You knew I'd go there, right?
Let's remember that freedom means whatever we decide it means. Also, if you've read my previous two blogs, there is a difference between legal freedom and actual freedom, and NOWHERE is this truer than in the area of religion.
I'll tell you my own experience first, because it's a bit different than most of my readers experienced. If you are American you have been raised knowing nothing other than long-standing laws about separation of church and state. Yet you also live in a country where religion has a massive effect on politics and therefore life.
I was born into a theocracy. Having the Queen as head of the Church of England means that there is a state religion, in all but reality. The reality is that increasingly Britain is secular, with a very high number of atheists, and has other religions of importance to large numbers of its citizens. When I was a child it was just assumed you were not only Christian, but specifically C of E, but there was no real power in the church. Its power has continued to decrease with time.
I went to a school that was called a Church of England Primary School. That is to say that despite it being a state school (what North Americans call a public school) it was affiliated with the officially sanctioned church, and every Friday morning we all trooped into the nearest one for a service.
This makes Americans completely bug-eyed. But you know, it didn't bother us. It was just part of school. We behaved as badly in church as we did in class, as to us it was just another annoying class. Looking back I see this all as quite wrong, for a number of reasons, but as I said, at the time it was just normal, everyone took it for granted, and all it did was bore us.
We also had assembly every morning with prayers and hymns. Depending on who took the assembly it may have had a religious tone to the main presentation, but again, for most of us it was just something tedious to get out the way before we started the day. I think this is an important point, because I presume the idea of giving us this religious aspect to our day was intended to impact our beliefs. I don't know of anyone who was impacted one way or the other by it.
I've waffled on about this because you see, having a state religion guarantees nothing, and having separation of church and state guarantees nothing either. There's far more to it than that. Even in countries where it is forbidden to have a different religion to the state sanctioned one, or where it is forbidden to have one at all, people do it anyway. And where it's mandatory, they simply become very good actors. Martyrdom is actually rare.
The law in many countries protects people, in theory, from being persecuted by others, with regard to their religious practices. It is of limited power of course, as all laws are. But it lays down the rules. There is something to point at if you feel your religious freedom is being compromised. It gets tested every so often by various conflicts, and life goes on. We are very, very fortunate to live where such laws exist, as limited as they are.
Where I live now in Ontario, I know my kids won't be taught anything religious in school, and if a teacher accidentally or deliberately includes something of a religious nature, I can object and be taken seriously. As it happens, I haven't had to bother very much. It's not like that for some of my American friends. Many public schools in the US have staff who brazenly push a religious aspect, the obvious example being the creationism debate. This is not religious freedom. Religious freedom is not only the freedom to practice your religion, but the freedom not to be subjected to any religion against your will.
It is complicated, that's the problem. Pluralist society is never going to be plain sailing. And if you have to get a specialist lawyer every five minutes to preserve your religious rights, it would become rather ridiculous, not to mention expensive.
On the whole then, we tend to rely on (as always) etiquette and common sense, while the law works as a guideline. It's reasonably effective. It works very well in the area where I live. In some areas it doesn't work at all. Why?
How does it arise that a geographical area, bound by the same laws, inhabited by people who speak the same language, and are essentially of the same stock as other areas not too far away, can become a de facto religious community?
You know what I'm talking about. It has even been cited by parents at schools insisting on teaching creationism "95% of parents in this area are Christian....." That is a higher percentage than was achieved by the Inquisition. I'm not convinced it's real.
But let's pretend it is. Totally sincere. OK. What powerful force causes these enclaves of zeal? I'm quite sure they themselves think it's a magnificent achievement, and have religious explanations for it. However, many find it quite frightening. Anecdotes about feeling or even being threatened, when being an outsider and non-believer in those areas may well be exaggerated, but they're not totally false either. What is the real motivator here?
Well, some of it is familiarity and fear of exclusion if you are different. A very ancient tribal sense of identity. If you are born into a religious culture that strong, it not only becomes second nature (normal), even if you have alternative ideas, it's damn scary to share them. At the very least there would be dirty looks, and the scale goes up from there.
Which of course leads us to peer pressure. Possibly the most powerful force in the universe. How does it work?
Think of it in much the same way as erosion. A rock can stand very strong and unmovable. But every raindrop wears it down a bit, and eventually it can be worn so thin that it gives way.
A child is far more prone to the effects of this pressure than an adult, and there can be a pile-on effect. If everyone around you is of the same powerful belief, it is very hard to think outside that box.
Of course, young people are subjected to all types of peer pressure, which is why we see so much misery among teens. But this one isn't just from schoolfriends, it's from parents, neighbours, teachers, scout leaders, police officers, and the man in the corner store. You're surrounded, and they're all giving the same message. It takes an incredibly powerful character to think freely in that environment.
But in fact it doesn't necessarily feel like pressure. It can feel comfortable. Safe. Secure. Natural. Not only would the idea of straying outside of it be frightening, it might not be thought of at all.
This is why some Amish children are sent out on Rumspringa (q.v.) which gives them a taste of the outside world and most of them are, frankly, not impressed. Instead of tempting them away, it seems to reinforce the benefits of their own belief system.
So, the question is, if you have all the legal protection possible to allow you to follow any religion (or none at all) but you either don't know any different, or you are under considerable pressure by those around you, do you have religious freedom?
I have actually asked a Mennonite this question. I've also asked someone born into the Jehovah's Witnesses. These were both intelligent women and their strength of faith was unmistakable. And you know what both of them said? They said they felt that they had complete religious freedom.
What I learned from that was that I'd asked the wrong question.
I think of all freedoms, this one is the most complex. Because if freedom is, as I am trying to state, a matter of choices, this is the area where Hobson's choice often operates, at least socially.
When I first came online, looking for this acclaimed social media, I eschewed the "general" chat rooms, because they were of no interest to me any more than small talk is offline. I found the MSN religious community, which offered an "Earth Based Faiths" section, full of Pagans etc. I made many lasting friendships there. Some of you reading this. Yes we go back 16 years. Amazing.
I also tiptoed into the "Multifaith" boards, and made a complete arse of myself. I had no previous experience of American Christianity, in fact I had no previous experience of Americans, and what I knew of Christianity was from the aforementioned failed efforts at school, and a few snide remarks from my mother-inlaw. This is not a solid background.
So among the many social gaffes that I made, two stand out in my memory because of the trouble they caused.
1. I called the Bible mythology. Because it is. But you shouldn't say that. It's rude.
2. I said that most "religious" practices were "merely" cultural practices. That caused the greater furore, but I still stand by it today.
Over the years I have met people who astounded me in their beliefs, regardless of belief system, in the deep passion they feel for it. In their earnest desire to do the right thing by their belief system. In their unquavering faith. When I meet a person whose spirituality drives them to do good in the world I cannot feel anything other than awe.
Still, the vast majority of people follow the belief system they were brought up in, the local one, the one that feels safe and comfortable, the one that is part of their culture. There are perhaps more exceptions to that rule than there used to be, due to travel, education, and...freedom....but the vast majority of humans follow a religion that is a lifestyle more than anything else.
It has been said that if horses had a God it would be a horse, and that's exactly what I'm talking about here.
If you go to India, even in the cities you can more or less guess a person's religion by their surname. I rest my case.
Freedom of religion, on a real, individual, personal level is only as free as the ability to think OUTSIDE one's own culture, outside one's own comfort zone. As most people never do this, there is very little freedom here.