Freedom of Religion: Essential Principles
"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."
UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, 1948
For most of world history, emperors and kings based their legitimacy on claims of divinity or divine approval. Differences in religious beliefs between rulers and within states were the cause of wars, revolts, and persecution. While few world leaders explicitly claim divine legitimacy today, religion remains a central factor in many of the world's conflicts. Countless innocent lives have been lost because of a fundamental lack of respect for freedom of religion and an intolerance of people with different beliefs.
The long history of brutal religious wars in Western Europe helped give rise to the modern notion of religion as a matter of individual conscience, rather than an official policy of the state.
The long history of brutal religious wars in Western Europe helped give rise to the modern notion of religion as a matter of individual conscience, rather than an official policy of the state. Continued persecution of different religious sects arising from the Protestant Reformation led to widespread emigration to the New World, especially the American British colonies, where the concept of freedom of belief for individuals became one of the core ideas of American democracy. Thomas Jefferson set forth the basis of this core idea in the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, stating that individual belief was one of “the natural rights of mankind.” From this fundamental maxim, the Virginia Statute declared that no government should be established based on religious belief and that the religious belief of individuals should never be coerced by the state — a declaration later incorporated into the Bill of Rights.
Without the ability to think, believe, and worship freely, and without the principle of toleration of others' beliefs, there can be no democracy. Conversely, stopping citizens from exercising their free choice in religion or spiritual belief can only be accomplished through dictatorial power and terror.
In most democracies, freedom of religion has meant the end of religious persecution and mass conflict based on religious differences. Even where there are state-sanctioned or state-favored religions (such as the Church of England in the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth countries, Islam in Indonesia, or Roman Catholicism in Mediterranean and Latin American countries), freedom of religion has become a democratic norm. Democratic societies have been generally tolerant of individuals and communities practicing minority faiths without discrimination.
The transformation of religion from a justification for war or for a state's existence into an object of political liberty and individual conscience is one of the most important stories of modern history and is at the heart of the development of liberal democracy (see History). But it is a story that is still unfolding. Even in democracies where constitutional protections exist for religious freedom, there remain many tensions over the meaning and practice of religious liberty, especially when it concerns religious minorities (see, for example, Country Studies of France, Netherlands, and the United States, where these tensions have been heightened due to political movements and government policies aimed at restricting immigration or religious practice for Muslims).
And, of course, religious freedom is hardly universal, while some recent developments have reversed progress towards religious freedom. The violence inflicted on Christians, Yazidis (adherents of an ancient monotheistic faith), and Muslims by the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) is among today’s extreme examples of religious intolerance. Islamic State adherents are attempting to impose a single terrorizing vision of Islam on anyone under their self-declared caliphate and wage a terrorist war on all those considered apostate. ISIL, al Qaeda and other extremists commit atrocities in Nigeria, Indonesia, Mali, Tunisia, and numerous other countries, including the US. In addition to such non-state actors, many state dictatorships impose official religions that impinge greatly on individual freedom of conscience (see Country Studies of Iran, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia). Religious intolerance extends farther. Blasphemy laws that have been enacted in many countries with a dominant Muslim population are generally used to repress not just atheists but also religious and political minorities. Such laws have created an oppressive atmosphere both for freedom of conscience and also freedom of speech (see History in Freedom of Expression).
Just as freedom of religion is often considered a threat to dictatorship, it can be an important safeguard of democratic society.
The examples of antidemocratic ideology and governments above illustrate the need for freedom of religion and the basic separation — either formally or in practice — of religion and state. Without such a separation, religious institutions have historically become either repressive political instruments or compromised entities that are unable to fulfill their proper functions. Dictators view freedom of belief as a threat because it can undermine individual obedience and mobilize societal opposition to their rule. Indeed, independent religious institutions have been part of many recent movements for broader political freedom, including those in Chile, Poland, and South Africa. Just as freedom of religion is often considered a threat to dictatorship, it can be an important safeguard of democratic society. Democracy requires a diversity of views and choices, an environment in which differing opinions can be debated freely. This would be impossible without respect for freedom of conscience and of worship.