Is Religion a Source of Freedom or Slavery? Some Thoughts on Totalitarianism and Freedom of Religion or Belief Liam Gearon Introduction

Download 48.41 Kb.
Date conversion03.05.2016
Size48.41 Kb.
Is Religion a Source of Freedom or Slavery?

Some Thoughts on Totalitarianism and Freedom of Religion or Belief
Liam Gearon


The twentieth century, which saw the emergence of a system of international law based upon universal human rights, originated through and as a direct response to totalitarianism (Forsythe, 2000; Schlesinger, 2003; Baratta, 2004; Bowles, 2004; Fasulo, 2004; Krasno, 2004; Weiss, Forsythe and Coate, 2004). The foundation of international human rights law is that human beings are born free, and equal in dignity. Since struggles for emancipation in the post-Columbus era of colonialism and imperialism (cf. Harlow and Carter, 1999), slavery can lay claim to being one of the first identifiable ‘human rights’ issues for contemporary civil society (Gearon, 2003). Slavery, however, continues to exist in the modern world, and in many appalling forms, often involving the sexual and economic exploitation of the most vulnerable, what Bales (2000) defines as the issue of ‘disposable people’. This article examines sometimes more subtle threats to freedom by looking at the relationship between totalitarianism and freedom of religion or belief.

Totalitarianism and Freedom of Religion or Belief

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt (1951) asserts a three-fold phase in the historical development of all-pervasive state control. She presents an historical survey that traces the emergence of totalitarianism: from Christian anti-Semitism, through imperialism and the economic and cultural colonial expansions of the modern period when total state control first became truly possible. Indeed, this last point is central to Arendt’s argument. She sees totalitarianism as being possible only in the modern world, even therefore, frighteningly epitomizing it: only in the modern world – scientific, technologically efficient, and industrial – can the dictatorial impulse be made so efficient as to aspire to total control, and if necessary total annihilation of dissent. Arendt’s historical analysis of totalitarianism presents totalitarianism as a distinctly modern phenomenon, modern because on with the aid of technology can governments and state aspire to total, that is totalitarian control. And so, by this historical analysis, totalitarianism can be defined as any attempt by a state or cultural system to exert complete control over all and every aspect of its citizens’ lives, an ultimate in the potential for slavery.

Against this background of totalitarianism, the United Nations was formed by a Charter signed in San Francisco in June 1945. It was aware of the issues of liberty that had been threatened by totalitarianism in regard to matters of religion and belief and the United Nations incorporated and defined freedom of religion of ‘thought, conscience and religion’ in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The preamble to this Declaration restates the wider context of Charter of the United Nations, reiterates the ‘dignity and equality inherent in all human beings’, international commitment on the promotion of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, ‘without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’ and ‘the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief’. Particularly, though, Article 18 of the Declaration states that, ‘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.’ Since the formation of the United Nations human rights issues related to religion or belief have been integral to several international instruments, notably:

  • The Univer­sal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

  • The Arcot Krishnaswami Study (1959)

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)

  • The International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (1966)

  • The Decla­ration on the Elimination of All Forms of’ Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

After a long neglect (or low level treatment) of religion explicitly, from the late 1970s the UN system therefore began to recognise the international significance of religion for a stable world order. In addition, the notion of freedom of religion was itself extended to freedom of non-religious (for example humanistic) worldviews, the religion or belief from the 1981 Declaration being significant. This in turn had the effect of linking in a fairly direct way rights of ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ to ‘later generation’ rights of ‘human solidarity’, concerned with specific groups – women, children, indigenous peoples, religious traditions – rather than generic ‘civic and political’ (‘first’ generation) or ‘cultural and economic’ (‘second’ generation) rights (Wellman, 2000). Most notable is the linking of religious intolerance to the ending of racism, xenophobia and discrimination more broadly. For example, the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was followed just over a decade later by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities (1992) and the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief (1998).

