Freedom of religion and conscience are abstract concepts for law professors who spend most of their lives among dusty legal books and visiting boring two-day seminars. Many people hold this view, but it is absolutely wrong. Freedom of religion and conscience are important concepts for every person, every day.
In this first issue of our online publication “Freedom for All,” you will read four approaches to defining “freedom of conscience” and “freedom of religion.” These four perspectives, though different, do not represent a complete definition of these terms.
What we hope to achieve, however, in this first issue of our publication is twofold. Firstly, we want to awaken interest in the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion in Bulgarian readers by asking the questions: What do “freedom of conscience”, “freedom of thought”, and “freedom of religion” really mean? What do they mean to me as an ordinary individual? What significance do these concepts have for the society in which I live and for the people around me?
Secondly, we hope to give our readers the understanding that the freedoms of conscience and religion are important for every individual and for the whole of society. We further desire to establish that our human rights and constitutional and fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom to believe in God and to practice our faith, are not fictitious concepts that have no application in daily life.
What we believe shapes us as persons; it defines our understanding of the world, of ourselves, of others, and hence it determines our behavior. Man finds a way to do what is right or at least what he thinks is right. If we believe it is right to take life indiscriminately, then we will strive after this misdeed with the fanatic confidence of someone who is devoted to the right cause. If we believe God wants us to take care of the poor, the sick, orphans and widows, then we will sacrifice time, effort and resources for this cause. If we believe there is no God, then we will strive to create a world order where human skills and power are the only method to solving problems in the lives of individuals and society.
A heart conviction is what motivates people’s actions. The above three illustrations of possible attitudes toward faith, mentioned are good examples. Our beliefs do not always rest on intellectual understanding. If they did, the freedoms of conscience and religion would be reserved only for people with a higher education. Setting limits on faith and on people’s convictions, whether highly educated and learned or illiterate, inevitably restrains one’s sense of personal freedom – that inward conviction and its realization in everyday life. This type of restraint has always caused a response in the soul of those who have a fixed set of values and are true to them, no matter if they be highly educated or simple blue-collar workers.
Understanding that these rights are important is of practical significance. If this understanding is extended to the public, a relations between state and private organizations, as well as between religious groups, will improve. Disrespect toward the Constitution, the highest law regulating these issues in Bulgaria, is a fact at this stage. There are still local municipalities, mayors, and citizens of a “patriotic” disposition, who do not look upon the freedom of religion as a basic constitutional right, but as an annoying requirement subject to local morals and bigoted intolerance. Even the controversial new Religious Act in Bulgaria is proof of the mediocrity and the lack of understanding that envelopes this subject.
Bulgarian society for years was taught to fear any religious faith and the freedom of its expression. Compulsive atheism, fear and hypocrisy were the cornerstones of the communist regime in Eastern Europe. They also turned the concepts of “freedom of religion” and “freedom of conscience” into empty words, reserved for use only in the presence of foreign guests and when it was necessary to stress the great achievements of the dogmatic regime.
Breaking with this difficult legacy and building a society that is based on respect for the human person is a difficult process. Years of confusion after the fall of the communist state structure brought about the “liberty” of a new consumer society. But it seems that the new generation of the market economy is hardly aware of how easily this freedom may turn into slavery if human conscience and faith are under the control of the secret police, state repression and the self-censorship of fear.
We are convinced that the basis of this process of discovering the values of a free society, in particular the freedom of religion, lays in an honest attitude toward ourselves and others The ability to freely ask questions that are important to everyone and a readiness to hear the answers is the beginning of a course in the right direction. This type of dialogue is the goal of our publication whose first issue is before you.
One religious leader, with enormous influence even today, a carpenter from Nazareth born 2000 years ago, said of himself that he is the Son of God. He claimed that only He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one can know God except through him. Whether or not this is so, it is a matter of choice to believe his claims and his teaching. Everyone has to make that choice for himself and bear the consequences in his life and soul. To follow God, or not to, is among one of the most important decisions in a man’s life. But in order to make such a choice, man must first be presented with the opportunity to choose. Therefore, the freedom to choose a faith must be respected by all and guaranteed to everyone.