Religious freedom does not mean freedom to practice illiberal religion

To defend religious freedom no more implies its superiority to other human rights than to defend any such right


Indonesian Christians protest violence by Islamic hard-liners in Jakarta, Aug. 15, 2010. (Dita Alangkara/AP)

The New Missionaries is a joint project between Maclean’s and OpenCanada.org, the Canadian International Council’s (CIC) hub for international affairs. Click here to learn more about the CIC. To read Janet Keeping on why there’s reason to question the government’s motives for establishing the Office of Religious Freedom, click here.

In establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, the present government is not placing religious freedom above other human rights, for the simple reason that to do so is impossible. To think that religious freedom is liable to being placed above other human rights is to misunderstand what is meant by religious freedom (and therefore to misunderstand its relationship to these other rights).

To defend religious freedom no more implies its superiority to other human rights than to defend any such right implies its superiority to others. Properly understood (and there’s no reason to conclude that the present government understands it improperly) freedom of religion implies the other basic human rights. All are aspects of the autonomy of the individual, so to defend any is to defend that autonomy, and therefore (in principle) all the others. To establish an Office of Religious Freedom is therefore wholly without prejudice to any other human freedom.

Here the crucial point to grasp is that religious freedom has never meant freedom to practice illiberal religion (i.e. any religion that seeks to employ coercion, whether of its own adherents or others). You can’t persecute under the mantle of freedom from persecution, and it’s precisely freedom from religious persecution for which “religious freedom” is shorthand. In a clash of dogmatic and intolerant sects (of which there are still many in the world today), neither party can invoke the protection of the principle of religious freedom.

Nor, however, can any sect claim protection for practices that violate any human right, for any such violation amounts to illegitimate coercion on behalf of religion. The best way to understand religious freedom is precisely as freedom from such coercion.

From this, it follows that religious freedom equally protects the religious and the non-religious. The believer can no more coerce the atheist than the atheist can coerce the believer. I don’t fault the Harper government for not billing its new entity as the office for the Equal Protection of Believers and Non-Believers. However, to defend religious freedom is, in fact, to vindicate such equal protection. Who benefits from the purging of all coercion from the realm of religion? Obviously not only the religious.

There is, of course, one sense in which the establishment of an Office of Religious Freedom does “place religious freedom above other human rights,” but that sense is neither improper nor sinister. All governments choose their fights, and then their fights within their fights. For the Harper government to create such an office is not to turn its back on other human rights. It’s merely to indicate that it will focus a portion of its limited resources for international human rights promotion on issues of religious freedom.

Consider this decision as analogous to one to create an Office of Freedom of the Press or of Freedom of Assembly. Would either such decision have aroused such animus? Neither of these freedoms is less fundamental than freedom of religion, but neither is either of them more so. All belong in the bundle, as necessary aspects of the human autonomy that we mentioned at the beginning. All three freedoms, moreover, are subject to massive violation in many parts of the world today. All are in sore need of white knights to ride to their defence. All, indeed, are in need of far larger squadrons of these than Canadian diplomacy (and the new office with its limited budget) have to deploy. Is the Harper government then to be faulted for choosing to employ its few drops of influence in one bucket rather than many? Or for choosing the issue that is most likely to command the enthusiasm of a large fraction of its supporters? Not by me it isn’t.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science, classic and Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, as well as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

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Religious freedom does not mean freedom to practice illiberal religion

  1. Seems we might run into some differences on what is “illiberal”  Interesting NP article on Imam Aly Hindy and his views.   “Illegal means illegal in Islam, not illegal in the Canadian law, because everything is legal in the Canadian law, except children. Other than that, they allow everything.”
    “……..the role of foreign funding in aiding those intent on breaching liberal democratic values, and whether mechanisms were needed to ensure that Western freedoms were not exploited to advance illiberal ideas.
    Another issue is that, despite their willingness to finance Imam Hindy’s centre in Canada, neither Saudi Arabia nor Qatar allows religions other than Islam to be preached in their own countries.
    “This has always been the argument against: If we are going to let charities accept outside money, it should only come from countries that would allow us to do likewise, basically on the principle of reciprocity.”

  2. This article is insipid.  the author creates a straw man by claiming that rights are not being ranked, rather than addressing why this government has chosen to address this particular right. Later he hints that resources are scarce and that some similarities exist between the general nature of many rights (actually, that’s being generous, his actual argument makes far less sense).  These are descriptions of a program, not an explanation or justification for a program.  In fact the only real point made is “it’s popular with his base”.

    His language is ill-thought out and unsupported.  Why are all other impressions of human rights “improperly understood”?  the idea of a “crucial point” we must understand is dropped into the middle of the article without build up.  Morever, the idea that the office would support “coercive religions” (Islam, I assume) or not allow freedom from religion hasn’t been seriously been advanced.  The author provides no references to show that this was a serious concern at all, let alone the “crucial” crux. 

    Frankly, if this were an undergraduate paper it would have to receive a very low grade.  That it comes from a fully accredited professor doesn’t reflect well on him.

    if this is the best the pro side can do, the office was quite clearly a mistake.

