Twitter icon

Facebook icon

About this site
About us
Our beliefs
Is this your first visit?
Contact us
External links

Recommended books

Visitors' essays
Our forum
New essays
Other features
Hot, controversial topics
Vital notes

World religions
Christian def'n
 Shared beliefs
 Handling change
 Bible topics
 Bible inerrancy
 Bible harmony
 Interpret the Bible
 Beliefs & creeds
 Da Vinci code
 Revelation 666
Other religions
Cults and NRMs
Comparing Religions

Non-theistic beliefs

About all religions
Main topics
Basic information
Gods & Goddesses
Handling change
Doubt & security
Confusing terms
End of the World?
True religion?
Seasonal events
Science vs. Religion
More information

Morality & ethics
Absolute truth

Attaining peace
Religious tolerance
Religious freedom
Religious hatred
Religious conflict
Religious violence

"Hot" topics
Very hot topics
Ten Commandments
Abortion access
Assisted suicide
Death penalty

Same-sex marriage

Human rights
Gays in the military
Sex & gender
Stem cells
Other topics

Laws and news
Religious laws
Religious news



More about the two meanings of "religious freedom:"

1. Freedom of religious beliefs, speech, & assembly.
2. Freedom to apply one's religious beliefs to
discriminate against, denigrate, and/or oppress others.

horizontal rule

The two meanings of the terms "religious freedom," "religious liberty," etc:

In the U.S., many people consider restrictions on religious freedom to be the most important religious dispute of our time. Unfortunately, there are now two very different meanings given to the terms religious liberty and freedom:

  1. A historical meaning which covers freedom of religious beliefs, speech, writing, assembly, proselytize, etc.

  2. A rapidly emerging new meaning, which involves the freedom to take action based on one's sincerely held religious beliefs, which sometimes discriminate against other people.

Thus, we really need two terms in English to describe the full range of religious liberty/freedom. We recommend:

  • Religious freedom, and

  • Religious freedom to discriminate.

horizontal rule

Sponsored link.

horizontal rule

thumbs up image1. The historical meaning of religious freedom is:

The highly valued liberty in most developed nations and other democracies which include the freedoms:

  • Of religious belief,

  • Of religious speech,

  • Of religious writing,

  • Of religious assembly with fellow believers,

  • To switch from one faith group to another.

  • To abandon religious affiliations entirely, and

  • Of religious proselytizing and recruitment.

On 1948-DEC-10, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 18 includes many of the above freedoms. It says that:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."

The vast majority of countries around the world have ratified the UDHR. However, as of 2014:

  • Over 20 countries still have laws on the books that criminalize religious apostasy: conversion from one religion to either another religion or to no formal religion. 2 Most of the countries, perhaps all, are predominately Muslim, including Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Some of these laws allow for the execution of persons found guilty of converting from Islam. Fortunately for apostates, the laws are rarely applied. Four executions were reported between 1985 and 2013: one person in Sudan, one in Saudi Arabia, and two in Iran. 1

    Abdul Rahman, an Afghani, narrowly escaped the death penalty in 2006. He was discovered carrying a Bible and was believed to have converted from Islam to Christianity in 1990 while working for a Christian charitable organization. Rahman could have been freed if he renounced Christianity and returned to Islam. However, he refused to comply. A court later dropped charges of apostasy due to lack of evidence, and a suspicion that he was mentally ill. He obtained asylum in Italy.

The Muslim Times publishes a bar chart indicating the percentage of Muslims in various countries with significant Muslim populations who support the death penalty if they convert from Islam to another religion or none. Of the twenty countries included, a majority of Muslims favors the death penalty in only six: Malaysia, Jordan, Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. 6

  • Many more countries in the world have blasphemy laws that can imprison people for their speech or writing if it offends religious believers. For example:
    • In the European Union, "Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Malta and Poland ... allow for jail sentences up to three years on charges of offending a religion or believers."

