There are many countries in the world, maybe the majority, where you grow up to believe in Freedom of Religion without ever giving it a second thought - rather in the way you never actually argue your way to the conclusions that cannibalism and suttee are not very nice. Big Mistake.
There are very good reasons not to give Freedom of Religion a free pass, not least because those who do have an interest will find themselves able to make the idea mean whatever they want it to mean. We end up signed up to something about which we might, on reflection, find ourselves having second thoughts.
To begin with, freedom of religion was invented as a compromise to bring an end to religious wars in which no side was strong enough to win – and here “win” basically meant strong enough to slaughter all your opponents. Unable to achieve that final solution, the warring parties agreed to grant each other a bare toleration. You would not call it ecumenism: there was no love lost and merely terror foregone.
Over time, as states became at least partly secular in the way they operated and even the state church was left to operate at half an arm’s length, freedom of religion came to mean something else. It came to mean that the state should keep its nose out: that it should not pry into how religious organisations conducted their affairs, nor seek to control how religious people lived their lives. The general idea became remarkably effective, even to the extent – for example – that states tolerated religious organisations whose committed members refused absolutely to bear arms and fight in wars. Since fighting wars was for a long time the major business of states, the forbearance is really quite remarkable and extended even to countries not otherwise noted for tolerance, Imperial Russia among them.
Today, Freedom of Religion functions almost entirely as a Keep Out warning. Though we have government agencies which routinely inspect schools and hospitals, slaughter houses and restaurants, there are no agencies which routinely inspect religious organisations. Indeed, one of the world’s largest organisations, the Roman Catholic church, succeeded in 1929 in putting its headquarters entirely beyond the reach of anyone else’s civil and criminal law when in the Lateran Treaty, Italy foolishly granted independent statehood to the Vatican City.
The consequences of keeping out of religious affairs have been disastrous. Every day some religious organisation is in the newspapers because activities which are seriously criminal or simply cruel have come to light. American evangelical churches turn out to be financial scams; Catholic boarding schools and orphanages are exposed as nests of sexual abuse and sadistic cruelty; Anglican vestries are revealed as places where choirboys are buggered. There is less about non-Christian organisations which seem to know better how to protect themselves from exposure, but there seems no reason to suppose that they are free from corruption and cruelty and, from time to time, stories emerge to support that conclusion.
In all these cases, Freedom of Religion has functioned to provide a screen against scrutiny. We are so taken in that we may suppose that we are protecting freedom of conscience – a rather different idea – when really we are doing no more than tolerate the unconscionable. On our part, it’s basically cowardice.
As a rule of thumb, I suggest that the bigger a religious organisation then the more it requires regular and intrusive inspection. It will have the worldly wealth to hire lawyers and publicists, the networks to undertake lobbying. Those need to be matched by powerful regulatory agencies, not timid and underfunded ones. In Italy, there is no excuse for the special status accorded the Vatican City. It should simply be brought back under Italian jurisdiction, even if that means sending in the tanks and closing the banks. The evidence that the special status has been abused ever since it was granted is overwhelming – money laundering, cover ups, collusion with crime, endless political interference … the list is long and shocking.
But what about freedom of religion understood as the right of religious people to live their lives according to their beliefs? No such right can be unconditional. Treated as if it was then it implies that things which would not otherwise be tolerated are allowed. It means that if you invoke religion, you get a free pass to mutilate your children’s genitals or beat their bodies until they bleed. Or wash out their mouths with soap and lock them in dark cupboards. Or refuse to let them wear seat belts in a car (see Tara Westover’s Educated for that last example).
That states allow such things is a shocking betrayal of children who are also citizens but differ in that they are in much greater need of state protection than adults. Time and time again, the stories tell us that religion and the abuse of children go together but we decline to think it ought to concern us. We wash our hands: it’s their religion, we say, when really it is no more than adults abusing children who have no means of redress. Rather than confront the adults, we find it more convenient to allow the children to suffer.