Essay · Points to Ponder · Politics · Society

It’s Ironic, But Only a Secular Democracy Can Ensure Genuine Religious Freedom for All

By Adi Chowdhury


From the Catholic priest in China who can only stand by as government officials censor his lessons to fit convenient political agendas, to the Buddhists in Indonesia watching their temples going up in flames at the hands of local Islamists, to the young Muslim girl who has her hijab snatched away and stomped underfoot by bullies accusing her of aiding terrorism, to the atheist bloggers in Bangladesh hailed with death threats for their writings — people of all or no faiths have the universal right to be protected by the surety of religious freedom. That protection is one that has persistently and perpetually been bombarded by the hailstones hurled by the forces of intolerance and oppression, from all sides and all faiths.

Religious freedom is, has been, and hopefully will continue being recognized almost universally as a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. It is an essential component of a flourishing civilization, one that is not threatened internally by a populace that is deprived of the rights guaranteed by the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Yet it has also gained notoriety as one of the most widely and grossly abused human civil freedoms, whether the abusers are local obnoxious bullies or officials at the State Department.

What exactly is religious freedom? It is the principle that in a democracy, people of all religious faiths shall be endowed with the equal right to practice and observe the tenets of their faith. It also ensures that your religious observance cannot infringe on the rights of others — for example, if your religious beliefs disapprove of same-sex marriage, that cannot be justifiable grounds for suppressing the rights of gay people to marry, or assault/otherwise endanger gay people. You, however, have the right to believe that the act of gay marriage is heinous — but if you have only religious arguments against it, you will lose in court.

In addition, a truly free environment dictates that followers of all or no religions be treated equally and not suffer discrimination in school, workplace, when using public facilities, when pursuing political office, and more. Religious freedom also covers the liberty to switch religious faiths, though this is a more of a gray area as the main danger in leaving religion comes from a hostile family or immediate community rather than the state level.

What, then, is the most effective and pragmatic sociopolitical system to ensure genuine freedom of religion? The answer is ironic and may be outrageous to many — a fully secularized social governing system.


Secularism to Protect Religion

It may seen counter-intuitive. Why would secularism, the profession of disbelief in religion, be the most apt tool to defend religious beliefs? Because only in a truly secularized governing system can all religions and their followers be regarded as genuinely equal and enjoy rights and liberties on the same footing. In a government that professes or prioritizes no religion, all faiths can be placed on the same basic level, and that is the only environment in which religious freedom can truly be protected for all.

It is integral to define exactly what I refer to as a secularized government. It is not one that expressly endorses atheism, like China or the USSR. No–it is one that is constitutionally neutral to all religions. It is one that places no faith above or below another. It is one that bases its legislation on democratic discussions among civil leaders of all or no faiths.

There are 3 ways in particular in which only a secularized government excels in promoting religion freedom:

  1. Civil and political equality of the masses. People of all or no faiths are deemed to be inherently deserving of the same rights and liberties. High-ranking public office or political power is not reserved, whether implicitly or explicitly, for the followers of a certain religion. Minority faiths are not impelled to have to overcome certain obstacles in preaching or observing their faith.
    One example to keep in mind: the Ottoman Empire, which expressly followed Islamic law. People nowadays are quick to celebrate the Ottoman Empire as a brilliant example of multiculturalism and peaceful diversity, as members of most faiths could reside in relative peace within its borders. Yes, the Ottomans were indeed progressive  in their general attitude towards non-Muslims and served as a refreshing icon of religious pluralism. In most cases.
    But it would be hasty and simply untrue to claim that the Ottoman Empire maintained genuine religious freedom for the non-Muslims on its land. Ensuring the safety and protection of Jews, Christians, and Hindus is a good first step, but imagining Ottoman society as a heavenly paradise of happy tolerance is simply not correct. Non-Muslims were known as dhimmis and had to pay a certain tax in exchange for their protection. This taxation, known as the jizya, has generally been abolished by modern-day spawn of secular governance. In addition, the Ottomans gained notoriety for their practice of devshirmein which young Christian males were snatched from their homes and forcefully drafted into the military or as servants for the king.
  2. Freedom of speech regarding faith. A governing system prioritizing one faith will inevitably ensure that that faith enjoys certain privileges. As is often seen, even in the modern world, those “privileges” include safety from criticism.
    Writers, artists, and publisher who dare to criticize a certain religion and it practices often come under a firestorm of censorship and threats — threats that can materialize in very real violence. The danger in criticizing a predominant faith can come from both the state government as well as local fundamentalists. Only a secular state that offers equal protection and liberties for all or no faiths can implement effective safety measures for critics of religion to speak openly without the fear of violent backlash.
  3. A free and fair education system. Another gross abuse of religious prioritization is the manipulation of the education curriculum to adjust to the teachings of the faith. This can be in the realm of ethical teachings — teachings students to demonize homosexuals or atheists, for example — or substance-based, such as putting forth information that is either twisted or blatantly false to support a religious account of history and science.
    Science, history, and academia in general is, by definition, secular — it is a process based on research, impartiality, and experimentation. Lending certain privileges to a religion — such as the ability to maliciously play with information to better suit itself — is a threat to education and democracy.

These are the top 3 areas in which secularism demonstrates its superiority in terms of preserving democracy, but these are only 3. Many more exist and can be seen in all of history and the modern era.

As the world becomes more interconnected and more aware of itself — its needs, its failings, its dangers, its opportunities — it is vital to ensure the continuation of free, equitable, democratic human civilization. Rid the world of prejudice and unjustified partiality, and allow rationality to lead the way to a brighter tomorrow.


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