Today, much more than then, none of us can ignore the importance of religion globally—in politics, conflict resolution, economic development, humanitarian relief, and more. Eighty-four percent of the world’s population identifies with a particular religion, yet 77 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious freedom. Understanding religion and its relationship to global concerns and to governments is essential to seeking to improve the world in which we live.
Although religious freedom is unknown in most of the world and threatened from secularism and extremism in the rest, I speak for the ideal in which the freedoms religion seeks to protect are God-given and inherent but are implemented through mutually complementary relationships with governments who seek the well-being of all their citizens.Consequently, a government should secure religious freedom for its citizens. As stated in article 18 of the U.N.’s influential Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “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.”
The complementary responsibilities of religion, through its adherents, are to observe the laws and respect the culture of the country that secures its freedoms. When religious freedoms are secured, such a response is a debt of gratitude gladly paid.
If there were uniform acceptance and application of these general principles, there would be no need for the discussions that bring us together. But as we all know, our world is bedeviled with conflicts on these general principles. For example, prominent voices are now challenging the whole idea of unique protections for religion. One such book bears the title Freedom from Religion and another, Why Tolerate Religion?
Other voices seek to marginalize religion and believers, such as by limiting religious freedom to teaching in churches, synagogues, and mosques, while denying the exercise of religious beliefs in the public square. Such attempts of course violate the Universal Declaration’s assurance of the right to manifest religion or beliefs “in public or private.” The free exercise of religion must also apply when believers act as a community, such as by their efforts in education, medicine, and culture.Religious beliefs and practices are also criticized as irrational and contrary to important government and social goals. I, of course, maintain that religion is uniquely valuable to society. As one atheist admitted in a recent book, “One does not have to be a religious believer to grasp that the core values of Western Civilization are grounded in religion, and to be concerned that erosion of religious observance therefore undermines these values.”
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