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How Much Freedom of Religion Do You Have?

Monday, February 01, 2010 1:26 PM Comments (6)

This is a chart showing the fifty largest countries by population and the religious freedom they offer.

The chart was prepared by the Pew Forum, and it measures religious freedom along two axes. The first—the horizontal axis—is the amount of freedom allowed by law, with the most freedom on the left and the least freedom on the right.

The second—the vertical axis—is the amount of freedom allowed culturally (i.e., how much social hostility you are likely to meet apart from the law), with the most freedom at the bottom and the least freedom at the top.

The size of the circles represents the number of people living in the country.

When I first saw this, several questions occurred to me.

One was: “Where is Saudia Arabia? It ought to be in the extreme top right of the diagram.” The answer is that it’s not one of the top fifty countries by population, so it’s not on the chart. However, in the Pew Forum report that the chart is based on, Saudi Arabia is the only country listed in the “very high” category for both social hostilities (6.8) and government restrictions (8.4) to freedom of religion.

Another question was: “Why is the U.S. ranked the way it is?” It turns out that the government restrictions score the U.S. has (1.6) includes the fact that it requires religious organizations to apply for a special status (c3 non-profit) to obtain tax-exempt status, and there are strings attached to that (e.g., limits on what pastors can say about politics).

Fair enough.

I’m less sure about the social hostility score the U.S. is given (1.9). Certainly there are people in the U.S. who are hostile to different religions, and there are even crimes committed against people because of their religion, but I’m not sure that the Pew researchers have ranked things properly.

If you look in the full report, the U.S. is classed as having “moderate” social hostilities toward freedom of religion, with an overall score of 1.9. The Pew report justifies this by saying: “In the United States, law enforcement officials across the country reported to the FBI at least 1,400 hate crimes involving religion in 2006 and again in 2007.”

Okay . . . but it then immediately says that Belgium is a country with “low social hostilities” (it’s score is 1.3) and justifies that by stating: “In Belgium, for example, 68 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in 2007 and 31 in the first half of 2008, but none involved physical violence.”

But wait. Belgium has a population one thirtieth that of the U.S. if you took Belgium’s anti-Semitic incidents and scaled them up by a factor of 30, you’d get 2,040 for 2007 and 930 for 2008. And that’s just anti-Semitic incidents, not anti-Muslim or anti-Christian.

That’s not looking so different than the U.S. It may be looking even worse.

You could fix on the phrase “but none involved physical violence” to explain the difference in rankings. Presumably some U.S. incidents did include physical violence, but many no doubt did not (e.g., spraying anti-religious graffiti on churches or synagogues). And if you scaled Belgium up by a factor of 30, you might get some physical violence appearing as well.

In any event, I suspect that the ranking here is something of an apples-to-oranges comparison that has more to do with how the two governments classify, report, and track such incidents.

It’s still an intriguing way of measuring global freedom of religion.

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About Jimmy Akin

Jimmy Akin
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Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, "A Triumph and a Tragedy," is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and a weekly guest on "Catholic Answers Live."