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In our opinion: Want humanity to flourish? Promote religious freedom

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Father Amaro Lopes celebrates a mass in a chapel at the bishop’s house in Altamira, Brazil, on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Human flourishing — the outlook individuals have on their current and future life prospects — is traditionally associated with a thriving economy, strong institutions and vibrant communities. Now recent research suggests religious liberty, too, has significant effects on bolstering human well-being.

A paper published earlier this month by Christos A. Makridis, drawing on a sample of some 150 countries from 2006 to 2018, suggested that religious freedom has a greater positive effect on human flourishing than many other factors, even economic freedom. Year-to-year increases in religious liberty, wrote Makridis, led to higher probabilities that individuals thrive.

After a summer-long debate about what is deemed “essential” — and whether religion qualifies for the label — this research conjures new questions about the essentialness of religious liberty for societies, economies and individuals. If the free practice and observance of religion, as the research suggests, correlates with individual improvement, what harm could restrictions on religious practice cause for individuals and societies?

The idea of human flourishing — defined by Makridis as “an individual’s subjective expectation about their current and future life prospects” — varies from nation to nation. The positive correlation between religious liberty and human flourishing is not coincidental, showing that religious freedom and democratic institutions are complements.

Some 80% of the world’s population is hampered by restraints on religious practice, and naturally, Makridis’ sample of some 150 countries included many of those. But decreases in religious liberty aren’t exclusive to autocratic regions. Surveys have detected declines even in countries with traditional protections for freedom, the researcher notes. By the researcher’s measure, the religious liberty in the U.S. decreased by 35% from 1980 to 2018.

“We shouldn’t just look and say, ‘Oh, we don’t need to worry about it. CCP, Nigeria, Laos, India, Pakistan, etc. need to worry about it.’ We do, too,” Makridis told the Deseret News. “And we need to take it seriously. And it’s a precondition for a lot of the other things that are needed in order to have higher productivity growth and human flourishing.”

In the recent G-20 Interfaith Forum, civic and religious leaders from around the world emphasized the importance of religious liberty in mitigating inequality and promoting equal treatment for all. “Freedom of religion or belief can play a crucial role in the improvement of gender equality,” explained Ms. Lisa Winther, senior human Rights adviser at Stefanusalliansen in Norway. “It provides a space for change and empowerment.”

Elder David A. Bednar, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, likewise emphasized the role of religious liberty in promoting understanding. “How secular officials understand religion and religious people deeply influences how they treat religious institutions and believers in a time of crisis,” he said. “The deeper and more respectful the understanding, the more legitimate and effective public policy responses can be.”

As Luke Goodrich, a religious liberty expert, told the Deseret News earlier this year, “Religious freedom is meant to give people with divergent beliefs the room to live in accordance with their beliefs.” Not only does religious liberty allow individuals to coexist, it empowers all to thrive.