Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right

A public event on March 1, 2012, hosted by Georgetown University’s Berkely Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs launched the monograph Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, authored by Timothy Shah under the auspices of the Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force on International Religious Freedom. At this event, Princeton political science Professor Robert George quoted extensively from Martin Luther King’s Letters from the Birmingham Jail to illustrate why religious freedom deserves legal protection. In the Birmingham letters, Reverend King argued persuasively that human laws can be judged unjust when they degrade basic human goods. Racial segregation, King argued, debases human dignity because it designates one group (Whites) as superior to another group (African-Americans); thus such laws are unjust.

Too often, we think that asserting “I want something” equals “I have a right to something.” But just as African-Americans had the right to civil equality because it upholds their human dignity, George explained that human rights exists only when if those rights leads to a human good.  To illustrate, there is no human right to take an innocent human life because being dead is bad. The human good is to be alive, so our laws protect human life.  To talk of human rights thus requires explaining the good those rights protects.

“Rights are not abstractions,” George explained. “They protect human goods.”

So what is the human good protected by the right to religious freedom? Much recent theorizing and empirical work in sociology of religion focuses on the instrumental benefits of religion—better health, positive emotions, social support networks, or group cohesion. Although the instrumental benefits of religion may provide practical reasons to protect religious freedom, George argued that even when religion has instrumental benefits for persons or societies, we have a right to religious freedom because religion is something humans do for its own sake, or a constitutive-end activity.

Echoing Martin Riesebrodt’s argument in The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion, George pointed out that the instrumental benefits of religion–which may indeed be important–do not explain why humans practice religion. Understanding why humans practice religious requires seeing why religious practices are intrinsically important. Humans engage in a complex set of practices like liturgies, private prayer, offerings, baptisms and funerals in order to be in right relation with an unseen power, a power often (though not always) thought of as a transcendent or divine power.

Hence, just like human relationships and cooperation among people are intrinsically good things, similarly George asserted “religion is another irreducible element of the basic human good.”

Religion is also important to the human good because it shapes how one pursues other human goods, and people order their lives according to religious judgments about religious truths.

Because being religious means believing in something that is by definition unseen and outside the realm of science, some people, like the new atheists, assert that to be religious is to be unreasonable. However, unless one adopts a materialist view of the world—that the only thing that is real is what is material—it’s untenable to argue that religious belief is unreasonable anymore than other widely-held beliefs, such as in universal human rights.

Drawing on Aristotle, if humans are rational animals, then our intellectual well-being, not just our physical well-being, constitutes human flourishing. Hence, because religion engages both faith and reason, the flourishing of one’s religious life, like the flourishing of one’s intellectual life or community life is integral to all-around human well-being. Furthermore, religious freedom is constitutive or intrinsic to human well-being precisely because authentic faith requires engaging one’s reason to learn religious truths and then to order one’s life in accordance with those truths. If, as Aristotle argued, actions are only virtuous when both the deed and the intention are virtuous, then  coercing someone into religious practice cannot be virtuous nor can it be virtuous to deny someone the right to practice their religion.

Granting religious freedom does not mean one has to agree with a particular religious group or doctrine. To the contrary, embracing religious freedom means one has to uphold people’s right to believe things that one may think are errors. To illustrate, George explained how the Catholic Church’s Vatican II document Dignitatus Humane argued that religious freedom upholds human dignity, and Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) further argued that non-Christian faiths also deserve respect and legal protection. Although the Catholic Church affirms that other religions contain errors about the nature of God, the free practice of those religions deserves to be protected because, even if erroneous, those religions represent an authentic search for the truth and a express a relationship with divine, transcendent or unseen powers. Furthermore, those who profess to be atheists also deserve protection, as to force them to engage in religious practices which they do not assent to with their reason would violate their rights.

In some cases, George admitted that the right to religious freedom may be limited. But in order to intervene with a religious belief, practice or group, the state must show a compelling state interest, and the restriction must be the least restrictive possible needed. As carefully illustrated in the monograph Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, many people in the world live under governments with high restrictions on religion or strong social hostilities that limit the free practice of religion.

Pressing issues both domestically and internationally thus require a greater philosophical understanding of why religious freedom deserves to be protected from government infringement and social hostility. Americans should learn more about the importance of religious freedom in order to face current challenges to it in our own democracy. Although some Islamic scholars argue for religious freedom, many traditions within Islam do not currently uphold religious freedom either for other Muslims or non-Muslims, thus endangering the democratic transition recently begun in several Middle Eastern countries. The general expectation that religious belief and practice would subside as modernity progress has not proven true, but modernity has brought greater religious diversity to many nations, thus requiring a renewed commitment to religious freedom as essential to upholding human dignity and creating harmonious societies.


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