Almost all major democracies have freedom of belief, faith and worship under the overall religious freedom.

Some religions include controversial practices such as caste hierarchy, circumcision, polygamy or strict dress codes for women.

Is religious freedom such a big thing just because majority of voters are religious? Or are there any other arguments for religious freedom which often legitimises controversial practices?

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    It might be good to specify a country. India's setup, which really does guarantee specific rights for particular religions, is fairly different from that of the United States, which simply guarantees no interference in people's private religious practices or lack thereof, which in turn is different from the interpretation of laïcité common in France these days, which permits certain restrictions of otherwise relatively innocuous religious practices in the pursuit of a secular society.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 2, 2022 at 14:34
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    – JJJ
    Commented May 5, 2022 at 19:00

7 Answers 7


Because of history

When modern Western democracies were first being formed, being religious was the norm, so religion had legitimacy by default. There continue to be many religious people today (especially in the U.S.), so that legitimacy has continued to exist to some extent.

In addition, when the notion of religious freedom was being developed, it was a step away from a long history of state-mandated religions and religious leaders wielding great political power. I would argue that religious freedom continues to be important today to prevent a single religion from gaining political dominance.

Because it's practical

In a world with so much diversity of beliefs and customs, guaranteeing religious freedom is an effective way to help everyone live together peacefully. If I'm worried that the Christians or the Muslims or whoever are going to force me to abandon my faith or adopt their faith, then I will see them as a threat, and coexisting with them will be difficult. But if my government guarantees me my religious freedom, then it's a lot easier to get along with my religiously diverse neighbors.

Because religion is important to people

Unlike fairly tales, religion is something that people believe in deeply and care about passionately. You may feel that only things with hard scientific evidence should be taken seriously, but there are billions of people who disagree with that. For religious people (like myself), our religious beliefs are a sacred and essential part of who we are. In the eyes of religious people, a society that doesn't protect religious freedom isn't a free society.


Because it makes sense to do so.

What you call "fairy tales" is a huge part of people's belief systems, in some cases coming before notions of nationhood. In the past, governments trying to shape the religiosity of people have done on so in many ways that are incompatible with freedom in general and caused great harm.

Speaking as an atheist/agnostic myself, the last thing I'd want my government to get involved with is regulating religion. With the caveat that religion should not, in most cases, be an excuse for ignoring the laws everyone else has to follow (the kind of exceptions I think about are things like peyote consumption for shamanic rituals).

If there are problems with things like dress codes or circumcision then those can be covered by general purpose laws (female genital mutilation is outlawed in many places). Dress codes can be rejected by an individual leaving the religious community (something which should definitely be protected by law). Things like not providing adequate health care for one's children for religious reasons can also be punished by law (there have been a number of cases in Canada).

For the rest, live and let live.

Note that this supposedly inalienable right you speak of is not automatically always present: witness the chador controversies in Quebec and France.

So the most compatible approach for a liberal democracy is to remain very hands off, leave religion, and its rejection, as an individual's choice and resist any attempt at state-level preferences with regards to religion.


Religious freedom is part of the Peace of Westphalia, a pair of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. Prior to these treaties, the rule was Cuius regio, eius religio (literally: "whose realm, their religion"). When the sovereign (King, Queen, Emperor, etc.) of a nation changed religions, or a new one practiced a different religion than their predecessor, it was necessary for everyone in that nation to change their religion to match the new one. As a result of these treaties, citizens were no longer forced/required to change their faith just because the monarch did.

This treaty (sometimes called "Peace of Westphalia") is important because the modern idea of "what is a nation" (or state - in the sense of a country) comes from that treaty.


The source of morality

At the end of the day everybody needs to have an answer to the question "Why?". Even if that answer is "I live to further the Cause of Evolution". The answer to that question always defines moral beliefs. Laws flow more or less directly from moral beliefs.

The point, is that the answer to that question will always be crucially important. One way to look at it, is that it's not so much about religion itself that's given importance/legitimacy, but "the source of our collective morality" that's given a certain amount of respect.

Then there is the very practical point: If someone attacks the reason you live, the very thing you sincerely belief, it's often something you're willing to fight and even die for. And that goes in all directions: Tell a Humanist that they have to convert to Hinduism, or Christians in Soviet times that they had to become Atheists.


I think/hope the above touches upon why it's given any respect at all. The second half is that in society there were points where different groups wanted to coexist. Sometimes because they sought each others protection (e.g. in what now is the Netherlands there were different groups of Protestants and with fairly diverse beliefs who had a common enemy and thus actively decided to coexist), and sometimes because they had a common hatred of persecution itself (I believe this happened with some groups that settled in the US). Whenever that happened groups will start to search for a common ground: What can we do so that everybody will be able to live life the way they want to? What limits do we have to put in place so that the freedom of one group or individual doesn't interfere with the freedom of another?

