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Is Religious Freedom Necessary for Other Freedoms to Flourish?

August 12, 2012

Thomas Farr in Big Questions Online:

This is indeed a big question. It implicates an array of philosophical issues and scholarly disciplines, but it also has distinctly practical, even strategic, dimensions. That is to say, it raises questions not only about human nature and human flourishing, but about the freedom and stability of whole societies, as well as international peace.

The “other freedoms” with which we are here concerned typically exist in a mature democratic system of civil society and ordered liberty. They include the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, economic activity, and equality under the law, and freedom from persecution or unjust violence.

If the answer to our question is “yes,” then religious liberty should be seen not only as a right that is critical to individuals, but also as a kind of linchpin for the bundle of freedoms that enable democracy to take root. If the other freedoms are somehow dependent on religious liberty, nations experimenting with democratic governance (think Egypt or Iraq) are unlikely to succeed without it. Furthermore, without religious freedom they are less likely to contain or eliminate violent religious persecution, extremism, or terrorism.

If, on the other hand, the answer is “no,” then religious freedom can be seen as important or unimportant, but — in either case — largely separable from human flourishing or the other freedoms characteristic of successful democracies.

We will return to human flourishing at the end of this essay. As for the broader issue of ordered liberty, both history and modern scholarship provide compelling evidence that religious freedom is indeed a necessary condition for sustaining the liberties that make democracy last. Of course, the other liberties are also critical. In a very real sense, each is necessary to the whole. In the 21st century, however, religious freedom is in global deficit(seventy percent of the world’s people lives in nations in which religious freedom is highly or very highly restricted). This factor increases the salience of our big question. [More]

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