Are attempts to promote worldwide religious freedom naive or necessary?

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Last night saw the third of the Westminster Faith Debates with a panel discussion on the complexities of religious freedom and its global implementation.

Linda Woodhead of the University of Lancaster introduced the debate, while former Labour MP Charles Clarke chaired the evening. They were joined by four guests, who each took the floor to share their views.

Introduced as a "leading voice in critically interrogating the whole notion of religious freedom", Professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University in Chicago opened the debate with an interesting suggestion that religion itself has been overemphasised within the discussion of human rights.

She asserted that while there is "enormous excitement" surrounding the aim of promoting religious freedom in law, and its intention to guarantee human flourishing and economic prosperity is noble, it often fails to bring the equality that it supposedly sets out to achieve.

"It is quite possible that religious freedom can exacerbate the very problems that it claims to resolve," she argued, suggesting that defining certain groups as under "religious persecution" over-simplifies a matter that is often tied up in wider ethnic, political and social issues.

She believes that this only serves to make identities more rigid, and allows governments to favour certain groups over others through their definition of a certain religion. Religious advocacy, Dr Shakman Hurd contends, actually "creates a gap" between the religions chosen for engagement by the ruling powers, and other marginal faiths, leading to further segregation.

"People are often defined in religious or sectarian terms, rather than on the basis of other affiliations - professional relations, social class, historical ties etc. Religion under religious freedom is taken as prior to these other identities and is singled out and elevated above them. The effect is to overemphasise religion as a basis for identity," she concluded.

Professor Jorgen Nielson from the University of Copenhagen, however, went on to argue that "religious freedom is actually necessary for the religion itself", as without it, dissention of thought is not allowed and restrictions are made on believers.

He did stress, however, that "religious freedom is just one aspect of the complex interdependent freedoms", concurring with Dr Shakman Hurd that there are often a myriad of complexities to consider when exploring the notion of human rights.

Chair of the All Party Group on International Religious Freedom Baroness Elizabeth Berridge was next to take the floor, giving an address in which she declared that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion ... in public and in private", as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Religious freedom is for all, even if you're agnostic, you've exercised a choice there," she reminded the audience, disagreeing with her American colleague by arguing that freedom of belief is integral in allowing a society to flourish.

She then went on to suggest that global technology and the ease of communication that it allows makes worldwide freedom of religion and belief absolutely necessary. "People are exposed to messages in a way that they have never been before in history," she noted. "What global technology is doing to education at the moment is pushing its boundaries."

She also warned against "global identity politics - Christians speaking on behalf of Christians, Muslims speaking on behalf of Muslims", arguing that such attitudes will result in entrenched segregation.

"I have been deeply challenged as a Christian myself - why is it that the Church isn't leading on this?" she asked.

Last to speak was MP Alistair Burt, who emphasised the importance of religious tolerance, and encouraging the peaceful coexistence of those of different religions alongside one another.

"Religious tolerance is a key component in any society," he argued. "Tolerance matters."

Though there was clearly dissent among the views of the various panellists, which were further brought to light during a Q&A session, Dr Woodhead wrapped up the evening by suggesting that all four of the visiting speakers actually have very similar aims, though their idea of how they should be implemented differ.

"I think you're probably united in your core values," she noted, before suggesting that Burt and Berridge, with a political background, are more concerned with the practical application of religious freedom and the people it affects, while academics Shakman Hurd and Nielson prefer to focus on the underlying systemic causes and their wider implications.

"You all want the same things, you've just got extremely different views about how to go about it," she finished.

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