Religious freedom and religious diversity

22 May 2024

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Amid the vitriol and animosity in Canadian public discourse, there are increasing calls for civility (including in my recent columns). These are pleas to self-moderate our speech and use our expressive freedoms wisely. This includes our freedom of religion.

Religious freedom is sometimes referred to as the first freedom. That’s not because it is listed first in a constitutional document, but because when religious freedom is enjoyed other key freedoms are also protected – freedoms such as speech and assembly.

The term religious freedom does not appear in the Scriptures, but it is integral to our understanding of the freedom offered by the gospel in Christ and the character of God in whose image we are created.

Jesus came to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God. The reign of Christ was inaugurated with His resurrection, and we live in the time between – which will end when all things are reconciled to Christ (Colossians 1:15–20).


Paul, although grieved at all the idols [in Athens], did not resort to provocative demonstrations to be heard.


When all things are reconciled every knee will bow and tongue confess. It will be a time when the nations will “walk by the light of the lamb” that illuminates the new Jerusalem, and the “Kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:25).

In this between time we can exercise the freedom of conscience God has given us. We are created in His image – we have volition. We are free to worship God or not. We are free to obey God or not (think of Adam and Eve’s choice). God gives us the freedom to make decisions about the path we will take – Moses’ plea to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19), the rich young ruler’s choice whether to follow Christ (Luke 19:18–30), the decision whether to attend by those invited to the banquet (Luke 14:17–20).

Sometimes a Christian exercise of freedom involves surrendering our personal desires or even our very needs by putting the genuine needs of others above our own. Consider Christ’s sacrificial choosing – “nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).

God has given His image bearers freedom of conscience and religion. The result can look like what the Apostle Paul saw in the city of Athens – religious diversity expressed in the proliferation of idols in the public square.

The Athenians had the freedom to believe as their consciences directed them. They actually welcomed hearing about new religious beliefs. There was a public venue for hearing about new gods, and debating views about philosophy and religious doctrine.

Paul, although grieved at all the idols, did not resort to provocative demonstrations to be heard. He engaged civilly and reasoned with all who would listen, whether in the synagogues or the public square.

We too enjoy religious freedom in our society, but are we concerned enough about our neighbours’ worship to engage them like Paul, in a civil and Christ-honouring way?

It was notably a mob in Thessalonica and subsequently Berea whose opposition to the preaching of the gospel caused Paul to go to Athens. They used intimidation to deny him the freedom to reason about religion in a civil way by persuasion.

The religious freedom we enjoy, including the freedom to disagree and debate our beliefs, is never static or guaranteed. We should not take it for granted.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt said the life of the mind can drive us to insanely cruel acts in the name of reason and religion, but that true religious freedom includes the freedom to disagree without fear of retribution.

Paul in Romans 13 speaks about the good of the state and that its task did not include imposing religious belief. Part of how we love God involves calling the state to account when it moves beyond its proper authority or when it fails to do that which is proper to its calling.

Another aspect of loving God involves speaking out of concern for people who serve gods and idols, advocating for the gospel of forgiveness and for reconciliation to the one true God.

Religious freedom affords us the public space to respectfully engage one another about our beliefs and truth claims.

Some of those who heard Paul in Athens wanted to hear more and some believed. It is our calling to be good stewards of the freedoms we have and use our freedom well for the sake of our neighbours.

Bruce J. Clemenger is senior ambassador and president emeritus of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and author of The New Orthodoxy: Canada’s Emerging Civil Religion (Castle Quay, 2022). Illustration of multi-faith symbols by Janice Van Eck.

Author: Bruce J. Clemenger

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