'Chilling effect' of secular intolerance on Christians is leading to 'self-censorship', report warns

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Secular intolerance is having a "chilling effect" on Christians that "directly affects their capacity to express their faith freely in society and is leading to various forms of self-censorship", a new report has warned.

'Perceptions on Self-Censorship' was compiled by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe (OIDAC Europe), together with the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America (OLIRE) and the International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF).

It looked at the nature, scope and intensity of self-censorship as well as secular intolerance as a "persecution engine", using France, Germany, Colombia and Mexico as case studies.

The report concludes that while many incidents are "seemingly insignificant", together they "cause 'death by a thousand cuts'" and create "an environment in which Christians do not feel comfortable – to some degree – to live their faith freely".

Researchers observed that "because of the subtle and generally non-physically violent nature of the chilling effect, it is often misunderstood or even ignored and therefore largely remains invisible".

Christians across the four countries were typically found to be self-censoring around issues relating to marriage, identity politics, sexuality, bioethics and morals.

In Colombia and Mexico, interviewees expressed fear about legal sanctions, while those who said that they do freely share their beliefs also recognised that there was "a price to pay", with some of the consequences being "the immediate discrediting or stigmatization of Christians who openly voiced their convictions and the use of labels such as 'retrograde', 'discriminator', 'intolerant' or 'incompetent'".

In other cases, speaking up led to defamation, loss of employment, academic suspension or allegations of discrimination, creating "a kind of fear or paralyzing effect".

"An important consequence of this chilling effect is not only that persons are limited in their exercise of religion or in their right to manifest their convictions, but also that these violations to the right to religious freedom can cause the disappearance of religion in a given context," the report said.

In France, the strict separation of church and state has created "a cultural mindset that has led to an environment in which religious expression beyond the – very narrowly defined – 'private sphere' is viewed with suspicion".

"In other words, secularism has encouraged secularization," researchers said.

"The influence of postmodern philosophies and trends (especially the aftermath of the May 1968 movement), including identity politics, further strengthen this cultural mindset.

"More than anything else, this mindset has led to widespread and ubiquitous self-censorship among Christians – mostly Catholics, some Protestants – as our research confirms."

In Germany, the word 'evangelical' "evokes negative connotations", and is not only "used to defame people" but is actively "avoided by politicians, authors [and] journalists", and even in private spheres.

Left-dominated academia was cited as the most hostile environment for people with alternative views, followed by politics and the media.

The German media was blamed for reporting different views in an "oversimplifying and sensationalist style that destroys a functioning debate culture, evokes personal offense and makes 'media victims' careful to avoid more trouble".

The German case study also found that "it is unlikely that a journalist who once wrote for a Christian magazine or a conservative review will be welcome again at a large/major newspaper".

"Some interviewees made the distinction that it is not a narrowing of tolerated margins, but that the debate has changed in the way that the consequences have worsened to the point that people are forever excluded from debates, lose their professional credibility, are not invited anymore and – not to be underestimated – become dangers to other people that are seen in contact with them.

"So, instead of a person's statement, the object of rejection is the person as such, which is an irreversible stigma," the report said.

Author of the German case study, Friedericke Boellmann, said that it was less about about strict legal cases or persecution and more about a "change in climate or a narrowing of the opinion corridor", leading to "adaptation", hesitation, political correctness, decreasing public activity, and omitting personal contact information.

"There are lines you shouldn't cross in public discourse," she said.

Madeleine Enzelberger, Executive Director of OIDAC Europe, said the research "raises the legitimate question of: how is it possible in a mature, liberal democratic society that stands for tolerance, diversity, and inclusive and open discourse, that people are frightened to freely speak their minds?".

The researchers found that many of the Christians they interviewed did not realise that they were self-censoring, and that in some cases they had self-censored to the extent that they now "stop seeing the characteristics related to self-censorship as a problem".

Across all four countries, the findings suggested a link between training and confidence in sharing beliefs.

"In many cases, those who said they did not feel self-censored were people who had been part of a specific training process, sometimes related to their profession," it said.

"Legislators, student activists, priests, pastors and academics said they had gone through a process in which they now feel more confident and less inclined to self-censor because they benefited from training."

Dr Dennis Petri, International Director of the OLIRE, said there was a "moral duty" to raise awareness of self-censorship in the Church and develop training to help Christians respond.

"The main recommendation we can take away from this research is that those Christians who had been exposed to some form of training had a degree of awareness about religious persecution and the subtleties of the secular intolerance phenomen, and were better prepared to respond to it and not defer to self-censorship so easily," he said.