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Freedom of religion is the first freedom, in the the first amendment to the United States Constitution. There is no hierarchy of importance to the amendments, but since freedom of religion comes first it can be seen as the first founding principle of the United States.

Religious freedom in America predates the Constitution. We all know the story of Thanksgiving, where the Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution in England. However, not as many of us know the story of how the Pilgrims, in the Plymouth Colony, and Puritans, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, persecuted dissenters leading to the creation of Providence Plantations in 1636 by Roger Williams [1]. Pilgrims and Puritans where Congregationalist, allowing their congregations to independently and autonomously run their own affairs, instead of the Bishops of the Church of England. However, they still followed many of the same tenets of the Church of England, and both maintained ties to that Church, with the Puritans having the stronger ties. Roger Williams chafed against these ties, consciously objecting to how the Colonies were treating the Indians and Calvinist who were starting to appear in the Colonies. In 1636 Williams and his followers set out to create a haven for those "distressed of conscience" in what is now the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Rhode Island became the first colony in America to have religious freedom, attracting settlers of numerous denominations including the first Jewish community in the English Colonies [2]. In 1644 he wrote "The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience" [3] which advocated for separation of church and state, and state toleration of other religious denominations including "paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worships."

New colonies began to follow this example. New Netherland, which was founded by the Dutch West India Company, began accepting Jews from their colony in Brazil who had managed to escape the Inquisition in Portugal. In the Second Anglo Dutch war [4] England took control of New Netherland in 1664, splitting it into New York and New Jersey. The limited religious freedoms the Dutch allowed persisted in New York. New Jersey become one of the Lords Proprietor colonies, along with the new colony of Carolina [5]. The Lords Proprietors where English Aristocrat's who were also students of the enlightenment and as a result believed in freedom of conscience. They enlisted the help of John Locke in 1669 to develop the "Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina" [6] which established liberty of conscience. Much of the document is focused on developing a model of society that to be honest was on step from feudalism, but it did recognize that human consciousness can not be dictated. It encourage Christianity among the natives but favored a gentle approach of persuasion, allowing the natives and others, such as Jews, heathens, and dissenters time to see the truth, but in the end allowing any seven or more persons to constitute a church of their choosing.

The writings of John Locke had great influence on America's founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution of the United States. The first amendment, of the Constitution, extend freedom of conscience, to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government. Societies are better off if they not only allow their citizens to have freedom of thought [7], but encourage them to seek the truth, and take action. The right to pursue truth prevents tyranny and enables liberty and equality. Consciousness is no longer just about religious morality, but about a much broader understanding of our existence. Founding Fathers, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were compelled by the discoveries made in science over the preceding 100 years, as well as their dislike of a British class system, that was supported by the Church of England, and that they saw as unjust and corrupt. They believed that future of humanity would be driven forward by freedom of thought, expressed openly in a democratic society whose laws are based scientific facts, instead of by tyrannical rulers and religious dogma.

Over the past 240 years the basic logic in the US Constitution has lead the US to evolve from a society where adult male landowners were only allowed to vote, and where slavery was legal in most states, to a society where all adults are allowed to vote, and the rights of minorities are viewed as essential. People who were religious, but cared deeply about freedom of conscience, and the pursuit of truth, were the primary movers of this evolution. During this period the advancements in science overturned our most basic understandings of truth, as well as helping us transform our societies, through the development of new technologies, and a much deeper understanding of medical science, Earth science, social science and physics among others. By and large religions embraced these advances, some enthusiastically, seeing it as legitimizing their view of a non-literal interpretation of religion, and in turn relieving them of the burdens of scripture.

However, the impact of science on what we consider to be truth can not be underestimated. We have evolved from societies where decisions were largely based on scripture, to societies where decisions are mostly based on facts, or so we hope. In the United States large numbers of people still largely base their view of the world on scriptures, cherry picking verses that support their own self interest, even if they have long been discredited by scientific research. This is especially true when it comes to issues around gender and sex [8]. It's hard to believe that all men of faith, would be as strong in their faith if they had to play the role of women in the Bible.

There has been an entrenchment of some religions into faith in scripture as truth, opposed to truth based on science and facts. In many cases this entrenchment may only pertain to a few subjects, such as birth control, but still dictate who a person would vote for politically. This is contributing to a distortion of our political system where truth is diminished, and conscientious is obscured by disinformation.


  1. Roger Williams, Wikipedia

  2. The History of Jewish Newport Rhode Island, Chabad

  3. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Wikipedia

  4. Second Anglo-Dutch War, Wikipedia

  5. Lords Proprietor, Wikipedia

  6. Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, Wikipedia

  7. Freedom of thought

  8. Bible Evangelicals Womanhood Marriage, The Atlantic