Religious Freedom, Religion, and Society: A Reflection for the World Religion Day

January 17, 2021


On this World Religion Day, I wish to reflect on one aspect of the lives of believers that is sometimes overlooked: religious freedom. Without religious freedom, it would be impossible to worship God according to our own convictions. This seems obvious. But it is less recognized that without religious freedom one could not establish a Church, have worship meetings, publish scriptures and other materials, teach, and share the message of our faith, buy land, and build chapels and temples, participate in civic and working life without being persecuted, and do countless other things that are essential in the lives of believers. As we celebrate the importance of religion, it is therefore good to also remember the importance of religious freedom which makes life as taught by religion possible.

I begin my reflection with an image of history. Shortly after the devastating conflict of World War II, when nations were only just beginning to rise again, several leaders sought legal institutions and structures upon which peace could be supported. The issue of human rights became of paramount importance. The theoretical basis for human rights at the time revolved around the idea of 'human dignity', the idea that every human being has an intrinsic value simply because they belong to humanity.


This idea was quite the opposite of the ideology of the defeated Nazis, who had believed in the superiority of their own race and the subhuman status of Jews, Romans, and people with disabilities, among others. The world rejected this Nazi ideology after the destruction and death it had begotten. Of this a new loyalty was born to the idea that all human beings, since they all have inherent dignity, deserve certain fundamental rights that no state power can ignore.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This document and all other successive international human rights instruments, including the Pact of San Jose, which is the most significant treaty for our Western Hemisphere, descend from a lineage that finds its origins in the appalling suffering of World War II. In the end, the rights that benefit us so much have been born of a dreadful conflict, and the price paid for these rights was horrific.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declaring religious freedom provides:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

Religious freedom is now almost universally recognized in international right as a non-derogable and fundamental human right. This right is protected in several international law instruments ratified by almost all countries. Approximately 90 percent of national constitutions also include provisions that protect religious freedom. However, the application of this freedom is more the exception than the rule when it comes to practical reality. Several studies show that religious minorities often face discrimination or persecution.

A 2011 study examined the 143 countries with populations larger than 2,000,000 and concluded that 86% (123 countries) had cases of persecution, 36 countries had more than 1,000 cases, and 25 countries had more than 10,000 cases.1 The UN reports that the number of displaced persons reached 70.8 million last year. This figure is the highest in history. These people were forced to flee their homes for several reasons, but a significant number of them fled because of religious persecution.

According to a rigorous Pew Research Center study conducted annually since 2011, an estimated 39% of countries have high or very high levels of restrictions pertaining to religion. But since many of these countries have large populations, 77% of the world's population lives in countries with high or very high levels of restriction pertaining religion.

Equally worrying is the decline in religious freedom in Western liberal democracies, which have traditionally protected human rights. The biggest increases in religious persecution by governments have occurred in Europe in recent years, largely in response to the entry of many refugees and immigrants.

And what about the Americas? In the Western Hemisphere we are fortunately in a much better position than people in many other parts of the world. We are very blessed in the Americas. We have enjoyed the basic elements of religious freedom for many years. Despite having some challenges, there is relatively little religion-related violence in our countries, and we enjoy a great diversity of beliefs without causing further social friction. Great suffering, murder and expulsion may seem distant. However, in the Americas the degradation of religious freedom is more subtle, but real.

Studies show a worrying trend. Latin America and the Caribbean, usually one of the most religion-friendly regions in the world, has had the fastest and largest increases in government restrictions on religion compared to other regions. The United States, for example, has experienced a sharp drop in religious freedom over the past decade. In a May 2019 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief made the troubling comment that 74% of American countries have suffered increases in government restrictions on religious freedom.

It clear that religious freedom is an almost universally recognized right, but this right is more violated than protected in the world. Space does not allow me to address the reasons for these worrying trends. Alternatively, I will focus on a single question that may help us understand why we must defend religious freedom before it is too late. The question is: Why is religious freedom important to society? I will end with a brief reflection on what may be ahead for religious freedom in the Caribbean region.

Why is religious freedom important?

Religious freedom is fundamentally important to society. It safeguards the right of all people to retain their own religious beliefs and to express them openly without fear of persecution or being denied the same citizenship rights. It benefits all people, believers, and non-believers as well as religious organizations and groups. It protects the whole society and helps it thrive.

