God and Politics UK has an excellent post outlining the work of the All-Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom. So now is a good time to consider what freedom of religion means. While we are fortunate not to face religious persecution in the West, religious groups could face prejudice and discrimination. We should not dismiss Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon as an alarmist when she warns:
Emboldened by recent developments, militant secularists are claiming that religious freedom is an unnecessary right. Some maintain that religious people and groups already have all the protection they need or deserve from antidiscrimination laws and constitutional safeguards for freedom of expression and association. Others, more insidiously, treat religious liberty as part of a generic liberty right rather than a distinctive freedom that merits special exemptions and accommodations.
Surely everyone in a Western democracy has freedom of expression and thought? Yes; however, religious freedom requires something more than the right to your own opinion under your own roof and the liberty to preach to the converted. China and Iran can grant you that! As Roger Trigg points out, religious freedom is more than the freedom to a private life.
We only have religious freedom if we are free to choose which religion we follow and if religious beliefs can inform how we live, work, teach, speak and raise our families. However, instead of freedom of and for religion, many in the West believe in freedom from religion.
Os Guiness argues that religious freedom is fundamental to all other freedoms:
Like every other right, religious freedom must be harmonised with public health and safety; but the burden of proof should be on those who argue that some religious practice is dangerous. In most cases, good criminal law should be sufficient to limit harmful religious practices. So human sacrifice will not be tolerated; however, wider society has a duty to accommodate a religion which requires distinctive dress. As Trigg warns us in this excellent lecture, reason without freedom is impotent; but freedom without reason is dangerous. (Another short but brilliant essay by Trigg can be accessed here).
As we’ve noted in our book reviews, Christians argued for religious liberty in the Roman Empire; indeed, the secular doctrine of religious freedom has Christian ancestry. Philosopher Louis Pojman also argues that the secular world cannot ground a doctrine of equal human worth; some religious worldview seems necessary!