Religion is the Problem

“I also want to say that Islam, beyond the exaggerations, points the finger at something real: under the guise of freedom, in the West we tend to ridicule religion. In the days of his visit in Lebanon, the Pope spoke of violence in words and in deeds. If we want to free the world from violence, we must also free ourselves from the violence of words, from this strong way of offending religion. Unfortunately, the Christians of the West are submissive and unresisting in the face of insults to Christianity.” (Samir Kalil Samir, writing in the AsianNews and reported from Beirut on 9/23/12)

Father Samir, a Catholic priest in Lebanon, has cut to the bone of the most significant problem in international inter-religious dialogue. But reflecting, as he does, the Vatican’s position he fails to understands the modern imperative of freedom of expression.

Religion is often ridiculed in the West, among other reasons, because for so many centuries, preceding indeed the domination of Western religion by Christianity, religion was an abusive and coercive force in society. It was a state dominated means of manipulating symbols to monopolize control of society’s narrative and thereby to control the population. Freedom of conscience was a necessary casualty in this defense of power. Freedom of expression (found in the Roman satirists) was a means of puncturing the pretenses of civil religion and gaining some space for freedom to think independently.

The early Christians, who embraced martyrdom rather than bow to the icons representing Roman imperial power understood this. When those icons were replaced by the cross the Catholic and Orthodox churches, now beneficiaries of this coercive power, quite naturally ceased resisting and embraced it.

Of course the exploitation of civil religion as a tool to achieve or secure political power by an emperor, king, or dictator is quite comprehensible. For the pre-modern state religion, whether it was Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or some Vedic cult, was an important symbol of the unity of the state and society, a source of social mores, an explanation of and justification for the existing hierarchy, and was thus a bulwark of state power. It was natural that the state supported and protected this civil religion, arguably for the good of all those who lived within it and benefited from its religious, cultural, and social cohesion.

The problem in this system, a problem that animated the turn from pre-modernity to modernity, was the way in which this alliance of state power and civil religion constrained personal freedom of conscience. The emerging understanding of humanity found in modernity elevated the free individual’s conscience, and its unconstrained expression, to be the fullest expression of human personhood. This new understanding of humanity was immediately at odds with state supported civil religion, and religious reformation and political revolution necessarily followed.

In a modern understanding, the task of the state is NOT to protect the civil religion, its institutions and its symbols, and with it the cohesiveness of society. The task of the state IS to protect the freedom of individual conscience, and necessarily following that the freedom of individual expression. And this freedom must be protected even if it is expressed as a rhetorical or symbolic  attack on the civil religion of the state as represented by flags and other iconic symbols. Do Muslims seriously think that the US government will protect the religious symbol of the Qur’an when it freely allows its citizens to burn the U.S. flag?

In other words we are not facing a problem of protecting the religious symbols and avoiding offending those who hold them dear. We are facing a conflict two visions of society:  One in which the state is the defender of a civil religion which insures personal meaning and social order. And another in which the state is regarded as the defender of personal freedom of conscience and expression.  In one vision, it is institutions which have rights and responsibilities.  In another, only individuals; sovereignty, indeed, abides in the people.

This conflict isn’t driven by whether or not Arabs and Muslims easily take offense, or tend toward violent behavior, or some other supposed distinction. It is driven by different understandings of what it means to be fully human and to know one’s self as fully human. There are pre-modern people in every modern state urging that it use the state’s coercive power to protect their identity and social cohesiveness by protecting through civil and criminal law the symbols and powers of a civil religion. And in every state there are those who are modern and will not rest until their own personal freedom of conscience – and that of their fellow citizens — is manifest by the state by protecting the fullest freedom of personal expression.

The future of all our societies will depend on how conflicts between these groups are managed, if not resolved, and on the common understanding of the human person that emerges in our increasingly global culture. In the meantime we should not expect that mutual knowledge will lead to mutual understanding and respect, or even acceptance. The differences are profound, the stakes are high, and the good fences that might make good neighbors are falling faster and faster.

  • Larry Kalajainen

    Good points, Robert. The question of pre-modern people and understandings of reality co-existing with modern/post-modern people in the same society is indeed a problematic one.

    On the other hand, I see a danger in assuming that the modern/post-modern understanding of the “autonomous self” as what it means to be human is the best or truest understanding. Seems to me that some of our deepest societal and economic problems are caused by the that very trend in our culture. The notion of communal solidarity or even of “the common good” has very nearly disappeared.

    This is a particularly vexing problem for religious people, and particularly for those of us in the Abrahamic faiths, where the sense of communal identity and redemptive presence is such a strong component.

