Skepticism about International Religious Freedom: Types 1 and 2

A little more on last week’s conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” which CLR co-hosted in Rome.

First, a word of thanks to the participants. The presentations were thoughtful, the debate sharp but respectful. It was all one could want in an academic conference. And we had a private audience at the Vatican with Pope Francis! As Marc writes, to have the Pope address us personally, on a subject we study, at a conference we helped organize, was a remarkable experience.

We’ll post videos of the presentations as they become available. (A video of Pope Francis addressing the group is here). For now, though, I’d like to say just a few words about what I saw as one of the central themes at the conference: a certain skepticism about the promise of “international religious freedom.”

To be sure, many at the conference endorsed the idea of international religious freedom. International human rights law accepts that such a concept exists. International courts and organizations apply it; national governments purport to promote it in their foreign policy. Perceptive scholars like Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who appeared on one of our panels, work hard to advance it across the globe. Yet the concept of international religious freedom also provokes some skepticism, and did so at the conference. It seems to me this skepticism takes one of two forms, what we might call “Type 1” and “Type 2″skepticism.

Type 1 skepticism holds that, although a universally applicable concept of religious freedom exists, states and international organizations lack the commitment to make it effective. At the conference, the Berkley Center’s Tom Farr expressed this sort of skepticism. He maintained that religious freedom is grounded in human nature itself. “Religion,” he argued, “is the universal human search for a greater-than-human source of being and ultimate meaning.” Because the search for transcendence is part of what it means to be human, the international order must allow people to participate in the search without unnecessary obstruction.  “To deny a person the right to engage in this search and to live in accord with the truths he discovers,” Tom maintained, “is to deny the very essence of what it means to be human.”

This formulation owes a great deal to natural law; indeed, in his remarks to the group, Pope Francis spoke of religious freedom in much the same terms. The problem for Tom, the source of his skepticism, is that states, including liberal Western states, do not do enough to protect this universal right. For example, he noted, “the American policy of advancing international religious freedom, which is highly rhetorical and lacks any strategic rationale, has been largely anemic and ineffective.” He noted that the post of US ambassador for international religious freedom has been vacant for months.

The second sort of skepticism, what I am calling “Type 2 skepticism,” differs fundamentally. It objects to the notion that “religious freedom,” as human rights advocates define it, is a neutral, universally applicable concept. What the human rights community perceives as neutral and universal is in fact a product of a particular culture and history–Western Christianity and the Enlightenment, especially the latter. One cannot legitimately expect other civilizations–Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, even Eastern Christian–simply to adopt religious freedom as Western lawyers define it. At the conference, Emory’s Abduh An-Na’im expressed this sort of skepticism. Religious freedom, he argued, must be expressed in idioms that non-Western societies can accept without surrendering their own religious and cultural heritage. I can’t recall his exact words, but he put it something like this: “If I have to choose between my ‘religion’ and ‘human rights,’ I’ll choose my religion every time.”

The two types of skepticism are related. Indeed, Type 2 skepticism provides an explanation for Type 1. In a world where civilizations differ on the core meaning of religious freedom, advancing a universal formulation is impossible. You might get states to agree on vague treaty language; the treatment of the right to change one’s religion in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights offers a famous example. But enforcement is another matter.

None of this is to say the we should give up on the idea of international religious freedom. Religious persecution around the world is too widespread, too serious a problem, for lawyers simply to throw up their hands. The two kinds of skepticism suggest, though, that as a practical matter advocates for international religious freedom may need to accept somewhat modest goals, at least for the present, and avoid universal assumptions that create unnecessary obstacles for their project.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: