Right/Freedom of Religion/Philosophical Origins

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Freedom of Religion

What have religious and philosophical traditions contributed to our understanding of this right?


Absolute Idealism 🖉 edit

Hegel never addresses 'freedom of religion' by name. But if we examine the contents of this notion in its modern, liberal manifestation, including the freedom of religious practice and the prohibition of state adoption or encouragement of any particular faith (the latter not always being included in this right), we find Hegel has much to say (ACLU, 2023). His discussion of the relationship between religion and state is isolated mainly within §270 of his socio-political treatise, "The Philosophy of Right." In this section, Hegel criticizes both theocracy and a liberal separation of church and state. His disputes are both theoretical and practical. Ontologically speaking, religion and the state are different forms of the same rational activity of "Geist" (spirit or mind) coming to know "absolute truth." Thus, they should not be wholly alienated from one another. And practically speaking, Hegel believes that religion instills in the citizenry an allegiance to the common interest towards which the state aims, making it an essential form of education for any healthy state. But this is not to say that the law should hand over its authority to subjective religious opinion. In Hegel's view, the state retains the right to determine duties, rights, and laws that dictate "worldly life" but may heed religious doctrine insofar as it does not obstruct its rational operations.

We should first understand where the state and religion stand within Hegel's philosophical system. The state falls under the umbrella of "objective spirit;" it is a manifestation of spirit's rationality and freedom in concrete or 'objective' reality (i.e., it takes the form of state institutions and laws). The state, properly understood, is spirit existing in a way that is not only rational but inherently ethical. For this reason, Hegel makes it the highest manifestation of what he calls "ethical life," the stage at which ethics springs from its subjective, 'abstract' form (e.g., that of Kant's abstract morality) and becomes embodied in concrete social and political arrangments, rules, and institutions. As Hegel puts it, the state is "the building of reason into reality;" it is an objective expression of our free, rational spirit where the "end is the universal interest as such and the conservation therein of particular interests” (Hegel 1820, §270).

Hegel acknowledges that one might see the state's outward, worldly domain as distinct from the spiritual, inward orientation of religion. In his view, religion is defined by "intuition, feeling, representational knowledge, [whose] concern is God as the unrestricted principle and cause on which everything hangs;" its realm is the heart, and its object is divinity (Hegel 1820, §270). From this interpretation, one might assume that religion is fundamentally disinterested in the worldly concerns of the state. Yet, Hegel contends that the state and religion are not wholly distinct, differing in "form" but sharing the same "content" (Hegel 1820, §270) The two share the same "content" in being relations of spirit to "absolute truth." Explicating what Hegel means not only by "absolute" but also by "truth" is beyond the scope of this essay. But for simplicity, the reader might think of it as a complete, unified knowledge of reality. Religion is the spirit coming to know the "truth" of God, while the state is the "truth" of spirit rationally expressing itself in the external world. Both enterprises differ in their respective forms truth takes: in religion, knowledge comes in the form of feeling, faith, and mental representations, whereas in the state, knowledge becomes concrete in law, duty, right, and political institutions (Hegel 1820, §270). Religion and state, to Hegel, are the same free, rational truth manifesting in different shapes. Thus to imply, as liberalism does, that the religious and political realms should be completely separate is to deny that these are expressions of a common principle.

But despite this relationship, Hegel warns that religious sentiment should never have authority over the secular state. Because knowledge of the divine takes the form of "subjective idea and feeling… [that] draw a veil over everything determinate," to base the "enduring" character of laws and institutions on it will doom a state to "instability, insecurity and disorder" (Hegel 1820, §270). The religious opinion is internally disclosed and backed only by faith; it is thereby subjective and unfalsifiable (though not necessarily false). Anyone who "seeks guidance from the Lord" may claim that the dictates of the state are immoral and to be opposed (Hegel 1820, §270). Of course, this opposition to the state may remain an unexpressed belief. But it may also devolve into fanaticism that seeks to make religion equivalent to the state, i.e., to establish a theocracy. Hegel notes that when religion usurps the secular sovereignty of the state, "opinion and capricious inclination are to do the deciding" (Hegel 1820, §270). No state can be stable when the mercurial beliefs of religious zealots determine its laws, and thus an equivalency between church and state must be avoided (Hegel 1820, §270).

However, Hegel accepts that the state can incorporate religious ideas into its operations, though ultimately, the state has the final say over whether religious tenets are fit to be incorporated into law. Hegel contends that in the state, religion's "subjective truth" gets comprehended in "determinate thought" rather than faith or feeling (Hegel 1820, §270). For example, a state can make the religious precept "thou shalt not murder" into law, but not because religion says so. The state may look to religion as inspiration for or confirmation of this principle, but ultimately it must make sure this principle is rational of its own accord. To Hegel, the state has no authority over one's inner religious convictions. However, he argues that "when doctrines touch on objective principles, on thoughts of the ethical and rational, then their expression eo ipso brings the church into the domain of the state" (Hegel 1820, §270). So, the state may look to religion as a fount of ethical truth but retains sovereign authority as a secular institution over what religious convictions may rationally become law.

Finally, Hegel supports a relationship between religion and the state on practical grounds. He claims that religion is an "integrating factor in the state, implanting a sense of unity in the depths of men's minds," it imbues the citizenry with a sense of communal belonging that supports the state's function (Hegel 1820, §270). From here, Hegel makes a claim that deeply violates our notion of freedom of religion, claiming that a state should "require that all its citizens to belong to a church" (Hegel 1820, §270). In contemporary liberal thought, freedom of religion implies freedom not to worship. Though Hegel specifies that the state can not establish an official church for its citizens, he seems to believe it holds the authority to mandate participation in religious activities.

We have mapped out a hazy outline of Hegel's views on religion and state: a conception that rejects both a complete separation of church and state and a theocratic unity of religion and law. Religion and state are expressions of the same underlying "absolute truth," and thus should not be wholly alienated from each other. Likewise, religion holds practical benefits for the state, making men conscious of the communal good that the state exists to promote. However, subjective religious ideas can not, as it were, 'take the reins’ of the secular state and its laws. This would, in Hegel's view, lead to a fundamentally irrational and despotic state. It seems Hegel envisions a state whose authority remains independent from religious institutions while still drawing on the truth revealed by religion as such. Further, Hegel shows an inkling of religious tolerance (insofar as a doctrine does not reach into the state's worldly domain). However, he does not respect the right to abstain from religious practice. Hegel's picture of the relationship between religion and state diverges from our modern notion of church-state separation and personal freedom of religious practice, though he is far from supportive of religious principles holding sway over secular, political rationality.


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Stephen Houlgate. Outlines of the Philosophy of Right. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford [UK] ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Continental Philosophy/Frankfurt School 🖉 edit

The notion of the freedom of religion is difficult to situate within the work of the Frankfurt School. In the early 20th century, a group of Western Marxist intellectuals founded the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University Frankfurt, an interdisciplinary research initiative that implemented a new approach to the social sciences (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Their distinctive "critical theory" revised "traditional theory," which sought merely to establish timeless, universal truths around specific subjects, seeking instead to further interpret scientific findings in a normative light (Horkheimer, 1937, 199). In other words, where traditional theory tells us merely how things are, critical theory tells us how they are and how they should be. This new project was, thus, in a sense, a radical marrying of philosophy and social sciences. As most of its 'first-generation' members took a Marxist or Freudian approach to their research, a 'freedom of religion' was not much discussed, perhaps more due to their suspicion of 'private liberties' than disdain for religion. However, we find in the work of the school's 'second-generation' thinkers (particularly in the work of Jurgen Habermas) a more complex philosophical discussion of both human rights and the relationship between religion and the state.

The “First-Generation” Members of the so-called 'first generation' of the Frankfurt School saw value in religion's inclination towards social justice and concern for objective, 'non-instrumental' knowledge. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, two of the school's most notable theorists, were deeply critical of "instrumental reason," human rationality directed towards mere means rather than proper ends (Horkheimer, 1944). Their critique is too detailed to be fully treated here, but simply put, instrumental reason reduces rationality as a tool for exploiting nature and fellow man (particularly as a tool in capitalism) (Horkheimer, 1944). Prioritizing this form of reason reduces the value of knowledge to mere 'usefulness' or 'practicality' at the expense of bedrock, "objective truth" (Horkheimer, 1944, 156). To the intellectuals of the early Frankfurt School, religion shared with critical theory a concern for truth about the ends of human life and society (e.g., the nature of justice and goodness), topics lost in the thoughtless dogmatism of an age defined by instrumental rationality. Further, religion also shared a spirit of practical social activism, seeking not only to outline the 'ideal world' but also to realize it (Brittain, 2012, 207). Where capitalist society had dogmatically accepted that one's ultimate aim was to use instrumental reason to extract value from nature and man, religion offered a necessary alternative towards higher truth and worldly justice. A critical theory of religion, then, could provide unique value for the project of critical theory as a whole. However, first-generation theorists largely ignored the discussion of universal human rights. We might attribute this fact to Marx's cynical view on private liberties, as expressed in his essay "On the Jewish Question." In this work, Marx claims that personal rights create a harmful division between the private or "civil sphere" and the public or "political sphere" (Marx, 1843). Such rights allowed individuals to retract from a concern for the universal, communal good into a private sense of happiness (Marx, 1843). As such, religious freedom was harmful in encouraging individuals to value their religion over their "species-being," their being part of a unified humankind (Marx, 1843). With this in view, we can understand why the early Marxist critical theorists might have discussed the value of freedom of religion: perhaps rights were irrelevant to their vision for society.

The "Second-Generation" Most of the so-called "second-generation" critical theorists (whose work began in the 1970s) put less emphasis on religion, though we can see parallels with the first-generation views in the later work of Jurgen Habermas. Early in his career, Habermas reduced religion's status to that of a primitive socializing force (Habermas 1981). The need for religious attitudes was to be overcome by secular rationality in the form of his theory of communicative action, a philosophical system Habermas hoped would ground "the social sciences in a theory of language (Habermas 1988, xiv). In the mid-1980s, Habermas became less disparaging of religion, recognizing it as a source of necessary consolation for a suffering world (Habermas 1990). This positive view continued to develop through his later career, with Habermas eventually recognizing that religious ideas were a well of moral truth necessary in combating the moral decay of the techno-capitalist age (Habermas 2006). Though Habermas continued to advocate for a separation between law and religion, he believed that the public sphere could gather valuable moral intuition from religious teachings (Habermas 2006). Though nothing like a theocracy (the direct imposition of religious authority into the state apparatus) should exist, a respectful friendship between religion and state could prove essential in preserving society's ethical integrity. Furthermore, the later Habermas also defends the individual's right to freedom of religious practice (Habermas 2006). We see here both a growing similarity and marked difference to the first-generation theorists' view of religion, with Habermas acknowledging the value of religious teachings while also endorsing a more classically liberal respect for the freedom of religion.

Human rights Habermas also engaged in a comprehensive discussion of human liberties per se. His treatment of rights is situated within his "discourse theory," in which he seeks to resolve various epistemological, political, and ethical issues by analyzing inter-subjective communication (Habermas 1992, between facts and norms). Broadly speaking, Habermas asserts that society maintains itself over time only when its constituents view it as legitimate (Habermas 1996). The dawn of modernity, with its growing differences in religious and philosophical opinions, presents a challenge here: groups seek to impose their personal views of justice and happiness on others to their detriment and embitterment (Habermas 1996). Therefore, spheres of private freedom needed to arise to resolve this tension. Insofar as individuals can pursue their own visions of happiness (without interfering with the freedom of others), society can maintain its legitimacy (Habermas 1996). Rights are the legal feature that maintains such spheres of personal liberty. But for these private rights to be legitimate, individuals must have a say in the system that grants and manages them (Habermas 1996). This demand for public rights (i.e., the right to participate in government) makes democracy "co-original" with private rights; they rationally presuppose one another (Habermas 1996). The fundamental freedoms to be protected are determined through the rational deliberation of a constitutional democracy.

We find in Habermas a more coherent account of both rights and the freedom of religion than we do in the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Thinkers like Horkheimer and Adorno saw great value in a critical analysis of religion, but they left the notion of freedom of religion largely untreated. Though Habermas never gives a systematic account of why freedom of religion ought to be a sanctioned right, he asserts its intuitive importance to a healthy and just society. He also gives us much more to think about when it comes to the concept of human rights as such. This is not to say that first-generation critical theorists provide no insight into the relationship between religion and society. One can indeed gain much understanding of the topic from both scholarly eras, though later work gives us a more robust treatment of the freedom of religion.

Medieval Judaism 🖉 edit

The concept of freedom of religion in Jewish philosophy initially seems to be a modern innovation, especially since the term does not appear in Jewish holy texts. At the same time, however, there is some sense of a freedom of religion in Jewish thought, in a way that could be said to prefigure the secular conception of that idea.

Fundamentally, Judaism teaches that all people are made in God’s image, and its holy texts emphasize the value of tolerance in multiple places. Perhaps most well-known is Leviticus 19:18, which says “love your neighbor as yourself.” Even more prescriptive is Leviticus 19:34, which commands to the people of Israel that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” These lines formed the basis for one of the most famous anecdotes in Judaism, where Rabbi Hillel (active in the first century BCE) summed up all of Jewish teaching as “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary” (Shurpin n.d.).

Hillel’s dictum is often referred to as the Golden Rule, which is found in one form or another in every other world faith, but his precise wording is unique. The Golden Rule is typically stated as some variation of “treat others the way you want to be treated,” but Hillel inverts this by giving a negative formulation – i.e., how not to treat others. This phrasing is very revealing when it comes to a Jewish freedom of religion: from this, it is easy to see that one should not mistreat others because of their religious beliefs, because one would not want be treated that way by others.

