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Get Religion?

There is simply no getting around the fact that religion and religious freedom are under fire—sometimes quite literally—not only in the United States but all over the world. It was just a week into 2015 when a pair of terrorists claiming retribution in the name of Islam killed 10 staff members and two police officers in and around the Paris offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. They professed to be avenging the publication of cartoons perceived to be blasphemous to the Muslim people, including demeaning caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

That this act arose from a twisting of the Koran and was in no way endorsed by the overwhelming majority of those following the Muslim faith is self-evident to those who practice rational belief and spiritual tolerance. But in a media age when sensationalism too often captures the public imagination, it was religion itself, rather than the murderous aggression of a fanatical few, that was instantly put on trial in the event’s tumultuous aftermath.

As wrenching and grim as was the tragedy in France, however, it carried with it an undeniable opportunity. The incident sparked a worldwide discussion about religious faith and freedom that was perhaps long overdue, shining a needed spotlight along with an acknowledgement of restrictions that some believe a necessary—and perhaps inevitable—evil.

“Sometimes, the price you have to pay to protect people from an attack like we saw in Paris is to limit your freedom,” says Dr. John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association ( and director of the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

“But you also have to be very careful of the kind of restriction you impose and be very vigilant. You have to protect religious freedom, you have to promote it, you have to defend it. When you do nothing, you lose the freedom you have and you don’t deserve it, either.”

It is further instructive to note that what happened in Paris had nothing whatsoever to do with religious freedom, maintains Dr. Graz. “In fact, it’s just the opposite,” he says. “It’s an expression of religious intolerance and fanaticism. It’s imposing what you believe on others and not allowing people to express their own beliefs. Those who are ready to kill others for having a different opinion, for criticizing their ideology, have closed their mind to freedom.”

There is also another critical issue at play here that is largely missing from the current public discourse: The editors at Charlie Hebdo appeared to go to great lengths to antagonize extremists and some might even say provoke the deadly terrorist response with its publishing of sacrilegious depictions of the Prophet Muhammad they knew to be deeply offensive to Muslims. Is the freedom to publish also the freedom not to publish?

Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, drew fire from his contemporaries in the journalism community for his refusal to reprint the images in question. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well,” Baquet said, “that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these (were) gratuitous insult.”

At what point would news value have overridden those standards? “You would have to show the most incendiary images,” Baquet said. He ultimately decided against it and had some support from his fellow journalists, including Glenn Greenwald, who said via Twitter, “When did it become true that to defend someone’s free speech rights, one has to publish and even embrace their ideas?”

What there is less argument over, however, is that an America and a globe lacking the freedom to spiritually worship and believe as its citizens choose is not in fact free at all. The issue is gargantuan. In its annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found that some three-quarters of the world’s population live in countries where there is either no religious freedom or massive restrictions. It leads to the persecution of hundreds of millions of Christians, Muslims and others.

“In most places in the world right now, people live in societies that punish them either societally or governmentally for speaking out too openly about religion or for changing their religion,” finds Michael De Dora, director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy and the nonprofit secular organization’s representative to the United Nations.

You have to protect religious freedom, you have to promote it, you have to defend it. When you do nothing, you lose the freedom you have and you don’t deserve it, either.

Dr. John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association

This, in short, is why religion remains of great significance on a global basis. The 2010 book The Price of Freedom: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century by religious freedom scholars Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke concluded that religious freedom is a key ingredient to peace and stability, as measured by the absence of violence perpetrated in the name of religious belief. Their takeaway was that for societies to be civil, states to remain stable and economies to flourish, faith and its protection is essential.

Of course, even in the United States, we are not necessarily free from religious persecution. Certainly not Jews, who in parts of the country have increasingly faced anti-Semitism for practicing their faith. And certainly not Muslims, who have met an increasing amount of hatred and discrimination (what’s described as “Islamophobia”) since 9/11. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the FBI reports that anti-Islamic incidents were the second-least reported hate crimes prior to 9/11 and the second-most since then—a growth rate of 1,600 percent.

