Abstract: Violations of religious freedom are increasing dramatically across the globe. Yet, the voices of those victimized by acts of religious bias are often unheard in western discourse. This paper brings visibility to an issue of critical importance to many vulnerable people, specifically Christians and other people of faith who experience acts of intolerance, hate, and violence for peacefully practicing their spirituality. In keeping with this aim, the dominant metaphysical narrative in western discourse—secularism—is discussed, followed by a review of the role human rights play in creating just societies. This provides the foundation for describing the internationally recognized right to religious freedom articulated in Article 18 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Due to the supremacy of the secular narrative in western societies, it is suggested that religious freedom rights are often disregarded. Knowledge regarding the international struggle to operationalize religious freedom rights tends to be subjugated, disregarded by the secular knowledge class professionals who create the societal narratives that inform westerners of which issues, perspectives, and populations are worthy of their attention. In turn, this subjugation has contributed to a global increase in social harassment and systemic discrimination. The paper concludes by suggesting several strategies to help make visible the subjugated voices of people of faith and advocate for their rights. By collaborating on behalf of those who cannot speak, we can create more inclusive, just, and equitable societies in which everyone’s fundamental human rights are respected. Silence can no longer be an option.
Keywords: religious freedom, human rights, religious discrimination, social justice, religious persecution.
Certain voices tend to be marginalized or excluded from culture-shaping discourse in western societies (Blacksin, in press). As Foucault (1980) observes, what is considered legitimate knowledge is inextricably linked with power. Voices that do not have access to cultural power are largely disqualified from appearing in mainstream discourse. Valid perspectives are subjugated to the needs and interests of those who hold power. This subjugated knowledge exists outside, or on the periphery, of mainstream discourse.
The purpose of the present article is to make visible a subjugated perspective of critical importance to many people around the world, namely people of faith whose human right to religious freedom is violated. Giving voice to subjugated perspectives plays a critical role in creating a more equitable society. Making visible subordinated experiences challenges the knowledge monopoly reflected in the dominant discourse, creating intellectual space to work for a culture characterized by inclusion and respect.
Toward that end, the paper begins by reviewing the dominant metaphysical narrative in western discourse followed by a discussion of the role that human rights play in facilitating the creation of a just society. This provides the context for describing the right to religious freedom and reviewing the status of this right in an international setting. The paper concludes by suggesting several strategies to make visible the subjugated voices of people who are experiencing acts of intolerance, hate, and violence for peacefully practicing their faith.
In the United States and other western nations, secularism functions as the dominant worldview (Smith, 2003). Secularism can be defined as a worldview that is oriented toward the material or temporal world (Dictionary.com, 2021; Merriam-Webster, 2021). As such, the secular framework for understanding reality differs from the spiritual or transcendent worldview held by Christians and other people of faith who view realty through a different lens (Hodge et al., 2009).
Although many different forms of power exist, ultimate or true power can be understood as the ability to create and define reality (Sue, 2010). In the west, perceptions of reality are shaped by what various scholars have called the New Class (Gouldner, 1979; Ranz & Allassad Alhuzail, 2021) or the post-industrial knowledge sector (Hunter, 1991). This sector is comprised of a class of professionals that work in occupations that selectively construct, produce or manufacture knowledge including, for example, elite university departments, higher education administration, corporate management, advertising agencies, governmental and regulatory sectors, news media, film industry, and television programming. In western societies, it is this constellation of professional elites that tend to create and police discourse.
One of the defining characteristics of this structurally differentiated and relatively autonomous social stratum of elites is the prevalence of a secular worldview (Gouldner, 1979; Hunter, 1991; Smith, 2003). The secular values associated with this worldview are implicitly embedded into the socially constructed narratives created by knowledge sector professionals. Secular assumptions about the nature of reality—such as what issues should be considered or disregarded, what groups are deserving or undeserving—are woven into the social narrative at a foundational level (Martin, 2007). In turn, individuals rely upon this narrative to provide heuristic touchstones to understand and interpret their lived experience (Baker & Smith, 2015; Smith, 2014).
