Religious Freedom: A Twenty-First Century Paradigm

By: Brian Grim

July 9, 2013

The Pew Research Center’s studies on global restrictions on religion have played a role in shifting discussion from the twentieth century paradigm of religious freedom that focused primarily on the types of government restrictions seen in communist countries to a twenty-first century paradigm that recognizes that the actions of groups in society can affect religious freedom as much and perhaps even more than the actions of governments.
The findings of the studies show that 40 percent of the world’s countries have high or very high restrictions on religion, but because several of these countries are very populous, about three-quarters of the world’s population—totaling 5.1 billion people—live with high restrictions.

These findings are based on a comprehensive analysis of 198 countries and territories. Each year since 2006, a team at the Pew Research Center has carefully studied the laws and constitutions for each of these countries as well as human rights reports from major international sources—such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the European Union and the US State Department. Based on these sources, Pew Research Center staff count up and categorize each reported government restriction on religion and each reported social hostility involving religion.

The study measures 20 different types of government restrictions on religion, and adds them up into a Government Restrictions Index. The more restrictions and the greater their severity, the higher the score. Based on this index, the study finds that almost two-thirds of people live in countries with high or very high government restrictions. Examples of government restrictions include:

     • restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols are limited in more than a quarter of all countries. For      instance, the European Court of Human Rights recently found that British law does not adequately protect      an employee’s right to display religious symbols in the workplace—such as wearing a cross.

     • restrictions also include imprisonments occur in nearly a third of all countries. In Burma, for instance,      Buddhist monks continue to languish in prison cells for their role as clergy in promoting human rights and      democracy.

The study measures 13 different types of social hostilities involving religion, and adds them up into a Social Hostilities Index. The more hostilities and the greater their severity, the higher the score. Based on this index, the study finds that half the world’s people live in countries with high or very high social hostilities related to religion. These include:

     • sectarian violence occurs in 17 percent, or more than one-out-of-every-seven countries worldwide. In      Iraq, for instance, even though the civil war ended years ago, acts of sectarian violence continue to occur      on an almost daily basis.

     • religion-related terrorists are active in more than a third of countries worldwide, including recently in      France, where a rabbi and several Jewish school children were gunned down in a brazen act of terror.

The Pew Research studies also divide the world into five major regions to look at broad geographic patterns. Looking at the regions, religious restrictions and social hostilities increased in each of them over the five years of the study—in the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. But restrictions rose most substantially in the Middle East and North Africa—including through 2011, when the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring occurred.

What contributes to these high and rising religious restrictions and hostilities in the Middle East and North Africa? The study finds that, on average, each type of government restriction is associated with more social hostility not less. And among the 20 types of government restrictions analyzed, high government favoritism of one religion at the expense of others has the strongest association with social hostilities involving religion.

How does the Middle East and North Africa compare with the rest of the world on this measure? About eight times the share of countries in the region have high or very high government favoritism of religion compared with the rest of the world.

Likewise, social hostilities involving religion are associated with higher government restrictions, not lower. The study finds that among the 13 types of social hostilities studied, sectarian or communal violence between religious groups has the strongest association with government restrictions on religion.

Again, how does the Middle East and North Africa stack up against the rest of the world on this measure? Sectarian violence is four times more prevalent among the countries in the region than elsewhere in the world.

One important contribution of the Pew Research study is that it tracks changes over time. As already mentioned, 40 percent of countries have high or very high restrictions on religion. But the situation just five years earlier was markedly different—then, just 29 percent of countries had high or very high restrictions. Whether this is a temporary trend or one that will continue will become clear as the study continues in the years to come.

These comments are from Brian J. Grim’s recent TEDx Talk, “The Numbers of Religious Freedom”.
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Religious Freedom: A Twenty-First Century Paradigm