A Philosophical Basis for Transatlantic Cooperation on Religious Freedom?

On October 8-9, the Religious Freedom project, together with several sponsors, including the British Council, hosted a public dialogue on religious freedom policy and opportunities for transatlantic cooperation on this issue. However, differences among Western democracies are significant. These blog entries further explore this issue, and they also discuss the state of religious freedom in countries that are often the targets of the West’s policies.

By: Timothy Shah

Under the auspices of the British Council, Boston University, Notre Dame, and the Religious Freedom Project, a truly wide collection of individuals and institutions came together to organize a conference at Georgetown University on October 8-9, 2015 on the subject of transatlantic cooperation to advance international religious freedom. In the course of the conference, despite powerful countervailing trends, compelling theoretical and practical reasons emerged for thinking that such cooperation is eminently possible.

On first blush, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the very idea of transatlantic cooperation to promote religious freedom. Consider the radically different approaches of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom to the question of church-state relations. America is known for its commitment to constitutional and institutional non-establishment combined with a highly religious political culture, complete with “In God We Trust” on its currency; France is known for its non-negotiable commitment to laicite and a public square sanitized of religious symbols and ideas; and the United Kingdom is known for its Anglican establishment and its Erastian church-state arrangement in which the sovereign is the formal “governor” of the church. On top of all that, as Robert Kagan opined more than a decade ago, Americans and Europeans tend to have markedly different ways of framing national priorities, assessing security threats, and implementing their foreign policies. As he memorably summarized the differences, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” Could countries with such different foreign policy styles and with such different views of religion’s proper role in public life really have much in common—much less actively cooperate—when it comes to promoting religious freedom in the world? 

Well, yes, actually. And part of what inspires me to answer in the affirmative is a series of eloquent remarks my friend and colleague Fabio Petito of the University of Sussex offered in the course of the conference. 

Religious freedom as the moral minimum of non-coercion

One remark was of a theoretical nature. On the last panel on the second day, Fabio Petito made the powerful point (which I paraphrase here) that the moral intuition that religious coercion is prima facie wrong is not a uniquely Western or modern intuition but widespread across cultures and across history. By religious coercion, I think Petito meant the deliberate use of force to compel people to alter, abandon, or muffle their religious beliefs and practices, or to punish and even eliminate people on account of their religion (where, he implied, such use of force cannot be justified by the very high demands of public justice or public order). Despite the fashionable anti-universalism that tends to prevail in such discussions, he forcefully asserted that this intuition is widely evident and available across an incredibly wide range of historical epochs, cultures, and religious traditions, and is not restricted to cultures influenced by, say, modernity, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment. 

It is worth underscoring, though, how much Fabio Petito’s assertion of the universality of religious freedom runs against the grain of important intellectual trends today. Indeed, a growing number of scholars today—whom Daniel Philpott calls the “new critics of religious freedom”—assert that the whole project of religious freedom presupposes modern, parochial, and controversial views of religion, the individual, freedom, and conscience. Rather than protect people from coercion, the project of religious freedom coercively compels people to conform to a reductive privatization, creedalization, and interiorization of religion. In the view of the “new critics,” religious freedom is in effect an ideology that serves certain powerful interests. According to this ideology, only “good” or “authorized” kinds of religion—essentially quasi-Protestant forms of religion that hinge on creedal confession and belief and are willing to submit to elite-prescribed privatization—are worthy of legal and constitutional protection. Or so one prominent “new critic,” Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, seems to argue in a new book. In fact, according to Hurd, the modern project of religious freedom is so narrow, demanding, and coercive that it is really an elaborate system of “mind control.” 

Despite the spread of these fashionable views, Fabio Petito is on to something. The core idea of religious freedom is not coercive conformity. On the contrary, the core idea of religious freedom is precisely the opposite—non-coercion in religious matters.

Furthermore, the minimalist idea of religious freedom as religious non-coercion, far from being parochial or peculiar to the modern West, enjoys a widespread resonance across history and across cultures. 

One sees this when one considers, for example, the apologetic works of the early Church father Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220). A number of these works Tertullian penned in order to refute anti-Christian calumny and halt anti-Christian persecution. Around the year 212, he addressed one such work to the Roman proconsul of Carthage, Scapula. As I note in a volume forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, Tertullian used the occasion of a fresh wave of anti-Christian attacks to advance an argument that religious coercion in general—not just anti-Christian coercion—is wrong as a matter of principle. Here is what Tertullian said:

“[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature [humani iuris et naturalis potestatis], that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us—the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine.” 
Note that this compact and lucid argument for the intrinsically voluntary character of religion, and hence the intrinsic illegitimacy of religious coercion, appears in human history in North Africa in the early third century—some 1,300 years before the European Reformation and some 1,500 years before the European Enlightenment. 

