Monday, 2 December 2013

Freedom of Religion

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.


  1. I have to be careful about what I say on facebook because it is expected that I am Christian. Being Methodist instead of Baptist in my area is bad enough and so when people ask as they always do I say "I am not a church-goer but I was brought up in the Methodist church". I remember back when I was 12 and supposed to be baptized and I refused. Everyone that found I wasn't baptized and wasn't planning on doing so said the same thing "Well what is your obituary going to say" I have to say I am much happier as a non-believer than I was in a religion where I did not really get any answers to my questions.

    1. What is your obituary going to say? Good grief.

    2. BTW, if you have to be careful what you say on Facebook, then by definition you do not have religious freedom, which is exactly my point.

    3. My daughter was not baptized by our choice. The entire family was in an uproar for years over this. I was told my daughter would never be allowed into heaven without it. Our reaction was pretty much, "meh... " My FIL used to give Christina religious artifacts to protect her every time he saw her. I recognized that he was trying to protect her. I just didn't see anything to be protected from.

      Melanie wrote:
      "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."

      IMHO, the Bible IS mythology and I believe religious practices to be cultural. That doesn't mean they are bad... But for the most part, I can't be bothered. And I went to a baptist school and had all that religious stuff drummed into my head for 4 years straight.

    4. Oh there is no religious freedom where I live. I had a bumper sticker that said "What would Buddha do?" It came with a book of the same name. I had so many people try to convert me or tell me they would pray for my soul because I am not Baptist and therefore I am doomed to hell. I have very slim knowledge about Buddha and do not claim to follow those beliefs. I would just like the freedom be able to be doomed to hell if that is what I choose. For the record I do not believe in hell as part of the afterlife.

    5. Yep, and this is exactly what this blog is about. The idea of Freedom of Religion is cute, but depending on where you live (i.e. quite often by accident of birth) it doesn't exist.

  2. "1. I called the Bible mythology. Because it is. But you should say that. It's rude."

    Rude or not, it is true. A storybook of belief that many hold dear. Not that different from 'The Wizard of Oz," come to think of it.

    "2. I said that most "religious" practices were "merely" cultural practices. That caused the greater furore, but I still stand by it today."

    You are too nice, methinks. I have called many religious practices (especially those where a monetary 'donation' is involved) a 'show.' That's what it boils down to...all the pomp and circumstance, fancy clothes, parading through the audience, special accoutrements all choreographed and scripted to evoke...spirit? That is really already there anyway, just waiting for it to be recognized. As in any good show, you get what you pay for...and some do it better than others.

    Sure, I've read Joseph Campbell's assertions that we are all joined in telling a human story and that there are archetypes that can be meaningful, but when it comes to 'religious freedom,' indeed, spiritual freedom, it means following one's own curiosity and doing the discovery for one's self, no matter how 'comfortable' one is or how much we may or may not 'fit in.'

    And, of course, there are those who have a vested interest in keeping the same old system(s) going as they have been. They talk a good bit about change, but somehow never quite reach the innovative stage. We ought to wonder why that is (and that is also where I follow the money). :P

    We get very, very used to the material and the familiar. When it is the unseen and unknown, that is where we really find freedom--if we really want to look. ;) ~ Blessings! :)

    1. I try to be nice. The efforts in finding that balance between "nice" and "honest" is good for me. If I see real (specific) harm being done, I set nice aside. In this area there is both harm and good, so I aim to discern. It's not always easy.

  3. I will not argue myth or truth with you because you know where I stand, Mel.

    I am an American and I am one of the rarest of Christians who does not want prayer taught in school. Emphatically I do not want it taught in school. I think it's fine that people have other "religious" or faith/beliefs and I taught my children to polite, even if they do not agree. It is not wrong to disagree, but I think it's wrong to be crappy.

    Because I am on the flip side, you must understand that I don't other people teaching faith/beliefs to my kids *in the form of worship or prayer* at a school. It is perfectly fine for my kids to learn about other cultures and beliefs/belief systems and faiths, but I demand that *our* worship be personal.

    1. I have no issue with the study of religion (all of them) being an optional subject in school. It's very interesting, particularly on a sociological/historical/political level.

      BTW remember the definition of mythology does not rule out truth.

    2. Actually I think it's good for kids to learn it too and I think optional is a good idea. Not that they would ever have the time for such an interesting elective but that would be a 10 part blog on public education.

      I was just talking to the kids about Greek mythology and I am crazy enough to believe that a lot of those stories are based on some truth. I think they happened but differently than we know it.

    3. I believe in dragons or rather that there was something that we don't know about-something that was not recorded well. I'm childish that way.

    4. I'd love to write a blog on what you just said about dragons, and I probably will. But not today. I am in a blissful state of business busyness today :)