Timothy Shah on the Case for Religious Liberty
Date: March 19th, 2012

What case can be made for promoting religious liberty worldwide?  Why is religious freedom often considered the “first freedom”? And should religious liberty really be a strategic objective for US foreign policymakers?  Prof. Timothy Shah — associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and an a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University — joins us to discuss the recent monograph he authored under the auspices of the Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force on International Religious Freedom.  Tim starts the program by explaining what the Witherspoon Task Force saught to accomplish and also details how his own interests in religious freedom grew from a tragic incident in Gujarat, India.  We then dip into a variety of justifications for why religious liberty should be a major concern for both policymakers and civilians around the world, starting with the anthropological reasons behind religious freedom.  Justin Barrett’s research, recently discussed on a separate podcast, serves as our anchor here as Tim argues that the innate tendency for humans to seek out the transcendent provides an important justification for promoting religious liberty and the human dignity it requires.  Dr. Shah then covers the moral case for religious freedom and summarizes how three religious traditions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — view the subject.  The topic of apostasy figures into this discussion, particularly as it pertains to the recent case of Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran.  Following the moral case for religious freedom, Tony brings up the issue of political and strategic justifications, noting that political rulers often dislike religious freedom since they fear it may promote conflict within their borders, as it did in India.  Tim answers these concerns arguing that religious freedom is certainly better than other political options and we engage in a thought experiment based on a scenario where everyone in a population had the same beliefs.  That exercise proves enlightening.  Along the way, we also ruminate about why so many secular elites — be they policymakers or academics — tend to downplay the vital importance of what is often called “the first freedom.”  A few stories about Tony’s visit to the Witherspoon Institute and a 2011 colloquium on religious liberty at Princeton Theological Seminary are sprinkled throughout the interview.  Recorded: March 13, 2012.


Prof. Timothy Shah’s biography at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs (Georgetown).

Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, by Timothy Shah.

Berkley Center Conference on Religious Freedom & Health Care Reform (March 22, 2012) mentioned in podcast.

God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, by Monida Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah.

Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, by Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed (mentioned in interview).


Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and US Diplomacy.

Justin Barrett on the Naturalness of Religious Belief.

Daniel Philpott on Religious Resurgency & Democratization.

Monica Toft on Religion, Terrorism, and Civil War.

Margarita Mooney on Religion & Haitian Immigrants.

Allen Hertzke on Religious Liberty.

Roger Finke on Religious Persecution.

Jason Jewell on John Locke and Religious Toleration.


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