Where Religious and Secular Meet

Seventh in a seven-part series on international religious freedom

Does religious freedom protect only the religious?

The pursuit of truth, the desire for meaning and the search for transcendence belong to no particular church, culture or country. These, rather, are the common aspirations of all human beings. A person does not have to be religious to be moral, and a person does not have to be secular to be thoughtful. They both occupy the same public space and want the same right to voice their beliefs. Religious freedom should protect all who care about matters of ultimate concern and promote the common good.


Human society has an unavoidable moral dimension. The nature of law, commerce, education and relationships stems from assumptions we hold about right and wrong. Social values are influenced by many sources — history, literature, philosophy, science — but moral and religious traditions perform a key role. Both religious and secular people benefit from each other’s achievements. Faith and reason do not have to be viewed as opposites.

Given this interaction, the broad overlap between religious freedom and other civil rights is understandable. For example, freedom of speech, press, assembly and association have more meaning when buttressed by the free exercise of religion. Though conscience, ethics and human rights are often associated with secular values, they still fall under the umbrella of religious freedom. In this way, the secular and the religious are close relatives.

Legal scholar Brett Scharffs calls religious freedom the “taproot of the tree of human rights,” the deep base that nourishes the roots, branches and leaves of other freedoms. First, he argues, religious freedom creates the constitutional space for pursuing any kind of truth and protects, in the words of the UN Human Rights Committee, “theistic, non-theistic, and atheistic belief.” Historically, freedom of speech, press, assembly and association emerged from the need to protect religious minorities. Second, religious freedom acts as a buffer between the beliefs of individuals and the power of a dominant state. Without this check, rights become merely a gift from the state, not an unalienable possession. And third, religious freedom provides the intellectual and political resources to preserve conscience. “The justifications for the protection of conscience,” Scharffs maintains, “were first and foremost religious justifications, and if religious conscience does not receive protection we should not expect other grounds for conscience to be respected either.”[1]

Religious freedom can offer stability to a world in flux. Depending on geography, religion and secularism are both growing and declining at the same time. For centuries the center of Christianity was located in Europe and North America but has now shifted to the Global South. Christians in Latin America and Africa amount to one billion people. And Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is expected to reach 460 million by 2025.[2] Orthodox Christian belief and identity have resurged in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe during the last 25 years.[3] Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.[4] And the global Hindu population is expected to increase by 34 percent to nearly 1.4 billion by 2050.[5] By then, India will have the world’s largest populations of both Hindus and Muslims.[6]

With this big picture in mind, religion is not declining.

Nevertheless, the societies of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world are becoming more secular.[7] Those who have no religious affiliation but may still be spiritual are now the second-largest religious group in North America and most areas of Europe. In the United States, the unaffiliated comprise nearly 25 percent of the population.[8] And many of the world’s international governmental organizations pass resolutions based on secular ethics, not religious authority.

These diverse trends show that pluralism is on the rise, and both religion and secularism have a part to play. The two do not have to cancel each other out. So many different ways of living life complicate our world, but they can also enrich it. The challenge we face is to learn how to accommodate each other’s beliefs without sacrificing our own.

A generous freedom of heart and mind bridges the gaps where religious and secular meet.


[1] See Brett G. Scharffs, “Why Religious Freedom? Why the Religiously Committed, the Religiously Indifferent and Those Hostile to Religion Should Care,” Cardus, Apr. 20, 2017.

[2] Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “Think Christianity Is Dying? No, Christianity Is Shifting Dramatically,” Washington Post, May 20, 2015.

[3] Ariana Monique Salazar, “Orthodox Christians in Europe More Likely to Believe Than Practice Their Religion,” Pew Research Center, May 30, 2017.

[4] Michael Lipka and Conrad Hackett, “Why Muslims Are the Fastest Growing Religious Group,” Pew Research Center, Apr. 6, 2017.

[5] “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050,” Pew Research Center, Apr. 2, 2015.

[6] Conrad Hackett, “By 2050, India to Have World’s Largest Populations of Hindus and Muslims,” Pew Research Center, Apr. 21, 2015.

[7] Alan Cooperman, Conrad Hackett, David Voas and Jack A. Goldstone, “The Future of World Religions,” Pew Research Center, Apr. 23, 2015.

[8] Gabe Bullard, “The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion,” National Geographic, Apr. 22, 2016.

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