The irrational fear of mainstream, peace-loving Muslims in America since 2001 is evidenced by several cities that have attempted (mostly successfully) to stop the construction of mosques; state attempts to ban sharia law; rumors of President Obama secretly being a Muslim; profiling of Muslims in college and in the workforce; and hate speech perpetrated against Muslims.

Indeed, the scars left by the 9/11 attacks may never fully heal and remain a divisive wedge of intolerance aimed at America’s Muslim community. Outraged family members and community groups took their anger to the streets in opposing the building of a 15-story, $100 million mosque and community center two blocks from Ground Zero after it was announced in 2010. It prompted a polarizing national discussion about religious freedom and free speech.

A scaled-down version of the mosque ultimately opened in 2011 amid great controversy. Plans were ultimately filed in April 2014 to demolish it, with a three-story museum dedicated to Muslim arts and culture scheduled to take its place.

The fury aimed at the Muslim community speaks to a disturbing level of bigotry and outright discrimination. It raised its ugly head again last December when local residents and city officials overcame their initial reticence to allowing a mosque to open in a shopping center in Kennesaw, Georgia. The City Council had voted weeks earlier to deny the permit, prompting lawsuit threats from Muslim residents citing violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

The United States also hardly has cornered the market on hostility targeting Muslims. A spate of arson attacks on mosques in Sweden during the last week of 2014 drove hundreds of protesters into the street in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg marching under the banner, “Don’t Touch My Mosque.” It climaxed a rash of more than a dozen attacks on Swedish mosques in 2014, in a nation where Muslims make up some 5 percent of the country’s 9.5 million people.

I think right now, particularly in America, you’re seeing a lot of nonreligious people who are concerned with the way religious freedom is being discussed.

Michael De Dora, director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy

In the United States, where freedom from religious oppression is Constitutionally guaranteed, the question must be asked: What is the role and relevance of religion in modern America? Is it even of great consequence in the lives of most? Would giving greater consideration to the role that faith plays in peoples’ lives and in society help to improve the state of the country?

The nearly universal answer to that last question is an unequivocal “Yes.” Faith permeates the American society, supplying a moral and ethical compass for a majority of the country’s 320 million residents. That devout belief, no matter what it is, must be protected as a fundamental right, as emphasized above. To deny a person the right to practice spiritually is on the same level as to deny rights based on gender or ethnicity.

What is equally true domestically in 2015, however, is the importance of respecting the convictions of the nonreligious community as well. A Pew Research Center survey in October 2012 found that 1 in 5 adults and a full third of adults under 30 claimed no religious affiliation, while a second Pew study in September 2014 concluded that 72 percent of those polled think religion is losing influence in American life.

Of course, this fails to address the fact that the manmade construct of religion is not always intertwined with faith, which operates separately from organized religion. And in any case, those who identify as atheists, agnostics and humanists are entitled to have their rights heeded the same as those who classify as devout, believes De Dora.

“I think right now, particularly in America, you’re seeing a lot of nonreligious people who are concerned with the way religious freedom is being discussed,” De Dora says, who are concerned that there may be two different sets of regulations laid down. “And I think that would be unfair,” he adds, “because the concept of freedom of religion includes the rights of people who are not necessarily religious in the traditional way. Otherwise, it’s not real religious freedom.”

By the same token, even those who eschew any religious affiliation have abundant reasons to defend those who do, De Dora acknowledges.

“It goes to the connective issues of freedom of conscience,” he says. “This is why, in recent years, we see more and more nonreligious groups getting involved with cases of religious believers who are hunted down by governments and being abused.”

This also goes to the point of how relevant religion remains, and it is another area where believers and nonbelievers, perhaps surprisingly, may agree. A May 2014 study concluded that religious freedom is one of three factors significantly associated with global economic growth. That report, “Is Religious Freedom Good For Business?: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis,” was conducted by researchers at Georgetown University and Brigham Young University and looked at GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth in 173 countries in 2011. It found that economic strength was more than twice as likely in countries with low religious restrictions and hostilities.

This hardly surprises Dr. Graz.

