It’s remarkable, really. At the same time religious freedom appears both at a height of controversy in America and utterly collapsing in the Middle East, the world has at its fingertips volumes of research that affirm how good religious freedom is for every human on earth.
Most of us typically approach religious freedom through theology, philosophy, or history. Christians provide biblically informed arguments and learn from the history of our own tradition, both as martyrs and as oppressors. Similarly Judaism, Islam, and other religions provide their own rationale for religious freedom from within their traditions. And non-theists recognize their own self-interest in religious freedom when they are victims of theocratic oppression. We continue to need to cultivate and promote those reasons from within each religion and other worldviews.
But you may not have heard about the data-driven research that provide new tools with which to promote religious freedom. Sociologists and other scholars continue to find that religious freedom is a key ingredient to human flourishing around the globe.
Why do these evidence-based tools matter? In addition to providing worthwhile inquiry into human flourishing, these tools help communicate the universal value of religious freedom while bypassing animosity often rooted in ideological, political, or religious differences. For example, a national government might not care much about religious freedom because it wants to define and protect a national identity that includes religious identity.
For example, Indonesia’s government might understand the national identity of Indonesia to require most citizens to be Muslim. To be a Greek citizen with equal rights might mean to join the Greek Orthodox church. In Kazakhstan you might have a choice between either the Sunni expression of Islam there or an Orthodox expression of the Christian faith, but you’ll find your civil rights limited should you choose a minority faith, even if it is another expression of Islam or Christianity. In these environments religious freedom might be rejected as a threat to national identity.
Yet many government leaders desire some level of national security and economic prosperity. It just so happens that religious freedom strongly correlates to both security and prosperity. Thus, the evidence-based arguments for religious freedom provide both an appeal to the self-interest of national leadership and non-ideological arguments for those who genuinely seek the good of their people.
Here’s a quick glimpse at the research for further learning:
People are more safe and secure
Religious freedom correlates with the security of a people. For several years now the Pew Research Center has collected data that confirms this: the higher government restrictions are in given country, the higher incidence of social hostilities. Lower restrictions correlate to lower hostilities. A government that seeks the good of their people (Rom 13:14) ought to keep a light touch when considering restrictions on religion. In contrast, totalitarianism–religious or secular–steers citizens headlong into conflict and violence. Sometimes the hostilities are at the hands of the government, other times it is at the hands of the people while the government looks the other way.
The Pew research also shows a strong correlation between general government restrictions and the targeting of religious minorities. Of 59 countries with high government restrictions, 43 of them employed restrictions that targeted specific religious minorities. Thus, where government restrictions exist for everyone, the experience of someone in a religious minority is likely to be more severe than even their neighbor in the religious majority. Research further shows religious freedom correlates highly “with the presence of other freedoms…that have significant correlations with a variety of positive social and economic outcomes ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women.”
Economies grow faster and are more stable
Religious freedom is good for business, and vice versa. This is the theme at Brian Grim’s Religious Freedom & Business Foundation:
“Given that religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes, advances in religious freedom are in the self-interest of businesses, governments and societies. While this observation does not suggest that religious freedom is the sole or even main anecdote to poor economic performance, it does suggest that religious freedom is related to economic success.” (More via audio at Canon & Culture).
Businesses appear to stimulate innovation by embracing religious freedom. We may be learning that the cognitive skills developed by entertaining competing religious claims are related to problem solving in the workplace.
And in some sense, the data merely confirm what we know by instinct: hostilities and violence discourage commerce and chase away investment. Peaceful religious diversity is not necessarily easy, of course. But as Rep. Keith Ellison (MN-5) points out, such diversity sure beats homogeneity if the goal is a secure and prosperous society.
Religious freedom matters for everyone
According to the data, nearly three quarters of the world’s population (5.1 billion people) live in countries with high or very high hostilities or restrictions. That includes our brothers and sisters in Christ’s Kingdom and “all nations” among whom we are called to make disciples (Matt. 28:16-20). It is in this context Christians are commanded to “Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
We rest in the tension between both being set apart (1 Pet. 2:5-10) and called to live among what scholars would call the “religious other” (1 Pet. 2:12). We reject coercion because we are confident in the Holy Spirit and because we are to spread the gospel “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:16). Simply put, we are to delight in Christ and make disciples, all while advancing religious freedom out of love for our neighbors.