A Case for The Human Right of Religious Freedom
Recent years have seen the consensus on religious freedom weakening within the West. A phalanx of voices, including many prominent intellectuals, has been calling the principle into question, so much so that what was once a civilizational consensus now threatens to become a culture war. Yes, the principle is in the U.S. Constitution, some ask, but why? On what basis does religious freedom deserve a right of its own? Others ask whether religion is even a coherent enough phenomenon that it can be applied in law. They do not believe it is a genus of which there are species, or a stable, definable concept. At best, its meaning is discursive, intelligible only in context. Still others – like the writers known as the New Atheists – consider religion to be pernicious, an irrational atavism that inevitably begets instability and violence. Another set of critics (and there are lots of overlaps here) cast these doubts internationally and assert that religious freedom is a product of Western modernity and should not be imposed on others, particularly Muslims, who are most often the object of Western scorn. Contestation begets innovation, and so, for those of us who wish to see religious freedom prosper, the times call for a new defense of religious freedom. My task in this paper is to outline such a defense. I sketch how one could argue for religious freedom as a universal human right, not merely in the positive, conventional sense – that is, declared by constitutions and courts – but also in the moral, pre-political sense, that is, as a natural right. The defense begins with a defense of religion as a universal human phenomenon – definable, coherent, and, as we shall see, true to the experience of ordinary religious people.