Due to the pervasiveness of secularism in western discourse, it is often difficult for westerners to recognize that secularism represents just one socially constructed understanding of reality. Value systems that occupy the cultural center are—by definition—typically challenging to recognize (Torino, 2015). Dominant value systems are viewed as normative by members of the mainstream culture. They are implicitly held to represent the accepted, commonsensical framework for viewing the world that all rational individuals accept. The epistemic homogeneity—reflected in television programing, news media, popular music, educational settings, etc.—functions to socialize people into a particular worldview while concurrently limiting understandings of alternative perspectives.
The omnipresence of secularism at the top of the power hierarchy tends to subjugate other metaphysical understandings (Foucault, 1980). It is important to note that this process is not necessarily intentional. Rather, the subjugation of alternative forms of knowledge is a product of epistemic hegemony in the reality-defining knowledge sector. Those in the cultural center do not realize they implicitly exclude alternative perspectives as they perceive their understanding of the world to represent the only reasonable or valid understanding (Nord, 2010). Yet, many other suppositional frameworks or knowledge packages exist in addition to the secularism stemming from the European Enlightenment.
Indeed, many Christians and other people of faith exist in United States and other western nations (Richards & Bergin, 2014). Furthermore, theists comprise the majority of the population in many developing nations (Pew Research Center, 2020). Since these individuals are frequently located outside the centers of cultural power, their perspectives tend to be subjugated to the interests of those with power. In the following section, a perspective on justice is presented that has been largely ignored in western discourse; but is particularly salient to many vulnerable people across the globe.
Various understandings of what constitutes a socially just society exist. One particularly influential method that has been suggested to operationalize the concept of justice in a practical, concrete manner is human rights (Gatenio & Mapp, 2020). In this understanding, social justice is operationalized by identifying human rights violations and then advocating for the restoration of the infringed rights. The notion that human rights are a central feature of a just society has enjoyed considerable success in the international community of nations (Gill, 1998).
In turn, the success of the human rights framework has resulted in what Clément (2018) refers to as “rights inflation.” Groups with social power frame their concerns as human rights violations. The appropriation of human rights as a model for addressing a growing number of concerns undermines attempts to address systemic problems that are arguably more pressing or fundamental concerns. One significant way to address the issue of rights inflation, is to focus on basic human rights that have stood the test of time and are widely affirmed across cultures.
3.1. The Universal Declaration
The oldest and most widely affirmed international human rights protocol is the United Nations’ (1948/2021) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration was developed in response to World War II and the persecution of the Jewish people, most notably in form of the Holocaust in which approximately six million Jews were systematically executed by the German Nazi government (Gatenio & Mapp, 2020). The Declaration was adapted without dissent in 1948 by the UN General Assembly and has been translated into over 500 languages. This protocol represents the international community’s attempt to prevent future Holocausts by delineating the basic, fundamental human rights that transcend all human cultures (Gil, 1998).
Although the human rights framework is widely accepted, it should also be mentioned that the concept of human rights is contested (Langford, 2018). In turn, human rights supporters have sought to address the concerns raised by critics (Walker, 2020). A full discussion of the various critiques and counter-critiques is beyond the scope of the present paper. Perhaps the central issue is that virtually every nation on the planet has endorsed the Declaration (Gil, 1998). As such, they are morally bound to protect the rights delineated in this protocol, including these featured in Article 18 of the Declaration.
3.2. Article 18: Mapping the Scope of Religious Freedom Rights
The Declaration addresses religion in several locations, such as Article 2 which prohibits discrimination based upon religion. Its most important statement regarding religion, however, is found in Article 18. This Article moves beyond prohibiting religious discrimination to provide a positive description of the right to religious freedom. In other words, it maps the scope or parameters of religious liberty. In slightly paraphrased form, Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance (United Nations, 1948/2021, Article 18).
As the preceding content makes clear, the right to religious freedom cannot be confined to acts of worship conducted in private settings. Rather, embedded in this right is the freedom to express one’s beliefs in public settings, either as an individual or as an institutional group that affirms a distinct metaphysical worldview (Marshall, 2021). This implies that societies have a moral duty to create a public space that ensures that diverse manifestations of religious belief and practice are accepted, if not affirmed and celebrated as important forms of diversity that enrich societal discourse. Although the concept of human rights retains broad philosophical support in western settings, this support is not always operationalized in a concrete, tangible manner when religious freedom is a relevant concern.
