12.) Religious Freedom

I would like to use article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the starting point of my presentation on religious freedom as a universal human right. Many of us are already familiar with it; allow me however to spell it out nevertheless. This is what it says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the 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[1].

I would like to advance three propositions, using article 18 just read out as the tee off point. The three propositions then may be stated as follows:

  1. That the concept of religious freedom articulated in this article presupposes a certain concept of religion, a concept associated with Western religion and culture;
  2. That a different concept of religion, associated with Eastern religion and culture, leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and
  3. That unless human rights discourse is able to harmonize these two concepts of religious freedom, ironically but not surprisingly, the clash of the two concepts might ultimately result in the abridgment of religious freedom in actual practice.


The concept of religious freedom as embedded in the article cited earlier is based on a particular concept of religion. It presupposes that an individual can only belong to or profess one religion at a time. Were this not the case the idea underlying the article that religious freedom implies the right to change one’s religion would not make much sense. Freedom then boils down to the freedom to change.

It is important to note that the idea—that one may belong to only one religion at a time—is shared by both the religious as well as the secular traditions of the West. Some have argued—notably W.C. Smith—that whether a religion is a reified entity is a modern Enlightenment idea. But the idea that one can belong to only one religion is part and parcel of both the religious legacy of the West—through the Abrahamic religions—and its secular legacy—through Enlightenment.

If one believes that one can only belong to one religion at a time, then it stands to reason that religious freedom would essentially consist of one’s freedom to change such affiliation by the voluntary exercise of choice.


In parts of the East, however, one encounters a somewhat different notion of religion. Many Chinese colleagues have told me that typically the well-read and well-bred Chinese did not look upon himself as being either a Confucian, or a Daoist or a Buddhist exclusively in pre-communist China. The question whether he belonged to one or the other had a certain artificiality about it. He or she was typically steeped in all three to varying degrees and he or she may have his or her preference—but, and this is the important point—preference did not imply exclusion. The contemporary reality of China is of course different. But the point gains in force when considered in the light of the contemporary reality of Japan. According to the 1991 census, 95% of the population of Japan declared itself as followers of Shinto and 76% of the same population also declared itself as Buddhists.

If we talk of China and Japan, India cannot be far behind. It is well-known that most modern Hindus do not regard the various religions of Indian origin—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism—as mutually exclusive religions. If the Indian census-takers did not insist that one can only belong to one religion—significantly a British legacy—I would not at all be surprised if the Indian religious statistical reality began to resemble the Japanese.

What would the concept of religious freedom possibly mean in the context of such a concept of religion? I would like to propose that it would now imply the idea of multiple religious participation rather than the idea of religious conversion. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked: What if a Hindu comes to feel that he can only be saved by Jesus Christ? Gandhi’s reply may be paraphrased thus: Good for him, but why should he cease to be a Hindu? Thus in the Eastern cultural context, freedom of religion means that the person is left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion. Such exploration need not be confined to any one religion, and may freely embrace the entire religious and philosophical heritage of humanity. Thus conversion is banned in Nepal and the rationale for such a policy is also couched in the rhetoric of religious freedom—that religious freedom means each religion being left to grow and develop on its own, without interference from other religions. Interestingly, even Islamic Indonesia subscribes to such a concept of religious freedom, where conversion from any one of the five religions so acknowledged—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity (Protestantism)—to the other is forbidden. This model has its positive side in terms of preserving pluralism. It however assumes a Western concept of religion and should be distinguished from the Eastern model which questions an exclusive concept of religion itself. It will perhaps be a point of interest for students of religion that in the Indonesian perspective Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are two distinct religions. But I digress.


I can now advance to, and advance, the third proposition. According to one concept of religion—herein dubbed Western—freedom of religion consists of freedom to change one’s religion when faced with a religious option. According to another concept of religion—herein dubbed Eastern—freedom of religion consists of not having the need to do so when faced with such an option.

Recent events in India indicate that the simultaneous operation of these two concepts can lead to religious volatility. India’s religious culture is heavily imbued with the Eastern concept of religion, India’s political culture relies heavily on the Western concept of it. I would now like to conclude by saying that the tensions now building up in India lend a certain urgency to our deliberations of this third proposition: because its forebodings are being borne out. A number of states in India have introduced Freedom of Religious Bills. One is not certain whether it is sheer naiveté or a highly developed sense of irony which accounts for this nomenclature, for the proponents of both Western and Eastern concepts of religion have begun to allege that such legislations restrict religious freedom. These legislations require prior clearance from the government authorities before a conversion can be carried out. Hindus are resentful because conversion is thereby still allowed; Christians are resentful because conversion is thereby impeded!

