Some people, many in fact, believe the absence of religion would make for a happier, more peaceful existence here on planet earth. In the early 1970s, John Lennon enshrined that sentiment in his best-selling ballad Imagine (though many hardcore rock historians give the songwriting nod to his widow Yoko Ono). Set to a haunting, almost hypnotic melody, the song’s lyrics remain embedded in pop culture more than 50 years later:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
It’s hard not to like this catchy anthem. Most listeners turn up the volume when it comes on the radio, my husband being one of the firm exceptions — there have been many family squabbles over this song. But on close reflection, I would have to agree with Lennon’s own conclusion: he’s a dreamer. Quite simply, the world is not wired to be religion-less. In fact, research shows that global religious populations are growing larger, not smaller.
According to a report by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, the number of people worldwide affiliated with a religion is on track to grow by 2.3 billion over the span of just a few decades, from 5.8 billion in 2010 to 8.1 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, the number of people who don’t affiliate with any religion are projected to increase only slightly, from 1.13 billion in 2010 to 1.23 billion in 2050. In other words, religion isn’t going anywhere; we can’t wish it away. Nor should we want to.
Of course, what drives such fantastical ponderings are the countless examples of blood-soaked atrocities committed in the name of religion through the ages. First century Rome was a tough place for Christians. The Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages didn’t go well for Jews and Muslims. In the modern era, Iran routinely oppresses religious minorities, including members of the Bahá’í faith. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have died or been displaced at the hands of the Burmese military since 2017. In the same timeframe, China has been found guilty of committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. To name but a few examples.
Then, there’s the steamier side of religion — the clash of cultures, sex scandals, and general bad actors — that invite criticism and reinforce secular stereotypes.
On its face, somehow making religion vanish may seem like a pragmatic solution to centuries of unending violence and human tragedy. But in reality, it is not a plausible or even favorable solution. Contrary to Nietzsche and his fellow philosophical bomb-throwers, God is not dead, and thus, a better way forward is to acknowledge and respect religion, in all its forms. Which is to say, replace contempt for religion with a full-throated embrace of religious freedom.
The Need for Religion in the Public Square
Os Guinness is an author and social critic who has given considerable thought to the benefits and necessities of religious freedom. In The Global Public Square he writes, “A prominent feature of the problem in the Western world is that where there is a disdain for religion there is often a discounting of religious freedom too. The first may be understandable, but the second is inexcusable. If the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples firmly believe in someone or something higher than themselves, and yet almost the same overwhelming majority also faces mounting restrictions on their ability to practice the faith in which they believe, there is something wrong with this situation, and that something must be changed.”[i]
Indeed, government restrictions on religion are at record high levels around the world. Current data from the Pew Research Center indicates that more than 80% of the nearly 200 countries examined each year engage in some form of harassment against religious groups. In 82% of countries, governments also interfere in actual worship, withholding access to places of worship or denying permits for religious activities, for example. Another chilling trend is the growing use of technology — such as surveillance cameras, facial recognition, and biometric data — used by governments to monitor and restrict religious actors.
Hostile governments target Christian and Muslim faith traditions most often and in more countries in part because they represent the largest and most widely dispersed religious groups. But no religious community, including groups who identify as religiously unaffiliated, is immune to harassment. What do these trends mean in practical terms?
In Pakistan, courts continue to enforce blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty. Police have failed to protect religious minorities, including Ahmadi, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, from violent mobs. Attacks on Ahmadi mosques have gone unpunished by local authorities, and an objectionable tweet or Facebook post can land violators in prison.[ii]
In Nigeria, pervasive insecurity is characterized by kidnappings, armed robberies, and criminal gangs. In one example, criminals shot and killed eight Christians, then burned down a church and several homes. Mob violence and mass murders are all too common, and many cases have been reported of Muslim men kidnapping young Christian girls and forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam.[iii]
In Russia, authorities routinely investigate, detain, imprison, torture, physically abuse and/or seize personal property of religious minorities designated “extremists,” “terrorists,” or “undesirable.” Such labels explicitly target groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Scientology, or Falun Gong.[iv]
And in Turkey, top-level government officials habitually lace speeches with antisemitic rhetoric, which in turn fuels antisemitic messages and hate speech on social media platforms. Societal hostility toward Jews often manifests in acts of vandalism directed at Jewish places of worship and cemeteries.[v]
These are but four examples of countries engaging in or tolerating “severe” or “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). In its annual report for 2022, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies 15 nations as countries of particular concern (CPCs) and another 12 it recommends for the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL). Among other things, these countries have been found to be engaged in torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged or clandestine detention; abduction; and other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of person.