In western settings, the right to religious freedom has been increasingly marginalized (Marshall, 2008; 2021). To paraphrase Foucault (1980), knowledge regarding these violations is subjugated in mainstream discourse because it does not reflect the secular interests of those with power. Academic scholars, fictional television programing, news media and other dimensions of the knowledge sector have paid scant attention to violations of religious freedom, in either international or domestic settings.
In turn, the paucity of attention focused on religious freedom has contributed to a worldwide increase in religious intolerance (Alton et al., 2019). The United Nations’ (2019) General Assembly expressed serious concern about the continuing acts of violence and intolerance directed towards people of faith and their communities around the world. The resolution went on to note that both the number and intensity of these acts were increasing.
Another perspective is provided by the Pew Research Center (2021), which has tracked trends in the harassment of religious groups for over a decade. The number of countries and territories where religious groups experienced harassment—either by social groups or governments—reached the highest level ever recorded. Out of 198 nations analyzed, 190 featured acts of religious harassment at the hands of social groups or government officials.
A relatively novel method that governments are employing to restrict individuals’ religious freedom involves the use of new forms of technology (Pew Research Center, 2021). Included under this rubric are surveillance cameras, facial recognition software, and biometric data which are used to monitor and restrict religious groups. For instance, in Iran, the government reportedly launched cyberattacks against Sufi Muslims and other religious minorities to steal their private information. In Pakistan, a Muslim was sentenced to five years in prison by a cybercrimes court for posting content online about an early Islamic leader with ties to the Prophet Muhammad.
A particularly concerning manifestation of this new development is China’s use of advanced technology to build a “social credit” system (Stark, 2021). The Chinese government has invested heavily in artificial intelligence and seeks to be the world leader in developing surveillance technology that states can use to monitor their citizens’ activities. In this system, activities the government frowns upon lowers an individual’s social credit score. Decreasing social credit scores are linked to sanctions of increasing severity.
Currently, China uses advanced surveillance technology to monitor churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious gatherings. Facial recognition software is employed to monitor and collect biometric data on Uyghur Muslims, Christians, and other disfavored groups (Pew Research Center, 2021). DNA samples are also collected, mapped, and incorporated into online databases that calculate an individual’s social credit score. Engaging in unmonitored religious activity can lower one’s social credit score which, in turn, may result in various penalties up to and including incarceration and being “disappeared” (Chow, 2020).
4.1. Significantly Persecuted Groups
Religious persecution can be understood as severe discrimination that stems from a person’s religious faith. When discussing groups that experience persecution, it is important to mention that essentially every group experiences discrimination in some context. Typically, religious minorities are disproportionately victimized. Those without access to cultural power in a given national setting are at risk of experiencing discrimination, especially if their metaphysical beliefs and associated practices differ from those widely affirmed in the dominant culture in their host nation.
In the global context, Christians are the most widely persecuted group (Marshall et al., 2013). At least three-quarters of the world’s active Christians live outside the developed west. Most Christians are non-white and female. From a global perspective, the typical Christian is a Nigerian or Brazilian woman. Furthermore, she is frequently living in poverty, often acute poverty relative to western standards.
In many areas of the world, Christians experience severe sanctions for peacefully exercising their spirituality (Marshall et al., 2013). In Nigeria, for instance, eleven Christians died and more than twenty were injured when anti-Christian terrorists firebombed a church service. In North Korea, a woman was caught with a Bible in her home. She was subsequently taken from her home by police who tied her head, chest, and legs to a post and then shot her. Christians and other people of faith can experience rape, torture, and death merely for following the most basic precepts of their faith (Pew Research Center, 2021).
Particularly intense or targeted persecution occurs in specific geographic locations around the world. For instance, in the Xinjiang province of China, policies have been implemented to effectively prohibit the practice of faith among members of the Uyghur ethnic group (Stark, 2021). Chief among these government policies is the arbitrary detainment and imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims, Christians, and other disfavored groups (Pew Research Center, 2021). These individuals have been subjected to forced labor, sexual abuse, and various forms of psychological and physical torture. It is estimated that approximately one million Muslims are held in these internment camps. As such, it represents the largest forced incarceration of an ethno-religious minority since the end of the World War II (Finley, in press).