As with any faith that aims to guide people’s spiritual lives, Judaism necessarily tells its adherents what they should believe, so total freedom of religion (the freedom to believe whatever one wants) is not possible within the faith. Judaism holds that anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, so one doesn’t stop being a Jew if, for example, one declares that one doesn’t believe in God, but such a belief would traditionally be considered incompatible with being a “good” Jew. Possibly the single most foundational Talmudic scholar of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides (died 1204), outlined thirteen fundamental principles of the Jewish faith, and all concern different aspects of believing in God and other beliefs; they are customarily recited in the format “I believe…” (Chabad n.d.).

Nevertheless, a fundamental idea of freedom of thought can be seen in traditional Jewish philosophy. As far back as the medieval period, Jewish scholars sampled from as wide a range of schools of thought as possible, including classical, Christian, and Muslim thought, in their pursuit of the ultimate truth. Since the greatest intellectual centers of the medieval Jewish world were Muslim-ruled Spain and the Middle East, Jewish philosophers were especially heavily influenced by their Islamic contemporaries, and by extension, by classical Greek texts that they encountered via Arabic translations. One particularly revealing example is Saadya Gaon, who was active in the Middle East over a century before Maimonides’ birth: “Saadya was not committed to any particular philosophical school. Existing philosophical schools were the heritage of a non-Jewish culture, the rich influence of which Saadya did not try to reject. But being a Jew [in contrast to his Muslim contemporaries], he felt free to collect material gleaned from various sources” (Stroumsa 2003, 80). Evaluations of Saadya Gaon’s body of work suggest an overarching commitment to reason over dogma; to the conviction that “the praiseworthy wise person is he who makes reality his guiding principle and bases his belief thereon,” and that “the reprehensible fool … is he who sets up his personal conviction as his guiding principle, assuming that reality is patterned after his beliefs” (Stroumsa 2003, 76). To him, this free inquiry was unquestionably compatible with Judaism. Another example of this intellectual diffusion is the Jewish Neoplatonists, foremost among them Isaac Israeli (Saadya Gaon’s contemporary) and Solomon ibn Gabirol, who both drew from and refuted the pagan worldview that the original Neoplatonist school promoted (Pessin 2003, 91-106). Maimonides himself may have been more discriminating about drawing from non-Jewish traditions, but the profound influence of Aristotelian philosophy on his thought is nevertheless widely acknowledged: even in the many places where Maimonides disagreed with Aristotle, his “philosophical starting point is Aristotle, and it is from Aristotle that he develops his own philosophical positions” (Frank 2003, 145).

Moreover, a major difference between Judaism and other Abrahamic religions is that Judaism is largely unconcerned with what non-adherents believe, and thus affords a strong degree of freedom of religion to those outside the faith. In contrast to both Christianity and Islam, where it has traditionally been considered incumbent upon those faiths’ adherents to work for the conversion of people of other faiths, Judaism is decidedly not a proselytizing religion, so much so that many modern Jews regard trying to convert others to the faith as inappropriate and disrespectful. Conversion to Judaism is deliberately a difficult and drawn-out process, meant to ensure that those who seek to convert are doing so out of genuine belief.

According to Rabbi Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College, the Jewish aversion to proselytization came about by necessity, to protect their communities throughout the long history of Jews living as a persecuted minority in Christian and Muslim states. Starting under the Roman Empire and continuing throughout the medieval period, entire communities could be severely punished for proselytizing to the majority faith: “The rule of survival in each context required that Jews not proselytize, upon pain of death. … Such a length of time [as a minority faith] can deeply acculturate an aversion to engaging in an act that could easily bring death and destruction to the community. So proselytism, while not forbidden anywhere in Judaism, came to feel foreign and strange” (Firestone 2019).

Although only Jews are obligated to follow Jewish law, Judaism does have a separate injunction for non-Jews, known as the Noachide Laws (Korn n.d.). Believed to have been given by God to Noah after the Great Flood, the Talmud regards these as universal laws that are binding on all of Noah’s descendants (all of humanity), thus making them the only instance where Judaism claims to prescribe the behavior of non-adherents. Five of the seven Noachide Laws concern actions and not beliefs – the command to establish courts to uphold the law, and the prohibitions on murder, theft, sexual immorality, and eating the flesh of a living animal. The remaining two, which prohibit blasphemy and idolatry, are potentially problematic when it comes to respect for foreign religious beliefs: while traditional Jewish philosophy would not have regarded blasphemy and idol worship to be genuine religious expressions, the practical definitions of those terms can easily expand to encompass the sincerely held beliefs of other people and their cultures.

However, it is still very notable that non-Jews who abide by the Noachide Laws are thought to have a share in the World to Come, the closest thing Judaism has to heaven, despite not believing in the Jewish God or following any of the Jewish commandments (Korn n.d.). Therefore, at least implicitly, Judaism recognizes that other faiths also can guide a person to live a good and virtuous life – that action is ultimately more determinative of personal morality than belief – and this idea can also be found in medieval thought. Particularly interesting is the apologia commonly known as The Kuzari, by Spanish Jewish polymath Judah Halevi (died 1141), which is framed as an account of a Khazar king convening a dialogue between practitioners of different faiths. (The Khazars were an Eastern European empire whose ruling class converted from paganism to Judaism for uncertain reasons; Halevi’s account, written centuries after their conversion, purports to tell how it happened).

In Halevi’s narrative, the king describes his spiritual crisis following a dream where an angel told him that “his intentions were pleasing to God, but his actions were not” (Kogan 2003, 112). Subsequently, the king tries to “make a more zealous effort to observe the rites of his pagan religion than before,” but the angel keeps returning with the same message (Kogan 2003, 112). Eventually, the king realizes “that God was commanding him to seek out those actions that would be pleasing,” and so he gathers representatives of all the different religions for counsel (Kogan 2003, 112). It is the Jewish response (no doubt a stand-in for Halevi’s view) that he ultimately finds the most convincing, thus spurring his conversion. In his advice to the king, the Jewish philosopher seems almost unconcerned with what belief system the king follows, but only that he act with reason and justice: “the philosopher urges the king, in general terms, to purify his soul of doubts and pursue knowledge of the true realities, while keeping to the path of justice… if he still wishes, he may either create a religion for himself or follow one of the intellectual nomoi [Greek for laws or conventions] of the philosophers” (Kogan 2003, 113). Overall, Halevi defends tolerance of other beliefs as a Jewish value. With the Reconquista and the Crusades as the backdrop of his life, Halevi seems to have felt the rising anti-Jewish persecution of his time deeply – the full title of The Kuzari is Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion.

Although Jewish thought has not had to contend with a notion of freedom of religion, as such, until relatively recently, traces of the idea can be found going back to the medieval period. While ultimately it is hard to argue that unbounded freedom of religion can exist in Judaism, especially when it comes to freedom of religion within Judaism (as is the case for any belief system), Judaism does stand out in its tolerant attitude toward the beliefs of other religions. More broadly, a certain freedom of thought, including a freedom to hold nonconforming religious opinions, can be found in some of the most renowned Jewish scholars’ commitment to rational and diverse inquiry, and overarching emphasis on action over belief.


Chabad. “The Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith.” n.d. Accessed July 5, 2023. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/332555/jewish/Maimonides-13-Principles-of-Faith.htm

Firestone, Reuven. “Why Jews Don’t Proselytize.” Renovatio. June 12, 2019. Accessed July 5, 2023. https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/article/why-jews-dont-proselytize

Frank, Daniel H. “Maimonides and Medieval Jewish Aristotelianism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 136-156. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kogan, Barry S. “Judah Halevi and his use of Philosophy in The Kuzari.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 111-135. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Korn, Eugene. “Noachide Covenant: Theology and Jewish Law.” Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. n.d. Accessed July 5, 2023. https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/cjrelations/resources/sourcebook/Noahide_covenant.htm

Pessin, Sarah. “Jewish Neoplatonism: Being above Being and Divine Emanation in Solomon ibn Gabirol and Isaac Israeli.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 91-110. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Shurpin, Yehuda. “Is Hillel’s Teaching the same as the Golden Rule?” n.d. Accessed July 5, 2023. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/5410546/jewish/Is-Hillels-Teaching-the-Same-as-the-Golden-Rule.htm

Stroumsa, Sarah. “Saadya and Jewish Kalam.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 71-90. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Modern Capitalism 🖉 edit

At first glance, the idea of freedom of religion seems tangential to modern capitalist philosophy. They are of course intuitively compatible, since under a system of free enterprise there is no reason why one shouldn’t have freedom of faith as well. Undoubtedly, capitalism became closely linked to freedom of religion in the political discourse of the Cold War, to draw a contrast with the suppression of religion under communism. Nevertheless, capitalism is fundamentally an economic philosophy, and most arguments for it are in economic terms, with a positive argument for freedom of religion apparently regarded as not essential to a capitalist value system. As Ludwig von Mises wrote, “one does not refute socialism by attacking the socialist stand on religion, marriage, birth control, and art” (von Mises 1990, 16).

That said, even if freedom of religion is not absolutely necessary to the capitalist model, leading capitalist philosophers have interacted with it in unique ways, ultimately showing that freedom of religion can be defended in terms of the free market. Precursors to this connection can be found even before modern capitalism had fully developed, as when Voltaire described how commerce fosters religious tolerance in his famous commentaries on English society: “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word” (National Constitution Center 2023).

Milton Friedman, the preeminent modern philosopher of capitalism, would build on this idea by discussing how the underlying principles of capitalism naturally work to promote respect for freedom of religion. In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman specifically highlighted the principles of free association and private enterprise, emphasizing that they have relevance to society in realms other than the economic: “By relying primarily on voluntary cooperation and private enterprise, in both economic and other activities, we can insure that the private sector is a check on the powers of the governmental sector and an effective protection of freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought” (Friedman 2002, 3). Elsewhere in his book, Friedman pointed to the importance of competition: “[T]he preserves of discrimination in any society are the areas that are most monopolistic in character, whereas discrimination against groups of particular color or religion is least in those areas where there is the greatest freedom of competition” (Friedman 2002, 109).

For Friedrich Hayek, the capitalist system was crucial in enabling free exchange of ideas that are in demand by the public, just as it enables the free exchange of goods and services. To Hayek, capitalism (in a broader sociopolitical sense rather than strictly in an economic sense) facilitates freedom, of which freedom of religion is necessarily a part. As he wrote in The Constitution of Liberty, “the man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return” (Hayek 1960, 125). Among these aims are “the propagation of new ideas in politics, morals, and religion” (Hayek 1960, 125). Hayek subsequently emphasizes how the principle of competition necessitates religious pluralism, analogously to John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas: “[T]here should be no monopoly here but as many independent centers as possible able to satisfy such [spiritual] needs… representatives of all divergent views and tastes should be in a position to support with their means and their energy ideals which are not yet shared by the majority” (Hayek 1960, 125). That said, Hayek noted that freedom of religion, like any freedom, cannot be absolute: “Since there is no kind of action that may not interfere with another person's protected sphere, neither speech, nor the press, nor the exercise of religion can be completely free. … Freedom does mean and can mean only that what we may do is not dependent on the approval of any person or authority and is limited only by the same abstract rules that apply equally to all” (Hayek 1960, 155). Even so, Hayek evidently did not regard such limitations as so significant as to curtail freedom of religion; they did not represent a conflict between freedom of religion and the capitalist model.

Other philosophers, however, were not so accepting of the role of religion in the capitalist system. Von Mises did, in some parts of his work, express a view similar to Friedman and Hayek, as when he wrote, “the freedom that the market economy grants to the individual is not merely ‘economic’ as distinguished from some other kind of freedom. It implies the freedom to determine also all those issues which are considered as moral, spiritual, and intellectual” (von Mises 1990, 9). On the other hand, he also apparently considered religion (or at least the institutions of organized religion) inimical to the development of capitalism. As von Mises said, “it would seem that only a negative answer can be made to the question [of] whether it might not be possible to reconcile Christianity with a free social order based on private ownership in the means of production. A living Christianity cannot, it seems, exist side by side with Capitalism. Just as in the case of Eastern religions, Christianity must either overcome Capitalism or go under” (Glahe and Vorhies 1989).

In The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard denied the very existence of freedom of religion as a separate right, under his conception that all rights are fundamentally property rights. As he wrote, “the concept of ‘rights’ only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard” (Rothbard 1998, 113). For Rothbard, every right is a right to ownership (of one’s body, speech, beliefs, etc.); any other account of rights creates inevitable conflicts when one person’s right interferes with the rights of others. He believes that due to such conflicts all rights must be acknowledged as not absolute, and thus (in contrast to Hayek’s view) they become abridged. Using the example of the right to freedom of speech, or “the right of everyone to say whatever he likes,” Rothbard argued that “the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing” (Rothbard 1998, 113). Therefore “there is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man's property right: the right to do as he wills with his own [property] or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners” (Rothbard 1998, 113). The same would thus be true for freedom of religion as a discrete right; presumably, it should likewise be subordinated to the interests of, and subsumed into, the capitalist right to property.

The most obvious real-life application of Rothbard’s stance seems to be in workplace accommodations for religious practice. In the United States, the courts have in fact rejected his view by recognizing a separate right to practice one’s religion as it relates to employment; this goes as far back as the 1963 case Sherbert v. Verner, where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who had been denied unemployment benefits after being fired due to her Seventh-Day Adventist faith. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religion is likewise a protected category when it comes to employment discrimination, in areas like hiring, firing, or advancement. Under the adversarial view described above, however, a business owner’s property is theirs to do with as they see fit, and they cannot be made to change the way they use their property to accommodate anyone’s beliefs; if the requirements of the job are intolerable to an employee’s religion, the business owner has no obligation to keep employing them. While the employee has the right to ownership of their beliefs, that does not extend to the right to practice those beliefs on someone else’s property.

In the thought of the leading philosophers of modern capitalism, one can find divergent views on the relationship that religion, and specifically the right to freedom of religion, has with capitalism. Nonetheless, these philosophers certainly had to contend with issues of religion, and from their writings it can be seen that freedom of religion has more relevance to a discussion of modern capitalist philosophy than may initially be apparent.


Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Glahe, Fred, and Frank Vorhies. “Religion, Liberty, and Economic Development: An Empirical Investigation.” Public Choice, 62, no. 3 (1989): 201-215.

Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. National Constitution Center. “Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733).” 2023. Accessed July 14, 2023. https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/historic-document-library/detail/voltaireletters-concerning-the-english-nation-1733

Rothbard, Murray. The Ethics of Liberty. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

von Mises, Ludwig. “Human Action.” In Economic Freedom and Interventionism: An Anthology of Articles and Essays, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves, 12-19. Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc., 1990.

von Mises, Ludwig. “The Freeman.” In Economic Freedom and Interventionism: An Anthology of Articles and Essays, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves, 3-11. Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc., 1990.

Pragmatism 🖉 edit

Pragmatism, a broad philosophical tradition that traces its origins to the United States, prioritizes action over doctrine, and holds that “an idea is like a tool developed in response to surrounding conditions, and the worth of an idea is tied to its practical effects” (Rorty et al. 2004, 1). The philosophy was pioneered by key figures like Charles S. Peirce and was later expanded upon by philosophers William James and John Dewey, among others, providing different interpretations and understanding of the movement. They utilized pragmatism as a lens through which to view public and social affairs, including human rights, liberties, religion, and ethics. For pragmatists, “theory answers to practice,” meaning that ideas such as the notion of human rights and liberties “must answer to their pragmatics, their use” (Luban 2013, 5-6). Through this approach, the right to freedom of religion is as useful as the effect it has on individuals and how it matters to us as humans, which pragmatists like James and Dewey saw as giving meaning to one’s life and shaping a moral order.

Founded in the 1870s, pragmatism is a philosophical movement that advances the idea that a claim or theory is true only if it has practical use or success and called for the testing of philosophies through the scientific method. Scholar Cheryl Misak identifies three notions that pragmatists commonly share: “that standards of objectivity are historically situated but their contingency does nothing to detract from their objectivity; that knowledge has and requires no foundation; and the importance of connecting philosophical concepts to everyday life” (Bacon 2012, ix). This last idea directly impacts how pragmatists interpret religion and the right of individuals to practice their faith, as they focus on the consequences of their existence and whether it is useful in one’s everyday life: “The pragmatist approach pushes [one] to focus on the practical effects of religion on one’s existence” (Romania 2016, 96). For a pragmatist, if the consequences of an individual practicing their religion are practical and beneficial to them then it is useful and has worth. Additionally, if the theory that all humans are born with fundamental rights, including the freedom of religion, has practical benefits and matters to individuals, then it too is useful and has worth.

William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, was an important figure in early pragmatism, with many of his works developing the tradition. He touched upon religion in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, where he wrote on “religious experience and defined it through the ecstatic experience of individuals in their real life” (Romania 2016, 96). Instead of focusing on religious doctrine and institutions, he focused on the experience of the individual, seeing “religion as a guiding principle in daily life” and useful (Romania 2016, 96). John Dewey, another early champion of pragmatism, similarly wrote in length about religion and social life. Dewey “conceived religion as a form of access to the universal values of humanity. He naturalized religion, extending its borders to any beliefs able to move people toward the realization of the highest humanistic ends” (Romania 2016, 96). This notion of the utility and practicality of religion became common in pragmatist thought, with religion being “conceived as possessing a noetic character opening the way to access an unseen moral order and to organize one’s life consistently” (Romania 2016, 96).

The relationship between human rights and pragmatism is dependent on their effectiveness in everyday life. As Joseph Betz writes in his 1978 journal article John Dewey on Human Rights: “Doctrines of social philosophy, like other concepts, are tools and instruments used to solve problems, social problems” (23). He further argues that Dewey believes that “rights make abstract freedom effective”, meaning that legal rights, such as the right to freedom of religion and expression, are necessary to make the notion of human liberties practical and applicable (Betz 1978. 28).

Through the context of pragmatism, the right to freedom of religion is worth protecting if its practical and has beneficial results. Pragmatists such as James and Dewey believe that an individual’s religion does have worth as it holds them to a moral standard: “Both William James and John Dewey conceive the existence of an unseen moral order as central to religious belief and practice” (Romania 2016, 99). They further saw it as giving meaning to the individual’s life, with scholar David Luban stating that, “the pragmatist function of religion is rather intended as a symbolic universe people use to give meaningfulness to their lives in the long run” (99). Pragmatists view the consequences of individuals practicing their faith as overall positive: “In conclusion, pragmatist accounts of religion showed some common features: moral neutrality, practice-centrality, emphasis on the experiential dimension, symbolism, individualization of faith. They do not discuss the origins of transcendent ideals but rather assess their social validity on the practical ground of subjective gratification” (Romania 2016, 104). James and Dewey also saw human rights as necessary and useful if they served their practical purpose to solve social problems. If an individual’s religion has useful and practical effects, and protecting an individual’s right to practice that religion successfully allows them to do so, then the right to freedom of religion is positive and supported by pragmatism.

Pragmatism prioritizes the practical effects of a theory or claim, believing its consequences and usefulness to be most important when evaluating its worth. They apply this to religion and the right of an individual to practice that religion. Early pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey wrote extensively on the subject of religion, believing its effects to be overall positive for an individual and society, proving its worth. The right to freedom of religion is useful as it allows individuals to receive those positive consequences that come from practicing their faith, and thus, in the context of pragmatism, the right to freedom of religion proves its worth.


Bacon, M. 2012 “Pragmatism: an introduction.” Polity.

Betz, J. (1978). John Dewey on Human Rights. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 14(1), 18–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40319827

Luban, David. 2013 "Human Rights Pragmatism and Human Dignity" Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1317. https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/1317

Romania, Vincenzo. 2016 “Pragmatism, Religion and Ethics: A Review Essay. H. Deuser Et Al, The Varieties of Transcendence: Pragmatism and the Theory of Religion, New York: Fordham University Press

Rorty, Richard, Hilary Putnam, James Conant, and Gretchen Helfrich. 2004. “What Is Pragmatism?” Think 3 (8). Cambridge University Press: 71–88. doi:10.1017/S1477175600001056.

Roman Legal and Political Thought 🖉 edit

Maintaining order and power within the Roman Empire was a key aspect to the functions and elements within the roman legal and political spheres. Consequently, Roman legal and political thought has become very influential to modern law and legal systems. Those who posed a threat saw great consequences and persecution as the Romans highly valued loyalty to Rome. According to Cicero, “Rome’s power and success lay in the superiority of its religious system (Simón, 2022, 465).” Romans were notoriously open to foreign religious influence and mobility throughout the Republic (Orlin, 2008, 232). “Religion played a decisive role in the circulation of ancestral wisdom and construction of civic identity that was deeply embedded in the political culture of the Roman Republic, (Simón, 2022, 466).” The Edict of Augustus demonstrates how the early empire contributed to the continuation of this openness in stating; “Since the nation of the Jews… have been found grateful to the people of the Romans... it seems good to me and to my advisory council, that the Jews shall use their own customs in accordance with their ancestral law, just as they used to use them in the time of Hyrcanus, the high priest of their highest god; and that their sacred offerings shall be inviolable and shall be sent to Jerusalem and shall be paid to the financial officials of Jerusalem… But if anyone is detected stealing their sacred books or their sacred monies, either from a synagogue or from a mens' apartment, he shall be considered sacrilegious, and his property shall be brought into the public treasury of the Romans (Caesar Augustus, 1 BCE).” Simon Price discusses the importance of how cults represented themselves in relation to the Empire. “Some practices related explicitly to the Roman Empire in different ways; at least compatible with Roman order, dedications, sacrifices, and prayers being offered for the well-being of the emperor (Price, 2012, 16).” As supported by the Edict of Augustus, loyalty to Rome was essential, with foreign and ethnic cults such as Judaism being allowed in this context by exhibiting that loyalty. Other polytheistic religions were tolerated as Rome expanded, absorbing diversity into its borders. Foreign and ethnic cults became popular and could be traced beyond the religious boundaries of Rome, with adaptations in respect to Roman religions being critical to their survival. However, tolerance was not constant throughout history, and at some points, even foreign cults such as the Cult of Isis were subjected to restrictions and edicts from the senate or emperors. “Octavian encouraged the worship of Isis but on Roman terms: only outside the pomerium. Octavian thus achieved a double aim: accepting Egypt with the sphere of the Roman empire but also demarcating the boundary between Romans and non-Roman to recreate a clear sense of Roman identity (Orlin, 2008, 245).” This train of thought further supports the idea that religions were tolerated in relation to Roman identity through restrictions that supported order and fostered loyalty to the original bounds of Rome, commonly in respect to the religious boundary that defined the sacred city limits. Augustus, as the first emperor, wrote his edict and established the precedent of tolerance within the empire that would last among the first few emperors. Tiberius being his successor, is documented by Tacitus to heavily follow the precedent set by Augustus by publicly stating his dependence on Augustan policies, as noted throughout the books of Annals, exemplified in Annals 1.77.3-4 (Cowen, 2009, 180). Therefore tolerance did not change dramatically in the beginning, until it was under Tiberius that the crucifixion of Christ occurred. “Jesus had undergone the death penalty from the Romans under the reign of Tiberius, by the procurator Pontius Pilate (Tacitus, Annals 44:5)” However, Jesus was not sentenced to death for being Jewish or Christian, but for accusations against him claiming opposition of payment to Caesar, and incitement of anti-Rome sentiments (Blumell, 2003, 14). This is also described in Luke 23:2. Following the death of Jesus, “Pilate reported to Tiberius not only the trial and condemnation of Jesus but also subsequent events indicating his divinity…On the basis of this report, according to Tertullian, Tiberius proposed to the senate Christ's acceptance among the deities of the Roman pantheon and his admission to the cult of the Empire. It is a well-known fact that during the Republican period, the Senate had absolute authority on religious matters. The Senate, however, rejected Tiberius' proposal. The emperor, recognizing the judicial consequences for the Chris- tians of this negative decision of the senate, seemingly tried to neutralize its effects by "threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians (Bacchiocchi, 1998,7).” The disconnect between the senate and Tiberius here shows the legal formalities necessary for establishing tolerance amongst shared powers, and the neutralization of the decision with Tiberius’ threats. Following the rule of Tiberius was Caligula who made no changes to the status of religious freedom at the time, yet his successor Claudius was accredited to reestablishing Tiberian tolerance with the Edict of Claudius on Jewish Rights. “it is right that also the Jews, who are in all the world under us, shall maintain their ancestral customs without hindrance and to them I now also command to use this my kindness rather reasonably and not to despise the religious rites of the other nations, but to observe their own laws. (Claudius, 41 CE).” Despite this Edict, it is under the rule of Claudius that a Jewish uprising occurred resulting in the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, signifying the beginning of the Jewish diaspora (Bacchiocchi, 1998, 13). Following Claudius is Emperor Nero, who changes the way Jews and Christians are perceived for centuries when he becomes the ‘First Persecutor’ of Christians (Blummell, 2003, 16). According to Tacitus Nero blamed Christians as a scapegoat for the fire that occurred during his rule in Rome; “nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians... First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race (Tacitus, Annals, 5:44:3-7).” Following the Rule of Nero, ten emperors would go on to permanently receive the title of “persecutor” through the records of ancient Christian writings and accounts from those such as Tacitus and Tertullian (Blummell, 2003, 4). Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximin, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian would continue the persecution of Christians for the next two and half centuries until the Reign of Constantine finally allows for the religion again. Edicts and orders against the Christians took place throughout numerous rules, “Emperor Decius initiated and rigorously enforced an empire-wide persecution against the Christians commencing in 249 CE when he issued an imperial edict requiring all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire sacrifice to the gods Rome. As a result, Christians who refused to offer sacrifices were not only sought out, but they were either forced into exile or executed (Blumell, 2003, 5).” The Edict of Milan finally restored toleration for the Christians, issued by Emperor Constantine in 313, and ended the persecution of Christians. However, the acts and pursuits of punishing the Christians for centuries go back to the crucial principles of Roman political and legal thought that leadership felt necessary to maintain order; that being loyalty to Rome. Jesus and the monotheistic religions following him challenged that loyalty and security thus were perceived as a threat, therefore explaining the hostility and persecutions that took place to maintain loyalty and order as loyalty to the Roman Gods was considered loyalty to Rome. The different periods and leaderships of Rome demonstrated different levels of religious tolerance and to the extreme end, absolute intolerance. Regardless, it is an essential point to acknowledge that religion played a key part in Roman politics, survival, and identity, and for the most part, mobility and flexibility did occur with the integration of cults into the Roman religion.


Bacchiocchi, Samuele. 1983. “ROME AND CHRISTIANITY UNTIL A.D. 62". Andrews University Press. Vol. 21, no. 1: 3–25. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1626&context=auss.

Blumell, Lincoln. 2003. “ The Early Roman Emperors and The Christians: an Examination of Early Emperors Ascribed Position and Persecutors of the Christians" 1-134 https://prism.ucalgary.ca/server/api/core/bitstreams/0652a587-f013-4b79-ae37-21575e955086/content.

Cowan, Eleanor. 2009. “Tacitus, Tiberius and Augustus.” Classical Antiquity 28, no. 2 (October): 179–210. https://doi.org/10.1525/ca.2009.28.2.179.

Orlin, Eric M. 2002. “Foreign Cults in Republican Rome: Rethinking the Pomerial Rule.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 47: 1. https://doi.org/10.2307/4238789.

Orlin, Eric M. 2008. “Octavian and Egyptian Cults: Redrawing the Boundaries of Romanness.” The American Journal of Philology 129, no. 2: 231–53. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27566703.