When you go down that path, you end up with basically a modern Western society. Religions don't have total freedom (extreme example: They don't get to stone someone to death), but they have as much freedom as we can give them.

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    I don't understand your first paragraph. Do you think we wouldn't have any source of collective morality without religion? I guess (really hope) that a vast majority of people intuitively feel that murder/rape/theft are bad, without any external input. Commented May 5, 2022 at 6:46
  • @EricDuminil Well of course there have been many attempts to try to separate ethics from religion, for example Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism (the greatest happiness of the greatest number). But it comes down to trying to rationalise our "intuitive feelings", which itself feels something like a search for religious truths. Perhaps it's all programmed in our DNA, but that still leaves many questions unanswered, including questions about whether specific acts are good or bad. Commented May 5, 2022 at 14:29

What's the alternative?

Your question asks why countries protect "freedom of belief, faith and worship." Think about what a country would look like that did not protect these things. The government could arbitrarily ban any practice it didn't like for any reason. That would be tyranny. An official could declare "This group I don't like is actually a religion, and I'm banning them." This has happened over and over again throughout history. Remember that religious liberty applies to people who self-identify as atheist as much as people who self-identify as Zoroastrian.

Protecting religious freedom doesn't mean allowing absolutely any activity. I can speak to the United States, where the government has to provide a clear justification for interfering with someone's religious belief. Want your tombstone to show off that you were a Muslim or atheist? You got it. Want to marry multiple women? No way. Are you a government official who wants to restrict religious fundraising? Think again.

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    Wouldn't it only be tyranny if the government actually did capriciously ban things at a whim? In a hypothetical situation, without any formal guarantee of religious freedom, but in a nation with a well-liked government where there was never any discussion of banning things on religious grounds, I wouldn't call that a tyranny. (Having some legal structure in place to prevent possible future tyranny is a good thing, if done carefully, of course, but its lack doesn't mean the current government is a tyranny.) Commented May 5, 2022 at 13:37
  • @PeterCordes Even if the government never acts, the power to squash any religious group would have a chilling effect on religious expression. There's no such thing as a politician who always acts 100% in the best interests of the people. Remember that some of the same people who supported the passage of the First Amendment also supported the Sedition Act. Commented May 5, 2022 at 16:34
  • Sure, there could be a chilling effect if there are threats of policy, even if that never happens. In that case you could at a stretch maybe call it tyranny. My point is there's lots of room between "tyranny" and "ideal", and any less-than-great political situation doesn't necessarily mean it's a tyranny. That's a pretty strong word. Commented May 5, 2022 at 17:02
  • I'm writing from a very American perspective. The Federalist Papers and the Antifederalist Papers both viewed unchecked government power as tyranny. Other national traditions may be less revolutionary. Commented May 5, 2022 at 17:23

As Opposed to What?

People care deeply about their religion. More deeply than they care about your democracy.

If your democracy sets up laws that conflict with religious duties in ways that matter, you are teaching people that the moral and correct thing to do is disregard your democracy's laws. This is not a good situation, and does not lead to a stable democracy.

If you do it often enough, or in a big enough way, you will make your democracy incompatible with their religion. At that point, you no longer have a democracy with universal franchise, you have a democracy with a conquered people who are looking to exit your social compact. This is a bad situation, no matter which of the many exits they look for.

  • This is an important point, I think. One cannot take for granted people will prefer your laws over their very deity of worship. So, if you push them and make them choose, there is no guarantee they will choose your laws.
    – The Z
    Commented May 5, 2022 at 5:56
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    What a sad state of affairs. This seems completely backwards to me. What do you think should happen when the constitution of a country states that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights", but your religion tells you that women have fewer rights and more duties than men, or that gay people, atheists or followers of other religions are less worthy than believers? Can you really blame the democracy for being unstable in that case? Commented May 5, 2022 at 7:01
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    @EricDuminil first entry on google: encyclopedia.com/politics/…
    – fectin
    Commented May 5, 2022 at 11:08
  • @EricDuminil if all humans are born free, by what right do you subject them to rule by the majority?
    – fectin
    Commented May 5, 2022 at 13:19

In addition to the other great answers, a strong belief system of some sort, either a religion or a national purpose or some other ideology, is helpful in keeping the nation from disintegrating into chaos, especially for democracy. Sure, some people can act honestly and "morally", whatever it means, but that's a minority, I'm afraid.

Consider the allegedly non-religious states, such as Communist countries. They replace the belief in omniscient omnipotent God and his avenging angels with the belief in omniscient omnipotent Chairman of the Communist Party and his avenging henchmen. The cult of God replaced with the cult of Lenin or Stalin or Mao or Kim or Castro, you name it, with their portraits everywhere, as prominent as crucifixions used to be.

Unfortunately, it's the way of the World. You've got a few honest philosophers, but everybody else you've got to either fool or bribe or punish into civilized behavior. And fooling sounds much better than punishing.

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