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.
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:
- That the concept of religious freedom articulated in this article presupposes a certain concept of religion, a concept associated with Western religion and culture;
- That a different concept of religion, associated with Eastern religion and culture, leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and
- 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!
 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.