Religious Freedom? Mostly Not.

Much of the western, Christian world lives in a bizarre fantasy land concerning religious freedom.

Catholic World News reports on June 22nd that a court in England has refused asylum status to a woman and her child. She claimed that her husband in Malaysia planned to convert to Islam and forcibly convert their baptized child. And in fact he did convert and announced his intentions to register his child as a Muslim.

However, the English judge said, “C [the boy] himself is only 6 years of age and although he has been baptised a Christian and admitted into the Roman Catholic church, there is no reason to think that he has as yet formed any independent religious faith,” The judge then ruled. “He will be able to make his own decisions about religious matters when he grows up. Removing him with his mother to Malaysia where he can be brought up by both parents in the country of his nationality would not interfere with any of his own Convention rights and is clearly in his best interests.”

What this ruling ignores is that in Malaysia, and indeed virtually all dominantly Muslim countries, there is no right for either a child or an adult to “form an independent religious faith,” or “make his own decisions about religious matters.” Those declared by a parent to be Muslims have no right to choose any religion other than Islam. Indeed, they cannot even choose how to be Muslim. A former Malaysian Prime minister is actively promoting the complete outlawing of Shi’ite Islam, and religious authorities currently restrict many forms of traditional Malaysian Sufism. Nor are these restrictions theoretical. In a large number of cases in Malaysia in the last two decades Muslims have been denied the right to change their religion, or have had their mosques shut down and their religious leaders jailed.

And the rest of the Muslim world? Sectarian attacks and violence against non-Muslims are virtually endemic.

Is it better in non-Muslim lands? Not really. In China we find the ongoing persecution of the Falun Dafa, with tens of thousands killed, and a magnitude more imprisoned. It is clear that freedom of religion does’t exist if religious teaching or behavior is deemed to threaten the state. Christians in China are enjoying some respite from government attacks, but not Buddhists in Tibet.

And Israel, from which I write? Well people here are free to change religions, but not to publicly propagate their religion or persuade Jews to convert. A significant (or at least active) group of ulta-Orthodox Jews have used varying degrees of violence and abuse to insist that their religious law be followed by everyone. And they deny (with the full backing of the Israeli government) their fellow Jews the religious freedom to perform valid marriages or to be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

In fact support of religious freedom isn’t a natural product of being religious, or for that matter following atheism or any other ideology. Religious freedom is the hard won product of human social development guided by a rational desire for human flourishing. It emerges within a constellation of freedoms related to the conviction that the self-cultivation of the individual in an environment of free and open debate and association is the highest human good, and leads to the flourishing of human societies.

For full religious freedom there must be freedom:
1. to hear and study diverse religious ideas,
2. freedom to form one’s own conceptualizations privately and through discourse with others. (freedom of conscience)
3. freedom to disseminate one’s own religious ideas (freedom of speech),
4. freedom to gather with others of a like mind and religious practice (freedom of assembly)
5. freedom to ritually enact one’s religious convictions. (freedom of worship)
6. and freedom to engage one’s religious convictions in public discourse over laws that order and regulate society. (political freedom)

All these freedoms are founded on the idea that truth and human flourishing emerge not from the privileged guardians of revelation implementing what they believe they have heard, nor from an elite class of respected and learned teachers, but from full and open public discourse in which all humans have an equal place.

This idea that truth emerges from open public discourse in which all humans have an equal place is absent from much of the Muslim world, the world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, much of Eastern Orthodoxy and the cultures in which it is embedded (simply see the Russian patriach’s rants about homosexuality), and the cultures of Asia. A significant number of American Christians don’t believe in it either. In these worlds the idea of open public discourse in with all humans have an equal place is too individualistic, and lacks protection for the communal solidarity regarded as essential to the preservation of a stable society.

For such freedom to emerge in Europe and America it was necessary both to break the political power of the church and other religious leaders, and for they themselves to recognize that this was necessary – if not desirable – for their continued existence and the flourishing of the societies in which they could live, but not dominate.

Whether that lesson is universally applicable remains to be seen. But until real religious freedom is found outside the world of the North Atlantic then societies that value religious freedom must recognize where it doesn’t exist, and continue to offer asylum to those whose lives, and even more souls, are in danger. Hell is the place where there is no religious freedom, not heaven, where even angels can choose who they worship.


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