for a pair of shorts.” Likewise, the Guardian’s Michele Hanson wondered whether the MP’s “ancient, rigid views” might in fact appeal to voters. After all,
loads of us long to know our place and stay in it with strict rules and regulations so that we don’t have to be bothered with choice and can just do as the Rees-Moggs and religions tell us: get up, wash, eat, pray, wear and do this and that, before/after doing whatever, don’t eat/drive, carry money, work or speak on this or that day. Do not marry or mingle with a person from this or that class, caste, country, belief. We can have our days, weeks and whole lives planned out and pretend there is some sort of order and justice in the world. It’s so much easier than investigating, making your own mind up, or arguing day in, day out.
This picture of religion—a round-the-clock holiday camp schedule in which scarcely a detail goes undictated or unsupervised—would be unrecognizable to many believers. But it is the picture which occupies the secular mind. Even Damon Linker, formerly a practicing Catholic, describes the 1992 Catechism as “filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live,” as though it were a kind of technical manual—an impression which could be dispelled by opening the book at random.
But the secular critics are onto something: Their idea of freedom is very different from what Christians mean by that word. What Aaronovitch and Hanson understand as freedom—being able to wear what you like, work whenever is convenient, not having your days “planned out”—means that the more choices I have, the more free I am. If we are both given a menu, and mine has an extra twenty items on it, I am freer; if I’m not really supposed to do a certain kind of work on the Sabbath, and you can work whenever you like, then you are freer.
You don’t need to be a believer to see that something is missing here. The actor and comedian David Mitchell—himself an agnostic—observes that for many in his peer group, adopting traditional religion would feel like “squandering” the “freedom” to work out one’s own beliefs. But he admits that this freedom doesn’t amount to much: “It all leads to vacuous assertions of being ‘spiritual’ and record sales of wind chimes and yin and yang symbol tea towels.”
The Christian idea is a broader one. For Christians, freedom consists not in how many choices you have but in whether you can choose the right thing, the good thing. If Fred is keeping his options open about whether to join the Ku Klux Klan, and Ben has decided he will never do so, Fred is not freer; quite the opposite. When Einstein discovered special relativity, he did not become less free because he was now unable to believe a dozen alternative theories. When Mozart decided how the Jupiter Symphony had to end, he did not lose freedom merely because of all the other possibilities he was compelled to give up.
The model of a free human being, then, is not the person who has so much money, time, and imagination that he can do whatever comes into his head, but someone who will choose the good: who knows just how to make a friend happy, or who, offered the chance to become wealthy through committing fraud, can turn it down without a second thought. As the Catechism says, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.”
St. Augustine tells a story from before his conversion, in which he felt his own lack of freedom acutely. At the time he was a prominent rhetorician in Milan, and was writing a political speech which he hoped would win him acclaim. As he was agonizing over this stressful task—the pressure, the difficulties of conscience—he passed a beggar “jesting and laughing.” Augustine turned to his friends, reflecting (in Frank Sheed’s translation): “Here was I striving away, dragging the load of my unhappiness under the spurring of my desires, and making it worse by dragging it; and with all our striving, our one aim was to arrive at some sort of happiness without care: the beggar had reached the same goal before us, and we might quite well never reach it at all.”
Weighed down by anxiety, striving for a goal which offered no peace, the younger Augustine seems our contemporary. But he was writing from another perspective—of someone who had found the freedom of being in love.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.