[1] Tad Stahnke and J. Paul Martin, eds., Religion and Human Rights: Basic Documents. (Columbia University: Centre for the Study of Human Rights, 1998) p.59.


5 Responses to “12.) Religious Freedom”

  1. Richard E. Hennessey Says:

    I would have thought that the first affirmation of the article, that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” is sufficient in itself. A blanket statement, it surely includes more than the freedom to change one’s religion from one religion to another. The “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” surely also affirms both the freedom to have more than one religion, on the one hand, and the freedom to have no religion at all. I would have been nice, though, if the statement of what was included had made it clear that the freedoms listed were not to taken as exhaustive.

    Your statement, “Thus in the Eastern cultural context, freedom of religion means that the person is left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion,” left me pondering. I agree and take it as a given that, with all the givens that should be given, a person should be “left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion.” Should, however, the person wish his or her religious beliefs to be true, then in some cases he or she will find himself or herself challenged by logic itself, for two contradictory beliefs cannot both be true. Let us take, then, a situation like the one about which Gandi was questioned and spell out more fully the Christian thesis at hand. It affirms: there is at least one savior and there is at most one savior and that savior is the person Jesus of Nazareth. That is a conjunction of three theses. This is inconsistent with a thesis holding that there is no savior, with one holding that there is not just one but two or more savior, and with one that there is at least one savior and there is at most one savior, but that savior is other than the person Jesus of Nazareth. One holding that any one of these last theses is true must logically hold that the Christian thesis is false. And, of course, vice versa.

  2. haslina ibrahim Says:

    how free are we. of course there is limit to everything in this world. or are we acting god here that we know for sure every bite of good and bad in our decision. freedom differentiate us from anything else in god’s creation. the exercise of freedom may lifted our position above anything or demoted to the lowest low of an ugliest beast in the world. it doesnt matter where we are, in the west of in the east. our freedom should be dictated by a guided conscientious.

  3. Gregory Baum Says:

    Judaism, Christianity and Islam demand exclusive fidelity to their own religious tradition. The modern response to this, as you suggest, has been to demand the freedom to change from one religion to another, if one so wishes It seems to me that this is not the whole story.
    In the creation of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Catholic religion became an essential element of the feudal order, and later Islam also become an essential dimension of the civilisation created through its influence. In both cases there was no clear distinction between religion and culture: they were insolubly interwoven, ─ similar to the Indian situation. In Catholicism and Islam, abandoning one’s faith was seen as a betrayal of one’s society and was most cruelly punished. In the Middle Ages Catholics burnt heretics because they were thought to undermine the bond that held society together. Even the Reformation did not change the situation significantly. Following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, the religion of the prince determined the religion of his people. Heresy continued to be punished in Catholic and Protestant lands.
    The distinction between culture and religion, I think, has been the product of modernity. Now societies were increasingly defined in secular terms. Because these societies embraced citizens of different religions, the common culture was not fully identified with any of them. An effort was gradually made to respect religious pluralism. It eventually became possible to change from one religion to another within the same culture. In the 19th century the papacy resisted the emerging secular culture: they continued to look at faith as an essential dimension of society and condemned the very idea of religious liberty. They did not win. In modern society, religion became increasingly seen as a person choice. Changing one’s religion did not challenge the common culture. (The present difficulty for many Europeans today is that the new Muslim citizens do challenge the common culture.)
    It seems to me, therefore, that the Western definition of religious liberty as the freedom to change one’s religion is not so much a reaction to the exclusive claims made by the Abrahamic religions as it is a product of modern society that resisted the inherited feudal order with its religious gounding and increasingly looked upon religion as a personal choice with no impact on the common culture.

  4. Dr. Runhild Roeder Says:

    Your comments are helpful as far as historical tracing of these developments visavis culture and religion are concerned. Dr. Sharma’s writings are helpful in tracing the map of ontological concerns in relation to ultimate reality. Both contributions are much appreciated.
    It is revealing to outline the impact of religious fidelity in European sicieties. This is mostly overlooked.

    We still have not siezed the structure of play of cognition and ineffable. Kant saw the latter feeding the former. Which comes first? Ineffable or the moment of cognition.? Awareness of the Absolute in culture, religion or in “something that precedes all enquiry? Kant certainly has turned the magnet of religious knowledge on its head by opting for reason with a vengeance. “Being and Time” interact as Martin Heidegger has shown us. Ontological and ontic are intricately woven.Heidegger denouned the provenance of catholicism to rescue the primordial from being ignored.
    Awareness of the Absolute in culture, religion or in ontological concerns is Awareness. Perciever and percieved must have a relation. Who is percieving? This is still being debated in various epistemological debates across science and religion.

  5. Dr. Runhild Roeder Says:

    This is indeed a timely service by Word Press.

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