Religion and Freedom

Religion and Freedom

I crave freedom above all else!
Give me around me wide, open space,
So I may kneel low in front of You
And to pay homage even lower.

Leopold Staff: Freedom


When observing the world of religion, one may wrongly assume that freedom is not a religious category. This conclusion is largely due to the fact that religions have often made great contributions to culture, but rarely brought freedom to it, sometimes even becoming a source of enslavement. Although the founders of great religions often use the terms „liberation”, „salvation”, „release”, and most often it is not just liberation from darkness, poverty or disease, however, freedom quickly gets lost somewhere in the intricacy of religious doctrine. While recognizing freedom, the impossible is required here: to combine tolerance towards what is different with the fervor of one's own vision of God. But above all, it requires a combination of dogma, which separates truth from error and indicates only truth, and the possibility of error. There could be no question of religious freedom as long as these categories alone defined the world of religion. In institutionally understood religion (where only „we” have the Truth) or individually (where only „my” religion is true) it is difficult to find a place for freedom - we are dealing rather with „religious coercion” and justifying „conversion with the sword”. Such a religion, limited and closed by the „catechismal message”, usually becomes the cause of enslavement, and transformed into the „guardian of the absolute Truth”, it also often brings pressure and captivity.

However, the idea of religious freedom must be sought elsewhere than in the institutional and organized world of religion and in religious doctrine itself. It is an area of God's experience, not of ourselves, the field of discovery of the „Ineffable” (A. Heschel): „As long as a man sees religion as the fulfillment of his own needs, a guarantee of immortality, or a way to protect the community, it is not God who he serves, but he serves himself”1. Needless to say, there is no room for freedom in such a „self service” religion. In a religion that requires God to be only a response to human need, freedom cannot arise, even more: God himself becomes (our) slave in it. Religious enslavement is only a consequence of this. So as long as religion itself (ourselves) becomes the object of worship, for so long there is no room for freedom, but there is consent to enslavement and coercion.

Recognizing the freedom of religion and in religion requires reversing this mistake of starting with ourselves. Religion is not an expression of the fulfillment of our needs - it is rather the way in which God seeks, „calls” man. But he always calls him to his (man’s) measure. And it cannot be otherwise. That is why religion is always a „matter of God” carried out by man; time is always involved in religions. The time medium is an essential element in this process. Searching for man by God always exists only in the meeting with history, intellectual condition of man, his will, abilities, etc. It always takes place in the sociocultural and individual situation of a human (individual), in our limited time. We can say that we always respond to this search (call) in our human words. And it cannot be otherwise. God reveals and calls – man responds and understands. That is why in religion, and in relation to religion, a man best reveals who he is and what he is: he must answer, and he must do it himself. There is no more individual dimension of human life than the religious dimension. This is where the foundations for this freedom can be found and accept the relationship of man to God as a relationship of freedom, to „throw off the sword”. Freedom is not just what „sometimes”, „some” religions can have, or what can be „given to religions”, but it is what absolutely belongs to a religious act: nothing can be called a religion if freedom is excluded from it. It is always up to man to find a „way” to answer this call. He can only do this in freedom. And any attempt to limit it is forcing a person to remain deaf to this call.

As a consequence of such thinking about religion (religions) as a „response to the call”, it turns out that we have an important task to fulfill here, to which freedom must also be involved and which cannot be realized without freedom. It is the task of maintaining the „openness of religion” – both to past (fulfilled) religions, i.e. those in which a man „cannot respond” anymore, as well as to those in which our today’s „answers” will turn. Hence, there is nothing ridiculous or contemptible in the old (dead today) religions. With all our (human) „ridiculousness” there was always God looking for a human being and even these „ridiculousness” did not completely obscure the light present in them. The same is true of religious changes and new expectations. One can agree with M. Scheler, who does not see the possibility of „any new religion”2. But one cannot accept the „static”, immutability and eternity of the prevailing religions. With us, religion grows to „greater fullness”, changing expressions, revealing new facets of faith, etc. It cannot do this without accepting its own freedom and that of other religions. Here one can – like K. Barth in Christianity – see „God’s revelation from above”, and in other religions „man’s own efforts”, which lead in the right direction; one can see there „anonymous Christianity” (K. Rahner SJ); finally, it can be inferred from the existence of other religions that „they have a role in God’s plan” (J. Dupuis SJ). Everywhere, however, these are only different responses to the same calls and often common human efforts in understanding according to their own measure and the measure of times.

So, instead of considering the Hindu religion, Buddhism, and Christianity as competing, and each as the only way „to God”, let us look at them as „different ways” of God to man, different answers to the same calls. This way of looking at religions opens up a world of freedom. Changing direction is not an easy process, however, and it took centuries for it to happen. The thesis underlying this transformation sounds simple, but with great consequences for the idea of freedom: God's action against man is not based on coercion. And since „God does not use coercion”, neither can any religion, nor all those who pass the faith on to others. This truth – although so simple – radically changes the meaning of human religiosity. Coercion and slavery in the religious realm are now a fundamental violation of the nature of religious faith, religious experience, and human dignity. Both forcing people to adopt a religion and preventing them from expressing their religious beliefs are evidence of falsifying the phenomenon of religiosity. Whoever undertakes this falsification denies the fact that God has granted man the right to freedom and demands this freedom most strongly in the religious sphere. „The last, final freedom, the courage of freedom and the burden of freedom, are a virtue of religious maturity” – says N. Berdyaev3. This philosopher so strongly links the development of religion with freedom that he even has the courage to say: „slaves are not needed by God”4.

