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.

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