To borrow from John and Yoko, imagine if all of these stories and the countless others like them were tempered by an international community genuinely committed to religious freedom as annotated by Article 18 of the 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.”
To an American audience, these words ring familiar, almost sacred. That’s because religious freedom has been part of our DNA from the start. The founders enshrined religious freedom in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is a cornerstone of the United States Bill of Rights and foundational to the American experience. As Hugh Whelchel has written earlier on this platform, for the first time in history, “government would no longer have the power to decide which groups to ‘tolerate’ and what conditions to place on the practice of religion.”
Whelchel, who serves as Executive Director of the Institute of Faith, Work & Economics, traces the historical narrative of the origins of religious freedom, a narrative with roots in the rich teaching of Christian scripture. A narrative that would inform the sensibilities of America’s founders as they set the course for a new nation. Since that time, America has been at the forefront of international religious freedom, living our values — albeit imperfectly — on a global stage.
Nearly 250 years into this American experiment, some are concerned that cracks may be forming in this most fundamental tenet. “Many elites in the Western culture wars display the same disregard for freedom of religion and belief that lies behind the more egregious outrages in authoritarian and totalitarian countries,” cautions Guinness, who believes many Western countries who pride themselves in being open, free and champions of human rights may not be living up to their claims and heritage.
“The Western world is failing to demonstrate a solid alternative to the conflict, violence and oppression elsewhere, and is therefore failing in its responsibility to point the way forward for humankind.”[vi]
If Guinness is correct, how do we right the course? How do we rediscover a sense of fortitude to address what he calls, soul freedom — freedom of thought and conscience, which includes religion and ideology. Surely the effort is worthy. History has shown that preserving the integrity of religious freedom as a core value leads to our deepest source of human meaning, belonging and flourishing.
Religious Freedom Codified in U.S. Foreign Policy
Thomas Farr is a pioneer in international religious freedom, serving first in the U.S. Army and Foreign Service, then as the founding Director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. Today, he leads the Religious Freedom Institute, a D.C.-based NGO working to achieve worldwide acceptance of religious freedom. He writes, “We should understand religious freedom as our founders had understood it, the enervating core of those natural rights granted to every human being by God.”
Farr believes religious freedom is not a singularly American ambition. As such, he contends it is foundational to an effective foreign policy. “Without religious liberty protected by governments and honored by societies, no person can live a truly human life. Without it, especially in the non-Western world where the practice of religion is widespread and growing, stable self-government is simply impossible. And without the spread of stable and durable democracy, how can we hope to live in a world in which governments respect the rule of law, their own citizens, and other nations? U.S. policy should be aimed at helping other nations and cultures evoke the principles of human dignity that are at the base of religious freedom.”[vii]
Two dozen years ago, members of Congress made a deliberate and unanimous choice to stand as beacons for this most fundamental of all human rights. Passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 (IRFA) sought to underscore America’s centuries-old commitment to the freedom of religion or belief and established the framework to elevate religious freedom as a priority within U.S. foreign policy.[viii]
With the passage of IRFA, the Office of International Religious Freedom was established within the Department of State. The position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was created and intensive training for foreign service officers was ordered. As well, the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was formed.
The IRF Act requires that the State Department report to Congress each year, providing the status of religious freedom in countries around the world and U.S. efforts to address places where violations are taking place. In early June, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain introduced this year’s analysis, the 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom.