    • Canada has a blasphemy law on the books, although it has been dormant for many decades. It would probably be declared unconstitutional if it was reactivated to charge someone with a crime. These are often referred to as "zombie laws:" laws that are still on the books but unenforceable.

    • There are reports that In some locations in India, police are "... often reluctant or unwilling to investigate murders of Atheists carried out by religious fundamentalists." 1

    • The Muslim Times at: prepared the following graphic which was accurate as of 2018-MAY:

map of countries with plasphemy laws 5

On 2018-DEC-13, the federal bill #C51 in Canada received royal assent. This repealed both the 19th century blasphemy law in that country and another group of laws considered archaic or unconstitutional . That leaves Ireland and New Zealand as the only English speaking countries that still have a blashphemy law on the books. 7,8

Webmaster's note of gratitude:

I wish to thank the Atheist, freethinking, and humanist groups from across Canada who successfully initiated a Parliamentary petition calling for the repeal of Section 296 of the Canadian Criminal Code -- the blasphemy law. This web site consists of over 8,000 essays, many of which probably met the legal definition of blasphemy. I could have been tried and sentenced to two years in prison for each "offence." Being over the age of 80, that would be a life sentence.

The individual believer has often been the target of oppression for thinking or speaking unorthodox thoughts, for assembling with and recruiting others, and for changing their religious affiliation. Typically, the aggressors were large religious groups and governments. Religious freedom from such oppression is the meaning that we generally use on this web site to refer to any of the four terms: religious liberty in belief, religious freedom in speech and writing, freedom of worship and freedom to worship with others.

Typical past examples in North America were:

    • Mass attacks on, and murders by Christians who targeted members of The Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints -- (a.k.a. LDS, Mormons) -- in the mid-19th Century. Much of the violence was caused by non-Mormon Christians' intolerance of the use by the LDS of the Book of Mormon to supplement the Bible. This eventually resulted in the migration of about 70,000 LDS members to the midwest. They settled in what is now the state of Utah where Mormons remain in the majority today.

    • High levels of hatred, violence, and arson directed against the Roman Catholic Church in the late 19th century, largely by Protestants.

    • Restrictions once enforced by both the U.S. and Canadian governments on religious practices by Native Americans.

    • Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses during World War II, particularly in Quebec, Canada. Many of these conflicts led to lawsuits filed by Witnesses that defined the limits of religious freedom that people in North America enjoy today.

    • Persecution directed against Wiccans and other Neo Pagans during the 1980's and early 1990's. because of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax which incorrectly linked Neo pagans to Satanists, and linked Satanists to the ancient myth of Satanic worship and criminal acts during the Middle Ages. The Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax was triggered in 1980 by the book "Michelle Remembers." Persecution largely evaporated by 1995 when police forces and others could not find any proof that such abuse had actually happened.

Lack of religious freedom is very widespread elsewhere in the world, where a person can theoretically be executed for changing their religion, for criticizing the established state religion, for suggesting that the locally worshiped God does not exist, or that God is in the form of a Trinity, or for suggesting that many deities exist. Fortunately, most of these laws have been repealed. Where they are still on the books, many countries no longer enforce them.

horizontal rule

Sponsored link

horizontal rule

thumbs down image2. A rapidly emerging new meaning of religious freedom in the U.S.: the freedom to discriminate against, denigrate, or oppress others:

In recent years, religious freedom has been taking on a new meaning: the religious freedom and liberty of a believer apply their religious beliefs in order to hate, oppress, deny service to, denigrate, discriminate against, and/or reduce the human rights of minorities.

When compared to the past, the direction of the oppression has reversed. It is now an individual believer who is the oppressor -- typically fundamentalist and evangelical Christians and other religious conservatives. Others -- typically women, as well as sexual, and other minorities -- are the most common targets. This new type of "religious freedom to discriminate" is becoming increasingly common. It appears that this change is largely being driven by a reaction to a number of factors:

  • The increasing public acceptance of women's use of birth control/contraceptives. This is a practice regarded as a personal decision by most faith groups, but is actively opposed by the Roman Catholic and a few other conservative faith groups.

