Few countries treat religion in the same neutral way found in the United States. Even among liberal democracies, governments often play favorites by giving support to some religions and restricting minority religions. As a result, only one-in-five people around the globe live in a country that treats all religions equally.
This statistic is based on work by Jonathan Fox from Bar Ilan University. His Religion and State Project has combed through constitutions around the world, taking note of the scores of ways that governments support or restrict religion. Using Fox’s data, I calculated the percentage of the world’s population living under different types of regimes (note: I grouped some of the types into larger categories).
Only around 14% of the world population lives in a U.S. style regime that stays out of the religion business (and most of these are Americans). Most of the world lives where some religions are given preference—ranging from financial support to historical institutions to religious states that require adherence to the majority religion. Few countries are hostile to religion, but with China and other large countries, nearly a third of the world lives under such regimes.
Here is a break-down of the types.
State treats all religions equally, minimal support
Examples: United States, Netherlands, Japan, Canada
These states take a hands-off approach to religion. They are generally positive toward religion in general. When they do support religion, this support is minimal and does not favor particular religions. They also tend to have few restrictions on the practice of religion, including minority religious groups.
State supports all religions equally
Example: Brazil, Senegal, New Zealand
Several nations are more supportive of religions, but their support is given to any religious group. In Senegal, for example, the government provides some financial support for religious groups and the teaching of Christianity or Islam in public schools. This support is broad-based and applies to all groups.
State gives preferential treatment to one or more religions
Examples: Germany, Poland, Italy
Many states give preferential treatment to one or more religions even though they do not have an official state religion. In some of these countries, one religion is almost treated as an official religion (e.g., the Catholicism in Peru) with designation as the historical or traditional religion. In other countries one or more religions may be singled out for special benefits (e.g., Buddhists in Thailand) and/or the state limits recognition of legitimate religious groups (e.g., Romania). In Austria, for example, there are three tiers of support
- Top tier: Groups who have been in the country for 20 years and have 0.2% of the population (around a dozen groups qualify)
- Second tier: Religious groups with at least 300 members.
- Bottom tier: “Cults” including Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups that are denied official status
State actively supports majority religion
Example: Israel, Denmark, United Kingdom
Some states have an official religion that is actively supported by the state. Many of these states are in Europe where there is a national church and is part of the national identity.
State religious state
Example: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia
About a dozen states the state does more than give its official religion financial support and elevated status: the state enforces the dominant religion. There are currently about a dozen of these states, each of which are Islamic.
State controls or bans religion
Examples: China, Cuba
There are two types of states that are hostile toward religion. The first are those that either control or ban religion. China is the largest example. These groups view religion as a threat and keep it in check through complete regulation and/or criminalization.
State keeps religion out of public square
Example: France, Turkey
The second type of hostile state generally allows for freedom of religion but relegates religion to the private sphere. The public sphere is a religion-free zone. These states tend to be democracies that came into being against monarchies that were closely tied to religion, such as with the Ottoman Empire and Turkey and the Catholic monarchy in France.