If the UN system has attempted belated to incorporate explicit reference to religion into its legislative framework, it has also sought, in the same move, to draw religious traditions closer to UN frameworks on democratic governance and universal human rights. Thus, during the International Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) there was held an International Consultative Conference on School Education in relation with Freedom of Religion or Belief, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination (Madrid, November 2001) had followed the September 2001 meeting of the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Other Forms of Discrimination (Durban, South Africa, September 2001). One of the major points of contestation was whether Zionism represented a form of racism and whether there should be economic reparation for the historical injustices of slavery. The latter concluded its business by historical irony only days before 11 September. At the November 2001 Madrid conference, September 2001 was obviously much to the fore, and gave the conference an added and unexpected relevance. In his Report ‘The Role of Religious Education in the Pursuit of Tolerance and Non-Discrimination’ Professor Amor (the then Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief) suggested that prevention of much global conflict based upon religious difference could be ‘ensured through the establishment of a culture of tolerance, notably through education, which could make a decisive contribution to the promotion of human rights values and particularly attitudes and behaviors which reflect tolerance and non-discrimination, hence the role of schools’.
Yet if there has been an increasing tendency in a post-Cold War world for religious, cultural and ethnic identities gaining a new and unprecedented prominence, then religion is also (post-September 11) perceived as a threat to open and democratic governance and the basic freedoms which the UN was established in part to propagate. In a context where tolerance, and related positive utopian attributes of religious education, is often the focus (cf. Grimmitt, 2000; Larson and Gustavsson, 2004) educators thus need to take seriously dystopian global realities of which religions, often through ethnic and cultural identity, are a root cause (Gearon 2002; 2004; Rushton, 2004; Harpviken and Roislien, 2005); religion not only as a source of freedom but as a potential threat to it. Gender, for instance, is probably the most often highlighted issue where religious traditions of all persuasions are charged with perpetrating such inequalities which in some contexts might amount to forms of enslavement.
But more widely, the role of religion in public and political life has been historically underplayed since the European Enlightenment, a tendency which seems to be in part being reversed, a trend highlighted by a number of theorists of religion and education: Smart (1969; 1989); Casanova (1994); Haynes (1998); Bowker (2002); Woodhead (2002); Ward (2003); Gearon (2002; 2005); Runzo et al. (2004); Jackson (2003; 2004). Yet there remain, though, self-evident tensions within and between religious traditions and models of open, democratic governance. It was such tensions that led, in a post-Reformation Europe at least, to the separation of Church and State. So, today, religions are members of states and the international community but religious traditions and states do not always share the same models of governance nor the models of democratic openness. Few religious traditions operate hierarchies governed under democratic principles, many, across a range of traditions, are autocratic; notions of authority are based simply upon different principles than they are within democracies. In societies where there is separation of religion and state, the latter will not generally interfere with the former; in states governed by religious principles (theocracies), the risk to democratic principles of governance and general openness are greatest (cf. Harpviken and Roislien, 2005).
In recent times too we have seen particular tensions arising from and between rights themselves in relation to religion; between freedom of religion or belief (Article 18 of the Universal Declaration) and freedom of expression (Article 19). For example, what is a matter of one person’s freedom to express their views (perhaps artistically) is another person’s grave offence against their religion. Here the tensions between religious traditions and universal human rights contribute to these tensions within human rights law between rights that seem to compete rather than be complementary. It would be possible to argue that religious traditions protected by the UN system do not always respect other vouchsafed freedoms. Examination of post-Cold War trends reveals relatively precise international trends in literary and other forms of cultural repression in a particular historical period (de Baets, 2001; Jones, 2001), but, as indicated, these issues of freedom surface strongly in open societies as much as totalitarian and repressive regimes. The amount of freedom citizens are allowed is thus a perennial question for all forms of governance. Yet today the tensions, for example between freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, seem at the heart of democratic governance, and indeed symptomatic of the problem of freedom itself in an open society (Gearon 2006).

A short article cannot hope but to remain at the level of generalization. One critically open way forward is to enable students to engage in questions over whether religions contribute to human freedom or slavery is for them to examine the role of religion in global governance. The following table presents some case study sources which might allow students to examine issues of religion in relation to global governance, developing an informed and nuanced opinion as to whether religion in the modern world is a source of freedom or a source of abiding slavery.

Is Religion a Source of Freedom or Slavery?