Price, Simon. 2012. “Religious Mobility in the Roman Empire.” The Journal of Roman Studies 102: 1–19. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41724963?searchText=&searchUri=&ab_segments=&searchKey=&refreqid=fastly-default%3A21e1cabaa214dd0985aef2480469d958&seq=1

Simón, Francisco. 2022. “Religion and Rituals in Republican Rome,” January (January), 455–69. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119673675.ch33.

Tacitus. 98 AD. “The Annals” 1937 translation. Book 1-16. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/home.html.

“Roman Sources on the Jews and Judaism, 1 BCE-110 CE.” n.d. Www.bu.edu. https://www.bu.edu/mzank/Jerusalem/tx/romansources.htm.

Thomism and medieval Christianity 🖉 edit

Freedom of religion, as one understands it today, is a relatively modern concept that arose from the work of Enlightenment philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, despite its relative modernity, theoretical arguments related to freedom of religion in its most simplified sense (i.e., the right to accept or deny faith in any sense) have existed for centuries. Medieval Europeans did not enjoy freedom in choosing or refusing religion, as ecclesiastical structures were employed and amended to bolster political systems. Symbiotic relationships between church and state were a key characteristic of Medieval Europe and were seen to be a natural continuation of their respective roles in society. In analyzing the extent to which freedom of religion was respected or restricted in the Medieval period, one cannot expect to find evidence for the clear pro or contra argument in texts and sources. One can, however, apply modern logic and understanding of what freedom of religion constitutes to theoretically comprehend how Medieval theologians would have viewed and treated freedom of religion. By analyzing the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Francisco de Vitoria from the 13th and 16th centuries, respectively, one can see the theoretical beginnings of freedom of religion as a natural right to be enjoyed by all peoples.

Thomism refers to the teachings and beliefs of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a prominent Catholic theologian and philosopher whose works were heavily influenced by classical Greek and Roman thought. Much of Thomas’ work is based on a reconciliation of faith and reason to obtain true knowledge of the world and, if employed properly, of God. Freedom of religion was a nonexistent concept during the period Aquinas lived through. Despite this, one can see that spiritual arguments of the 13th century were focused on personal interpretation versus the organizational doctrine of Christianity. His magnum opus, Summa Theologica, is a systematic theological tome of what Aquinas believed to be the sum of all known learning. He employs Aristotelian logic processes to explain the relationship between God and man and how man can use faith and reason to understand God's natural world and workings.

It is important to note that while Aquinas forms his arguments for a Christian audience, he does offer insight into broader faith-centered topics, like how to define heresy and man’s right to a free conscience. To Aquinas, heresy was something that only Christians could commit, as “heresy is the species of unbelief that belongs to those who profess the Faith of Christ but corrupt its dogmas” (Summa Theologica II-II, q. 11, a. 1). Those who are not Christian cannot be heretics, based on the definition of heresy being inherent to the Christian faith. Aquinas explains further that “it is irrelevant to the corruption of the Christian Faith if someone holds a false opinion in matters that do not belong to the Faith, e.g., in geometrical matters or others of this sort, which cannot in any way pertain to the Faith. Rather, it is relevant only when someone has a false opinion with respect to the things that belong to the Faith” (ST II-II, q. 11, a. 2). Therefore, through omission, Aquinas acknowledges that peoples of other faiths are not contrary (or heretical) to Christianity, but rather believers of something else entirely. This is not to be confused with unbelief, which according to Aquinas, is a sin since that implies unbelievers are completely “without faith” (ST II-II, q. 10, a. 1).

If we can infer from the Summa that only Christians are capable of heresy, where does that leave Thomist views of freedom of religion? As established earlier, freedom of religion in our modern sense was not understood in the same way by Medieval Europeans. However, it is important to establish that Aquinas believed in a moral order that “is prior to and superior to the legal order; and this moral order is what he calls the ‘natural law’" (Thiry, 174). Humans can't act contrary to this human or natural law, as Aquinas “conceived of human beings as… possessing natural liberty in terms of self-mastery, or natural dominium” (Cornish, 559). In synthesizing Aquinas’ arguments, he “contended that all human beings, Christian or not, had a moral obligation to follow even an erroneous conscience. This principle applied to everyone never previously exposed to the Christian message… [however] it did not apply… to Christian defectors—heretics and apostates—who… should be punished” (Little). Therefore, we can conclude that while not a proponent of freedom of religion per se, Saint Thomas Aquinas did believe in the idea of a free conscience that man was obliged to follow, so long as he was not committing Christian heresy or living with an absence of faith.

Several decades after Aquinas’ death and prompted by the actions of the insurgent French King Philip, Pope Boniface VIII issued the Papal bull, Unam Sanctam, or “One Holy.” In the theoretical context of the extent of freedom of religion in Medieval Europe, this declaration put square limitations on the operational ability of political capabilities when challenged by spiritual controls. While the Unam Sanctam changed little for the average European Christian, it marks a turning point in the way in which organized religion interacted with temporal structures. Boniface explained that:

"We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal. For when the Apostles say: ‘Behold, here are two swords‘ [Lk 22:38] that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient. Certainly the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: ‘Put up thy sword into thy scabbard ‘[Mt 26:52]. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest" (Papal Encyclicals Online).

Here for the first time in Christian history, the pope ordained that the political and temporal “sword” should be squarely subordinated and at the mercy of the Catholic church. In concluding his bull, Boniface stated, "Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff" (Papal Encyclicals Online). Every human creature, regardless of race, creed, location, or language, was now to be governed by the spiritual (and political through subjugation) sword of the pope in Rome. While this bull was issued after Thomas Aquinas lived, this document would prove to be an instrumental point of contention for neo-Thomists in the late-Medieval period when the question of freedom of religion ceased to be purely theoretical and began to have practical implications due to the colonization of the New World.

Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546) was a crucial figure in the Spanish Scholasticism movement and a founder of the School of Salamanca, a neo-Thomist school of thought that produced innovative analyses and teachings on Spanish colonialism, Catholic superiority, and natural rights of all peoples. While Vitoria and Aquinas are formidable religious theorists, their philosophies emerged within different social, political, and religious contexts. While neo-Thomist in nature, Vitoria's works were heavily influenced by the social and political issues created by Spanish colonialism and its interactions with indigenous (non-Christian) Americans.

Drawing on Thomist beliefs in freedom of conscience and the superiority of human (or natural) law to temporal powers, Vitoria was a staunch advocate for respecting the inherent humanity of those that the Spanish encountered in the New World. Vitoria “treated [the] law as made by ‘reason and enlightenment’, not just the will. Natural law, derived from eternal law by reason, was binding on all humanity; its principles applied to mutable situations and different peoples. God was the indirect cause of human laws, which were binding on the conscience of individuals” (Izbicki et al., 2019). So, despite the different faiths of the Spaniards and indigenous Americans, human law was omnirelevant in neo-Thomist philosophy.

The second part of Vitoria’s theoretical argument focuses on the limitations of the Pope as the head of Christendom and the spiritual and temporal controls available to him. Vitoria’s arguments were set directly against what was laid out in the Unam Sanctum of 1302; he argued that the Pope did not enjoy infallible temporal and spiritual power over non-Christians. Vitoria was keen to point out that “…the Pope 'has no temporal power over the Indians or over other unbelievers’” … because “Christ had no temporal power, and so neither can his representative [i.e., the Pope] on earth’” (Ruston, 11). Unlike the two-sword metaphor used to explain the powers available to the Pope in the early 14th century, Vitoria draws the line to exclude “unbelievers” and removes them from the Pope’s jurisdiction. Here again, we see the vital importance of man’s free conscience and the role of natural law in rudimentary accounts of freedom of religion. However, Vitoria did not believe that temporal power was superior to spiritual, just that Christian laws from the Pope did not bind all humanity equally (Izbicki et al., 2019). Vitoria was a Christian and a contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas by two and a half centuries. Still, he was able to remove personal religiosity from his political and social opinions in a way that did not become conventional until much later in history. Vitoria took Thomist beliefs of human law and free will one step further than Aquinas in his practical arguments related to the protections indigenous Americans should enjoy in the face of the Spanish conquistadors exploring the New World.

The arguments presented by Saint Thomas and Francisco de Vitoria have surprisingly modern applications in examining their theoretical applications to contemporary understandings of human rights and freedoms. As expressed earlier, because it would be impossible to draw a straight conclusion to support or contradict how they viewed freedom of religion within the social, political, and religious climates of Medieval Europe, we must analyze their works from a theoretical perspective. Suppose we can take the (neo-)Thomist emphases on the importance of free conscience as the primary basis of freedom of religion and man’s right to have a clear conscience. In that case, we can conclude “that when a government seeks to delimit the range of free behavior so that religious beliefs and practices regarding God are excluded or suppressed, the state necessarily acts against the very structure of deliberative human freedom itself, with respect to both its deepest initial inclinations and its ultimate transcendent horizon" (White, 1159). While Thomas and Vitoria would not have shared our contemporary understanding of freedom of religion, their appreciation for the necessity of free conscience over that of ecclesiastical or political restrictions translates well to modern arguments for freedom of religion as a natural and inalienable right to be enjoyed by everyone.

REFERENCES Aquinas, Thomas. New English Translation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (Summa Theologica). Translated by Alfred Freddoso. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2023. https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/summa-translation/TOC.htm.

Cornish, Paul J. “Marriage, Slavery, and Natural Rights in the Political Thought of Aquinas.” The Review of Politics 60, no. 3 (1998): 545–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1407988.

Gundacker, Jay, and Noah Rosenblum. “Historical Context of Thomas Aquinas.” Historical Context of Thomas Aquinas; The Core Curriculum. Accessed June 20, 2023. https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/historical-context-thomas-aquinas.

Izbicki, Thomas and Matthias Kaufmann, "School of Salamanca", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/school-salamanca/>.

Keys, Mary M. “Aquinas’s Two Pedagogies: A Reconsideration of the Relation between Law and Moral Virtue.” American Journal of Political Science 45, no. 3 (2001): 519–31. https://doi.org/10.2307/2669236.

Little, David. “Christianity and Religious Freedom in the Medieval Period (476 – 1453 CE).” Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Accessed June 20, 2023. https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/christianity-and-religious-freedom-in-the-medieval-period-476-1453-ce.

O’Neill, Taylor Patrick. “Self-Destruction and the Sin of Heresy.” Church Life Journal, November 26, 2020. https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/to-choose-where-there-is-no-choice-self-destruction-and-the-sin-of-heresy/.

Pagden, Anthony. “Human Rights, Natural Rights, and Europe’s Imperial Legacy.” Political Theory 31, no. 2 (2003): 171–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3595699.

Pope Boniface VIII. “Unam Sanctam (1302).” Unam Sanctam One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority, April 27, 2017. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/bon08/b8unam.htm.

Ruston, Roger. “Justice, Peace and Dominicans 1216-1999: IV—Francisco Vitoria: The Rights of Enemies and Strangers.” New Blackfriars 80, no. 935 (1999): 4–18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43250200.

Sarmiento, Edward. “HUMAN DIGNITY IN THE THOUGHT OF VITORIA.” Blackfriars 27, no. 319 (1946): 378–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43701441.

Thiry, L. “The Ethical Theory of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Interpretations and Misinterpretations.” The Journal of Religion 50, no. 2 (1970): 169–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1201784.

White, Thomas Joseph. “The Right to Religious Freedom: Thomistic Principles of Nature and Grace.” Nova et Vetera 13, no. 4 (2015): 1149–84. https://www.academia.edu/27787560/The_Right_to_Religious_Freedom_Thomistic_Principles_of_Nature_and_Grace.

Transcendentalism 🖉 edit

A religious, philosophical, and literary movement; Transcendentalism emphasized true freedom through individual discovery by “rejecting materialism and confining religious doctrines, and instead embracing intuition, spirit, and self (Baratta, 2012).” The movement also introduces the idea that finding truth through individual experience and self-revelation provides the sincerest form of religion and liberates us from the worldly bounds of organized faiths. Freedom of religion can be found within the core of the transcendentalist movement; being born of men who left their religion as they felt that the principles and laws of their church did not fulfill what they knew to be more. Ralph Waldo Emerson, resigning from his ministry in 1832, felt that people should have “a religion through [personal] revelation, and not through history and tradition,” and “demand their own works and laws and worship (Atkinson, 1940, 6).” Emerson began to share his thoughts and encourage others to do the same, thus marking the birth of Transcendentalism. The ideas that Emerson expressed for others to understand his logic of this individual journey, showed emphatic value on truth and ultimate freedom. “Emerson always adhered to a basis for religious truth that answered to the reality of a spiritual realm (Hurth, 2003, 484).” Hurth analyzes his sermon, The Last Supper, and concludes that Emerson’s thoughts on “the reliance of religious self-consciousness liberated religion by appeal, not to worthless ‘forms’ in a historical embodiment from biblical revelation; but rather referring to a man’s sense of the inwardness of faith (Hurth, 2003, 486).” In The Last Supper, Emerson tells us that “I am not engaged to Christianity by decent forms, or saving ordinances…What I revere and obey in it is its reality… and the persuasion and courage that come from it to lead me upward and onward [is that] freedom is the essence of this faith. It has for its object simply to make men good and wise. Its institutions then should be as flexible as the wants of men. (Atkinson, 1940, 117).” Emerson tells us here that the principles of freedom found within this organized faith should allow men to be free to find their own religious beliefs, however, the historical and traditional concepts within the faith take away the freedom as man must adhere to the laws of the church that Emerson chose to move away from. Also leaving behind his church membership, Emerson’s mentee, Henry David Thoreau, became another contributing voice to the founding of transcendentalism. Both men, still being considered religious and spiritual, viewed God in a non-traditional sense and each found a connection to religion through freedom away from the church. To both men, divinity, and relation to a higher power can be found by connecting with the natural world. However, where Emerson sought to look beyond nature, Thoreau actively immersed himself in it and chose to look within. “To Thoreau ‘the realm of spirit is the physical world, which has a sacred meaning that can be directly perceived. Accordingly, he seeks “to be always on the alert to find God in nature’” (Furtak, 2023).” The differences between the two men’s ideas support the individualistic emphasis within transcendentalism; finding one’s own religious beliefs. However, similar to Emerson, Thoreau rejected the traditional doctrines of Christianity and found that the purpose of organized religion and its teachings was to “foster allegiance and conformity (Hodder, 2003, 96).” Also like Emerson, Thoreau’s emphasis on facts and reality led him to look outside of the traditional forms of worship. In his famous works of Walden, Thoreau states, “Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe… through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, ‘This is.’ If you stand right front and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. (Thoreau, 1971, 97)” Therefore, the values of truth, goodness, reality, and self are the emphasized concepts behind transcendentalist freedom, used to encourage the finding of one’s own divine connection. These concepts feed into the overarching idea of ultimate religious freedom, instead of through the traditional binds of organized religion. The lives and works of Emerson and Thoreau showcase how transcendentalism allows anyone the autonomy to explore and construct their own relationship with God, thus making freedom of religion a fundamental concept to the religious beliefs of transcendentalism.

