Social Requisites of Religious Freedom Worldwide

By Paul A. Djupe

I gave my research methods students an assignment that would serve to introduce them to R, to integrate some datasets, and to tell stories about the extension of rights around the world. No surprise that I focused on religious freedom, in part because I know the 2008 International Religious Freedom Dataset (IRFD) by Brian Grim and Roger Finke are available from ARDA; we merged it with the Polity IV dataset. I thought that an overview of what we found to serve as an entre to this line of work was warranted here. I’m making no bones that this is unique and I’ll close with a short list of other work to turn to for more in-depth discussion.

The data come from coded State Department reports, launched under the Bush Administration, so naturally the US is not included, but would otherwise be dark blue in the map below indicating its low regulatory environment. That reinforces the regional concentration of regulation that is lighter (higher regulation) toward the equator and darker (lower regulation) toward the poles, at least outside the Americas. Put differently, MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and Asia tend to have quite high levels of regulation.

Taking advantage of the Polity data, we can see just how synonymous democracy is with freedom in the violin + boxplot figure below. Befitting the definition, the median democracy (+5 to 10 on the polity scale) scores a zero on the regulation scale, which includes whether foreign missionaries are allowed, whether proselytizing is limited, whether the government restricts freedom to worship, among other items. But there are outliers, most of which are Asian and Pacific Island nations. Anocracies (a mix of democracy and dictatorship) show wide variation and are less restrictive than autocracies. There are outliers with high religious freedom among autocracies, too, including Swaziland, Gambia, and Equatorial Guinea.

As we have seen in the US and across the world, democracies offer no guarantee that their citizenries live according to democratic norms. And there’s no guarantee that democracies do a particularly good job confronting intolerant citizens – they have few policy tools to handle them and, of course, are set up to be responsive to such constituencies, at least to a point. The figure below shows the distribution of an index of “social regulation” which captures various dimensions of hostility toward religious groups and religious behavior. This is not nearly so tightly correlated with polity level – there are autocracies without much social regulation and democracies with considerable amounts (though the average is still lower in democracies). The median democracy lies at 2.5 on this scale compared to 0 on official religious regulation.

That disjuncture raises the obvious question of how social preferences about how religion is treated filter through political institutions to shape official regulation. Autocracies are not well suited to respect social pressures, though they are responsive to social problems. Anocracies may not have enough institutional strength to systematically respond to the public. And democracies are ideally set up to protect individual freedoms before accepting public preferences (or else the state unravels quickly). In 2008, we can see these notions play out – there is effectively no relationship between social and official regulation of religion among anocracies, and a generally positive relationship among autocracies (but noisy). Among democracies, however, we can see the struggle quite visibly. Institutions can fend off intolerance to a point, but eventually give way to public pressure to regulate unpopular religious groups.

Another way to think about the raw materials for maintaining freedom is in terms of pluralism (here I use the proxy of the size of the largest religious group). The idea, stemming from James Madison’s Federalist 10 and other sources, is that the larger and more diverse society will create the engine and incentives to inhibit intolerance. There’s some evidence to support this idea, as democracies with very high levels of religious homogeneity have higher religious regulation. Anocracies clearly see increased regulation as diversity dwindles, whereas it does not make much difference for autocracies on average.

It is interesting to note that the link between pluralism and social discrimination is positive, but very weak; it is so weak that it is insignificant for each type of polity. Looking at intergroup relations from such a zoomed-out vantage point obscures many of the critical details. Do groups interact and work on common projects? If so, the enormous “contact theory” literature finds that prejudice will be low in such conditions. However, having a diverse populace does not guarantee a tolerant one if groups do not have opportunities to interact, are divided by worldviews, and are separated by socio-economic status. However, it is notable that only democracies have the most pluralistic religious populations.

Lastly, I wanted to compare regulation levels in countries with different dominant religious groups. I had to pick a comparison group, so I chose atheist-dominated countries (Czech Republic and Netherlands), which conveniently have zero for their religious regulation scores. The religious traditions that host the highest religious regulation scores are, not surprisingly, in the Middle East, though the “unspecified Christian” group ranks the highest religious regulation and is mostly situated in Africa (e.g., Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, South Africa, etc.). There is also quite the variation among Muslim majority countries. “Unspecified Muslims” (e.g., Chad, Malaysia, Nigeria) have religious regulation scores no different from the atheist countries of Western Europe on average, whereas Shi’a Muslim countries’ scores (e.g., Iran and Azerbaijan) are quite high.

My goal for the assignment was for my students to have a think about data display and see the variety of stories that emerge from the many, many options. But they also get a snoot full of the complexities of state-society relations and the variation in the social conditions that confront governments. There certainly are relationships between polity types and regulation of civil society, but there is enough variation to enable investigation of the variety of factors that might affect religious freedom worldwide.

For further investigation, see:

Fox, Jonathan. 2013. An Introduction to Religion and Politics: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Gill, Anthony J. 2008. The Political Origins of Religious Liberty. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grim, Brian J., and Roger Finke. 2011. The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kolbe, Melanie and Peter S. Henne. 2014. “The Effect of Religious Restrictions on Forced Migration.” Politics & Religion 7(4): 665-683.

Muchlinski, David. 2014. “Grievances and Opportunities: Religious Violence across Political Regimes.” Politics and Religion 7(4): 684 – 705.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Toft, Monica Duffy, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah. 2011. God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics. New York: W.W. Norton.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (see his list of posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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