This is the first of a three-part series.

Then Peter said to his Lord, ‘Quo Vadis?’

It was once thought that religion was dying, or rather had died. On the contrary, religion has shown such tenacious resilience that even sceptics have come to make a concession: that religion is making a comeback. This is all the more evident in the contemporary issues arising from religion properly so-called, religions confronting religions/secularism, charges of blasphemy and the relationship between religious freedom and other rights considered fundamental or otherwise material to the functioning of a serious democracy.

In our country Ghana, the issue of regulating churches has come up time and time again. Some think religious communities and leaders are becoming fabulously rich at the expense of their congregants or members. For these people, it’s just about time we started to contemplate more deeply the utility of religion as a socio-cultural matter and begin to see religious communities as sources that could potentially possess economic utility. Thus, we ought to tax churches. This is an interesting argument. It seems to suggest, that all if not most religious communities are making a lot of money for which reason the opening of one additional religious community or organisation adds to marginal utility: a national economic satisfaction to be derived from the consumption of an additional community or organisation.

Others think religious communities, especially churches, are becoming an aberration, lost in prosperity chants and psychedelic manoeuvres. Alas! It is almost becoming an exercise in fantasy. This is pretty interesting. 

I do not intend to debate the matter of taxing religious communities at this point. I do not intend to look at the state of religious communities either. These I shall do in the coming weeks.

More relevant is the justification for religion.  The more pertinent question really is, what is the justification for what can properly be described as a phenomenon; one that is amorphous in definition, imprecise in scope and so profoundly personal to people? This is what I intend to explore. What is the justification for religious freedom?

Before I continue, it is important, I think, to consider what religion is. Religion is essentially a belief in some deity and the inward and outward manifestation of that belief. The freedom to believe and manifest that belief is what religious freedom is. I acknowledge that this view will not meet the position that has been articulated by the mass of international legal interpretations pursuant to international treaties, conventions, et cetera and the host of judicial decisions on this matter, worldwide: that freedom of religion includes the right to believe and the right not to believe. It is for this reason that the term ‘freedom of religion’ is often avoided and the terms ‘freedom religion or belief’ or ‘freedom of belief’ are more commonly used. These terms, admittedly, are equally unhelpful. What distinguishes a religion from a belief and how is that different from conscience? In Ghana, the position is irredeemably worsened because the 1992 Constitution does not make a reference to freedom of religion. It only uses ‘belief’. All of these is because of artificial attempts to make the right not to belief a constituent part of religious freedom.

However, a careful analysis of practical experience will show that the right not to hold a belief, as a component of religious freedom does not quite fit into the notion of religion. A belief in any religion is the belief in something metaphysically concrete.  No matter how many nations try to have Godless Constitutions or no matter how many books titled 'Religion Without God' (a book by Ronald Dworkin where he makes an argument which though maintaining the traditional strand of religion as a belief in a deity and organising one’s life around it, proposes a theory that reduces religion to a shared belief of deeply held convictions) are written, for all practical purposes, the deity is an essential component of religion.

I think I find further support in the way in which religious communities perceive persons who do not generally have conventional beliefs (atheist or agnostics). Some may think it is just for the show but a public officer who makes an oath on that officer’s Holy Scripture subconsciously registers the following facts in the minds of people: that he believes in a deity; that this deity informs his way of life; that there is something to lose if the officer does not order his steps in the way the deity expects. The most relevant of these considerations is that there is something to lose. On the contrary, a mere affirmation does not satisfy anyone. It is as if the fellow has nothing to lose. ‘Fear a man who has nothing to lose’.

I must not be understood to say that the right not to hold a belief is not one to be protected. That would be a startling and dangerous conclusion. Rather, I am of the view that the freedom of conscience is a better way of characterizing the right not to believe. This leads me to another matter; whether conscience gives birth to religion or religion births conscience. This doesn’t seem so difficult, at least, it is almost trite – I repeat – almost trite that conscience is much broader, and religion is perceived as a right subsumed under conscience rights. In fact, conscience is deemed to include the right to hold non-religious beliefs (and by my argument above, the right not to believe) and conscientious objections (the right to refrain from compulsory service especially military service where this violates one’s conscience).

In effect, I would suggest the use of ‘freedom of religion or belief’ to refer to religious freedom while ‘the right not to hold a belief’ should be consigned to the matters of conscience.

Why is religion a thing that people attach so much of their lives to? It is for the simple reason that religion is inexplicably personal and the foundation for the development of a personal conscience framework. I dare say that though conscience is larger, where people start from the personal premise that they believe in a particular deity and intend to manifest that belief, religion becomes the controlling knot around which other matters of conscience revolve. It is for this reason that cows are sacred to Hindus and pigs forbidden by Muslims. Religion informs diet, clothing, employment…even shelter.

Now even if the right not to hold a belief is considered a part of freedom of religion – if that argument is conceded - the argument is even better. The right to believe and not to believe would have been seen as the starting point of religious freedom.

Freedom of religion, therefore, in many cases is antecedent to many matters of conscience. Since religious freedom is the starting point for the establishment of personal conscience principles, it is internally normative. Ask a man why he doesn’t do this or that, the reply will come back, ‘because it is against my religious principles’. More so, to the extent that religious freedom is underscored by the belief in a deity, it is externally normative.

There is an additional justification I want to put forward. There is something business and economic pragmatism has taught  us to do: the monetisation of the intangible, especially time. ‘Time is money’, it is often said. People charge time all the time. Additionally, we have learnt how to monetise trust in the granting of loans and things of that nature. Why can it not be possible to monetise hope? Perhaps, I am applying normal contract principles but that makes a lot of sense. It’s tough out there, especially when you are in a place where systems don’t seem to work for you. This is why religious communities and their leaders are becoming very powerful and influential. Religious communities have learnt how to monetise hope in hopeless places. They provide the mental fuel for people to carry on in places where it is deemed shameful to express weakness. A deity will never turn its people away. So, people need hope. Religious leaders provide it. It is an offer and an acceptance basis. The consideration: growing influence for hope provided. There is the corollary privilege of belonging to a religious community. These days though, it is becoming money contributed to the community in addition to influence for the hope provided. This is the reason why demanding accountability and financial transparency from religious communities can be difficult. Persons external to the religious community must understand that calling for accountability and transparency cannot reasonably be demanded without factoring in voluntariness. Throughout the world, religious philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas (St) have always insisted on consent as a basis for the exercise of religious influence. People consent to love their god through their prophets. No matter how angry you may be, you must vitiate consent before any question of accountability and transparency can arise. Religion is, therefore, a contract.

In this post, I have attempted to establish that an independent right of religious freedom should exist distinct from the right not to hold a belief. I have also provided two justifications for this right. That it is personal – internally and externally normative – and contractual. The conception of ‘religion as a contract’, is going to be the springboard for the next post on whether or not churches should be taxed.