Atkinson, Brooks. & Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Complete Essays and Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Random House Inc. 1940. https://somacles.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/ralph-waldo-emerson-the-complete-essays-and-other-writings-of-ralph-waldo-emerson-the-modern-library-1950.pdf.

Baratta, Christopher. “Mountaintops and Riverbanks as Pulpits: A Transcendental Return to Nature” Transcendental Ideas: Religion. Binghamton University, NY. 2012. Vcu.edu. 2012. https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/ideas/baratta.html.

Hodder, Alan D. 2003. “Thoreau’s Religious Vision.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning 26, no. 2 (June): 88–108. https://doi.org/10.3138/uram.26.2.88.

Furtak, Rick Anthony, "Henry David Thoreau", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2023/entries/thoreau/>.

Hurth, Elisabeth. “Between Faith and Unbelief: Ralph Waldo Emerson on Man and God.” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, 2003, pp. 483–495, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/stable/41157889.

Thoreau, Henry. 1854. “Walden, Or, Life in the Woods. by Henry David Thoreau.” Gutenberg.org. 2018. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/205/205-h/205-h.htm.

Ancient Chinese Philosophy 🖉 edit

The three primary ancient Chinese philosophies, Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism, represent various attitudes regarding the rights to religious freedom. Founded on the premise of reforming a corrupted society during the Spring and Autumn period, Confucianism initially strongly opposed the customs of other belief systems. For example, noted by Robert Cummings Neville, in their attempts to strengthen their philosophy, Confucians actively worked to suppress beliefs such as superstition, which persisted throughout Chinese culture at the time (Neville, 26). Additionally, noted by Neville, Confucianism has a self-serving definition of toleration. Neville asserts, “Relative to toleration, the principle is that anything in the wider environment can be tolerated so long as the narrower environment can flourish” (Neville, 30). Witnessed through this narrow denotation of “tolerance”, Confucianism emphasizes a sense of dogmatic ethnocentrism, in which other religions may be permitted, but only to the extent that Confucianism can thrive as the prevailing belief system. In this way, Confucianism undermines the idea of unfettered religious freedom.

Legalism, which focuses solely on preserving the strength and stability of the state, emphasizes that “law should replace morality” (Winston, 313). Furthermore, Legalist scholar Han Feizi emphasizes law to be within total control of the sovereign, undermining the individual liberties of citizens (Winston, 315). While not directly related to freedom of religion, the Legalist sovereign's unilateral power over the law emphasizes that individuals have no natural entitlements. This weakens the perceived strength of civilians’ rights to religion, as through Han Feizi’s teachings, civilians would only be permitted to worship as directed by the Sovereign.

Contrary to Confucianism and Legalism, Taoism, which emphasizes peace and harmony, is more tolerant of other groups, encompassing the principles of the right to religious freedom. Explained by Liu Jinguang, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Religious Research of China, unliked other belief systems, “Chinese Taoism has the fine tradition of upholding and promoting harmony… mutual respect and peaceful co-existence of different culture, nationalities and religions are the foundations for building a harmonious word” (Jinguang, 207). As Taoism embraces not only toleration, but acceptance, of other faiths, it upholds the necessity of religious freedom for world harmony. Therefore, Taoism distinctly argues the importance of religious rights, allowing for the co-existence of numerous religious groups.


Liu Jinguang, “The Tolerance and Harmony of Chinese Religion in the Age of Globalization,” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 77 (2013) 205 – 209

Robert Cummings Neville, “Confucianism and Toleration.” Journal of East-West Thought, 4/3 (September 2014). Pp. 25-38.

Kenneth Winston. 2005. THE INTERNAL MORALITY OF CHINESE LEGALISM. Singapore Journal of Legal Studies (12): 313-347

Aristotelian thought 🖉 edit

Aristotle disagreed strongly with the concept of religion, but he believed people’s religious belief could be used both in the state’s favor. Regarding the relationship between politics and religion, in the work “Politics,” Aristotle writes, “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side” (Cline 2019). He believed that implementing religion into the workings of a government gives a tyrant the ability to keep people at a distance, ignoring their disapproval of how they are being ruled and any challenges to the structure of the government itself. When sanctioned by divine order, people find a government much more difficult to question, let alone change (Cline 2019).

Aristotle’s views inspired the Thomastic principles that “the maintenance of any orderly society required adherence to defined rules of conduct… From this requirement some basic laws could be deduced, such as laws forbidding murder and theft. Such laws did not have to be revealed by divine inspiration” (Wallace 537-538, 2009). These natural laws could be rationally produced and would serve as the basic moral framework necessary for the success of that society and natural, collective good while divine law would require certain revelations that are only relevant to those who accept it for their eternal good. Based upon this belief, there was clear and rational justification for a state that ran independent of central religion (Wallace 537-38).


Aristotle on Politics and Religion, Austin Cline, Dotdash Learn Religions, 2019 New York.

Justifying Religious Freedom: The Western Tradition, E. Gregory Wallace, 537-538, Faculty Scholarship at Campbell University School of Law, 2009 Raleigh.

Benthamite Utilitarianism 🖉 edit

Bentham’s utilitarianism was often fervently anti-religious; as Jake E. Crimmins writes, “ always the aim in view was to test the institutions, practices, rituals, doctrines, and beliefs of religion against the standard of utility. The results of this test were invariably negative and stand as a compelling testimony to Bentham's unmitigated atheism and to his desire to sweep away all religion in order to construct society anew according to the principles of his secular utilitarianism” (1986, 96). Bentham’s writings support greater religious freedom. For example, he argued in favor of a law tolerating Unitarianism, against blasphemy laws and laws criminalizing religious dissent, and against citizens being forced to take religious oaths (96). He argued that the state should recuse itself from all matters of religion, arguing unambiguously for both the separation of church and state and universal free exercise. In his Constitutional Code, Bentham writes that in his ideal state, the following would be true:

“For the business of religion, there is no department: there is no Minister. Of no opinion on the subject of religion, does this Constitution take any cognizance. It allows not of reward in any shape for the professing or advocating of any particular opinion on the subject of religion. It allows not of punishment in any shape for the professing or advocating of any particular opinion on the subject of religion. It leaves to each individual, after hearing any such arguments as he chooses to hear, to decide for himself on each occasion, what opinion has the truth on its side” (Bowring).


Bowing: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/bentham-the-works-of-jeremy-bentham-vol-9-constitutional-code

Crimmins, James E. “Bentham on Religion: Atheism and the Secular Society.” Journal of the History of Ideas 47, no. 1 (1986): 95–110. https://doi.org/10.2307/2709597.

Buddhism 🖉 edit

Encouraging religious toleration, Buddhism is often seen to promote religious freedom. This belief is rooted in the teachings of the historical Buddha, who is believed to have preached the importance of allowing individuals to worship other religions. Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke emphasizes this, claiming “The Buddhist attitude to other religions has from its inception been one of critical tolerance” (Freiberger, 187). As noted by Jayatilleke, toleration is foundational to Buddhism, demonstrating the belief system’s adherence to the principles of free religious exercise. Though, as explained by Oliver Freiberger, this tolerance is primarily institutional rather than dogmatic (Freiberger, 186). While Buddhism condemns the persecution of other religious groups, it does not necessarily accept the practices and beliefs of other religions to be valid. Thus, as framed by Freiberger, while Buddhism promotes religious freedom, emphasized by its tenets of toleration, it does not approve of the practices of other religions. In addition to toleration, the inclusivity practiced by Buddhists connects the belief system with religious freedom. Noted by Kirstein Beise Kiblinger, modern Buddhists aim to include others in their practices, using Buddhist excerpts to justify inclusivity as a core tenet of their belief system (Freiberger, 188). Permitting anyone the ability to convert to Buddhism, the belief system stresses the importance of the freedom to select one’s religion, an essential aspect of the right to free religious exercise. Ultimately, the tenets of Buddhism can be used to bolster rights to religious freedom, the texts and practices of the religion upholding inclusivity and toleration. Throughout history, Buddhism has been characterized by a broad, decentralized variety of different teachings; thus, sometimes depending on the context and specific text, there can be differing views on freedom of religion within the Buddhist tradition (Borchert 5, 2016). The opinions of the appropriate rights for Buddhists may emphasize and support advocacy for religious freedom for Buddhists or may justify restrictions upon the religious freedom of non-Buddhists to persecute, drive out, and/or convert them (Borchert 10, 2016). More often than not however, freedom of religion is strongly encouraged within the Buddhist tradition. Just as humans have a free mind in choosing between good and evil, we also have a free mind to choose what to believe, and each person should do so in: “healthy mind and knowledge” (Khareng, Awang, Rahman, Machae, Ismail 317, 2014). Within Buddhism, freedom of religion is described in the Tripitaka, the Buddhist most sacred text, and this text describes ten lessons for the “healthy mind” in evaluating the truths of other religions or schools of thought: “(a.) be not led by report (Ma Anusasawen), (b.) be not led by tradition (Ma Paramuprai), (c.) be not led by hearsay (Ma Itikirai), (d.) be not led by the authority of texts (Ma Pithoksamupathanen), (e.) be not led by mere logic and argument alone (Ma Takukahettu), (f.) be not led by inference (Ma Nayahettu), (g.) be not led by considering appearances (Ma Akorpariwitkuken), (h.) be not led by the agreement with a considered and approved theory (Ma Thitthinichamanokkukhanuthitaya), (i.) be not led by seeming possibilities (Ma Phapuphrutai) and (j.) be not led by the idea, ‘this is our teacher’ (Ma Sammanornokhruti)” (Khareng, Awang, Rahman, Machae, Ismail 317, 2014). Throughout recent history, Buddhist thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as the Dalai Lama or Walpola Rahula, view the Buddhist concern of alleviating suffering as a rationale to justify Buddhist concern for human rights (Borchert 55-56, 2016). In the Dalai Lama’s “The Importance of Religious Harmony,” he writes: “Each religion has its own philosophy and there are similarities as well as differences among the various traditions. What is important is what is suitable for a particular person. We should look at the underlying purpose of religion andnot merely at the abstract details of theology or metaphysics. All religions make the betterment of humanity their primary concern… Whether we like it or not, we have all been born on this earth as part of one great human family. This is not to say that all human beings are the same or that because everyone wishes for happiness that the same things will make each of them happy. Brothers and sisters resemble each other without being identical” (Borchert 66, 2016). The Dalai Lama here clearly supports religious freedom, even pointing out the similarities in differing religions. This message highlights that human dignity, equality, and freedom, which are the basics of accepted human rights are intrinsic to the ideal of Buddhist teachings. Although the UDHR’s ideas on human rights are considered Western in nature, the Buddhist teachings of the Five Precepts and the six directions champion human rights without ever coining the exact phrase. Stretching back to the third century BCE, Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India states in the 12th Edict of Asoka: “One should not honor only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honor others’ religions for this or that reason. In so doing, one helps one’s own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too. In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one’s own religion and also does harm to other religions” (Chanawangsa 4 then 9, 2011).


Borchert, Thomas, “Buddhism and Religious Freedom: a sourcebook.” Berkeley Center at Georgetown, 2016. https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/publications/buddhism-and-religious-freedom-a-sourcebook-of-scriptural-theological-and-legal-texts

Somseen Chanawangsa, “A Buddhist Perspective on Freedom of Religion,” The Journal of the Royal Institute of Thailand, Volume III, 2011

Freiberger, Oliver. “How the Buddha Dealt with Non-Buddhists.” In Religion and Identity in South Asia and Beyond: Essays in Honor of Patrick Olivelle, edited by Steven E. Lindquist, 185–96. Anthem Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1gxp99q.12.

Mutsalim Khareng et. al., “Freedom of Religion in Islam and Buddhism: A Comparison Study of the Barriers That Determines the Freedom of Religion,” Asian Social Science; Vol. 10, No. 22; 2014

Early Modern Rationalism 🖉 edit

The early-modern rationalist tradition has its roots in the European Enlightenment movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Though famous philosophers like Kant and Descartes came to define the era through their work on method and idealism, thinkers like Spinoza and Leibniz were also influential in their writings on metaphysics, religion, and political philosophy. Both thinkers’ works contributed to a developing discourse on the rights and duties of the sovereign within political society.