    • Robert Hunt

      Larry, I would make a distinction between the autonomous self, a fantasy concept rooted in a peculiar sensibility that exists in both pre-modern and modern forms, and the free human person. I make the distinction because inevitably when a modern state, one that has far more coercive power than a pre-modern state, appeals to the “common good” against personal freedom of expression what is meant is the good of the elites that manage the state and who are threatened by the exposure of the true nature of their oppressive government. The founding fathers were deeply correct when they saw that the common good is best served by freedom of conscience and expression. And the best and most productive communal solidarity arises from the sometimes divisive and acrimonious debate that such free expression sometimes engenders.

      With regard to religion, I don’t think that the so-called Abrahamic faiths actually have much in common in this regard. It is clear in the New Testament that the church is formed by a voluntary association of those who wish to enter into a new community of faith in Christ, even as they understand that their salvation is tied to the community and not merely personal faith. This is far different from modern Judaism, in which membership in the community is not and never has been voluntary or based on a personal decision, although Jews respect the freedom of conscience of those who choose to leave active participation in the community through either a dismissal of its beliefs or its practices. Islam is, oddly, understands salvation as a purely personal matter. No one can change another’s status before God and being a member of the Muslim community has no effect on God’s final judgment. A common theme in Islamic eschatology is the number of Muslims who will go to hell. At the same time Islam has typically forbidden those born into the Muslim community, or entering it voluntarily, to exercise any freedom of conscience with regard to leaving the community or questioning its primary tenants.

      This is why it is precisely freedom of conscience and expression that distinguishes the pre-modern and modern, not merely attentiveness to community and communal solidarity.

  • Rick Pryce

    Thank you for articulating some things I’ve been feeling for a while, and haven’t been quite able to say. The influence of Constantinian Christianity is still rumbling, even if it is dying (and good riddance!), and it seems to want to take as many of us with it as it can. As a Christian, I find this disheartening in the extreme. As a pastor, I find this one of the greatest challenges facing the church – Letting go of the past, and trusting that God is inviting us into a new future which doesn’t look anything like the past, and which doesn’t look anything like what we thought the future would look like, either.

    Interesting times to be church!

    That being said, I would like to offer one small critique of your response to Larry. The picture you paint of Christianity (“a voluntary association of those who wish to enter into a new community…”) is a reading of the “New Testament” which is heavily influenced by North American Calvinist Protestantism (a peculiar blend of individualism and moralism which is far too big a topic to go into here!); but there are a number of traditions within the Church whose self-understanding is less individualistic and more communal than that which you portray. I don’t want this to come across as hair-splitting (well, maybe a little!), and I am certainly not suggesting that these other traditions have it all together (not at all). But the Church is a big, wide open tradition, and painting it with any kind of brush does a disservice to pretty much everyone.

    Anyway, thanks again for a great article!

    • roberthunt

      Let me hair split a bit too, just for clarification. I realize that there are a broad with of Christian traditions vis-a-vis being communal versus individualistic. My own tradition (Armenian, and pretty heavily influenced by 20 years outside the US) wavers depending on where it is socially located.

      What I’m trying to make clear is that the issue isn’t individualism vs being communal. It is whether participation in the community is a matter of voluntary assent, involuntary inclusion, or forced conformity.

      Somewhere within this lie all the ways in which being a member of a human community shape and constrain our personal choices. While it can easily be seen in the New Testament that whole households (quite possibly without individual consent) were incorporated into the church what we do not see is any idea that it would be possible to remain in the church without some form of conscious conformity to Christ. And it appears to me that every Christian tradition, taking into account issues of psychological and intellectual development, recognizes this. Membership in the body of Christ goes hand in hand with discipleship.

      I don’t maintain that this is the source of modern western ideas of freedom of conscience and expression, but it does seem to me to be the theological grounding for a Christian affirmation of the same. Which leads logically to the idea that Christian traditions that constrain freedom of conscience and expression, or which assume that participation can be maintained without continuing conscious assent at whatever level is possible for the individual, have missed an important theological truth about the nature of the best expressions of participation in the Body of Christ.

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  • Trucreep

    I have to say I’m impressed with your thoughts on this, pretty good points you bring up here, especially the last paragraph.

    “In the meantime we should not expect that mutual knowledge will lead to mutual understanding and respect, or even acceptance.”

    Very well put :]

  • Atreb

    I have been told that the “no coercion in religion” verse is from the Meccan period, and that it has been abrogated by more violent verses of the later, Medinan period. Please comment on that interpretation.

    • roberthunt

      I not aware that this specific verse was traditionally regarded as abrogated. I believe it belongs to the medina period in any case. What is more important is how out interpreted today.