What does it Really Mean to Have Religious Freedom?

By Deryn
Mar 23, 2023

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Pilgrim Fathers -Religious Freedom

Pilgrim Fathers, photo White House Historical Association

Freedom of religion was one of the founding freedoms of the United States. The Pilgrim Fathers were a radical group escaping from persecution in England in 1620, because they did not subscribe to the structure system of the Church of England, established by Henry VIII. Later French Huguenots also arrived in Massachusetts, escaping from persecution after the religious wars in France. The Huguenots were a much larger group; some also went to South Africa and other more favorable countries. This was one of the downsides of the Reformation in setting Christians against one another due to their beliefs about Church organization. Protestants wanted a more ‘Biblical’ form of worship and church structure based on Calvin’s teachings. The Pilgrim Puritans wanted to set up a “perfect society where all people would be free to worship as they wished.”

This principle is enshrined in the constitution and international human rights treaties. Individuals should be able to hold their own religious beliefs and practice their religion without interference from the State or other individuals. This is the case in most democratic societies, as it allows for diverse beliefs and practices to live side by side and helps to ensure the peaceful coexistence of different communities. It applies not only to individuals but to religious institutions as well.

Religious Freedom is not Absolute.

Religious freedom is not absolute and can conflict with other rights and freedoms, such as the right to equality and non-discrimination. Some religions downgrade the role of women as an example or have a caste or hierarchy system. In these cases, it is essential to balance the rights and freedoms of individuals in a way that is respectful to all. This can be challenging at times when faced with specific practices that may not be appropriate in particular settings and upset other people who are not of that religion. I was greatly challenged when managing a housing complex in Cape Town when a new resident wanted to sacrifice an animal within the Complex to invite the spirit of his ancestors to dwell with him there in our midst. I had to fall back on the municipal regulations of not slaughtering an animal in an urban area to bring about a peaceful solution to this clash of freedoms.

Minority and Indigenous Religions are also valid.

It is also important to note that freedom of religion applies not only to majority religious groups but also to minority and indigenous religions. These groups can face specific challenges to their religious freedom, including discrimination, cultural assimilation, and loss of traditional lands and practices. There has been an unfortunate history of missionaries, however well-meaning and sincere they may have been in trying to eradicate Native culture and religions. The Constitution must protect the religious freedom of all individuals and communities, regardless of their size or the prevalence of their beliefs.

State Religions

Some countries have a state religion, i.e., the UK, where the Monarch is head of the State and the Church. In Finland, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland was the official state church; it is now a national church. Governments can also restrict the freedom of religious expression by laws that limit the construction of religious buildings, wearing religious dress, or using religious symbols in public spaces. They must be proportionate to the safety and protection of others’ rights and not unduly restrict the freedom of religion, and not just be a form of repression.

State Surveillance of Religious Groups

In some countries, religious groups are also subjected to state surveillance or are denied recognition as legitimate religious organizations. This can have severe consequences for the freedom of individuals and communities, contributing to a climate of fear and mistrust. To bring about understanding and respect for one another’s beliefs is a matter of valuing human beings as all being made in the image of their Creator. Civil laws that protect both the individual’s right to practice their religion and protect the community they live in is a delicate balance. Raising awareness and education that promote understanding and respect for different beliefs and the value of life should be part of the education system.

Belief Cannot be Proved.

A belief is just that; it cannot be proved, but there needs to be freedom for people to have their own faith or belief as a form of social-cultural system. This is one of the deepest needs of man to connect with something greater than himself, to be part of an eternal wisdom that gives him a set of values and moral code to live by. This is why Governments must protect the freedom of religion and promote religious tolerance between people of diverse beliefs and practices so that they may coexist in peace and respect for one another, as it is the moral code that holds a community together rather than the legal code.

Tradition versus Belief

At the same time, religious groups need to respect the choices of their members if they decide to leave a specific group and believe something different. Sometimes, life teaches us lessons so that what we formerly believed is no longer valid for us, and so our absolutes change to new ideas and beliefs. This is also growing in understanding; just like children no longer believe in Santa Claus once they reach a certain age, they will still pretend there is Santa Claus when they are adults and have children of their own. It is a tradition rather than a belief, and so it is with many religious practices, tradition rather than belief.  An individual will believe what is true for him that will give him the moral code by which to live, often based on his religion’s wisdom and sacred books.

Freedom of religion is a very delicate balance of different freedoms, yet foundational for a democratic society to function in a healthy manner. What are you views on Religious Freedom? Do join the conversation below.



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