Freedom of Religion and Belief

Recently, while working on a Freedom of Religion and Belief project with, with people from 5 continents, a theme began to appear. Generally, people from the global North and West, when asked to share pictures about faith in their context, showed pictures without people. They showed pictures of church buildings, and in one case the wall and cameras that protected the religious community from the outside world. People from the global South and East generally shared pictures that were full of people, in public settings no less, and they showed people of different faith traditions interacting with each other.

This brought me back to a conversation I had with a member of a church I served in New York. I was encouraging the church to find ways to express our faith outside the church walls, when one of the members said, “Religion is a private matter!” My response was that “religion may be deeply personal, but it is rarely or never private.” For the member, expression of faith is fine as long as it is in our “box”, but others do not (or should not) have to encounter our faith. On the other hand, growing up in West Michigan, we were encouraged to share our faith publicly with others and I was taught that I needed to vote my religious beliefs.  (This generally centered about abortion, but not always.) I was also taught, implicitly, to fear any other religions and secular values that might influence the public debate.

In both parts of the US where I have lived and worked, there was a verbal affirmation of the US principle of Freedom of Religion and an intellectual acknowledgement that all religions had a right to exist, even if Christians’ actions demonstrated otherwise. I have come to think, however, that what we really want is not freedom of religion, but instead freedom from religion, especially religions that are not our own. In NYC, it felt like it was a desire for freedom from religion entering into the public sphere more broadly. Maybe this is because NYC has so much diversity and engaging religion in public would be overwhelming, or would threaten the image of our secular society. In West Michigan, if felt like we desired freedom from other religions challenging our beliefs and practices as the Christian religious majority.

In Europe, unlike the US, they may have state churches. These state churches are fairly innocuous, and religion is often neglected, at best, and at many times scorned.

What I see in the global East and South is quite different. Religion is very much in the public sphere. In places like the Gulf, Pakistan, India, South East Asia, and Africa, even where Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and others collide, religion is very much in the public domain. Religion is not private. Your religion is sometimes even printed on your civil ID or passport. There is no freedom from religion, in fact there is no way to escape from a religious identity. At times there are majority or state religions, and these state religions have a great deal of influence over people’s civic lives, even if they are not part of the majority tradition.  In these context freedom of religion takes on new meaning as the public sphere is saturated with religious influence.

What then can we learn from each other regarding freedom of religion and not just freedom from religion?

Here are a few ideas that I have come up with that we can learn from each other, and a few things we can do, if we desire true freedom of religion, and not just freedom from religion.

  • Legal protections for people to practice their religion, belief, or have no religious beliefs.  These can’t just be laws on the books but there needs to be practical enforcement of these laws as well. (This is where the East and South can learn from the West and North, even though the West and North need to do better too.)
  • Develop a culture where religion has a place in the public sphere. Because religion and religious beliefs are of high, or highest, priority for a great many people, they can not be left out of the civil dialogue. (This is where the West and North can learn from the South and East. South and East can do better with access for all religions.)
  • Develop a culture where people of different religious beliefs can speak and have influence in the public and civil sphere, without fear of reprisal. (This is where we need to learn together.)

Freedom of Religion and Belief may feel dangerous to some, especially to those of a majority religion in power. However, if we truly trust that what our religion teaches to be true and just, I wonder what we have to fear by allowing other religions to be heard as well? In my experience, much of the practicalities between religions can be lived out harmoniously in a common space, but we only find this when we take the time to hear what the “other” is really saying.

If we believe that religion, ours or others, is a good and beautiful thing, then we likely believe it should be expressed for all to see (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all meant to be expressed publicly at least.) And if we want our beliefs to be heard we need to allow for others to be heard as well in the same space. This is then freedom of religion. When there is true freedom of religion and belief, there is no or little need to be free from it.

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