It is important to note that the early-modern definition of a “right” differs significantly from its modern meaning. Leibniz’s work, for example, was influential in his time because of his conviction that “right” implies an intrinsic moral permissibility in an actor to complete an action that does not negatively impact society. In an article entitled “The Grounds of Right and Obligation in Leibniz and Hobbes,” Christopher Johns explains that “for Leibniz right (jus) is a permissive power, that is, the power of doing whatever is consistent with public utility” (Johns, 2009). Ultimately, Leibniz is especially significant because his works of political philosophy are some of the first to assert that a sovereign’s “right” to do something does not necessarily imply moral justification. In his “Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice,” the German philosopher writes that “the error of those who have made justice depend upon power comes in part from their confusion of Right with law. Right cannot be unjust; this would be a contradiction. But law can be, for it is power which gives and maintains law; and if this power lacks wisdom or good will, it can give and maintain very bad laws” (Leibniz, 564). This idea that a sovereign is not justified in all of its actions clashes with that of earlier theorists like Thomas Hobbes, and both Leibniz and Spinoza use it to imply that the sovereign ought not to wield unmitigated power over its subjects. Leibniz asserts this idea as a general theory which can apply to religious freedom, though his near-contemporary Benedictus de Spinoza dealt more specifically with the issue.

While Spinoza also generally refrains from arguing against the sovereign’s right to do as it pleases, his writings do imply an understanding that a sovereign’s ability to dictate laws to its citizens is not entirely justified. In fact, his Theological-Political Treatise reveals his strong support for religious toleration. Spinoza’s exploration of the intersection between faith and sovereignty within this work leads him to first conclude that no sovereign entity can claim to rule a society simply by religious right. This is because humans are so prone to disagreement within religious discourse, meaning “the rights of the state would be dependent on every man’s judgment and passions” if sovereignty based its authority in divine right (Spinoza, 163). Through an analysis of the Biblical Hebrew state he further proposes that: “We may now clearly see from what I have said:— I. How hurtful to religion and the state is the concession to ministers of religion of any power of issuing decrees or transacting the business of government: how, on the contrary, far greater stability is afforded, if the said ministers are only allowed to give answers to questions duly put to them, and are, as a rule, obliged to preach and practise the received and accepted doctrines.” (Spinoza, 182)

In addition to laying out one of the earliest arguments in favor of the separation of church and state, this Spinoza passage lays the groundwork for his assertion that the state ought not to compel its citizens to follow any one religion. Near the end of his discourse he states that though the government may have the “right” (or at least, the ability) to dictate whatever terms it pleases to its subjects, “a government would be most harsh which deprived the individual of his freedom of saying and teaching what he thought; and would be moderate if such freedom were granted” (Spinoza, 195). Ultimately, both Spinoza asserts the impermissibility of a sovereign’s use of power to force belief or faith upon its subjects. Taken together, writings from early-modern rationalists like Leibniz and Spinoza present interesting arguments about the rights of sovereign and citizen as they relate to religious freedom. Leibniz’s declaration that the sovereign’s laws are not necessarily just opens the door for a discussion about the permissibility of lawbreaking, while Spinoza’s conclusion that rulers err when they attempt to dictate religion to their citizens give philosophers license to question state-enforced religious homogeneity. Though neither philosopher states unequivocally that a citizen has an innate right to practice whatever religion they choose, both seem to have agreed that the state is not morally justified in all of its attempts to control certain aspects of its citizens’ lives. Leibniz argues this point very generally, while Spinoza speaks specifically to the dangers of religious influence over a sovereign within political society.


Britain., Great. “The Statutes of the Realm : Printed by Command of His Majesty King George the Third, in Pursuance of an Address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From V.1.” HathiTrust, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000017915496.

Johns, Christopher. “The Grounds of Right and Obligation in Leibniz and Hobbes.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 62, no. 3, 2009, pp. 551–574. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40387825. Accessed 30 July 2020.

“Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice (1702[?]).” Philosophical Papers and Letters, by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Leroy E. Loemker, Kluwer Academic, 1989.

Spinoza, Benedictus de, and R. H. M. Elwes. The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza. G. Bell, 1891, oll-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/titles/1710/Spinoza_1321.01_EBk_v6.0.pdf.

Feminist Thought 🖉 edit

Freedom of religion has been a pillar within the American culture from the very moment the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. However, upholding this idea has been relatively controversial since people need a religion to explain their existence or explain why things do and do not happen. For feminist theorists, religion exists as part of the reason why the patriarchy rules over women, subjecting them to the unfair treatment that they experience in their day to day lives due to the values set forth. It is for this reason that most feminist theorists are conflicted when it comes to freedom of religion, especially since their conversation about religion surrounds the ways that Christianity disenfranchises women.

When it comes to religion, feminist theorists have the same consensus that religion reinforces the patriarchy within society and that religious freedom is important for the liberation of women. Martha Nussbaum said that “Thinking of this problem, then, we can insist that universal norms of religious toleration, freedom of association, and the other liberties are essential in order to prevent illiberal subgroups from threatening legitimate forms of pluralism” (Nussbaum 2000, 52). It is for this reason that Nussbaum believes that pluralism will free women since it will open the door for women to enter the conversation and input their ideas, but such inclusion only happens if the patriarchy is willing to embrace other ideas put forth. To the feminists this includes being plural about religious ideologies as well since if society is to accept other minority groups such as women, then all minority groups need to be allowed, including religious minorities. By giving all groups, religious or other, a setting for their voices to be heard, they eliminate the chance for a single group to rise above and dominate society by oppressing the other opposing groups. Furthermore, Charlotte Perkins Gilman noted that “It is the recognition of a new order of duties, a new scale of virtues; or rather it is the practical adoption of that order long since established by the facts of business, the science of government, and by all great religions. Our own religion in especial, the most progressive, the most social, gives no sanction whatever to our own archaic cult of home-worship" (Gilman 1904, 313). Gilman emphasis throughout her work is the importance of the home to the woman, as a place of oppression and as a place where women can fight the patriarchy by creating change within the home first. It is within the home that Gilman paints a picture for individual religious choice and expression because the home is completely private from society. However, she notes that society cannot be blind worshippers and therefore, a deeper understanding of Christianity needs to be explored within the different sects in order to liberate women and create the equality she describes. Gilman does paint a picture of religious freedom, accompanied by the idea that religion is a choice to be made by the individual in the best interest of the individual.

The feminist definition of freedom of religion follows alongside the idea that people, regardless of religion or gender, should be allowed to do as they please and live life in the manner they believe will satisfy their needs in life. It is for this reason that Nussbaum noted that, “Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing self-expressive works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to search for the ultimate meaning of life in one’s own way. Being able to have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain” (Nussbaum 2000, 79). Nussbaum contributes the freedom of any religion in order to lay the groundwork for the idea that anyone should be able to do as they please regardless of their gender or their personal life choices. In this excerpt specifically she notes on the idea that people have the liberty to make their own life decisions and that they should therefore be tolerant of the decisions that others decide to make for themselves. She goes on to describe the type of relationship the government should have with religion within different countries, pointing out the problems of having a non-secular government. For this reason, proposes the solution of a secular government that imposes moral constraint and treats one another as ends. She recognizes that religion and the values of patriarchy are closely aligned and therefore religion and women’s rights are not compatible, yet she still embraces religion since as states before, she recognizes that religion is an important institution within society. Mary Wollstonecraft went as far to say that “Yes, virtue as well as religion, has been subjected to the decisions of taste” (Wollstonecraft 1891, 85). Wollstonecraft adds to this point that would within different religions, women have different rights and liberties and by embracing all religions, there is a possibility that women will be freed from the oppressive state they reside in. However, Wollstonecraft’s version of freedom of religion is the freedom to choose among the Christian denominations. Evidence of this is shown throughout her work as she disproves of atheism and Catholicism, yet is willing to embrace other Christian sects. Wollstonecraft’s idea of personal preference when it comes to religion is something that most feminists would agree with since as stated before women might have different freedoms within different religious sects. In Her discussion of religion, matters of the influence of the patriarchy and the hold men have on institutions prevails as she describes the manner in which men maintain control.

Aside from the literal and most common forms of religion people tend to think of, feminists like MacKinnon, Friedan, and Paglia introduce a new kind of religion that they want to address within their works. It is the way people hold one another to their gender roles that creates this new institution that people follow religiously, wielding the same faith and commitment religion gets. In its essence, these specific theorists name these oppressive gender roles as the new religion because of the way people religiously adhere to these gender roles and gender stereotypes that oppress women. In this definition of religion that most feminists attempt to address rather than the literal religions that people think of when it comes to defining the freedom of religion. In this case, feminist theorists advocate for the complete abolition of this religion since it is part of the aesthetics of society that keep women oppressed and does not give them the equality they are entitled to. Despite this alternative religion, feminist theorists advocate for a complete freedom of religion within society in order to address the inequalities women face in society.


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Home, Its Work and Influence, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. England: William Heinemann, 1904, 1904.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge University Press

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. No place, unknown, or undetermined: Humboldt Publishing Co., 1891.

Hobbesian Thought 🖉 edit

Despite Hobbes’ often totalitarian views, Hobbes advocates at least some liberty of expression, religion, and association. Hobbes only supported restrictions on liberty when it would have a tangible benefit to the state. In Elements of Law, he argues “that there be no restraint of natural liberty, but what is necessary for the good of the commonwealth” (1640, 9-4). In Behemoth, he even argues that “suppression of doctrines does but unite and exasperate, that is, increase both the malice and power of them that have already believed them” (Hobbes 1681). Although Hobbes’ preference is liberty, he does not seem to have a particularly high standard for classifying ideas as seditious. He considered Christian views that violating conscience is a sin and that sanctity and faith are achieved through relations with the supernatural, not reason, to be seditious (Curley 1). One can see how these views would hurt a state - the idea about violating conscience could promote disobedience. Still, these views are nowhere near problematic to meet the standards for censorship employed by most modern Western governments.


Leviathan: https://www.fulltextarchive.com/pdfs/Leviathan.pdf Curley: https://sites01.lsu.edu/faculty/voegelin/wp-content/uploads/sites/80/2015/09/Edwin-Curley.pdf

Elements of Law: http://library.um.edu.mo/ebooks/b13602317.pdf

Behemoth: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/hobbes-the-english-works-vol-vi-dialogue-behemoth-rhetoric

Lockean Thought/English Empiricism 🖉 edit

In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke advocates for religious freedom, albeit with qualification. He claims that toleration is the “chief characteristic mark of the true Church” (Locke 1689, 3). Locke justifies toleration by arguing that religious controversies cannot be solved by human beings, and since no religion has an objective claim to truth over another (not just between Christian denominations, but between, in the example he uses, Muslims, Christians and Jews), all religions must be tolerated (Kessler 1985, 490-91).

However, Locke prioritizes following the law over free worship, condemning religiously motivated illegal acts (Kessler 493). The following passage from A Letter demonstrates Locke’s view that humanity cannot identify a true religion: “For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error. So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship is on both sides equal; nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined” (13-14). Locke separates “speculative” and “practical” beliefs, the former of which applies merely to conscience, and the latter of which influences action. Locke argues that speculative beliefs should always be respected, but identifies certain practical beliefs that should not be (Locke 30-31). These include beliefs incompatible with morality, that induce disloyalty to the state, and atheism (Kessler 494). He condemns non-belief because, “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist” (Locke 36). He also argues for a separation of church and state, claiming that peace and security are incompatible with “religion propagated by force of arms” (Locke 15). Though a devout Christian, he rejects the application of Biblical law to modern societies; ‘“Hear, O Israel,” sufficiently restrains the obligations of the law of Moses only to that people” (Locke 28). He is unambiguous and absolute on separation, stating that “church itself is absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth and civil affairs. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He mixes heaven and earth together, things most remote and opposite, who confuses these two societies, which in their origin, their end, and their whole substance are utterly and completely different” (Locke 15).

Locke does not argue for religious freedom because it is a fundamental right, but rather as a means of maintaining a free society in general. He argued that state enforcement of religious doctrine could serve as an excuse for tyranny. Locke believed that the large number of churches in a free society would maintain that freedom because these churches would be too varied for one to subjugate others and because they could collectively rise up against a threat to their freedom (Kessler 502). Finally, Locke embraced a form of civil disobedience when the government oversteps its bounds in making laws that restrict religion. As Locke argues in A Letter, “If the law, indeed, be concerning things that lie not within the verge of the magistrate’s authority (as, for example, that the people, or any party amongst them, should be compelled to embrace a strange religion, and join in the worship and ceremonies of another Church), men are not in these cases obliged by that law, against their consciences” (33). The following passage from A Letter demonstrates Locke’s view on the benefits of religious freedom and pluralism: “Take away the partiality that is used towards them in matters of common right; change the laws, take away the penalties unto which they are subjected, and all things will immediately become safe and peaceable; nay, those that are averse to the religion of the magistrate will think themselves so much the more bound to maintain the peace of the commonwealth as their condition is better in that place than elsewhere; and all the several separate congregations, like so many guardians of the public peace, will watch one another, that nothing may be innovated or changed in the form of the government, because they can hope for nothing better than what they already enjoy—that is, an equal condition with their fellow-subjects under a just and moderate government” (38-9).

Locke describes churches in A Letter as “a society of members voluntarily uniting (Locke 9). He argues that churches should have the right to exclude members (12), and to create their own bylaws (10). Locke’s respect for association is not restricted to churches; A Letter advocates for no difference in governmental treatment between associations for philosophy, business, religion, or recreation (38). He states that, “Neighbourhood joins some and religion others. But there is only one thing which gathers people into seditious commotions, and that is oppression.”


Sanford Kessler, “John Locke's Legacy of Religious Freedom,” Polity 17:3, Spring 1985 Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration

Marxism 🖉 edit

Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses.” Despite his personal rejection of religion, he was less keen on establishing an atheist society than many believe. First, Marx did not view religion as an evil in it of itself. Rather, he viewed religion as an unfortunate symptom of the prevailing social order whose overthrow he sought (Lobkowicz, 1964, 319-20). Lobkowicz argues that Marxist governments, unlike Marx himself, saw religion as “antirevolutionary,” preventing society from charting Marx’s course (323). In his “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx argues that “everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in” (1875).


Lobkowicz, N. “Karl Marx's Attitude Toward Religion.” The Review of Politics 26, no. 3 (1964): 319–52. doi:10.1017/S0034670500005076.

