Four questions: Daniel C. Dennett on the most pervasive and serious threat religion poses to human rights

’It’s the practices that are on the boundaries of what is acceptable to people that raise interesting problems’
Anouk Dey

Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, among other works. He is also the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

Q: What can Canada expect to achieve by promoting religious freedom abroad?

A: Religion has a track record of providing good things like hope, love, freedom, and morality in many places for many people. It is a very important part of their lives, and not for bad reasons. Many people around the world organize their lives around their religion. It’s their community, their friends, and their networking. And we don’t want to tamper with that unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s a wonderful thing for these people.

However, religions should not be allowed to have practices, no matter how traditional they are, that violate fundamental laws. For instance, there should be no human sacrifice, and there should be no polygamy. Those are simply not to be tolerated, and you couldn’t have religious freedom [with them in place]. It’s the practices that are on the boundaries of what is acceptable to people that raise interesting problems.

Q: Would atheists be protected by an Office of Religious Freedom?

A: That depends on what’s being protected according to these principles. Will the office protect the right of free assembly and the right not to be interfered with?

Atheists ought to be protected. If the freedom to have no religion at all isn’t included in the freedom of religion, then that is a bad policy. That said, there is only a miniscule portion of atheists in any population that I think would need any protection, as only a small fraction of them belong to actual atheist groups.

Q: Is there a difference between a government promoting religious freedom within its borders and abroad?

A: So long as a government is promoting religious freedom within its own borders [as well], there does not have to be. Promoting religious freedom abroad is no different than promoting free elections, justice, equality for women, and fair labour practices for children around the world. These are all worthy national and international goals, as is religious freedom. Of course, religious freedom is a more hard-edged issue in some ways, in that some countries clearly have a long tradition of religious intolerance and this policy cuts against that.

Q: In establishing an Office of Religious Freedom, will the Canadian government implicitly place religious freedom above other human rights?

A: The government implicitly elevates religious freedom: if you have a special office for one [human-rights issue] and not for the others, that does raise a question. Why not for all? Why not have an office that promotes human rights in general? Why should you single out religion if you are not already willing to defend the rights of, say, women, or gays and lesbians, and so forth?

There are certain human rights that conflict with religious freedom. The most pervasive and serious is a child’s right to access information about the world. I think that many religions attempt to shelter children from knowledge of other religions, or even the history of their own religion. They want to closely control the information that children growing up in that religion have. That’s a very serious issue. The state should not permit a religious group to say, “We forbid our children to learn how to read,” for instance. That would clearly be outside acceptability. But some might say it is a matter of religious freedom. I don’t think that case has ever come up, but if it did, you could say that it is a form of child abuse to deny your children the ability to read. In [situations like that], the promotion of the right to read for children everywhere should take precedence over protection of religious freedom.

The New Missionaries is a joint project between Maclean’s and, the Canadian International Council’s (CIC) hub for international affairs. Click here to learn more about the CIC.