I will cite four specific reasons which illustrate this importance:

1. Religious freedom provides protection for the valuable contribution that religion makes to society.

Religion has motivated many of the most important moral advances in civilization. These include the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and efforts to eliminate corruption. “These advances were not motivated by secular ethics or people who believe in moral relativism”, said Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an American jurist. “They were driven primarily by people who had a clear religious view of what was morally right”.

Religion motivates charitable works that the government is unable to perform, and at its best, religions teach ethical values of integrity, neighborly love, and individual responsibility. These ethical values are part of the social infrastructure that supports and establishes the rule of law. The rule of law is based on the moral commitment of citizens and cannot exist without it. No level of government oversight can compensate for the lack of personal commitment of society’s members to these core values. “Our society”, continues Dallin H. Oaks, “is not united primarily by the law and its application, but above all by people who, of their own free will, obey principles beyond the law because of their internalized norms of justice and good behavior”.

2. It promotes peace and respectful coexistence.

Contrary to what critics sometimes say, religious freedom is not about privileging believers over non-believers. At its core, religious freedom insists on fairness and respect for all. According to religious freedom, everyone has the right to lead their lives peacefully according to the dictates of their own belief. Religious freedom does not generate violence but makes peaceful coexistence possible between people who have intense discrepancies of opinion, as long as we do not aggravate the rights of others. It promotes civility and mutual respect, gives us the rules to coexist in a world full of diversity, promotes pluralism and the free exchange of ideas and protects individual consciousness, which is the basis of a free society.

Religion is often blamed for wars, xenophobia, intolerance, bigotry, and terrorism. Of course, these evils may be related to religion, but such things are not the product of religion itself, but rather of the lack of religious freedom. Religious freedom never authorizes acts of violence or other grievances in the name of an alleged religious belief. On the contrary, actions banned by law that aggravate the security or rights of others do not fall within the rights protected by religious freedom.2

What needs to be clearly understood, and is often misunderstood, is that where freedom of religion is protected by law and valued by culture, society enjoys greater peace and security. In contrast, a lack of religious freedom creates tension, instability, and violence. Lack of religious freedom creates oppression and resentment that fuel hatred and prejudice that in turn foster extremist movements.

There is considerable empirical evidence showing that restrictions imposed on religion by the state are the most important causal factor in relation to religious violence in a society. It is not the “clash of civilizations” that causes religious violence. Sectarian tensions are the result of oppressive regulation of religion and the Government's reaffirmation of social hostility against confessed minorities.

3. Religious freedom protects and strengthens other civil and political rights. It protects conscience, which is the essential basis of all public and political opinion, because forced opinion is no longer an opinion. It protects the spiritual dimension of humanity, which is at the heart of the identity of the individual and the community. It protects human dignity, which is the primary basis of all human rights because all human rights are legally justified on the basis that they belong to the human being simply because they are human, that is, because they have human dignity. This is a concept that comes from religion.

One argument that is becoming increasingly common today is that religious freedom is no longer needed because it is redundant in the human rights system. They wonder why religion deserves its own special freedom when other freedoms such as speech or assembly serve to protect all ideologies, religious or otherwise. It is said that religious belief is like other forms of belief and giving it special protection creates inequality.

However, sincere religion is not like other ideologies. Religion is about the deepest beliefs and values that transcend this world. Non-religious ethical values, on the contrary, are not transcendental. That's why they often have no fixed nature. Secular values often waver and change according to circumstances and retreat in the face of inconvenience or self-interest.

Religious freedom is not the only fundamental right, nor is it an unlimited right, but it is the root from which the tree of other rights and freedoms sprouted. Branches representing other freedoms and rights cannot survive long without the root. If we, as a society, do not have the willpower to protect freedom of religion, how can we expect our institutions to adequately protect other less fundamental rights? Those who diminish religious freedom, diminish the foundation on which other human and civil rights are based. They forget history and commit a kind of ideological parricide. By contrast, a society that values and protects religious freedom is nurturing the other rights that protect and benefit society.