Other regions are also characterized by significant degrees of religious persecution (MacGuire, 2019). For instance, Christian communities in some areas of the Middle East and North Africa have experienced what some have called genocide. Christian churches have been burned, governments have refused to allow repairs or approve new sanctuaries, and conversions have been prohibited. In tandem with these government actions, Christians have been subjected to various forms of mob violence up to and including crucifixion (LeMasters, 2018). Whole cities and regions have witnessed systemic persecution at the hands of government and social mobs. Once vibrant minority communities with histories dating back two millennia no longer exist. Likewise, antisemitism is pronounced in regions of the Middle East and is a growing concern in western nations as well (Kressel & Kressel, 2016).
4.2. Rights Violations in Western Nations
It is important to state that violations of religious freedom are not limited to developing nations, but also occur in western nations (Pew Research Center, 2021). To be clear, the level of harassment is lower in many western nations relative to other parts of the world. Nevertheless, western nations are not immune to the larger global trends. Although the level of social hostility directed toward people of faith has remained relatively constant over the past decade, the level of government restrictions has increased.
The United States has witnessed many efforts to push Christians and other people of faith out of the public sphere (Kanpol & Poplin, 2017). For instance, the government has repeatedly attempted to coerce the Little Sisters of the Poor—a community of Catholic Nuns—to violate their religious beliefs by mandating the provision of contraceptive care to their celibate Nuns (Ford, 2016). The Little Sisters believe that encouraging any procedure that ends human life is morally unacceptable. This belief is grounded in Christian teaching that affirms the sanctity of human life across the lifespan. It is this very teaching that provides the philosophical basis for the Nuns dedicating their lives to serving impoverished older adults.
Hate crime data provides an interesting perspective on the level of social hostilities in the United States. In New York State—which includes New York, America’s largest city—over half of all hate crimes target people of faith (Green, 2020). Most of these incidents of hate were aimed at Jews, with orthodox Jews being disproportionately targeted due to their culturally distinctive value system.
In the Canadian province of Quebec, the government has banned public sector workers from wearing ostentatiously religious symbols (Béland et al., 2021). For example, Jews are prohibited from wearing a kippah, Muslims from wearing a headscarf, and Christians from wearing a cross (Amarasingam et al., 2021). For many individuals these modes of attire are requirements of their faith or manifestations of their personal spirituality. It should be noted that Quebec—the largest province in Canada—is also one of the most secular provinces in the nation. In other words, relatively few people of faith live in Quebec. The policy eliminates the few remaining displays of religious diversity among teachers and other public sector employees, effectively establishing secularism as the only allowable worldview. This policy provides a textbook example of how western governments engage in systemic discrimination against people of faith while simultaneously privileging secularism (Hodge, 2009).
Again, the degree to which people’s religious freedom rights are violated in western nations is low relative to many other regions of the world. Although people are occasionally murdered for their faith in western nations, these types of killings are comparatively rare (Hodge & Boddie, 2021). More common are less overt forms of discrimination, such as refusing to hire Christians in key knowledge sector occupations (Yancey, 2011) or various forms of implicit bias that serve to marginalize Christians (Rios et al., 2015), Muslims (Aidenberger & Doehne, 2021), and other people of faith (Wright et al., 2013). Although the prevalence and intensity of religious discrimination may vary from nation to nation, all violations are harmful to those who are victimized. Consequently, efforts to create peaceful societies that respect religious diversity and freedom of religion across the world are critically important (United Nations, 2019).
Multidimensional efforts are needed to make visible the subjugated voices of people who experience human rights violations. People of faith often have unique insights into the various dynamics associated with religious discrimination. Allies, however, can often play a critical role in highlighting acts of intolerance. In short, people of all metaphysical beliefs are needed to implement and support strategies that help create more inclusive, equitable societies (Thyer & Myers, 2009). As the United Nations’ (2019) General Assembly has noted, a wide variety of actors have a duty to promote and protect religious freedom across the world including states, regional organizations, human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, religious bodies, media outlets, and civil society as a whole.