In his remarks, Secretary Blinken affirmed, “Respect for religious freedom isn’t only one of the deepest held values and a fundamental right. It’s also, from my perspective, a vital foreign policy priority. Here’s why. We know that when the fundamental right of each person to practice their faith or to choose not to observe a faith is respected, people can make their fullest contributions to their community’s successes; entire societies are better off. On the other hand, when governments deny this right, it ignites tension, it sows division, it often leads to instability and conflict.”
As in previous years, this year’s IRF report chronicles individual accounts of unspeakable persecution. It highlights ways in which governments have sought to restrict religious belief, practice and expression for people across a wide range of faith and belief traditions. Of note are two accounts of genocide in recent years — in China and in Burma. The report offers sobering accounts of governments that have remained silent in the face of rising violence fomented by societal intolerance and hatred.
But the report also offers examples of progress, particularly the healing power of collaboration among civil society, governments and multilateral partners when they commit to nurturing religious freedom.
“Civil society groups and countries all over the world are essential to this report and to our work. Their advocacy changes laws, it lifts up the names of prisoners, provides lawyers to fight against spurious charges, and pushes governments including our own to do the right thing,” noted Ambassador Hussain.
He added that governments operate with more transparency and accountability where civil society thrives. “We must listen to and empower the voices of civil society, including those who dissent from majority views or criticize the government, as we work towards a more just and peaceful future for us all.”
The IRF Summit 2022 is one important and timely opportunity to participate in a coalition of civil society organizations working to promote international religious freedom. The Summit is scheduled for June 28-30 in Washington, D.C., with an opportunity for virtual participation. This year’s three-day event is co-chaired by former IRF Ambassador Sam Brownback and Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights. For more information, visit the IRF Summit 2022 website.
Why Christians Should Care about International Religious Freedom
For Christians in the U.S., with all that crowds our brains and competes for our attention here at home, why should international religious freedom be a front-burner issue? For one, it’s in our national security interest to promote religious freedom around the world. We know that religious repression leads to increased conflict and instability. In our global society, we are not far removed from the violence that often results.
Secondly, having inherited the gift of religious freedom from our prescient forebears and reaped its benefits, we have a certain moral responsibility to preserve and share our good fortune with our international neighbors. Advocating on behalf of others whose lives are threatened because of their most closely held beliefs is consistent with our understanding of liberty.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to care about international religious freedom: it’s biblical. The spiritual breadcrumbs are easily detected:
Genesis 1:27 — “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” As image-bearers of the sovereign God, we are called to recognize the value and dignity of every life. Where he models compassion, we also must offer compassion.
Proverbs 31:8 — “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Almost 80 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with high levels of governmental or societal restrictions on religion. They need a voice.
Acts 4:18-20 — “So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.'” The disciples encountered religious persecution. Their response ought to inform our own.
James 1:27 — “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Women and children bear some of the greatest burden from religious freedom violations — sex trafficking, forced marriage, displacement and abandonment are among the most egregious.
Galatians 5:13 — “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” God had freedom in mind for his creation. Those of us who enjoy it in full measure are called to assist those who have been denied.
A world without religion would not be a peaceful world. It would be an angry place, with occupants void of that which animates them, gives them meaning and purpose. Human flourishing depends on our ability to imagine a world where religious freedom is cherished, protected, and encouraged.
[i] Os Guinness, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 30.
[ii] U.S. Department of State, 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Pakistan, accessed online at
[iii] U.S. Department of State, 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Nigeria, accessed online at https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-report-on-international-religious-freedom/nigeria/
[iv] U.S. Department of State, 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Russia, accessed online at https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-report-on-international-religious-freedom/russia/
[v] U.S. Department of State, 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Turkey, accessed online at https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-report-on-international-religious-freedom/turkey/
[vi] Guinness, The Global Public Square, 37-38.
[vii] Thomas F. Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008) 176.
[viii] A history of the legislative process that would lead to the International Religious Freedom Act can be found in The 20th Anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act: A Retrospective, a legacy project of 21Wilberforce and accessible online at https://21wilberforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/7.0-IRF-Retrospective_11.28.18.pdf