Medieval Islamic Thought 🖉 edit

Upon the founding of Islam, Muslims saw human beings as divided into two distinct categories: "Muslims and infidels (kuffār)" (Crone 2004, 358). Furthermore, the world itself is also divided into two using the same distinction, "Muslims lived in dār al-Islām, the abode of Islam," while "infidels lived in dār al-kufr, the abode of unbelief, also known as dār al-Harb, the realm of war" (Crone 2004). This idea of believers and non-believers was taken very seriously by some sects of Islam, mainly the Khārijites. The Quran states that a non-believer can be "killed and/or enslaved, exposed to random slaughter, and robbed of their possessions" (Crone 2004, 386). Islam was a religion both born through and spread by the sword, or Jihad; therefore, non-believers deserved to be slaughtered because they did not submit themselves to God.

However, there eventually came into existence: "an intermediate category of dār al-ahd, the abode of the treaty" (Crone 2004, 359). As the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates spread their faith and demesne across the Middle East and North Africa, Muslims were outnumbered by practitioners of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and several other minor religions. This expected population disparity all over the eventual borders of the Caliphate led Muhammad to decree the existence of an intermediate realm. Due to the similarities between Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, Muhammad decided that a pact or treaty could be made with these Ahl al-Kitāb or People of the Book. This treaty decided that the "kitābī's were eligible for dhimma, legal protections to match that of the Muslims themselves" this allowed these fellow believers in the one God to "live on a permanent basis in the Muslim world" and practice their religion as they pleased, as long as they "[recognized] Muslim sovereignty and [displayed] their position of inferiority by paying poll-tax (jizya)" (Crone 2004, 359). This allowed the cousins of Islam to live in their ancestral homes as long as they respected their new Islamic overlords.

Alfarabi, an influential 9th and 10th-century Islamic political philosopher, concluded in his work that "what is intended by… the human being is that he obtain happiness" (Butterworth 2015, 65). This happiness comes from accepting and learning about Muhammad's revelation in the mountains outside Mecca. In order to achieve this, humans must first receive the primary cognitions, or the first intelligible, given to them by the active intelligence (Butterworth 2015). Alfarabi says that for humans to submit to god, they first must learn the basic concepts of how the world works, and they will conclude that there is one God and that Muhammad brought the most complete revelation from Allah to the people. However, to achieve this revelation, humans must first be exposed to the evidence that proves these facts about Islam. Without these cognitions being presented to the people by god, people will be unable to achieve true happiness and submit to God. There could also be people who received all of the necessary evidence but just interpreted it differently from others; therefore, they will also not achieve true happiness (Butterworth 2015). These two examples could be allusions to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, people of the book who do not accept (or have not received in full) the revelations of Muhammad, and the different branches of Islam: Sunni, Shia, Ibadi, and others. The way to unify these groups into a functioning city in which people can achieve their happiness which varies "in quantity and quality in accordance with the variation in [their]... civic actions," (Butterworth 2015, 71), such as attending the Friday prayer or paying the jizya, depending on who you are. Therefore, even the non-true believers will not be able to achieve the complete happiness of accepting the revelation for themselves; they can achieve a piece of the true happiness through participating in the obligations they have when living in the city of the true Islamic faithful.

The final reference Alfarabi makes to the idea of religious freedom is a parallel when talking about his “ideal city” to the three realms created by Muhammad. The three inhabitants being the two accepted citizens of the city and the threat to the city's security: the Grass, The Weeds, and The Beasts (Butterworth 2015, 76). The Grass represents the true believers for whom the city is for and where they are nurtured to achieve their true happiness. These are the inhabitants of dār al-Islām, the true believers. Next, The Weeds, while taking up space within the city and limiting the amount of grass that can grow, is still not dangerous and are actually a diverse population, something essential for any city to be natural and healthy. These are the inhabitants of dār al-ahd, the people of the book who have accepted part of the revelation but not the whole truth. Finally, there are The Beasts or "the people who are bestial by nature"; these people are "not citizens, nor do they have any civic associations at all" (Butterworth 2015). They may be "domesticated" like slaves or hunted and slaughtered freely like wild beasts. These people are the inhabitants of dār al-kufr, the pagans who refuse to accept any part of the revelation, making them dangerous and unnecessary for the Islamic world.

Avempace also discusses the ideas of The Weeds and their relationship to the perfect Platonic city. According to Avempace, a "perfect city is that [which] is free from Weeds" (Lerner 1963, 127). However, this perfect city is an impossible utopia where everyone gets along so well that there is no need for either a "doctor nor judge," where everyone does their job, fits in their class, and does not diverge from "the opinion of the citizens" (Lerner 1963). However, this society is impossible. Therefore, Avempace accepts that "The Weeds can… exist in the four ways of life" (Lerner 1963, 128). He does not seem happy about it, saying that the more the opinions of The Weeds differ from that of the true citizen, the more apt the name is. However, Avempace also seems to think that in an imperfect city where The Weeds, the doctors, and the judges all exist, good governance should still look out for these Weeds and assist them in achieving as much happiness as possible. However, this depends "on how far [their] insight takes [them] or on (a belief) that had seized [them]" (Lerner 1963). Whether these weeds have achieved a partial revelation through other prophets, or have understood Muhammad's revelation differently, all of the citizens within the city deserve to have their happiness preserved. He describes it as "medicine of the soul," deriving from an ancient Greek physician and philosopher, Galen, who prescribed astrology and alchemy to preserve the soul and its happiness. Still, for The Weeds to have their happiness considered, they must be at least similar to the citizens or The Grass and not differ too significantly, or else they may be seen as diseasing or disintegrating the city (Lerner 1963).


Butterworth, Charles E. 2015. Alfarabi: The Political Writings, Volume II. New York. Cornell University Press.

Crone, Patricia. 2004. God’s Rule: Government and Islam. United Kingdom. Edinburgh University Press Ltd.

Lerner, Ralph and Muhsin Mahdi. 1963. Medieval Political Philosophy. New York. The Free Press of Glencoe.

Millian Utilitarianism 🖉 edit

In On Liberty, Mill argued against any attempt to impose religion on another person: “The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious, was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them. Though the feeling which breaks out in the repeated attempts to stop railway travelling on Sunday, in the resistance to the opening of Museums, and the like, has not the cruelty of the old persecutors, the state of mind indicated by it is fundamentally the same” (Mill 1859, 84).


On Liberty: https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/mill/liberty.pdf

Platonism 🖉 edit

According to Platonic thought, there is no freedom of religion, all men and women are required to worship the Greek gods. In ancient Hellenic city-states, gods dictate each city's laws, and usually, a specific god such as Zeus for the Cretans and Apollo for the Lacedaemonians are accredited with giving the founding kings their laws (Plato 2013). The gods are the origin of law and order in the Hellenic world, meaning that going against a city's laws will also be going against the "holy" laws created by the gods. In Plato's Laws, the three older men discussed the proper way to govern a city taking a whole book to discuss how to properly deal with the atheism some youth end up practicing due to their disconnection to the gods. They saw this as a grave issue that would bring down the natural order of the city. They said these evil men undermine "the city's greatest laws" (Plato 2013). Their solution was to give the youth music and stories when very young in order for them to be able to always look back upon the tales displaying the divinity of the gods (Plato 2013).

However, Plato knew how poorly many myths displayed the Greek gods. When creating his "city in speech," Plato discusses the dangers of poets, such as Homer, and their interpretations of the gods, specifically regarding the guardians of the city. Plato believes the city cannot run unless the gods and their stories are adequately depicted so the ordinary people can follow them; otherwise, there will be no justice and virtue. Specifically for the guardians, Plato wished for them to be raised fearing "slavery more than death," in order to do this he suggested that the poets be censored, deleting passages that make the afterlife sound like the worst possible place to end up (Plato 2004, 67). Plato wished for his Kallipolis to have not just the laws but the inner workings of the city’s citizens’ minds to be guided by the gods and their perfect divine image. This is also shown in Plato's Myth of Er, a story of a murdered soldier who returns from the dead to tell the common people what the afterlife is. This story is supposed to convince the citizens of the Kallipolis that the crimes committed by the Hellenes dictate an afterlife. However, Er recalls that while he was sitting in the judging room of the deceased that "the greater [punishments] for impiety or piety toward gods or parents" (Plato 2004, 321). This is meant to keep Greeks in line with worshiping the gods because it is a tale-telling of the fate of the impious to be eternal suffering in hades.

More evidence is given on how deeply the idea of strictly following religion affected the Greek states. In The Apology, Socrates was "tried for impiety" (Plato 2018, 29). Socrates was brought to trial and eventually sentenced to death on suspicion of going against the city's religion. The Apology shows how essential Greeks thought piety and religion were and how closely related the state religion and laws were.


Plato. 2004. The Republic. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. https://123philosophy.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/Plato-Republic.pdf

Plato. 2013. Laws. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Laws. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1750/1750-h/1750-h.htm

Plato. 2018. The Apology. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Indian River State College Libraries. https://irsc.libguides.com/worldlit/apology.

Reformation Christianity 🖉 edit

Freedoms of expression, religion, and conscience were not formally addressed in Reformation Christian thought, but discourse on rights and liberties relating to speech, press, and belief are apparent in Reformation thinkers’ writings and speeches. Leading figures in the Lutheran and Calvinist movements began to explore the permissibility of disagreement with Catholic dogma and the Pope himself. This usually arose, not from a discussion of rights and liberties, but rather from the idea that one ought not to be compelled to profess a faith in which they do not believe. The right to freedom of religion, often referred to as one’s “freedom of conscience” in early modern texts, is partially rooted in the writings of Martin Luther during the early decades of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s “Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” provides the basis for the Lutheran doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” which explains that all Christians have the capacity to understand and interpret God’s messages without the need of ordained Church officials. In his “Letter” Luther writes that “all Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate,’ and there is among them no difference at all but that of office” (Luther, 1520). This idea that all Christians have the right to decide for themselves what to believe about their faith was important to the Reformation movement because it was used to justify the vast expansion of different religious denominations that formed over the next few centuries. If Christians were free to believe what they felt was true, then they would have no problem forming new religious communities based on various interpretations of sacred texts. Later in his life Luther would rein in the “priesthood of all believers” doctrine as various beliefs sprang up which he considered heretical, but the doctrine survived to influence subsequent thinkers’ ideas about religious freedom and the rights of believers. Luther further affected the discourse on religious freedom when he faced down the Catholic authorities against whom he had written in his “Letter.” He famously expressed an unwillingness to retract a heretical statement in the face of Catholic scrutiny at the Diet of Worms. The Diet was called in order to determine whether or not the German monk had broken Church law in the creation of his ninety-five theses, and it ultimately found Luther’s work heretical and asked him to revoke his statements. In response, Luther declared that, “if I were to revoke what I have written on that subject, what should I do but strengthen this [pope’s] tyranny, and open a wider door to so many and flagrant impieties? Bearing down all resistance with fresh fury, we should behold these proud men swell, foam, and rage more than ever!” (Luther, 1521) The idea that Luther could strengthen the pope’s unjust authority by revoking statements that he believed to be true imply his belief that in a just society, a person should be able to profess their beliefs without fear of punishment. While Luther’s speech did not propose any theory of inalienable liberty or right to freedom of belief, it did contribute to a discourse addressing the permissibility of religious restriction.

Interestingly, Luther’s disagreement with traditional church dogma also led some of his opponents to think about the utility of religious discourse between opposing viewpoints. In a famous exchange of ideas in a series of open letters, Northern Renaissance thinker Desiderius Erasmus engaged Luther in a debate on human free will. The contents of the debate did not themselves have much to do with the origins of the right to religious freedom, but Erasmus’ words in his opening letter imply that the Dutchman at least supported the free exchange of ideas among religious groups. When opening his letter Erasmus writes that “I do not consider Luther himself would be indignant if anybody should find occasion to differ from him, since he permits himself to call in question the decrees, not only of all the doctors of the Church, but of all the schools, councils, and popes” (Erasmus, 1524). This passage, which at first glance seems nothing more than a jab at Luther, takes on new meaning when Erasmus subsequently proposes that the two men “pursue the matter without recrimination, because this is more fitting for Christian men, and because in this way the truth, which is so often lost amid too much wrangling, may be more surely perceived” (Erasmus, 1524). By framing the debate as a mutually beneficial effort to find religious truth rather than a contest between opposing religious viewpoints, Erasmus implies a support for the free exchange of religious belief, if nothing else. His words do not betray any innate support for religious pluralism or toleration, but the appeal to debate as “the way to truth” nevertheless went on to influence subsequent scholars such as Locke and Voltaire, both of whom championed ideas of toleration and religious pluralism.

Three decades after Luther initially resisted the Church’s attempts to censor him, Theodore Beza began to explore ideas of rights and responsibilities as they relate to magistrates and subjects. Beza was a French theologian living in Geneva during the Reformation, and historians widely view him as the pseudo-successor to John Calvin. His work, On the Rights of Magistrates, explains his views on tyranny and a subject’s responsibility to resist it. While Beza’s work does not specifically mention a citizen’s right to freedom of religion it further advances the idea that a regime cannot justifiably restrict its citizens’ expression or belief. After explaining that magistrates should not be able to restrict citizens’ faith in Chapter Ten of Rights, Beza writes that “if [a magistrate] acts otherwise I declare that he is practicing manifest tyranny; and with due allowance for the observations made above, (his subjects) will be all the more free to oppose him as we are bound to set greater store and value by the salvation of our souls and the freedom of our conscience than by any other matters however desirable” (Beza, 1574). While this “opposition” according to one’s freedom of conscience does not specifically refer to a subject’s ability to practice religion against the ruler’s wishes, it does imply a certain level of basic freedom to express one’s beliefs in the face of tyranny. Like Luther, Beza saw Catholic dogma and papal absolutism as an expression of such tyranny, which both reformers felt a responsibility to resist. Luther, Erasmus, and Beza all explored the idea that one might justifiably hold beliefs that conflict with religious authorities or regimes. While they certainly proposed this idea in the hopes of preserving their own doctrines and beliefs, their effort provided a base upon which subsequent thinkers could expand theories of free conscience and religious practice. This would not be integrated into the rhetoric of rights and liberties for another century or so, but these sources reveal that the modern right to freedom of religion can trace certain roots all the way back to Reformation Christianity.