 Furthermore, note that Tertullian is appealing here to what he takes to be a common-sense, moral intuition, to use Fabio Petito’s phrase, as well as a common-sense, shared intuition about the nature of religion. He is not building an elaborate theoretical edifice. Nor is he advancing (or assuming) a parochial conception of “religion” or a narrowly Christian moral, theological, or philosophical argument. His assertion of the injustice of religious persecution occurs in an apologetic work he crafts precisely for the sake of persuading people who violently oppose his Christian views—views that were, as a matter of fact, held by an exceedingly tiny proportion o
f the population of Carthage in the early third century C.E. He therefore seeks to rest his argumentative case on premises such as the illegitimacy of religious coercion that he is confident his pagan audience will be capable of understanding and embracing. In other words, a doctrine of religious freedom—a phrase, by the way, that it is not anachronistic to apply to Tertullian because he uses the very phrase “libertas religionis” or “religious liberty” in his Apology of 197—appears in his writing not as the conclusion of an elaborate philosophical or theological chain of reasoning. Rather, Tertullian presents his assertion of the injustice of religious coercion as a shared, inarguable starting-point in a practical plea for an end to state-sponsored Christian persecution. He expects that even on their own understanding of piety, religion, and justice, his pagan interlocutors should be able to grasp the unjust and unreasonable character of religious coercion and persecution.

Religious freedom: intimations of universality

There are many further hints, I believe, that the simple moral intuition that religious coercion is essentially wrong as a matter of principle is indeed widely shared across vast historical, cultural, and religious distances and is certainly not restricted to a few cultures or traditions.

One detects the intuition underlying the edict of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka in India in the third century B.C.E. that “a man must not…disparage [the sect] of another man without reason.” One sees it underlying—and indeed driving—the moral drama of the narrative in the deuterocanonical First and Second Books of Maccabees, in which a large contingent of Jews rebel against the Hellenizing policies of king Antiochus in the second century B.C.E. that sought to impose religious and cultural uniformity. (As Mattathias responds, “We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left” (1 Maccabees 2: 22).) One sees it in Sophocles’Antigone, in which the heroine defies Creon’s unjust decrees — decrees that are unjust chiefly because they impose a kind of religious coercion by preventing the fulfillment of a central, binding obligation of piety. One sees it in the church father of the late second century, Irenaeus, who pithily and powerfully declares, “there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Ch. 37, sec. 1). One sees it in the early fourth-century church father Lactantius: “For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist” (Divine Institutes, Book V, Ch. 19, sec. 20).  One sees it with enormous force and clarity in the famous injunction of the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). And one sees it in the fact that the nearly 2,500 bishops from around the world who gathered for the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) concluded their months of deliberation and drafting on religious liberty with a declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, that revolves around the simple proposition that “all human beings ought to be immune from coercion” in religious matters. 

In other words, contrary to the “new critics,” religious freedom is the basic and remarkably widespread idea that as a general rule people should enjoy a simple freedom from compulsion and coercive interference in religious matters. It is not the normative expectation that individuals and communities should conform or aspire to some particular, parochial, quasi-Protestant notion of religion, or to some specific kind of church-state (or mosque-state…) arrangement. Nor does it insist that they should conform to notions of individual autonomy peculiar to modern Western liberalism. Rather, religious freedom is more a No than a Yes. It is a great No to the idea that any human agent enjoys a presumptive, standing right to coerce the consciences of individuals or communities in their beliefs and practices in matters of religion. What it precisely does not do is prescribe or entail any particular, elaborate religious, philosophical, or political doctrine. 

Now I would be quick to emphasize that, in my own view, religious freedom is ultimately rooted in or founded on deep truths about the nature of the human person, the nature of the divine, and the nature of the relationship between the two. However, various—and indeed very different and even conflicting—interpretations of those truths can all nonetheless converge on the simple and indeed very minimalist idea that coercion in religious matters is presumptively wrong. One kind of view might ground and articulate the essential wrongness of religious coercion in terms of a violation of basic justice. Another view might articulate it as a violation of the inherent natural rights or inherent dignity of all human beings. Another view might articulate it as an attack on the nature and integrity of true religion or piety, understood as the duty to seek the truth about God, and then freely to conform one’s conscience and actions to the truth one has found. Another might reject religious coercion as an assault on the moral autonomy proper to all rational beings. But the basic idea or principle of religious freedom as such is different from the various religious or philosophical views that might ground or justify or explain the underlying rationale(s) for religious freedom. Religious freedom in and of itself is not an elaborate social doctrine or lofty political aspiration or complicated philosophical theory. Properly understood, it is not a ceiling, but a floor. It is not “mind control,” but a moral minimum. 

That is, religious freedom should not be seen as the long-term end or goal of a political society. It should be seen as a necessary beginning, without which even a minimally decent and stable society is either impossible or exceedingly difficult to achieve and sustain. It is what societies need to do to get past the gate of acceptability, not what societies should do in order to achieve social or political perfection. (In some ways, this whole way of thinking about religious freedom might be called the “religious liberty of fear,” inspired by Judith Shklar’s minimalist understanding of liberalism epitomized by her phrase, “the liberalism of fear.”

