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Promoting Religious Freedom = Promoting Human Rights

Freedom of religion implies the other basic human rights.

By: /
22 February, 2012
By: Clifford Orwin
Professor of Political Science, Classics, and Jewish Studies, University of Toronto

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.

 Neither, however, can any sect claim protection that violates any human right in its efforts to propagate or maintain itself, 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 the religious only. 

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.

Photo courtesy Reuters.

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