Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Bielefeldt Abstract

Can Religious Freedom be Universal?

In this short presentation, I tackle three main objections against the universal nature of religious freedom or, as I generally prefer to call it, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). The most radical objection assumes that FoRB cannot function without singling out certain religions, which are “worthy” of such protection as opposed to those, which allegedly are not. In other words, the charge is that FoRB is essentially and explicitly discriminatory. The second, slightly more subtle criticism points to certain presuppositions, which seem to underlie the rights-based approach in handling religious diversity, which may implicitly privilege certain religious expressions over others. This criticism, too, amounts to exposing discriminatory features of freedom inherent in FoRB, even though they may be less explicit. The third and last objection concerns possible path dependencies undergirding the human rights approach in general and FoRB in particular. Here again, the unintended side effect may be some forms of de facto discrimination. Any form of discrimination, however, runs counter to the universalistic claim of human rights to be applicable to all human beings equally, as proclaimed in the above-cited programmatic sentence from the UDHR. In response to these various criticisms, I argue that FoRB does make sense as a universal human right, provided we understand normative universalism as “work in progress,” as it were, i.e. as an unfinished learning process, which requires critical and self-critical adaptations to ever-new practical challenges.