“There’s a lot of study and data behind the idea that having religious freedom in a country is good for the economy, boosts creativity, and is to the overall benefit of everyone,” he says. “And by ‘freedom,’ we mean being able to decide what religion to have, whether or not to have it at all, and to practice it freely.”

And the Georgetown-Brigham Young report points to even greater benefits of having a thriving religious culture. Religious participation promotes literacy, drives poverty relief, assists vocational and health training, provides marital and bereavement counseling, and helps lead to a better educated, more efficient workforce, for starters.

We don’t typically associate religions as potential economic engines. But they are, providing training and creating jobs at churches as well as affiliated schools, hospitals and humanitarian organizations. The number of primary schools, colleges, universities and medical facilities connected to religious groups is significant.

Dr. Graz: “If all of these hospitals run by churches and religious organizations suddenly had to close, our health and access to medical care would just plummet. The same with the humanitarian groups. They create jobs everywhere.”

A Boston University study found that religion positively impacts on the “working lives of the poor” due to faith-based organizations standing out as major healthcare and education providers. They also provide technical training opportunities, an outlet for stress, and a social support network—all of which enhance the productive capacity of low-income citizens. The BU study also discovered that religious freedom fosters religious diversity.

Moreover, the greater economic equality facilitated by religion reduces societal pressures that may result in riots or other conflicts, the Georgetown-Brigham Young report affirms. It concluded that religion often plays a major role in the human and social development of a country and has a direct impact on reducing corruption. The way that corruption wreaks economic havoc is through the reduced bottom line for businesses and the weakening of competitive markets, not to mention an erosion in that culture’s moral fabric.

“It stands to reason that when you have religious freedom, you also have less corruption,” Dr. Graz believes. “Religion can have an influence on society that way, by helping people to be more honest and follow the rules, to be fair and develop a philosophy of justice.”

Although righteousness and decency may not automatically correlate to a robust economy, the “Is Religious Freedom Good For Business?” paper indeed found a direct link between a country’s financial health and its moral fiber. According to the analysis, “Standards and practices of honesty and integrity rest, ultimately, on…ideas of right and wrong, which for most of us are grounded in principles of religion and the teachings of religious leaders.”

The study also uncovered the strengthening of the legal and judicial institutions in a society bound to religious principles. Conversely, corrupt governments that restrict or abolish religious freedom tend to subvert all democratic processes—including economic freedom, civil and political freedom, and press freedom. It was found that a society that unjustly restricts the religious practices of one group likely will undermine justice for all other groups.

That circles back to the premise that launched this article: The relationship between religion and violence. As the business analysis made clear, religious freedom reduces violence, conflict and war. One of the empirical study’s authors, Brian Grim of Georgetown’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, found in comparing 143 countries that “when governments and religious groups in society do not erect barriers to religious competition but respect and protect such activities as conversion and proselytism, religious violence is less.”

How much less? A lot. It also reduces the power and incentive a nation might have to persecute those following any specific religion. This is obviously a key distinction to make, as it helps to partially disprove a long-held perception. It isn’t religion itself that perhaps most often sparks bloody conflicts but the tension arising from its persecution and constraint.

Author Grim supplied anecdotal evidence for his findings as well, relating his own experience living in a country with abundant religious liberty (the United Arab Emirates) compared to a nation with low religious liberty (Saudi Arabia). He noted that he felt motivated to work and contribute to society while living in the Emirates where his religion, Catholicism, was legal. In Saudi Arabia, where it’s illegal, he admitted not working as hard or feeling a desire to contribute to society.

One might conclude from all of this data that—perhaps not surprisingly—religion itself remains more relevant than ever and religious freedom is a positive force in the world, though for some unexpected (economic, educational) reasons. And whether believer or nonbeliever, the areas of daily life that religion improves, no matter where one resides on the faith spectrum, cannot be denied.

What remains paramount in the discussion is the necessity for religious freedom to take root worldwide to a far greater degree. And to De Dora’s mind, it all begins with dialogue.

“I think the idea that religious and nonreligious people and groups can get together and talk about these issues and try to figure out how we can all live together in peace is one of the most important things we can be doing in modern society.”