In keeping with this aim, the United Nations (2019) has designated August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Base on Religion or Belief. This resolution provides an opportunity to request local media to run stories focusing on religious persecution. Alternatively, people might write and submit editorials on the status of religious freedom. Another option is to feature the personal stories of those who have been victimized.
Scholars with expertise in a given nation might highlight areas for improvement, noting ways in which policies might be strengthened to protect religious freedom rights (Li, 2020). On a related note, arguments defending religious freedom might be constructed and disseminated (Marshall, 2021). This approach allows authors to craft narratives that reflect the unique laws and traditions of a particular national context.
Developing scholarship that speaks to the values and interests of the dominant secular class in western nations can be an effective strategy to promote the value of religion in society. For example, Grim and colleagues (2014) document how religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes in America. In a related study, Grim and Grim (2016) estimate the economic value of religion to the United States ranges from $378 billion to $4.8 trillion dollars annually with a mid-range estimate of just over $1 trillion annually. To put these numbers in context, the low estimate (i.e., $378 billion annually) is more than the combined global annual revenues of the tech giants Apple and Microsoft. Similarly, Cnaan and An (2018) document the diverse ways that American urban congregations add economic and social value to their neighborhoods by, for example, adding green space to urban environments to enhance livability. In international settings, Grim and Finke (2010) illustrate that religious freedom reduces violence, a concern shared by many secular people around the world.
It is important to note that highlighting the utilitarian value of religion does not detract from the moral imperative of societies to respect people’s fundamental human rights. All nations that have endorsed the Declaration have a moral duty to promote tolerance and respect for religious diversity (United Nations, 2019). This duty exists regardless of any beneficial effect religion may or may not have in society. Rather, highlighting areas of congruence with the beliefs and values of the dominant secular culture helps to increase the likelihood that the message of inclusion and equity will be understood and acted upon.
This is one reason why scholarship on spiritual microaggressions is important (Sue, 2010). Spiritual microaggressions can be defined as commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental slights or insults directed at individuals based upon their membership in a given spiritual group, faith tradition, or religion (Hodge, 2020). Consider, for example, an individual wearing a shirt featuring the phrase “Recovering Catholic.” This phrase implicitly equates Catholicism with a disease or medical disorder, and coveys a message that mocks or disparages members of this faith tradition. These subtle messages function to legitimize discriminatory actions against Christians and other people of faith. Put differently, spiritual microaggressions help create an environment in which acts of intolerance and violence aimed at people of faith are accepted, tolerated, or perhaps quickly acknowledged as unfortunate and then ignored. More research is needed on spiritual microaggressions and other dynamics that facilitate an environment that permits religious discrimination. In addition to exploring the link between spiritual microaggressions and discrimination, researchers might also examine the relationship between these aggressions and diverse mental and physical health outcomes (Sue, 2020).
On a related note, scholars might explore the relationship between religious discrimination and diaphobia, which is conceptualized as animus toward a divine worldview in which a transcendent God serves as the central point of reference as opposed to a secular worldview (Hodge, 2003). Researchers might examine how diaphobia creates a hostile environment for people of faith as well as its relationship with various health outcomes. In addition, similar concerns might be explored as manifested within the context of specific faith traditions including, for example, Christianophobia (Yancey & Williamson, 2014), Islamophobia (Aidenberger & Doehne, 2021), and antisemitism (Hodge & Boddie, 2021).
As Foucault (1980) suggests, the emancipation of subjugated knowledge plays a central role in creating a just society in which people’s human rights are respected in an equitable manner. Due to the supremacy of secularism in western societies, the interests of people of faith are often ignored or overlooked. In turn, the neglect of these perspectives has fostered a major human rights crisis that disproportionately impacts some of the world’s most vulnerable people (United Nations, 2019).
The voices of Christians and others who are victims of intolerance, hate, and violence must be heard. By working together, we can help create more inclusive, just societies that respect diversity. We must work to create a world where everyone is free to practice their right to religious freedom without fear. Allowing others to suffer in silence can no longer be an option.
David R. Hodge
University of Arizona, USA