  • The increasing public acceptance of equal rights for sexual minorities including Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender persons and transsexuals -- the LGBT community. Prior to mid-2015, lesbians and gays were the main targets of oppression. This was almost instantaneously switched to attacking transgender persons and transsexuals in late 2015-JUN, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriages throughout the 50 U.S. states, one District, and four out of five territories. (Same-sex marriages are still not allowed in American Samoa, a territory where most people are American residents, not American citizens. Thus rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court do not necessarly apply there.)

  • Preventable deaths to children that have been caused by parents or guardians withholding medical attention to their children on religious grounds. Approximately 300 children have died over the last 25 years in the U.S. from this cause. 2

  • The increasing percentage of NOTAs in North America. These are individuals who are NOT Affiliated with an organized faith group. Some identify themselves as Agnostics, Atheists secularists, Humanists, free thinkers, etc. Others say that they are spiritual, but not religious. Still others regard themselves as Christian but are independent believers and not affiliated with a faith group.

    The media generally refer to NOTAs as "NONES" because they are affiliated to NONE of the U.S. faith groups. However, the words Nones and Nuns are homophones: words that sound alike but are spelled differently and which hold very different meanings. In this case, confusion is increased because both are used to refer to religious topics. To avoid misunderstandings, we recommend abandoning "NONES" in favor of the unambiguous term "NOTA."

One interesting feature of this "religious freedom to discriminate" is that it generally has people treating others as they would not wish to be treated themselves. It seems to be little noticed among those who practice or advocate "religious freedom to discriminate" that this form of treating people is a direct contradiction to the Golden Rule, which Jesus required all his followers to practice. See Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, and the Gospel of Thomas, 6. Various expressions of the Golden Rule are found in all main religious and most philosophical systems. Its formal name is the Ethic of Reciprocity.

horizontal rule

Unsponsored link to the ACLU Liberty Newsletter
ACLU banner
horizontal rule

A graphic comparing the two types of religious freedom:

The group that runs this web site received an email containing the following image. Its source is unknown but is allegedly in the public domain:

Religious freedom

The religious symbols -- starting from the left -- refer to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. On the right of the image is part of the Hindu symbol "Om" (or "Aum") which contains the sounds a-u-m, In Sanskrit. The letters "A" and "U" together form the sound "O." The three letters of the Hindu symbol represent:

  • the three parts of the universe: earth, atmosphere and heavens,
  • the three main Hindu deities: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, and
  • The three Vedic scriptures: Rg, Yajur, and Sama.

horizontal rule

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Robert Evans. "Atheists face death in 13 countries, global discrimination: study," Reuters, 2013-DEC-09, Reuters, at:
  2. "Apostasy in Islam," Wikipedia, as of 2016-NOV-03, at:
  3. Dirk Johnson, "Trials for Parents Who Chose Faith Over Medicine,"  New York Times, 2009-JAN-20, at:
  4. Luisa Morco, "Atheists Face Death Penalty In 13 Countries, Discrimination Around The World According To Freethought Report," Huffington Post, 2014-JAN-25, at:
  5. Zia H Shaw, "Ironies of the Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan, 2018-MAY-14, at:
  6. "Conflicted Minds: Religious Freedom or Death for Apostates?," The Muslim Times, 2013-MAY-04, at:
  7. "Blasphemy law in Canada [Ended], Atheist Republic, 2018-DEC-12, at:
  8. "Canada repeals blasphemy law," BC Humanists, 2018-DEC-11, at:

Site navigation:

Home > Religious freedom > here

or Home > Important essays > Religious freedom > here

or Home > Religious information > Religious freedom > here

or Home > Human rights > Religious freedom > here

Copyright © 2006 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-NOV-07
Extracted from the menu at relfree.htm
Latest update: 2018-DEC-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

Go to the previous page, or to the "Religious Freedom" menu, or choose:

Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Hot, controversial topics

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

Google Page Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.



    Sponsored links