FORIS Working Group Report | Why People Need Religious Institutions and Why Religious Institutions Need Freedom

Title: Why People Need Religious Institutions and Why Religious Institutions Need Freedom

Authors: Paul Marshall and Timothy Shah

About: This working group report emerges from the collaboration of scholars associated with RFI’s Freedom of Religious Institutions in Society (FORIS) Project, including: Paul Marshall, FORIS Scholar and Director of RFI’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, and Timothy Shah, Architect of the FORIS Project. Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and Kathleen Brady of Emory University, both also FORIS scholars, reviewed and commented on the report. Their collective efforts offer a broad exploration of the grounds on which religious institutions merit robust freedom in their doctrines, internal organization, and presence in society. 

Conceiving of religion as natural to human beings and essential for human communities, the report views religion as profoundly social. These elements of religion become apparent when one reflects on the constituent components of religious practice observed across faith traditions through time.

The report then proceeds to examine the interplay between religion and society. It highlights the implications of the proposition that the origin of human society was born not of economic necessity or agricultural advancement but rather out of a desire for communal religious devotion. Building upon these elements, the report stresses that religious institutions are not marginal or incidental features of religion but rather constitute an essential exercise of it.

The report then turns to an oft-ignored theme: the bodily nature of human beings. Attempts to promote the goods of religion and community in ways that focus exclusively on the intellectual, mental, spiritual, or otherwise interior aspects of persons will be radically incomplete and inadequate.

The report concludes with two complementary arguments. First, religious institutions are a genuine public good and, second, securing their freedom can be a critical antidote to the social divisions rampant around the world. Though it may seem paradoxical to many, strengthening religious institutions by securing their freedom in full can be an important countervailing force to the divisive tribalism of our time.

Publication Date: October 2021

Recommended Citation: Marshall, Paul, and Timothy Shah. “Why People Need Religious Institutions and Why Religious Institutions Need Freedom.” Religious Freedom Institute, 2021.