    • It kind of makes sense for the government to start making some inroads on this issue to me. Considering the growing number of non-Christian immigrants into Canada, why wouldn’t we want to export our version of religious freedom to other countries that provide us with future Canadians. I agree with the author’s comparison of the rights to free association and religious freedom… in my opinion they are indeed just as important as any of the others. Considering the religious tensions that have been bubbling up more noticeably since the 90’s it is fairly logical that the government would want to spend a little extra on it. I don’t really agree that it is clearly a mistake…

      • I would also like to see as many countries as possible adopt Canada’s model of religious tolerance and legal protection.  I wish the author had thought to address the methods the office would use to acheive this, and why they are focusing on this right as opposed to many others, equal or not. 

  3. I have found neither Keeping or Orwin’s arguments very persuasive. Ms Keeping writes about her neurosis without providing any answers to her questions – did she bother to do any research? – and Orwin seems to think the world consists of mild mannered Anglicans who fundamentally agree on human rights and Islam. It is astonishing amount of twaddle by two educated nitwits.  

    Russell Mead ~ Faith And Progress:

    This aptitude for capitalism has at least some of its roots in the way the British Reformation created a pluralistic society that was at once unusually tolerant, unusually open to new ideas, and unusually pious. In most of the world, the traditional values of religion are seen as deeply opposed to the utilitarian goals of capitalism. 

    The English-speaking world, contrary to the intentions of almost all the leading actors of the period, reached a new kind of religious equilibrium in which capitalism and social change came to be accepted as good things. Indeed, since the 17th century, the English-speaking world for the most part has believed that embracing and even accelerating economic, social, cultural and political change fulfills their religious destiny.

  4. Give me freedom from religion every time.Keep Canada as secular as possible.Let people practice their faith at home or in church and not in public space.

    • In other words, you get to force your own irrational beliefs on everyone else, at least in public spaces.

  5. I think I agree with everything in this piece.  I don’t say that very often with respect to Macleans pieces.

    This in particular strikes me as the crux of the matter:  ” The best way to understand religious freedom is precisely as freedom from such coercion.”

    In other words:  if a religion is coercing people into doing things they prefer no to do, it’s got to be stopped.  And if the state is coercing people into doing things which their religion forbids (other than by preventing the aforementioned coercive religious behaviour) then it’s got to be stopped.

    With this in mind, it makes a certain amount of sense that the current administration would set up an office to defend this particular freedom:  this freedom happens to be in need of more defense than most of the others at this point in history, as the recent imposition in the US of coercion towards Catholic institutions makes abundantly clear.

    • Whoa there.  This is a pernicious untruth verging on an overt lie: “…the recent imposition in the US of coercion towards Catholic institutions.”  What the Obama administration seeks is nothing more than what the majority of states already have: a rule whereby the non-ministerial employees of non-ministerial business entities owned by churches, cannot exclude contraception from health coverage.  For example the office workers and custodians in Catholic hospitals: they do not perform a ministerial role, nor do the hospitals, so they should not be exempt from uniform laws that apply to other workplaces.  And that’s all.  Or would you like to defend the proposition that someone should be able to claim a religious exemption to child labor and workplace safety laws too?

      • You really think that refusing to pay for someone’s contraceptives is comparable to child labor or workplace safety? Now that’s what I would call a “pernicious untruth”. People have a right to be treated like humans on the job, i.e. to have their safety looked out for. They don’t have a right to make their employer pay for their every whim. Contraception isn’t a necessity of life, despite the left’s obsession with it.

        “…so they should not be exempt from uniform laws that apply to other workplaces.”

        I see. And I suppose if the state were to make a law that all restaurants must serve pork to customers who ask for it, you’d be perfectly ok with that even as Jewish restaurants faced persecution for refusing to obey. And I guarantee you, pork is a hell of a lot healthier than the pill, which happens to be a class A carcinogen alongside benzene and asbestos.

  6. Although the article is correct on its face meaning, it is superficial and poorly worded. For example, the word ‘coercion’. Newsflash: There is no religion (or very very few) that does not ‘coerce’ somebody, namely, its own members or those using its facilities, into adhering to a doctrine. Said doctrine may violate the members’ ‘human rights’; however, if a religion is a voluntary association of adults, that’s the right of the religion and of the mmembership. On the other hand, if depriving a person of their human rights puts them in danger, and especially in the case of a minor child, the State has every right to override religion’s ‘freedom to coerce’. 

    • You articulate a common misperception, namely that religion is about coercion.  On the contrary, religion is all about asserting the human free will.  However, you are not truly free unless you are fully in control of yourself.  That is the point that secular liberals seem to be incapable of grasping.

  7. Religion should be treated as a menace to public health, just like smoking. Governments should actively ban the advertisement and public display of all religion, and tax the crap out of it. Like smoking, schools should indoctrinate children against belief in any of these archaic Stone Age superstitions. That’s the only sort of government funding that should be directed towards religion. Anything else is an insult to rational thought and human dignity.

    • But of course it’s perfectly fine to force your own irrational beliefs on everyone else.

  8. Given limited resources, as the author points out, an office of religious freedom *DOES* place religious freedom above other human rights — as it’s decided those particular freedoms are for some reason more deserving of our limited resources than any other.

    If the government is really treating them all as equal, it would establish an Office of Human Rights Freedom.

    On the other hand, we have the author asserting that it really is an office of human rights, but the name wouldn’t fly well with their supporters.

    So we have one of two possibilities:
    1. The government does value religious freedom (though which religions and which aspects of those religions) above other human rights and freedoms

    2. The government is lying to its supporters.

    To my mind, either one is entirely plausible.

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