Should people be free to choose their own religion?


This, to me, seems like such an obvious answer that I am flabbergasted that in much of the world, the de facto reality on the ground is “NO”. Even in cases where on paper there is religious freedom (e.g. enshrined in a constitution), there are significant social, economic, and political consequences of swimming upstream against the cultural tide.

I often think of Baptists as being the wild-eyed radicals of the Reformation. The Reformation started out relatively innocuously – 95 Theses being nailed to a church door in Wittenberg. Luther and Calvin and other magisterial reformers, despite their reforming impulses, still thought in terms of a State Church that was a reformed version of the existing church. In other words, there would still be an official church, with government sanction and support, and the norm would be that everyone in that country would belong to that church.

Crazy, eh? Maybe understandable for the time, but still, what a dramatic proscribing of the freedom that a human person should have.

In contrast, Baptists, those wild-eyed radicals, along with Anabaptists and some other groups, believed that one’s faith in God was a deeply personal matter that had to be willingly and wilfully entered into. The person chose, not the State. Rather than reforming the Church, they just started over.

The mind-bending (at the time) part of this belief was that this also meant that others were free to choose a different pathway than what you chose. You didn’t have to agree with the other person, and you were free to seek to convince them that your pathway was better (as they were free to seek to convince you), but no coercive or societal pressure was to be exerted on what was the free choice of a human being who was made in the image of God. This was the beginning of what we call “religious freedom” – the freedom to choose.

Sadly, religious freedom is on the decrease in most of the world. In North America and Western Europe, we are shifting away from pluralism, which cradles a diversity of faiths, and towards secularism, which values the lack of religion over the presence of religion. The valuing of non-religion over religion is not freedom, but privileges a type of worldview which is assumed to be neutral but is anything but. In parts of the Middle East and Asia there are groups which seek to make Islam the state religion of their country, e.g. in July I was at a global gathering of Baptist leaders and heard stories of forced conversions in Nigeria by radical Islamist groups. Most Muslims don’t advocate for this but some do, sometimes with guns. There are countries which are historically Orthodox or Catholic where evangelicals are opposed by the historic or state church, because the assumption is that an officially sanctioned religion is what everyone should hold to.

If we human beings are going to have a future that is inclined toward peace we surely need to learn to co-exist with one another, even with our differing beliefs. I am not at all saying that all beliefs lead to the same end or lead to God or that all beliefs are equally good: sincerity does not equal goodness. Adolf Hitler was sincere, and acted on his beliefs. Beliefs matter. Which is why we need to value the freedom that allows us to seek to persuade one another of the efficacy and truth of our beliefs.

But as a species we need to learn not to coerce belief or impose it. What we need to do is cultivate spaces of conversation and exploration that allow people to discover the God who is there. I, obviously, believe that this God is most fully revealed in Jesus, and that the closer someone is to Jesus and the Jesus-way the closer they are to fulfilling God’s intentions for them. If someone disagrees with me, I will try to convince them, and they will try to convince me. But we will do so as free people, able to make free choices, and who acknowledge the dignity and freedom of people who make different choices.