Institute for Global Engagement Search


In Search of Religious Freedom and Social Harmony

  • Dennis R. Hoover
  • June 14, 2023

In many societies throughout history, lack of religious uniformity has often been feared as a source of social unrest. “Stability” is a rationale that states and empires have long used to justify officially establishing one religion (or ideology) while disfavoring or even outlawing all others. Dissent and diversity have often been met with repression—all in the name of order.

The Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire famously argued that such logic has it precisely backward. Voltaire held that it is not religious diversity but rather the attempt to enforce uniformity that leads to instability and war. In his Lettres Philosophiques touting the growing religious tolerance he observed among the English middle class, Voltaire famously quipped: “If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.”

This theory of the relationship between religious liberty, diversity, and societal benefit has been influential in virtually all of the Western liberal democratic world, but nowhere more so than in the United States. In the American tradition, religious freedom is not just an abstract individual right but also a natural and necessary feature of any truly healthy society.

Indeed, this belief has been woven into American national identity from the beginning. Consider for example the iconic place that the Pilgrims—more specifically, the harvest meals that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag shared in Plymouth in the fall of 1621—hold in the American national narrative/mythology. The meanings that Americans have derived from this event are celebrated annually at the Thanksgiving holiday. While the actual history of colonial settlement and its aftermath is of course extremely complicated and violent, in the “first Thanksgiving” encounter itself Americans celebrate the precedent of a people seeking religious freedom and living peacefully and constructively with the religious “other.” It is a story of religious liberty and diversity and pluralism.

The question today for the liberal democratic West in general, and the U.S. specifically, is this: how is Voltaire’s theory holding up? And how does it compare to the experience outside the West? Western societies are assumed to have a high degree of religious freedom, which is thought to in turn foster religious diversity. However, religious diversity—often involving deep theological/worldview difference—is even more prevalent in many non-Western societies, particularly Asia.

Unfortunately, in many such contexts religious diversity is not met with religious freedom but rather discrimination and restriction. This contrast raises important questions regarding the practical societal effects of religious freedom (and lack thereof). Are there national contexts combining religious freedom (i.e., a low level of restrictions on religion) with inter-religious peace (i.e., a low degree of social hostility related to religion)? Are such societies only found in the West (as Westerners themselves might self-flatteringly assume)? And is the United States—the country that champions religious freedom more vocally than any other—an exceptionally strong example of this happy combination?

These are of course complex questions with no easy answers. But empirical light is shed on these issues by the Pew Research Center’s global comparative studies of government restrictions on religion and of social hostilities involving religion. Pew produces two key global indices on religion—a Government Restrictions Index (GRI) and a Social Hostilities Index (SHI). For each index Pew also categorizes each country’s index score into one of four standard ranges, labeled “Very High,” “High,” “Moderate,” and “Low.”

Table 1 compares Western and Asian countries on the GRI for 2019.

Table 1: Government Restrictions Index (GRI) 2019

“Very High” GRI:

Asia: China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Tajikistan, Brunei, Kyrgyzstan

West: no countries

“High” GRI:

Asia: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh

West: Bulgaria, Romania, France

“Moderate” GRI:

Asia: Cambodia, Mongolia, South Korea

West: Austria, Greece, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Iceland, Poland, Cyprus, Germany, Norway, United Kingdom, United States, Slovakia, Italy, Luxembourg, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Czech Republic

“Low” GRI:

Asia: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Timor-Leste, Japan

West: Croatia, Malta, Canada, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Ireland, Estonia, Australia, Portugal, New Zealand

Source: Pew Research Center 2019

Table 1 does show a stark contrast at the “Very High” range of GRI scores. No Western countries had “Very High” levels of government restrictions on religion, whereas 11 countries in Asia did. However, the picture is more muddled at lower levels of the table. Most countries in the West, including the United States, ranked in Pew’s “Moderate” category, not “Low.” Also, three European Union (EU) member states ranked “High.” Six Asian states (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Timor-Leste, and Japan) ranked “Low,” and another three (Cambodia, Mongolia, and South Korea) ranked “Moderate.”