Beza, Theodore. Theodore Beza, On the Rights of the Magistrates. Edited by Patrick S. Poole. Translated by Henry-Louis Gonin, constitution.org/cmt/beza/magistrates.htm.

More, Thomas. “Thomas More Petition for Free Speech, 1523.” The Center for Thomas More Studies, www.thomasmorestudies.org/docs/Thomas%20More%20Petition%20for%20Free%20Sp eech.pdf.

Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s Speech at the Imperial Diet in Worms (18 April 1521). San Jose State University, www.sjsu.edu/people/james.lindahl/courses/Hum1B/s3/Luther-Speech-Worms-1521.

Luther, Martin. An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility by Martin Luther (1483-1546).Translated by C. M. Jacobs, www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/nblty-03.html. “On the Freedom of the Will: A Diatribe or Discourse by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.” Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, by Martin Luther et al., Westminster Press, Philadelphia, pdfs.semanticscholar.org/4318/ff6f297d5fe96224fa4d89cd6fb3c9c0608b.pdf. Accessed 7 July 2020.

Roman Legal and Political Thought 🖉 edit


Rousseau's Thought 🖉 edit

Rousseau’s works of political philosophy are among the first modern sources to discuss at length the rights of the citizen within political society. A contemporary of such thinkers as Voltaire and Locke, his work contributed to the growing Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Rousseau’s work conveys an air of skepticism about the importance and centrality of religion as a cornerstone for a successful society. Indeed, while his “Discourses on the Origin of Inequality” and The Social Contract certainly affirm the existence of a Supreme Being and even seem to advocate for the Christian faith at times, his discussions of rights and religion ultimately conclude that it is both unnecessary and even destructive for states to impose any belief upon their citizens.

One of Rousseau’s most important contributions to political theory is his description of the “Social Contract,” an arrangement by which various citizens agree to live in a community governed by the collective “Sovereign,” thereby giving up certain natural rights and liberties in exchange for civil rights and liberties. He writes that “What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses” (The Social Contract, 47). The Sovereign governs according to the General Will of the people, which is collectively determined by all citizens living together under the social contract. In Rousseau’s words, “the social compact sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights” (The Social Contract, 55). The equality of rights that the social contract creates among citizens is the basis of Rousseau’s belief in religious toleration. It implies that the community does not have the legitimate right to limit any citizen’s religious belief because as a citizen, a member of a minority religion would not wish to restrict religious freedom. Thus, the general will could never legislate against an individual’s religious beliefs.

Of course, there are a number of cases in which Rousseau more directly advocates for religious toleration within the ideal political society. Being native to Calvinist-dominated Geneva, it would have been easy for Rousseau to praise religious homogeneity as a republican virtue. He did not do so, however, because he did not view religion as a strong base for sustainable government. In The Social Contract he notes that while Christian states often grow to be very strong, “the sacred cult has always remained or again become independent of the Sovereign, and there has been no necessary link between it and the body of the State” (The Social Contract, 1 29). Rousseau even goes as far as to imply that Christianity is incompatible with the creation of a perfect state because it opens the state up to abuses from figures like Cromwell and Cateline, bad Christians who brought turmoil to their Christian states (The Social Contract, 1 32). In the end, he concludes that religion should be practiced freely, because “the dogmas of that religion concern the State and its members only so far as they have reference to morality and to the duties which he who professes them is bound to do to others. Each man may have, over and above, what opinions he pleases, without it being the Sovereign’s business to take cognisance of them” (The Social Contract, 133). His position becomes even more clear in his “Letter to Monsieur D’Alembert on the Theater,” in which he writes that “in general, I am the friend of every peaceful religion in which the Eternal Being is served according to the reason he gave us. When a man cannot believe what he finds absurd, it is not his fault; it is that of his reason” (“Letter,” 11). Simply put: because a person cannot be forced to believe any one religion, it is unreasonable for a state to refuse religious liberty to its citizens.

Rousseau’s toleration did have one limitation, however, which he shared with his pseudo-contemporary John Locke. Rousseau believed that the State ought not be able to dictate its citizens’ religions to them, but he did hold that all members of a political society should at least believe in a divine being of some kind. The Social Contract states that “it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion,” because “that will make him love his duty” (133). Rousseau believed that good citizens must have some kind of religion to hold them accountable under the Social Contract. He advocates for the State to establish some basic moral code to which its citizens must abide, arguing that “while [the Sovereign] can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them—it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty.” (The Social Contract, 133). Even in this caveat, however, it is evident that Rousseau’s problem is not with atheism itself. His objection is to the inclusion of any citizen who cannot be trusted to look out for their fellows’ best interests within the context of the wider political society. As long as one is capable of this, he believes, the citizen should be free to practice whatever faith they desire.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Collected Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by Allan Bloom, Publ. for Dartmouth College by Univ. Press of New England, 2004, ia800705.us.archive.org/34/items/RousseauLetterToDAlembertPoliticsTheArtsAllanBloo m_201811/Rousseau%20-%20%27%27Letter%20to%20D%27Alembert%27%27%3B% 20Politics%20%26%20the%20Arts%20%5BAllan%20Bloom%5D.pdf.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and G. D. H. Cole. The Social Contract; and Discourses. Dent, 1963, Online Library of Liberty,oll-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/titles/638/Rousseau_0132_EBk_v6.0.pdf.

Weberian Thought 🖉 edit

Max Weber is best known for his work on sociology, economics, and religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While most of his work focused explicitly on the socio-economic dynamics that define post-industrial western capitalism, his work on religious influences within capitalist systems provides some insight into his thoughts on religious toleration and diversity. He does not write broadly of rights or freedoms within a political society, but his thoughts on religion in general seem to indicate a tacit support for basic religious toleration.

Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of his better-known works, in which he addresses the apparent advantages that Protestants enjoy within a capitalist system over members of various other Christian and non-Christian religious traditions. As in other works Weber seems to regard religious diversity within various nations as something of an inevitability, and as a result he does not address freedom of religion as a concept, much less as a right. However, one small passage in his introduction to The Protestant Ethic which implies that Weber held a deep personal respect for all the world’s religious sects. He stated that:

“The question of the relative value of the cultures which are compared here will not receive a single word. It is true that the path of human destiny cannot but appal him who surveys a section of it. But he will do well to keep his small personal commentary to himself, as one does at the sight of the sea or of the majestic mountains, unless he knows himself to be called and gifted to give them expression in artistic or prophetic form.” (Weber, 36) It is difficult to surmise what exactly Weber would have thought about essential rights and freedoms of the citizen because he never explicitly addresses them in his work. However, passages like this one seem to indicate that at the very least, he would not have approved of religious intolerance within a political society.

Another theme in Weber’s work which implies that he would at least oppose a society’s enforcement of religious homogeneity is his apparent ambivalence toward religious belief in general. His focus throughout The Protestant Ethic remains more on the social influences of various religious traditions, rather than the doctrines and dogmas of the faiths themselves. This becomes obvious when he writes that the capitalist system “no longer needs the support of any religious forces, and feels the attempts of religion to influence economic life, in so far as they can still be felt at all, to be as much an unjustified interference as its regulation by the State” (Weber, 62). Given the fact that Weber clearly did not view religious dogma as a necessary influence on post-industrial capitalist society, one might conclude that Weber would have viewed any attempt to limit religious freedom as an frivolous endeavour. At the very least, Weber might have been ambivalent toward religious homogeneity within political society, and therefore more likely to support religious freedom as a basic concept, if not a right.


Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Florence: Routledge, 1930.

What do the major legal theories (positive law, natural law, critical legal studies, etc.) say about this right? 🖉 edit

Originalists disagree on the proper interpretation of the Free-Exercise Clause. In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), Justice Scalia, who was one of the legal community’s foremost originalists, issued the opinion of the court, arguing that the clause does not provide for religious exceptions to generally applicable law. In the case, a Native American was fired from his job and denied unemployment benefits for using Peyote, a substance sometimes smoked during religious ceremonies. The court had previously ruled in Sherbert v. Verner (1963) that the First Amendment does provide for that type of exception unless there is a compelling reason to enforce the law anyway (Munoz 1083). As Munoz argues, the Continental Congress’s deliberations may settle this dispute. The Congress considered and rejected a constitutional right not to join state militias for religious reasons, indicating opposition to religious exceptions to general laws (1085). Scalia in Employment Division v. Smith: “We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition.” Originalists tend to take a narrow view of the establishment clause. According to Middle Tennessee State University, Scalia believed the clause “only bars official activities that may promote the activities of a particular sect.” He believed the government may, therefore, promote religion over nonreligion, and that government acknowledgment and accommodation is acceptable (Curry and Hudson 2017). In Lee v. Weisman (1992), a prayer-in-schools case, Scalia issued a dissenting opinion in which he argued that whether a practice was acceptable early in the nation’s history should help inform whether or not it violates the Establishment Clause. In this case, he viewed prayer in schools as acceptable in part because of the long tradition of prayer in government-sponsored gatherings. Scalia in Lee v. Weisman: “In holding that the Establishment Clause prohibits invocations and benedictions at public-school graduation ceremonies, the Court—with nary a mention that it is doing so—lays waste a tradition that is as old as public-school graduation ceremonies themselves, and that is a component of an even more longstanding American tradition of nonsectarian prayer to God at public celebrations generally.” In a case from this June, Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, Justice Thomas went even further, arguing that, “As I have explained in previous cases, at the founding, the Clause served only to ‘protec[t] States, and by extension their citizens, from the imposition of an established religion by the Federal Government”’ (p. 2).


Curry and Hudson:https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1356/antonin-scalia Employment Division v. Smith: https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/364/employment-division-department-of-human-resources-of-oregon-v-smith

Espinoza v. Montana: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-1195_g314.pdf

Lee V. Weisman: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/505/577/

Muñoz, Vincent Phillip, The Original Meaning of the Free Exercise Clause: The Evidence from the First Congress (2008). Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 1083-1120, 2008, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1150780

Are there any philosophical or moral traditions that dispute the classification of this right as a fundamental right? 🖉 edit

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) protects an individual’s right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The classification of freedom of religion as a fundamental right is to allow public choice of worship and to ensure protection from persecution on religious grounds and from conformity to a cultural majority through government influence. A state authority cannot interfere with how one chooses to worship or practice their religion, or whether one chooses if they worship at all. However, there is a philosophical and moral tradition of state secularism that challenges the classification of this freedom. From a secular state perspective, a state with separation between religious institutions and law making bodies or governance powers, is intended to offer a neutral standpoint on the matter of religion. The institutional order separates church and state, in order to prevent religious powers from advancing their interests with the use of political influence, and to keep political duties prioritized over religious obligations. “In a secular state, the protection of freedom of conscience and the equal treatment of people in religious matters does require restrictions on religious freedom in official spaces (Castro, 2021)” This perspective puts into question how fundamental religious freedom really is in practice compared to the freedom of conscience, whether in a public or private manner. Hobbes suggests that rather than separation of church and state, the subordination of church to the state for the sake of survival through unity is well within the authority of the state (Curley, 2015, 2). Unity through a common religion would then in theory benefit the survival of the state. In Leviathan, Hobbes discusses the Rights of Sovereigns by Institutions, articulating how the sovereign is judge of what is necessary for the peace and defense of its subjects, including the judgment of what doctrines are fit to be taught by them (Hobbes, 1651, XVIII). In his analysis, Edwin Curley discusses the extent to Hobbsian theory where he believes this repression is just so far it does not exceed its limits. “Repression of thought and expression beyond what is necessary for political purposes is not only an abrogation of the sovereign's duty, it is counter-productive, provoking bitterness and resentment, and undermining the loyalty of his subjects (Curley, 2015, 3). While there is still the right to private conscience, as long as one adheres to the doctrines of the state publicly, based on the previous argument, Hobbes advocates for the private beliefs of whatever one chooses, as long as it does not affect the actions of an individual as a subject to the sovereign state. “Hobbesian theory states that laws bind actions; people are thus free to do whatever they like as long as this doing stays in their thoughts (Tralau, 2011, 67).” This restriction on free practice, public or private, and the individual classifications of religious liberty and liberty of conscience, declassify freedom of religion as a fundamental right completely, but still includes freedom of conscience as acceptable under the limit that it still does not threaten the state. According to this theory by Hobbes, Freedom of conscience is the only guaranteed element of this freedom, truly classified as a fundamental right, in order to avoid disparity and conflict within the body of state subjects. While Hobbes advocated for absolute state authority, removing religious freedom from the state completely, the secular state allows religious liberty but only to an extent. In both a Hobbesian state and a secular state, freedom of conscience can only truly be protected as a fundamental right, to ensure true neutrality or stability. Freedom of conscience and religion combat one another in each of these perspectives, thus disputing the classification of freedom of religion in the philosophical tradition of a Hobbesian state, or a moral tradition of state secularism and neutrality.

Castro, Faviola Rivera. 2021. “Rawls’ Critique of the Secular State.” IDEES. December 17, 2021. https://revistaidees.cat/en/rawls-critique-of-the-secular-state/.

Curley, Edwin. 2015. “Hobbes and the Cause of Religious Toleration.” https://sites01.lsu.edu/faculty/voegelin/wp-content/uploads/sites/80/2015/09/Edwin-Curley.pdf.

Hobbes, Thomas. April 1651. Leviathan. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes.” n.d. Www.gutenberg.org. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2H_4_0215.

Tralau, Johan. 2011. “Hobbes Contra Liberty of Conscience.” Political Theory 39, no. 1: 58–84. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23036034?seq=14.