Against the Erosion of Freedom of Religion or Belief

Published February 27, 2019 by Dr Gorazd Andrejč

Two decades ago, freedom of religion or belief seemed to be an almost 'outdated' topic in Europe. In Central and Eastern Europe, it was felt that significant freedoms have been achieved since the fall of communism and, after the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s had ended, the perception was that basic freedoms of religion or belief had been guaranteed in the Balkan region as well. To be sure, there were plenty of issues with the rights of particular communities and individuals that remained, and although 9/11 had not yet happened, European attitudes towards Muslims, in particular, were already influenced by the security concerns with salafi-jihadism. But, in general, this issue and others were being addressed within the framework of an overall commitment (at least, in principle) to freedom of religion or belief in Europe, both in the sense of equality of people of all religions and none before the law, and in the sense of a general development towards a culture of greater pluralism and inclusion. Western European countries, in particular, were leading this process towards greater religious freedom and diversification: a thorough protection of this freedom has been held up as one of the key Western values, something Europeans and Americans have seen themselves as championing in the face of a much weaker support of this freedom in the rest of the world or even straightforward opposition to it in some parts of the world.

Today, as the Western and European consensus on liberal democracy is weakening, the situation is different. Freedom of religion or belief has become a serious issue again, sometimes even as a principle itself. It is being attacked in various ways from different sides. It seems that sacrificing important aspects of freedom of religion or belief is, for many Europeans, an acceptable price to pay in exchange for political stability, public order, feelings of national or civilisational unity, or similar (real or perceived) public goods. In some countries – especially, but not exclusively, in Central and Eastern Europe, e.g. Hungary and Poland – the governments have utilised Christianity and its symbols to define their national identities in a simplistic and straightforward way, alienating non-Christian citizens. Following similar decisions by the Russian government in recent years, Hungary has, for example, introduced laws which discriminate against religious communities that are seen as untraditional or even viewed as traitors, supposedly betraying their national identity and interest. In such an atmosphere, both anti-Semitic and and anti-Islamic attitudes and actions are becoming normalised in Europe. Other minority communities and believers, including some Christian, have also been affected by the recently reinvigorated discrimination.

A lot of this backtracking on the freedom of religion or belief in Europe has to do with perceptions and fears of Islam, and even more so with deliberate deception and fearmongering about Islam. While it is understandable that most Europeans do not want to live under the rule of Islam and are critical of notorious abuses of human rights and the lack of freedoms in many Muslim majority countries, restricting the freedom of religion or belief in Europe in the name of 'Christian civilisation', and targeting and discriminating against European Muslims and other minorities, are wrong and destructive responses. It is exactly by respecting freedom of religion or belief even more thoroughly than it has done that Europe can affirm, develop and apply its values more fully. European Muslims are crucial and equal partners with the Europeans of other faiths and none in establishing this right in today's Europe, as well as in seeking constructive solutions of how to balance the right of freedom of religion or belief on the one hand with other crucial democratic rights, such as the right to privacy and the right to free speech. In fact, Europe can, and should, be a context that enables Islam to develop in new and progressive ways, more freely and in more honest and intensive dialogue with other religions and the secular culture, than it can in many other societies in the world, including those in which it dominates and where it cannot be honestly and openly critiqued. If the religious history of Europe has taught us anything, it is that such a critique, together with a strong protection of human rights (including the freedom of religion or belief), is essential for cultural, theological, philosophical and ethical development of religious traditions themselves.


This brings us to an often neglected fact that the prejudices and the resistance against the freedom of religion and belief often starts, not in European or state politics and law, but within cultural-ideological movements and/or religious communities themselves. Such a fight is normally an issue of power. Let us briefly analyse two facets of religious life where an honest commitment to freedom of religion sometimes gives way to other interests. First, the culture and the institutional manifestations of interreligious dialogue, which has been very important in the process of inclusion of religious minorities in European public conversation in recent decades, can sometimes systematically exclude certain voices and communities. The communities that have often been excluded are the 'minorities within minorities', such as Ahmadis and Alevis in Islam or Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons in Christianity, the followers of syncretistic traditions who combine elements of different religions, as well as atheists. Sometimes, such groups are themselves not interested in interreligious dialogue. But often, they are and when they are, exclusion of such groups is normally a consequence of an argument of power and a desire for visibility and representation in the public space by the 'main religious players'. Often, the exclusion of such groups is also a reflection of negative theological beliefs about such groups within the mainstream religious communities. While 'no-platforming' of certain minorities from public interreligious dialogue may not constitute a direct violation of the freedom of religion or belief in a legal sense, it creates a culture of exclusion and establishes hierarchies of importance that harm the culture of religious diversity and mutual respect.

Second, there is a notable resistance in some religious communities against the idea that people can, or should be free to, 'choose' and/or 'change' their religion, belief or unbelief. In some cases, 'changing religion' is considered favourably when people of other faiths or none convert to 'our side', while it is viewed as a grave evil of apostasy when believers of 'our faith' convert to other religions or none. It should not be forgotten that the right to choose and/or change one's religion is a crucial aspect of the freedom of religion or belief according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, article 18), the European Convention on Human Rights (article 9), and has been affirmed by several other UN and other international legal documents.

Against this backdrop, the authors of a recent book on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, Nazila Ghanea and Michael Wiener, explain:

"Although religious communities today display a broad variety of different attitudes towards freedom of religion or belief, ranging from full endorsement to reluctant accommodation to formal rejection, the idea that issues of faith become a matter of personal decisions in human rights remains disquieting for many believers. A practical test case is the treatment of converts and missionaries. Even communities which themselves engage in missionary activities frequently denounce those converting away from their own group as 'apostates' or demand State protection against 'proselytism', which in many countries is considered a punishable offence."[1]

Now, philosophically, the idea of 'choosing' one's religion or belief does seem problematic since it is indeed the case that we cannot fully, or perfectly freely, choose what we believe or find most meaningful. Neuroscientists are quick to point out that our choices are, at least in large measure, determined by biological, psychological, social and other factors which make us the individual that we are. But the meaning of 'choice' in the basic idea of the right to choose one's religion or belief should not be misinterpreted. That meaning is not 'being completely free to choose one's beliefs at will', neither does it presuppose a dualistic anthropology and a radically libertarian understanding of free will, according to which decisions are first freely made in a 'pure mind' or consciousness and only then the body and actions follow. Nothing like that is needed for recognising at least some volitional element in belief-formation and belief-persistence, which should rather be thought of as an acknowledgement of a measure of self-control, some capability to align one's action to what one finds persuasive and to carry out one's life plans, and the like. Our beliefs, religious or otherwise, are not always and/or completely out of our rational and volitional control. Respecting people's choice, however limited, to adopt, persist in or abandon their theological or philosophical understanding of themselves and the world, is nothing less than crucial for a democratic society which respects human beings as persons. Ensuring such a society in the future of Europe depends, therefore, not on paying mere lip-service to freedom of religion or belief as a European value, but on a consistent and thorough affirmation and application of this freedom.

[1] Heiner Bielefeldt, Nazila Ghanea-Hercock and Michael Wiener, Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2016), 2

Dr Gorazd Andrejč is an Affiliated Lecturer at the Woolf Institute and Research Associate of St Edmund's College, Cambridge. He is also Senior Researcher/Docent at the Institute for Philosophical Studies at Science and Research Centre of Koper and at the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts at the University of Maribor, Slovenia. Between April and June 2019, Gorazd will teach the Woolf Institute online course, Interreligious Understanding Today. Apply for the course here.

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