Table 2 compares Western and Asian countries on the SHI for 2019.

Table 2: Social Hostilities Index (SHI) 2019

“Very High” SHI:

Asia: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka

West: no countries

“High” SHI:

Asia: Bangladesh, Afghanistan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Tajikistan

West: Germany, United Kingdom, Spain, Bulgaria, Belgium, Denmark

“Moderate” SHI:

Asia: Nepal, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Kazakhstan

West: France, Switzerland, New Zealand, Cyprus, Greece, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Slovakia, Netherlands, Poland, Australia, Austria, Canada, Italy, Romania, United States, Norway, Sweden

“Low” SHI:

Asia: Brunei, Mongolia, Singapore, Turkmenistan, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan

West: Czech Republic, Iceland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Malta, Lithuania, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Portugal

Source: Pew Research Center 2019

Table 2 also shows an obvious contrast in the “Very High” category, which includes three countries in Asia (India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) but no countries in the West. However, there is much less of a contrast at lower levels. Most countries in the West were “Moderate” or “Low,” but six were in the “High” category. (Note that again the United States falls in the “Moderate” category, not “Low.”) Ten countries in Asia ranked “Low,” and another eight ranked “Moderate.”

Finally, what about the “ideal” combination of low GRI and low SHI? Interestingly, as shown in Table 3, this ideal combination is (a) not found in very many countries, but to the extent it occurs, it is (b) found in both the West and Asia. Croatia, Malta, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Estonia, and Portugal boasted this combination. But so did Hong Kong, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, and Japan. Further, if we relax the “ideal” to include countries that have either low or moderate GRI combined with either low or moderate SHI, three more countries in Asia met the threshold in the 2019 data: Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, and Cambodia. Countries in the West that featured this combination in the 2019 data were: Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Greece, Netherlands, Iceland, Poland, Cyprus, Norway, United States, Slovakia, Italy, Luxembourg, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, and Czech Republic.

Table 3: GRI and SHI (“Low” and “Moderate” combinations) 2019

Low GRI and Low SHI:

Asia: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, Japan

West: Croatia, Malta, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Estonia, Portugal

Low or Moderate GRI and Low or Moderate SHI:

Asia: Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia

West: Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Greece, Netherlands, Iceland, Poland, Cyprus, Norway, United States, Slovakia, Italy, Luxembourg, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, and Czech Republic

Source: Pew Research Center 2019

There are lessons in these findings for both the West and Asia. As for the West, in contexts of religious diversity the combination of individual liberty and social solidarity does not materialize automatically from clauses in constitutions promising religious liberty. Rather, it also requires voluntary social norms and practices for living constructively and cooperatively with deep religious diversity. As for Asia, those who insist that religious freedom is somehow inevitably incompatible with Asian culture are wrong. Several Asian countries rank in the ideal or moderately good categories. However, it is also true that under the more relaxed (moderately good) standard, many more Western countries than Asian ones meet the threshold.

Both the West and Asia have ample precedents and potentialities for consolidating an approach to religion that brings religious freedom and religious harmony together in a virtuous feedback loop. But it won’t “just happen.” It requires patient and vigilant effort, both from the “top-down” (robust religious freedom protections) and the “bottom-up” (a culture of religious literacy and virtues of principled engagement across lines of religious difference).

Note: Portions of this essay are excerpted and adapted from the introductory chapters of Dennis R. Hoover's edited books, Exploring Religious Diversity and Covenantal Pluralism in Asia, Volume I and Volume II (Routledge 2023). The essay was originally published at the London School of Economics' “Religion and Global Society” blog, and is republished here by permission of the LSE Faith Centre.

About Dennis R. Hoover

Dennis R. Hoover (D.Phil. Politics, University of Oxford) is Editor of The Review of Faith and International Affairs, Research Advisor to the Templeton Religion Trust’s Covenantal Pluralism Initiative, and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement. He is co-editor with Chris Seiple of The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement (Routledge 2023).

Stay updated!

Sign up to our enewsletter for all updates.