The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a new study of “Global Restrictions on Religion.” Casting itself as the first “quantitative study that reviews an extensive number of sources to measure how governments and private actors infringe on religious beliefs and practices around the world,” the survey has found not only that “64 nations—about one-third of the countries in the world—have high or very high restrictions on religion” but also that “nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.”

Yet the study’s executive summary suggests that its methodology deserves scrutiny. The study reportedly was based on a review of sixteen “widely cited, publicly available sources of information,” including reports from such organizations as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Attempting to show that the study avoids “normative judgements” and “does not attempt to determine whether particular restrictions are justified or unjustified,” its executive summary insists that researchers “recorded only factual reports about government actions, policies and laws, as well as specific incidents of religious violence or intolerance over the main two-year period covered by this study, from mid-2006 to mid-2008; they did not rely on the commentaries or opinions of the sources.” The study therefore claims a purely “quantitative” approach by disavowing normative judgments and “commentaries or opinions,” but it meanwhile accepts unquestioningly the normative judgments and opinions of its sixteen surveyed studies, cloaking them with a sheen of “quantitative” authority. What, exactly, is a “quantifiable, transparent and reproducible” restriction? Pew wants the answer to be straightforward. But is it?

Limitations of the Study

It is important to keep a few caveats in mind when reading this report. First, because freedom—defined as “the absence of hindrance, restraint, confinement or repression”—is difficult if not impossible to measure, the Pew Forum’s study instead measures the presence of restrictions of various kinds. The study tallies publicly reported incidents of religious violence, intolerance, intimidation and discrimination by governments and private actors. That is, it focuses on the problems in each country. It does not capture the other side of the coin: the amount of religious dynamism, diversity and expression in each country. The indexes of government restrictions and social hostilities are intended to measure obstacles to the practice of religion. But they are only part of a bigger picture.

Second, this study does not attach normative judgments to restrictions on religion. Every country studied has some restrictions on religion, and there may be strong public support in particular countries for laws aimed, for example, at curbing “cult” activity (as in France), preserving an established church (as in the United Kingdom) or keeping tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing candidates for elected office (as in the United States). The study does not attempt to determine whether particular restrictions are justified or unjustified. Nor does it attempt to analyze the many factors—historical, demographic, cultural, religious, economic and political—that might explain why restrictions have arisen. It seeks simply to measure the restrictions that exist in a quantifiable, transparent and reproducible way, based on reports from numerous governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Finally, although it is very likely that more restrictions exist than are reported by the 16 primary sources, taken together the sources are sufficiently comprehensive to provide a good estimate of the levels of restrictions in almost all countries. The one major exception is North Korea. The sources clearly indicate that North Korea’s government is among the most repressive in the world with respect to religion as well as other civil and political liberties. (The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom, for example, says that “Genuine freedom of religion does not exist” in North Korea.) But because North Korean society is effectively closed to outsiders and independent observers lack regular access to the country, the sources are unable to provide the kind of specific, timely information that the Pew Forum categorized and counted (“coded,” in social science parlance) for this quantitative study. Therefore, the report does not include scores for North Korea.

Read the study’s summary here.