Freedom of Religion: A Human Right


The Moral Problem of Forcing Religion on Others

Forcing individuals and groups to accept a particular person’s or group’s religion by means of threats, violence or manipulation is a violation of religious freedom, which is a human right. For example, the right to freedom of religion is affirmed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which says,

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In other words, religious freedom refers to the right to choose and practice one’s own religion.

The right to religious freedom is inherent in the very nature of the human person. It is evident from the universality of religious experience. The Latin phrase homo religiosus, “religious human being,” describes the religious leanings of the human person. He or she seems to be incurably religious. In fact, throughout the different cultures of the world, there is a human aspiration of Transcendence, a longing to worship someone or something, whether it be God, a god or gods.

Religious Freedom as a Human Act

Part III, Article 18, Section 2, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares, “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Coercing a person into accepting a religion violates his or her free-will, which is an autonomous act, that is, choosing a course of action for himself or herself. It is also called “a human act,” because it proceeds from a person’s reason and free-will. The act of faith, then, in order to be a human act, must be freely chosen. In short, a person should not be forced to believe against his or her own will.

There is, then, no such thing as a “forced conversion,” which is a contradiction. Of course, a person may be compelled to convert, saying and doing what a religion requires. But unless those acts proceed from within a person, from his or her free-will, then they are not really his or acts. He or she is merely “going through the motions” of conversion. In other words, a person convinced against his or her will is of same opinion still!

The Right to Propagate Religious Beliefs: Proposing, Not Imposing, the Truth

According to Articles 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people have a right to teach their religious beliefs to others. However, reasoning a person into accepting a religious viewpoint is different from forcing him or her to accept it. That is why, for example, any radical form of Christianity and Islam by which Christians and Muslims spread their faith by force and terroristic acts is wrong. Thus, if people are to be converted, if a real conversion is to take place, then it should happen with words, not weapons; persuasion, not coercion. Therefore, out of respect for human freedom, the freedom of choice, religion should not be imposed on others. But it may be proposed to them, with the possibility of either accepting or rejecting it.

Moral Problems with State-Sponsored Religions and Atheism

It belongs to the nature of human beings to have and exercise the capacity of reason and free-will, freely thinking about and choosing a course of action. In that capacity consists human dignity. That is why it is wrong for religiously controlled governments to deny their citizens the right to freedom of religion, to practice a religion which is different from the government under which they live. Likewise, it is wrong for a secular government (which, religiously, is supposed to be neutral) or an atheistic government (which denies a belief in God or Supreme Being) to persecute its citizens for professing and practicing a religion. Such a government is being repressive, attempting to eliminate an expression of the humanity of its citizens.

Freedom of Religion as a Distinctively Human Phenomenon

Religion is a distinctively human phenomenon, peculiar to human creatures. In other words, it is a manifestation or expression of being human. Whether a person is a member of an “organized religion” or not, he or she should be concerned about freedom of religion. However, if the right to religious freedom is attacked by a government, if the attack is left unchecked or unchallenged by its citizens or the international community, then what is to stop that same government from denying other human rights, such as freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly and the other human rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

To the American people, Martin Luther King, Jr. declares, “Let freedom ring.” In the context of his speech, he is referring, primarily, to the exercise of freedom throughout the United States. However, King also maintains that freedom is a basic human right and, in that sense, “Let freedom ring” refers to the right of all human beings to be free. For example, he says,

“Christianity insists that man is an end because he is a child of God, made in God’s image. Man is more than a producing animal guided by economic forces; he is a being of spirit, crowned with glory and honor, endowed with the gift of freedom. … Man, says Paul Tillich, is man because he is free. This freedom is expressed through man’s capacity to deliberate, decide, and respond.”

True freedom, then, which is lived out responsibly with a respect for the freedom of others, allows citizens of a government to flourish as human persons, to create human conditions for a happy life and to create a culture which is worthy of human beings. Similarly, religious freedom, which is lived out responsibly with respect for others’ freedom of religion, contributes to the fulfillment of the human person.