Religion blogger Doughlas Remy presents his reading of Winnifred Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom in relation to the politics surrounding international religious freedom:

Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), ratified in 1948, declares:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Which of the freedoms described or implicit in these declarations is “impossible?” Let’s focus for a moment only on the first clause of the UDHR declaration. The right to freedom of thought and conscience, though denied by many regimes throughout history, seems unassailable in liberal democracies as long as thought and conscience are not construed to include practice. There is a broad consensus in these democracies that all people should be free not only to think and believe but also to publicly profess any idea that seems compelling to them. Acting on such beliefs, however, may infringe upon the freedoms of others. Thus, American Nazis may freely believe whatever they like about African-Americans, Jews, and homosexuals, but they are not free to plant bombs outside synagogues, black churches, or gay bars.

This right—to freedom of thought and conscience—necessarily includes the right to religious beliefs, which flow from thoughts and involve matters of conscience.

Does the UDHR need to explicitly mention religion in that first clause? No. It could have said, simply, that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and conscience,” because religion is a matter of thought and conscience.

But, then, is religious freedom “impossible” when understood in this way? The question takes us to another level, where we must decide what religion is. The impossibility of religious freedom may result from our inability to make this prior determination. If there is no universal consensus as to what constitutes religion, then religious “freedom” cannot be protected.

This may seem like foolish quibbling over semantics. Doesn’t everyone know what religion is? But in courts of law, such determinations must be made. The law cannot protect something that has not been coherently defined, and this is precisely the problem that Winnifred Sullivan discusses in her book.

Read the full review here.