It’s time to speak out against religious freedom.
Or, to be precise, against its promotion and the way it’s used. To those of us who believe freedoms should be absolute and robust, and are ardently opposed to the persecution of people for their beliefs, this might sound like an odd proposition. What could be more benign than another freedom?
But Canada is within days of opening a federal Office of Religious Freedom (within the Department of Foreign Affairs), and it’s becoming apparent that this isn’t a good idea for our country or the world. In fact, it’s very likely to contribute to the very problems we hope it might help solve.
We might as well face it: When groups of people exercise their self-proclaimed religious freedoms, terrible things tend to happen. The phrase “religious freedom” is evoked by Hindu nationalist parties in India to justify killing rampages in Muslim neighbourhoods, by the Buddhist-majority government of Sri Lanka to imprison members of the country’s Hindu minority, by Jewish religious parties in Israel to call for the denial of Israeli Muslims’ full citizenship rights, and by crowds of Salafists and Islamists in Egypt bent on ruining the lives of Coptic Christians.
For the ardent religious believer and the organized, hierarchical religious organization, “religious freedom” often refers to the right to restrict the freedoms of others, or to impose one’s religion on the larger world.
That’s why the most important religious freedom is freedom from religion. This applies not just to those without religion. It’s even more important for believers, who are most often persecuted by other faiths. In those examples of persecution listed above, it’s protection from a religion – not more freedom for believers – that’s needed.
The problem is that “religious freedom” is deliberately vague. Does it refer to the freedom of individuals to hold religious beliefs of their choice, to speak and write openly of those beliefs without penalty, and to partake in religious rituals on private property and at places of worship?
Those are fundamental rights. They’re already protected in constitutional freedoms of speech, thought, conscience, assembly and basic equality. That our Constitution specifies a separate “freedom of religion” is redundant. That we would use a government office to promote religion above other freedoms is dangerous: It implies that they’re less important.
While Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom will certainly be capable of defending people against the forces of religion (and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird mentions this possibility in his speeches), it appears to be hard-wired to do something far less benign. Its advisers and board members appear to be mainly religious believers and leaders of religious congregations.
In notes for a lecture to be given in Ottawa later this month, Northwestern University scholar Elizabeth Hurd writes of the “hegemony of religious freedom”: By making it a priority, we force people to be defined by their religions, not by their personal, political, national, ethnic or democratic interests.
She asks: “Is the world created by religious freedom a world that we want to live in? Is there an alternative? … Projects carried out in its name effectively define what it means to be religious and to be free in the modern world. In short, they shape political realities and religious possibilities on the ground.”
In other words, the Office of Religious Freedom will simply be a reprise of Canada’s old policies of official multiculturalism – with all their flaws and none of their advantages. It will force even narrower cultural definitions, and seek to define people strictly by their religious identities, under the leadership of spiritual authority figures who want it that way.
You’d think that Canada would be seeking to promote Western and Canadian values in the world’s less privileged corners. Yet, the core values of our common culture, the things that make us Western and modern – democracy, equality, the rule of law – were forged through the rejection of religion and the overthrow of spiritual authority.
Of course, this is what made “religious freedom” possible in the first place, by allowing religion to become a separate sphere away from public life – a matter of choice, rather than a requirement of existence. Canada could promote this peaceful removal of faith from the state, in countries where religions try to dominate. But our Office of Religious Freedom will send the wrong message to the wrong people.