Seven Ways Religious Freedom Contributes to Sustainable Development

By: Brian Grim

A new series of analysis and data highlights the connection between religious freedom and sustainable development. 

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

An oft used definition for Sustainable Development is: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, 1987).

So, what might be the connection between these seemingly very different concepts?

Of course, social dynamics are complex and causal mechanism are multifaceted, and religious freedom is not a silver bullet or secret solution to the world’s ills. Nevertheless, the role of religious freedom—and its manifestations in interfaith and intercultural understanding and cooperation—are often overlooked contributors to positive socio-economic outcomes and sustainable development.

There is no doubt that strong markets and strong societies go hand in hand, and good business is about good relationships. But even the most principled and socially responsible companies are challenged to thrive in communities marked by instability and conflict, to find skilled labor where adequate education is lacking and where discrimination is present, or to withstand natural disasters and changing climates.

The following research summary indicates that religious freedom contributes to sustainable development—and its underlying socio-economic foundations—in a number of ways, including (1) fostering respect for differing faiths and beliefs, including people with no particular faith; (2) helping to reduce corruption by allowing faith-based ethics to be voiced; (3) engendering peace by defusing religious tensions thereby reducing religion-related violence and conflict; (4) encouraging broader freedoms; (5) developing the economy as religious groups play a measurable role in the human and social development of countries; (6) overcoming the over-regulation associated with such things as coercive blasphemy laws; and (7) multiplying trust among employees whose faith and beliefs are respected.

First, religious freedom fosters respect by protecting something that more than eight-in-ten people worldwide, 84 percent according to a recent Pew Research study, identify with a religious faith—and this figure is growing. Indeed, a 2015 global study published in Demographic Research and its related Pew Research Center report show that people who are religiously unaffiliated will drop to 13 percent of the world’s population in 2050, down from 16 percent in 2010. Given that so many people are attached to a faith, to violate the free practice of religion runs the risk of alienating the mass of humanity, something that certainly would not be ideal for morale and socio-economic progress. Likewise, forcing the 16 percent of people with no specific religious attachment to have a religion would be alienating. Religious freedom ensures that people, regardless of their belief or nonbelief, are accorded equal rights and equal opportunity to have a voice in society.

Second, religious freedom reduces corruption, one of the key ingredients of sustainable economic development. For instance, research finds that laws and practices burdening religion are related to higher levels of corruption. This is borne out by simple comparison between the Pew Research Center’s 2011 Government Restrictions on Religion Index with the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. Eight of the ten most corrupt countries have high or very high governmental restrictions on religious liberty. Religious freedom also implies that business people can draw on religious values and moral teachings in their businesses. Allowing religion to inform business ethnics certainly is an underused activity implied by religious freedom.

Third, research clearly demonstrates that religious freedom engenders peace by reducing religion-related violence and conflict. Conversely, when religious freedom is not respected and protected, the result is often violence and conflicts that disrupt normal economic activities. Religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies. More generally, religious freedom is a key ingredient to peace and stability, which is particularly important for business because, where stability exists, there is more opportunity to invest and conduct normal and predictable business operations, especially in emerging and new markets.

Fourth, religious freedom encourages broader freedoms that contribute to positive socio-economic development. Again, research shows that religious freedom is highly correlated with the presence of other freedoms and a variety of positive social and economic outcomes ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women. While correlations are not causation, the correlations suggest that a more robust future research agenda should focus on better understanding these connections because it appears the freedoms rise or fall together.

Fifth, religious freedom develops the economy. When religious groups operate in a free and competitive environment, religion can play a measurable role in the human and social development of countries. For instance, sociologist Robert Woodberry finds that the presence of proselytizing Protestant faiths, that is, faiths competing for adherents, was associated with economic development throughout the world in the previous century. Even before that, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that such Protestant associations in the early United States of these sorts established churches, disseminated books, and founded hospitals, prisons, and schools. And these contributions are not just a legacy from the past. Katherine Marshall also recognizes that faith communities not only provide education and health services, but they also provide social safety nets for orphans, disabled people, and people who fall behind.

Sixth, religious freedom overcomes over-regulation that accompanies certain types of religious restrictions that directly limit or harm economic activity. For example, religious restrictions among Muslim-majority countries are contributing to worse economic and business outcomes. One direct religious restriction impacting economic freedom involves burdensome regulatory practices in Islamic finance, which is often complicated by differing interpretations of sharia. Religious restrictions also include legal barriers for certain import and export industries, such as the halal food market and outright bans of certain blockbusters from the film industry. And, certain government laws and restrictions on religious freedom can stoke religion-related hostilities that disrupt markets throughout the region. Examples range from employment discrimination against women over such things as headscarves to the misuse of anti-blasphemy laws to attack business rivals. Perhaps most significantly for future economic growth, research shows that the instability associated with high and rising religious restrictions and hostilities can influence young entrepreneurs to take their talents elsewhere.

And seventh, religious freedom multiplies trust among employees and consumers. Religious freedom, when respected within a company, can also directly benefit a company’s bottom line. Respect for reasonable accommodation of religious freedom in the workplace can improve employee morale, increase retention of valued employees, and help with conflict resolution. Moreover, businesses may gain a competitive advantage by engaging stakeholder expectations that are increasingly demanding that companies play a positive role in addressing environmental, social, and governance challenges.

Given that religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes—and especially sustainable development—advances in religious freedom are in the self-interest of businesses, governments and societies. While this observation does not suggest that religious freedom is the sole or even main antidote to poor economic performance, it does suggest that religious freedom is related to economic success. Certainly, businesses—and the communities they serve—would benefit from taking religious freedom considerations into account. 

Brian J. Grim is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and a leading expert on the socioeconomic impact of restrictions on religious freedom and international religious demography. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece first appeared in longer form on the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation website. It was originally published in this form on August 31, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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