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Religious freedom is fundamental for a free society

Societies which deny religious freedom, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cannot claim to be free.


23 September 2016

As long as there are no restrictions on breathing, you take the availability of oxygen in the air for granted. The same applies to religious freedom; Britons grow up in a society that has religious freedom, and take it for granted.

In reality, religious freedom is a critically important human right, and no society that denies it has the right to call itself free. Earlier this year, in my lecture "One Muslim’s Perspective on Religious Freedom" I showed how God, speaking in the Quran, grants all humans religious freedom.

I recently returned to religious freedom, and its powerful implications, in a short piece on the Conservative Home website. It shows how two simple axioms require religious freedom as a necessary logical consequence.

In the piece, I also tackled where claims to religious freedom end. At its simplest, if your religion involves harming someone else, you are not free to practice it.

You can read it below.

Mohammed Amin: Religious freedom is the bedrock of our society

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

As I wrote in “Our non-negotiable values need tighter definition” the list of British values (actually the universal values of liberal democracies) is commendably brief but some more details are needed if we are to apply them as litmus tests.

For example, one of the values “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”, (a longer way of saying “religious freedom”) has fundamental implications, since it underpins our entire society.

What is religious freedom?

The most widely accepted formulation is article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In the annual religious freedom lecture of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society UK and Ireland Chapter, I explained how Islam, properly understood, requires religious freedom. However, you don’t need religious texts to develop religious freedom; you just need to accept two axioms which I regard as self-evident.

  1. I am free to believe what I wish to believe. (This follows from my freedom as a human being, not subject to the control of other humans.)
  2. I have to grant you the same rights that I want for myself. (If I require freedom from control by you, then I cannot logically deny you freedom from control by me.)

Despite the axioms’ simplicity, some strong consequences follow.

I am free to change my religion whenever I wish.

Denying this freedom violates axiom A, under which I am free today to believe what I wish. That necessarily entails being free to disbelieve what I believed yesterday.

Laws cannot cite religion as their justification

Making me follow your religious beliefs by imposing them upon me in the form of state law violates axiom A.

Your religion may prohibit you from building a golden calf and worshipping it, but I am not required to believe in any such prohibition. Absent your religious belief, you have no grounds for prohibiting me from building my own golden calf, at my own expense, and worshipping it if I choose to do so.

As I explained in “The Proper Boundary of Political Islam” legislators cannot leave their religious beliefs outside Parliament. However, the only political arguments that do not violate axiom A are arguments based on rationality and empirical evidence, without any appeal to religious texts.

Obviously theocracy (realistically described as rule by men claiming to speak for God) has no validity.

In passing, I believe that religious extremists seeking to “restore the rule of God” are actually demonstrating their limited faith in God, by denying God’s perpetual rule over all of the universe. As it says in Matthew 10:29 “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.”

Some religious beliefs are incompatible with freedom of religion

Your religion may teach you “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18, King James Version)

If you try to act upon that religious belief, you will clearly violate the witch’s religious freedom under axiom A.

The question becomes particularly difficult if you believe that God will punish you if you disobey God by failing to kill the witch. In that case, your accepting that the witch is entitled to religious freedom means that you run the risk of God punishing you. However, the rest of us in society have to stand up for the witch’s religious freedom since if we allow that to be imperilled, our own religious freedom will soon also be at risk. How you reconcile not killing the witch with the rest of your religious beliefs is of course your problem.

Similarly some Muslims believe that apostasy must be punished by death. (See “Muslims misguided enough to abandon Islam are free to do so” for the detailed religious background.) Such a belief is incompatible with religious freedom, despite some who hold that abhorrent belief nevertheless claiming to believe in freedom of religion!

Policy implications

Domestically, signing up to Article 18 of the UNDoHR should be made a condition for naturalisation as a UK citizen, and for being a teacher, civil servant or Parliamentarian. The tax benefits of charitable status should also be denied to organisations which reject religious freedom.

Internationally, no foreign preacher who rejects religious freedom should be given permission to enter the UK.

Sadly, many countries, ranging in size from China downwards, deny their citizens religious freedom, and we should take that into account in our foreign policy and aid policy. While blanket bans are not feasible, we should make the promotion of religious freedom worldwide a national goal, as does the USA via the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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