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November 17, 2014

The 20th-century historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, "The things that make good headlines are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract us from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths." Yet, these slower movements are what affect society most deeply.

That is why the 2014 report of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on the state of religious freedom in the world ought to be of great concern. (See story on Page 11.) While religious persecution does make headlines, this does not happen enough to make it apparent that this is a great issue of our time.

The report notes that even in countries such as Canada, declining religious liberty is "of concern." The threats here, however, are not of the same magnitude as in those 20 nations the ACN designates as being of "high" concern – countries where people are regularly being killed or jailed because of their religious beliefs.

In 14 of those nations, persecution is linked to extremist forms of Islam; in the other six, the source is an authoritarian government. While Christians are the group most persecuted, Muslims also suffer greatly, often from other Islamic movements. As well, anti-Semitism sometimes turns violent in Western Europe.

The causes of religious persecution are diverse, varying from one nation to another. Yet, in a sad irony, one threat to religious freedom is increasing societal concern about extremism. Some, it would seem, want to replace fundamentalism with an extreme secularism.

The Catholic intellectual tradition calls for a balance between faith and reason, and surely if such harmony became the universal goal of humanity, religious liberty would be better preserved. Religious freedom is under fire from the belief that reason should be purified of "superstition" (Western secularism) as well as from the notion that God's will is beyond reason and can be discerned by faith alone (religious fundamentalism).

In a famous talk at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI called for a dialogue of cultures which has "the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason."

If in some parts of the world, religious belief is based on a notion of "a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness," in the secular West, the main issue is different. Here, dialogue is undermined by "a reason which is deaf to the divine" and which treats religion as an archaic subculture.

Overcoming these two vastly different enemies of reason is a major historic task. It may appear to be a job for intellectuals, but it is more than that. When intellectual currents evolve into unreasoning ideologies, the lives of people and whole societies are thrown into the brink. The dialogue of cultures ought to involve everyone.