4. Religious freedom generates many social goods.

Empirical evidence strongly demonstrates that religious freedom is correlated with the flourishing of numerous social indicators. This graphic is in a book written by Brian Grim and Roger Finke in 2011. You can see the level of correlation between religious freedom and various other social indicators. It is clear that the most significant correlation is between religious freedom and the other fundamental rights that support a free and democratic society. But you also see other, less obvious correlations. These include improvements for women and minorities, especially in economic, educational and health matters.

Towards the future

Highlighting that religious freedom brings a lot of value to society, I ask this question: What does the future hold for religious freedom in the Caribbean?

The Caribbean is a special region, blessed with high levels of peaceful coexistence and religious pluralism. Most people in the Caribbean are believers and value religion in society. Many have a good disposition towards their neighbor and enjoy high levels of religious freedom.

However, ignorance in these matters sometimes causes discrimination, causes friction among people, or are the cause of unnecessary inequality between creeds; we need to improve. This begins with the fundamentals for all believers as members of society, that is, loving one's neighbor, being kind, honest and just, and being good examples of all that is good in our religious beliefs and teachings.

We must add that it is also essential to highlight the importance of the positive contribution of religion in society. We live in an age when religion is becoming less relevant to many. The trend is worrisome, because if people appreciate religion less, they will surely value religious freedom less. The consequence of this could be the abandonment of the rights of religious freedom. The danger is greater because as religion vanishes from the public framework, non-religion can become the norm of the state.

In 1978, more than 40 years ago, Neal A. Maxwell, an Apostle of Jesus Christ spoke of this trend. He said the following:

 “…we shall see in our time a maximum if indirect effort made to establish irreligion as the state religion... Brothers and sisters, irreligion as the state religion would be the worst of all combinations. Its orthodoxy would be insistent and its inquisitors inevitable.”3

'Decrease the belief in God, and you increase the numbers of those who wish to play at being God by being “society’s supervisors.” Such “supervisors” deny the existence of divine standards but are very serious about imposing their own standards on society.'4

One way to combat this trend is to highlight the importance of religion’s positive contribution. In a sense, this can be an act of thanksgiving. It is never right to boast about our blessings but to share them and express gratitude for them and for God's goodness in the lives of all their children. If we recognize God's hand in all things and share through word and deed the depths of our commitment to the well-being of our neighbor and society, and if we do so along with our friends from other religious traditions, it will be impossible for rulers to forget the importance of religion and religious freedom.

Education on religious freedom also needs to be increased and legislative improvements sought, making the protections we enjoy more concrete and lasting. As good citizens, each of us can support efforts to improve laws of our respective countries.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the crisis of religious freedom in the world is real. We need to educate ourselves to better understand the importance of religious freedom for a free, peaceful, and prosperous society. We must recognize that religious freedom is not an impediment to progress, but a way of protecting and respecting the most important thing for almost all human beings, that is, their spiritual identity, their conscience, and their right to lead life according to their convictions. Only with religious freedom can we preserve the benefits and blessings that sincere religion can bring to society.




[1] Brian GRIM and Roger FINKE, The Price of Freedom Denied (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

2I will not attempt at this time to identify the permissible restrictions of religious freedom. International human rights instruments contain specific limits on the right to manifest religion. For a broad summary of the permissible limits, with an appreciation for the complexity of the matter, see Manfred Nowak and Tanja Vospernik, “Permissible Restrictions on Freedom of Religion or Belief,” in Tore Lindholm, W. Cole Durham, Jr., and Bahia G. Tahzib-Lie, Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook (Leiden, Martinus Nijhoff: 2004). The clauses comprising these limits are found in the international pact on political and civil rights, art. 18 (3); European Conventions on Human Rights, art. 9(2); American Convention on Human Rights, art. 12(3).

Religious freedom is the first and oldest of the legally protected rights. It is the cocoon from which other human rights emerged, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. These rights were born from the historical struggle for religious freedom. Freedom of speech was first developed to protect the speech of religious dissidents. Freedom of press resulted from the struggle to publish the Bible. Freedoms of assembly and association arose from the efforts of minority religious communities to conduct religious services and bring together their efforts to establish hospitals, universities, and religious schools.

3 Neil A. Maxwell, “Meeting the Challenges of Today”, BYU Devotional Address, 10 October 1978.

4 Neil A. Maxwell, “The Prohibitive Costs of a Value-free Society”, (Ensign, October 1978)