Where Religious and Secular Meet

Where Religious and Secular Meet

Seventh in a seven-part series on international religious freedom


Does religious freedom protect only the religious?

The pursuit of truth, the desire for meaning and the search for transcendence belong to no particular church, culture or country. These, rather, are the common aspirations of all human beings. A person does not have to be religious to be moral, and a person does not have to be secular to be thoughtful. They both occupy the same public space and want the same right to voice their beliefs. Religious freedom should protect all who care about matters of ultimate concern and promote the common good.


Human society has an unavoidable moral dimension. The nature of law, commerce, education and relationships stems from assumptions we hold about right and wrong. Social values are influenced by many sources — history, literature, philosophy, science — but moral and religious traditions perform a key role. Both religious and secular people benefit from each other’s achievements. Faith and reason do not have to be viewed as opposites.

Given this interaction, the broad overlap between religious freedom and other civil rights is understandable. For example, freedom of speech, press, assembly and association have more meaning when buttressed by the free exercise of religion. Though conscience, ethics and human rights are often associated with secular values, they still fall under the umbrella of religious freedom. In this way, the secular and the religious are close relatives.

Legal scholar Brett Scharffs calls religious freedom the “taproot of the tree of human rights,” the deep base that nourishes the roots, branches and leaves of other freedoms.

First, he argues, religious freedom creates the constitutional space for pursuing any kind of truth and protects, in the words of the UN Human Rights Committee, “theistic, non-theistic, and atheistic belief.” Historically, freedom of speech, press, assembly and association emerged from the need to protect religious minorities.

Second, religious freedom acts as a buffer between the beliefs of individuals and the power of a dominant state. Without this check, rights become merely a gift from the state, not an unalienable possession.

And third, religious freedom provides the intellectual and political resources to preserve conscience.

“The justifications for the protection of conscience,” Scharffs maintains, “were first and foremost religious justifications, and if religious conscience does not receive protection we should not expect other grounds for conscience to be respected either.”[1]

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