Paper presentation during conference on ‘Christianity and the Future of our Societies’, 15-19 August 2016, Leuven, Belgium


The conference was organized by the Association of Reformational Philosophy (ARP) in cooperation with the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit of Leuven (ETF): ‘ARP and ETF welcome contributions from philosophers and theologians as well as from scholars in other disciplines who are seriously engaged in dialogue between Christianity and key figures (or central insights or paradigms) within their own discipline and context, wherever in the world this may be.

The Association of Reformational Philosophy (ARP) has its roots in the 16th century Reformation and its direct origin in the 19th neo-Calvinist revival (in which Abraham Kuyper was a pivotal figure). One of the goals of the ARP is ‘to contribute to the deepening of philosophical insight in created reality, and to make these insights fruitful for academic studies and for society’. Key founding fathers of the movement were the Dutch philosophers Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven. The movement has grown, and is today globally engaged in academic dialogue between Christianity and the contemporary world, and its animating intellectual, political and economic ideas and leaders. It does so in the expectation that Christianity has important and timely insights to offer.

The Evangelische Theologische Faculteit (ETF) in Leuven, Belgium, has developed into an important European education and research center for Christian theology that seeks relevance to the contemporary world and its concerns. In ETF’s international master’s and doctoral program, students and professors from a wide variety of cultural and denominational backgrounds come from all over the world to engage in stimulating dialogue.

This conference is co-organized with the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies (WMCES); the political foundation and official think tank of the European People’s Party. And the Christian Political Foundation for Europe (CPFE); the political foundation for the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM).’

For information on the program, see:

My own contribution was entitled: ‘Christianity and the Future of Religious Freedom’. The abstract reads as follows:

The central point a forthcoming dissertation on the legal conception of ‘religion’ aims to make, is that the concept of religion employed by courts in the West is not as ‘transhistorical and transcultural’ as is sometimes tacitly assumed but instead is heavily influenced by Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular. As a result, the protection the right to freedom of religion or belief currently provides to, for example, Islam and Judaism is too limited.

I do not consider the thesis that the right to freedom of religion or belief may have a strong relationship to in particular the Christian heritage in itself to be very surprising. It would, to the contrary, be quite a sensation to somehow discover that the legal conception of religion in the West had not been influenced by Christianity.Whether the arguably more particularly Protestant influence is as strong as the author assumes, is a different matter. It could well be argued that definitions employed in this manuscript and other recent literature on the topic, such as ‘the view that religion denotes a sphere of life separate and distinct from all others, and that this sphere is largely private and not public, voluntary and not compulsory’, represent the very opposite of what Protestantism has historically stood for.

The proposed paper will argue that, to the contrary, Christianity in general, and Protestantism in particular, have eventually given rise to a generous interpretation of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Such a generous interpretation suggests first of all that, because spirituality is the keystone of human identity, this right occupies a special place in the universe of rights. Secondly, it implies that religious belief cannot be separated from religious practice. Thirdly, the right to freedom of religion or belief applies to all religions and also to people who do not adhere to a particular religion. Fourthly, the associational and institutional dimensions of the right are important, not just with respect to religious organizations, but also with respect to civil society organizations more generally. A fifth element of a generous religious freedom conception holds that, although not sacred or inviolable, the bar to interference regarding the family as the fundamental social unit is relatively high. The sixth element is that human dignity can well serve as the underlying foundation of the right, as it can be subscribed to by different religious and other traditions. A seventh and final element is that equality does not necessarily imply identical treatment.

A generous approach to the right to freedom of religion or belief does not so much imply maximal but rather optimal religious freedom. Although the limits to the right can to a certain extent differ from place to place, and from time to time, they have historically by and large been determined by the same universal, transcendent truths which also sustain constitutional democracy more generally. This can be regarded as a major – though not exclusive – potential contribution of Christianity also to the future of Western and indeed world civilization.

Key bibliographical sources:
Cohen, Jean L. & Cécile Laborde (eds.) (2015) Religion, Secularism, and Constitutional Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press).

DeGirolami, Marc O. (2013), The Tragedy of Religious Freedom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Petty, Aaron R. (forthcoming, 2016), The Legal Conception of ‘Religion’.

Spencer, Nick (2014), How to Think about Religious Freedom (London: Theos).

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, Peter G. Danchin (eds.) (2015), Politics of Religious Freedom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

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