Some Critical Political Sources for Considering Freedom of Religion or Belief
1. The United Nations’ hub at and follow links to human rights, and an entire host of issues in international relations, including the full documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (several hundred languages often available).
Especially relevant is United Nations High Commission for Human Rights at and follow links, especially to the ‘International Consultative Conference on School Education in relation with Freedom of Religion and Belief, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination’
Also follow links at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights at to the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
2. For an authoritative independent source for international law see the Electronic Information System for International Law (EISIL) at and follow links.
3. The International Decade for Human Rights Education and the World Programme for Human Rights (UN and UNESCO related) at (and follow links), and relevant links at
4. Some time before 11 September 2001, religion and associated rights of religious freedom are seen as a barometer of wider democratic freedoms in the United States legislature specifically through the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act made it a requirement for the US secretary of State to publish an annual report on religious freedom worldwide. Essentially, the US Department of State clearly links freedom of religion and the likelihood that countries that preserve this will respect other fundamental rights. The report is extensive and provides country-by-country and comprehensive worldwide accounts of religious freedoms, the infringements of and improvements in relation to such rights to belief, and can be found at and follow links. Even if the database represents to a degree a bias of the US administration it remains a resource much underused by educationalists.
5. For a critique of this US law on religious freedom, made by John Shattuck in a 2003 keynote paper to a Harvard Conference on Religion, Democracy and Human Rights entitled ‘Religion, Rights and Terrorism’; and follow links.
6. There are a number of independent indicators that highlight the importance of freedom of religion or belief as a barometer of wider democratic freedoms A major achievement of Freedom House has been the global monitoring of the state of religious freedom, providing useful snapshot insights into the political context of religious life in each. The survey criteria were developed from the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, and related UN instruments. The database not only presents worldwide and comprehensive independent guidance on freedom of religion or belief but also invaluable quick reference to key geo-political, including some reference to educational contexts. The database presents information on religious freedom by area and by tradition.
7. Early 2005, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded an international consultancy on the role of religion in international diplomacy at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo; follow links at
8. The International Association for Religious Freedom at and follow links.
9. The International Association for Religious Freedom presents some useful and accessible case studies at and follow links.
10. Amongst the oldest established networks for scholarly research on religion and politics is the Journal of Church and State (since 1949) and its regular updates on the relationship between religion and the national authorities worldwide, especially conflict zones, is most useful, visit the links at to ‘Church-State Notes’.
11. See also the charitable foundation PEW’s Forum on Religion in Public Life
12. The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief is a UNESCO)-commended source for ‘Teaching for Tolerance and Freedom of Religion or Belief’, available at and follow links.

Arendt, Hannah [1951] (1966) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Bales, K. (2000) Disposable People. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Baratta, Joseph Preston (2004) The Politics of World Federation. Westport, Connecticut; London: Praeger.
Bartov, O. and Mack, P. (eds) (2001) In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Boulden, Jane and Weiss, Thomas G. (eds.) (2004) Terrorism and the UN: Before and After September 11. Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Bowles, Newton R. (2004) The Diplomacy of Hope: The United Nations Since the Cold War. London: I.B. Tauris.
Casanova, J. (1994) Religion and Public Governance. Chicago. Chicago University Press.
de Baets, Antoon (2001) Censorship of Historical Thought: A World Guide, 1945-2000. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Fasulo, Linda M. (2004) An Insider’s Guide to the UN. New Haven, Connecticut; London: Yale University Press.
Forsythe, David P. (2000) Human Rights in International Relations, third edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gearon, Liam (ed) (2002) Religion and Human Rights: A Reader. Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press.
Gearon, Liam (2004) Citizenship through Religious Education. London and New York: Routledge.
Gearon, Liam (2006) Freedom of Expression and Human Rights: Historical, Literary and Political Contexts. Sussex Academic Press.
Harlow, Barbara and Carter, Mia (eds.) (1999) Imperialism: A Documentary Sourcebook. Oxford: Blackwell.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg and Eggen Roislien, Hanne (2005) ‘Mapping the Terrain: The Role of Religion in Peacemaking’, Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Jackson, Robert (2003) International Perspectives on Citizenship, Education and Religious Diversity. London: Routledge.

Jackson, Robert (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy. London: Routledge.
Jones, Derek (ed) (2001) Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, four volumes. London: Fitzroy Dearborn.
Krasno, Jean E. (ed.) (2004) The United Nations: Confronting the Challenges of a Global Society. Boulder Colorado; London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Lerner, Nathan (2000) Religion, Beliefs, and Human Rights. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.
Marshall, Paul (ed) (2000) Religious Freedom in the World: A Global Report on Freedom and Persecution. London: Broadman and Holman.
Runzo, Joseph, Nancy M. Martin and Arvind Sharma (eds.) Human Rights and Responsibilities in the World’s Religions. Oxford: Oneworld.
Schlesinger, Stephen, C. (2003) Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Shattuck, John (2003) ‘Religion, Rights and Terrorism’, Harvard University conference on Religion, Democracy and Human Rights, keynote at (and links).
Smart, Ninian (1969) The Religious Experience of Mankind. Toronto: Collier Macmillan.
Smart, Ninian (1999) The World’s Religions, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ward, Graham (2003) True Religion. Oxford: Blackwell.
Weiss, Thomas G., Forsythe, David, P., and Coate, Roger A. (2004) The United Nations and Changing World Politics. Boulder, Colorado; Oxford: Westview Press.
Wellman, Carl (2000) The Proliferation of Rights: Moral Progress or Empty Rhetoric? Oxford: Westview.
Woodhead, Linda et. al. (2002) Religions in the Modern World. London: Routledge.

The database is protected by copyright © 2016
send message

    Main page