Of course, the claim that the intuition of the essential injustice of religious coercion is widespread must reckon with the obvious and countervailing fact that the practice and justification of religious conformity and coercion are infinitely more widespread. And the new critics of religious freedom are right to point to the ways in which even ideologies and systems that claim the label of religious freedom have been used to mask or legitimate atrocious forms of religious coercion. Isn’t it hard to argue that religious freedom is universal when religious freedom has been so seldom respected, and when systems of religious coercion and conformity are the assumed and legitimate order of the day, even at this very moment? 

My own take is that the widespread intimations of the essential injustice of religious coercion gai
n even more force and are even more impressive when they are juxtaposed with the widespread, systematic violations of this moral intuition across human history, including in the present day. My reasoning is roughly as follows. Powerful regimes and groups—including regimes and groups that think of themselves as liberal and democratic—always possess enormously tempting incentives to impose religious uniformity and limit religious difference and dissent. Religion has probably been the single most powerful source of political legitimacy in the history of humankind. Any religion beyond the control of a political community therefore represents a potentially serious threat to its authority, unity, and stability—a powerful potential source of political de-legitimation, or political division, or both. Some rulers and some political communities will therefore always see even a modicum of religious freedom as a risk they cannot afford to take. Given all of these powerful incentives, it is all the more remarkable that the intuition that religious coercion is unjust has been so regularly and widely articulated across history—against all the odds, one might say. In order for this perpetually uncomfortable idea to have overcome the odds in so many different contexts, it seems reasonable to conclude that it must be rooted in fundamental and enduring intuitions concerning the nature of humanity, the nature of morality, or the nature of religion, or all of the above.

Religious non-coercion: a shared theoretical and practical basis for cooperation? 

Fabio Petito expressed another insight that argues in favor of the possibility of more robust transatlantic cooperation on religious freedom. As a practical matter, he argued in an intervention from the floor on the first day of the conference that what Western governments can and should do with respect to advancing international religious freedom is focus on working together to reduce and stop the worst forms of persecution in matters of religion or belief. In other words, what they should do is focus on the most extreme forms of coercion inflicted against individuals and communities in their religious beliefs, norms, practices, and institutions. And they should intentionally work harder and work more closely together to encourage societies around the world to stop these forms of coercion. 

This, of course, is a simple point. But it is striking that this second, practical policy point converges very powerfully with the first, theoretical point about the widely shared intuition of the wrongness of religious coercion. Together, they yield the following, crucial conclusion: To focus on the most serious forms of coercion in religious matters around the world is not to pursue a lowest-common-denominator understanding of religious freedom. To focus on such forms of religious coercion is not just a practical policy imperative. It is not something we should do simply because it is a goal that is easier to reach or one we can more easily agree on despite our differences—low-hanging fruit, as it were. Rather, to focus on such forms of religious coercion presupposes a more theoretically sound and more precise understanding of what religious freedom actually is in the first place. 

To elaborate, if the foregoing theoretical reasoning about the basic and widespread notion that religious coercion is presumptively and essentially unjust, then religious freedom precisely is the avoidance of such forms of religious coercion. That is, both by universal or near-universal definition and by universal or near-universal intuition, religious freedom is nothing other than the right of individuals and communities to immunity from coercion in religious matters. Therefore, religious freedom can be said to be respected in a society—indeed, fully respected—precisely insofar as that society simply lacks or avoids undue or unjust religious coercion. It follows that a society can be said to have at least basic religious freedom insofar as it simply avoids the most serious, substantial, and obviously unjust forms of coercion of individuals and communities in their religious beliefs and practices. On this understanding, then, from both a theoretical and practical point of view, it becomes a sound goal of policy—and a solid basis for transatlantic policy cooperation—to identify and to stop the most serious and substantial forms of religious coercion being carried out by governments and non-state actors in the world today. 

Of course, this way of looking at religious freedom does not resolve all theoretical and practical difficulties. For one thing, there are obviously very different types of coercion. And there are very different levels of coercion. And there are difficult questions about what precisely constitutes coercion. When members of one religious community are de jure unequal under the law for certain purposes, with fewer rights and opportunities in the economic sphere or political sphere, does that constitute coercion—perhaps subtle, perhaps indirect, but nonetheless real and serious coercion? When members of one religious community experience de facto discrimination in society for the purposes of employment or housing, does that in effect constitute a kind of coercion or coercive punishment for holding certain religious beliefs or for having certain religious identities?

These are not easy questions. But focusing on religious coercion may help us retrieve and clarify what religious freedom is all about. And, at the very same time, it may help us articulate a realizable policy goal that very different governments—including governments on both sides of the Atlantic—as well as people of very different religions, cultures, and philosophical perspectives can rally around. 

Timothy Samuel Shah is associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Associate Professor of the Practice of Religion and Global Politics in the Government Department at Georgetown University. 

This piece was originally published in full on Arc of the Universe. It was then republished in a three-part series on November 9, 10, and 12, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.