Magazines 2017 Jan - Feb Two dimensions of religious freedom

Two dimensions of religious freedom

27 January 2017 By Bruce J. Clemenger

We strengthen society when we help religious agnostics realize they aren’t neutral

Freedom of conscience and religion are the first two freedoms mentioned in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Usually when people talk about them, they mean the freedom to publicly live out beliefs and change them without penalty.

Both freedoms are expressive. They’re not only what you believe, but also your ability to manifest your beliefs. Freedom to worship is an obvious example.

Religious freedom is sometimes referred to as the "first freedom." That’s not merely because it is listed first in a constitutional document (or in the American context is the subject of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution).

It’s the "first freedom" because when religious freedom is enjoyed, other key freedoms are usually involved – freedoms such as expression, speech and assembly.

So the usual key question is, are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others able to practise their faith and change beliefs without threat of persecution?

However, many people in our society claim not to be religious. What does that mean for religious freedom? Is religious neutrality an option?

Musician Bob Dylan wrote a song titled "Gotta Serve Somebody." The refrain is "Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody."

These ideas actually hold true in light of the Bible, which teaches people either worship God or an idol, a counterfeit. In Romans 1 Paul says people have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worship and serve created things rather than the Creator.

Both biblically informed Christians and Bob Dylan fans agree there’s no middle ground, no neutral vantage point, no place to transcend or stand apart from belief.

Even Canada’s Supreme Court recognized this. "We must also accept that, from a philosophical standpoint, absolute [religious] neutrality does not exist," it declared in its 2012 decision in S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes.

The court went on to argue that nonetheless the state should be as neutral as possible:

State neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever, while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the individuals affected.

In a subsequent decision it treated atheism as being under the protection of freedom of religion.

While not everyone will call their belief system religious, we all live out our lives as an expression of basic beliefs about the meaning of life, the difference between good and evil, what a good life entails, etc.

The late Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls referred to this a "comprehensive doctrine." He acknowledged not everyone has a coherent doctrine and may live their lives according to several partial doctrines.

The point is we all have one (or more than one), though often we may not be able to articulate it.

Canadians live in a society that increasingly sees itself as being nonreligious, and Canadians are less and less likely to identify themselves with a specific religion. However, this does not mean they have ceased to believe.

Most do not often think much about belief until these beliefs are challenged or put to the test – perhaps when confronted by death or a major unfamiliar experience.

But when they finally do think about it, hopefully they will recognize that everyone serves something or someone, and we all live our lives out of some comprehensive doctrine or worldview or belief system, whether it is framed in terms of secular values or convictions rooted in a typical religion.

And if that’s true, if you can’t not believe, then a critical part of religious freedom goes beyond believing and living out your beliefs. It also includes knowing what you believe.

Can you enjoy your religious freedom if you have not taken the time to understand your faith commitments and how these animate your life and relationships?

The key point here is that promoting religious freedom is not just a defensive measure to ensure everyone has the ability to worship as they see fit, but a proactive engagement with others to help them understand who or what they actually worship.

Real religious freedom ensures we have the public space to respectfully engage one another about our respective beliefs and truth claims. Only with this understanding can we each be said to have religious freedom.

Bruce J. Clemenger is president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work. You can follow us on Twitter @TheEFC and support us financially at or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.