Therefore, the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae) of December 7, 1965, although it often came as a surprise to believers, was nothing surprising from the point of view of this relation. Addressed to all people, not only to Catholics, it showed most strongly that freedom lies at the basis of God’s plan. Often underestimated, it has become the most important turning point in the field of religious freedom in the history of the Church and religion. On the other hand – for those who did not want to recognize the mutual relationship of freedom between God and man – it became the cause of protests and criticism, the main pretext for clashes. Instead of persecuting people who „believe differently” and „converting with the sword”, it was offering peace, reconciliation and understanding. Instead, as St. Thomas says: „to drive them out of the world by killing them”, religious freedom was proposed, which the Church clearly opposed to religious coercion, offering „proposing the truth” and not „forcing to the truth”. The human person’s right to religious freedom has thus become stronger than religious institutions. Man should be free from coercion also in the religious sphere. Right to religious freedom - you can read - „continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it”; „freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion [...], that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits5. There is no coercion in religion. After such a declaration, is no longer surprising Benedict XVI's message for the 21st World Youth Day (2006): „’Freedom itself needs to be set free’, and the darkness in which humankind is groping needs to be illuminated”. Illuminating these darkness was previously indicated by John Paul II in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor: „This essential bond between Truth, the Good and Freedom has been largely lost sight of by present-day culture – wrote the pope. - As a result, helping man to rediscover it represents nowadays one of the specific requirements of the Church's mission”6. Consequently: „freedom […] needs to be set free”7.

More than fifty years have passed since this important declaration. We are used to the fact that forcing people to accept a religion, as well as preventing them from expressing their own religious beliefs, does not help people to be religious. We observed how great the damage this position resulted both for religious institutions and, perhaps even more so, for human religiosity. However, reading the encyclical today it is easy to see that it does not solve contemporary problems related to the relationship between freedom and religion. The subject of the right to freedom is not the content of religious beliefs. In other words: there is no consent to such a freedom in which a person can „believe in anything”, and there is consent to „not being forced into religion”. If, however, our attention is drawn to today’s man’s claim to freedom in the religious sphere, more and more often it is a demand for precisely this freedom: to be able (to be free) to believe in anything. On the one hand, the contemporary extensive culture of freedom – in a kind of natural way – places religious freedom next to „freedom to everything”. On the other hand, the problem of „other religions”, their role in religious freedom and intercultural communication (religious pluralism) appears more and more often. In both these areas, modern man seems to demand one more freedom: to be able to believe what he wants. One has to ask, however, whether in these demands human autonomy is actually realized and the religious perspective is strengthened?

First of all, it is wrong to associate „belief in anything” with religion. And even when religious categories appear in this „faith”. Hence, no religion can grant man the freedom to „believe in anything”. Not only because the situation would be a complete destruction of religious institutions, but also because it risks privatizing religion, removing its social dimension and distorting religious experience. However, it is precisely this „freedom to believe in anything” that becomes the subject of modern man's demands. In contemporary culture, where freedom wants to embrace the content of beliefs, this is what we most often deal with. The situations of these demands can be read as a desire to escape from „closed” religions which think that they „have already discovered the Truth” and enclose it in formulas, and which fail to interpret man's religious experience in terms understandable to him. Hence, the frequent confusion of religion with beliefs in which the individual dimension of human life prevails, and respect for the individual's conscience turns into a madness of cockiness. In this one should see the drama of the attack of quasi-religions on the entire hitherto world of religion (P. Tillich). The danger of this attack usually hides the freedom to „believe in anything”. Such freedom would be a capitulation to the views of the modern world and making religion only a human, our matter. Indeed, a person can believe in anything, but such belief must not be confused with religion.


prof. dr hab. Marek Szulakiewicz

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń



[1] A.J. Heschel, Człowiek nie jest sam. Filozofia religii, K. Wojtkowska-Lipska (trans.), Kraków 2001, p. 197.

[2] M. Scheler, Problemy religii, A. Węgrzecki (trans.), Kraków 1995. Cf. in particular the part: Dlaczego żadna nowa religia.

[3] N. Bierdiajew, Sens twórczości. Próba usprawiedliwienia człowieka, H. Paprocki (trans.), Kęty 2001, p. 133.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Declaration on Religious Freedom, art. 2.

[6] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. Tekst i komentarz, Lublin 2001, art. 84.

[7] Ibid., art. 86.


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Autor: Laboratorium Wolności
Date: 15 December 2020
Financed from the Justice Fund, which is administered by the Minister of Justice
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