October 15, 2015

International Religious Freedom: Toward a Model of Transatlantic Cooperation

Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project hosted a conference on “International Religious Freedom: Toward a Model of Transatlantic Cooperation” on October 8 and 9 as part of the semester-long exploration of the global future of governance under the auspices of the Global Futures Initiative. 

The event featured remarks by Dr. Peter Berger, professor emeritus of religion, sociology and theology at Boston University, and David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The main objective of the conference was to advance the model of transatlantic cooperation around religious freedom, which could in time serve as a model for global religious freedom.

According to Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project, “religious freedom is important for individuals and societies” as no one can be said to be living a fully human life if they are not free to pursue answers to religious questions. Yet religious freedom is in a “global crisis:” there is a growing hostility towards religion in the west and violent religious persecutions around the world.

Scholars at the Georgetown conference posited that greater inclusion of religion in transatlantic conversations around violence could lead to more fruitful and peaceful solutions to global problems, helping to curb religion-related violence, religion-based civil war, and terrorism.

Peter Berger, the morning’s keynote speaker, challenged the convention that religion and modernity are incompatible. Instead, he proposed that the new model of transatlantic cooperation accommodate both: “We have a new paradigm in modernity and religion.” The paradigm to which Dr. Berger alluded involves religious pluralism and, as the Berkeley Center notes, “promoting the permanent coexistence of secular discourses and practices alongside the growing diversity of religious ways of thinking and living.”

Os Guinness, in his response to Dr. Berger, called for a reaffirmation of America’s first fundamental principle of religious freedom, which he expanded to mean “freedom of conscience.”

Both scholars also recognized the important role of government and governance in promoting religious freedom. Dr. Berger argued that the government plays perhaps the most central role in ensuring religious freedom. Dr. Guinness called on policymakers to restore civic education, which he believed has waned in the last 50 years.

Scholars throughout the conference discussed the wide range of issues relating to global religious freedom, from the best practices for promoting religious freedom to its security benefits, both domestically and internationally. Speakers introduced the many challenges in promoting cause-related policies, as well as the security threats posed by violent extremists in places such as the Middle East. October 8 concluded with a speech by David Saperstein, who applauded the American system as a model for protecting religious minorities.

October 9 built on the first day’s speakers with private sessions and discussions among scholars and policymakers. Attendees discussed specific religious freedom problems around the world, as well as normative components of the relationship between church and state. The conference concluded with an address by Religious Freedom Project Director Thomas Farr, who commended the attendees and presenters for contributing to the important conversation on religious freedom.

Central to the objectives of Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project is a recognition of the important role to be played at the level of global governance. Transatlantic cooperation around religious freedom necessitates leadership around policy agendas, as well as in promoting partisan interests in a fair and effective way.

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