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Header image The Religion Factor

Ways of Life and Freedom of Religion

Date:11 June 2014
Author:Religion Factor
Ways of Life, Linh Nguyen
Ways of Life, Linh Nguyen

Religious Freedom is rapidly becoming a high priority issue in the EU and elsewhere. In today’s post,  Frank Ubachs  explores some of these developments, particularly in relation to the Netherlands, ahead of a special workshop being facilitated by the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain in Utrecht today.

At the end of last year, a very informative exhibition at the Catherijneconvent Museum in Utrecht highlighted similar changes and tensions in Dutch society of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.[i] Traditionally a Roman Catholic society, the (Northern) Netherlands in those days had to rapidly adjust to an evolving pluralist society with new religious minorities and a new dominant Church. Old certainties made room for new questions and over time people felt more and more pressured to take sides. In daily life, however, many interlinkages continued to exist between people belonging to the separate groups and cross-fertilisation took place on the cultural level. On the political level, however, positions hardened and tensions occasionally erupted into violence, perpetrated both by civilians and by the State.

The  modus vivendi  that eventually evolved, the pillarisation (in Dutch: ‘ verzuiling ‘), was a form of non-interference in people’s religious life with an emphasis on collaboration in other areas. But the domains of socialising, knowledge transfer and even labour relations in the end all became subject to society’s religious divisions, forcing everyone to adhere to one group or another. One had to know what one believed, know to which group one belonged and act according to the group’s discipline. Parallels can still be found in contemporary forms of religious life in the Netherlands, either traditional or introduced by migrants. This also influences people’s understanding of what religion is actually about.


The concept of religion correlates with how freedom of religion is understood. A different or changing concept of religion changes the meaning of religious freedom. In the Middle East, for example, surveys generally find that most people are supportive of freedom of religion. However, this then often applies only to the ‘people of the Book’: followers of the monotheistic traditions. In contrast, in a recent hearing session for the new Egyptian Constitution Coptic students pleaded for a provision that would allow followers of other faiths (including those without belief) than just Muslims, Christians and Jews to enjoy religious freedom and to have their civic rights protected.[ii] Clearly, two different understandings of freedom of religion are at play here.

It doesn’t make a discussion on insults, freedom of expression and respect for beliefs any easier. But it points to the necessity for a deeper reflection on how religion works. And how people make it work. It differs from an approach that views (mostly dominant) religions as coherent belief systems that can or even should be studied in isolation.

It also questions the common practice in Western European countries to acknowledge specific faith traditions and maintain relations with their representatives in order to support them financially. The system defines which religions are eligible for recognition and support and which are not. Conversely, the same holds true for the treatment of so called cults, a problem that surfaces with some regularity in both France and Germany.[iii] Even if we let practicalities prevail, we should be aware of the implicit judgments and decisions that the system makes.

The way we deal with such issues is – whether we are aware of it or not – heavily influenced by our history and traditions. Taken for granted they unknowingly permeate our perceptions. The foreign eye spots these particularities and judges our system for it. It makes us vulnerable to criticisms of bias and prejudice, as our actions can be construed as partial and derived from our own self-interest.

We should be mindful of the principle of reciprocity in our external relations. When we promote freedom of religion as one of the fundamental freedoms, we should be aware of where we are coming from and what our own practices are.[iv] The marginalisation of religion in our society over the last decades has made us less aware of the choices we have made and that we – implicitly – continue to spread through our policies. Our own experience with pillarisation should make us wary of mindlessly reinforcing identity markers and boundaries between people. A sense of citizenship that emphasises individual rights and transcends boundaries irrelevant to them is preferable to any reduction of people to their religious or cultural identity.

These issues have been the subject of a series of roundtables, organised by the CRCPD over the last six months, that included policymakers, academics and representatives of faith-based development organisations. The first tangible outcome of this multi-stakeholder initiative was to design a joint research project that will explore the concepts of freedom of religion at work in different cultural contexts, starting with Europe and Asia. It will focus on the lived experience of religion in people’s lives and the impact of foreign policies designed to increase their freedom of religion. Addressing a certain disconnect between the two, the project questions existing assumptions driving religious freedom policy and aims to contribute new insights for more effective policy and practice. It will enhance understanding and appreciation of cross-cultural perspectives amongst policymakers and practitioners working to promote plurality and respect across multiple belief systems and ways of life.

On the 11th of June, in a next step, the CRCPD initiative will stage a side-event on freedom of religion and belief linked to the Henriëtte van Lynden-lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The lecture is dedicated to foreign policy on the Middle East and, specifically, the position of Christians in the region.[v] Preceding the lecture, representatives from Egypt and Syria will join us in an informal roundtable that will take place in Utrecht. With them, we will discuss practitioners´ experiences and questions regarding freedom of religion, arising from their work in the field.


Frank Ubachs is Fellow in Religion, Violence and Security with the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

[i] Eck, Xander van, R. Priem, Inge A. Schriemer, and Kees van Schooten. 2013.  Vormen van verdraagzaamheid: religieuze (in)tolerantie in de Gouden Eeuw . Zwolle: WBOOKS.

[ii] Scott, Rachel. 2014.The future of Egyptian democracy: Narratives of the Egyptian constitution

[iii] Beam, Christopher. 2009. Cult Busters.How does France distinguish between “cults” and organized religions?

[iv] Shakman Hurd, Elizabeth. 2013. What’s wrong with promoting religious freedom?



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