Odense University, Denmark
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998
I intend primarily to focus attention upon the definition of religion because I consider this a matter of the utmost importance. I will also point to some ways of dealing with oppressive forces and ways that I consider appropriate to an open, secular, democratic society based upon the principles of the Enlightenment. Initially, however, I owe you a short presentation of my perspective.
I am a scholar of comparative religion. This means that I bring certain theories or broad definitions with me from the beginning when it comes to a matter like religion. I specialize in contemporary cultural issues pertaining to religion in public discourse on religion. My perspective is historical as well as comparative.
Consequently, I do not operate with an essentialist, or closed, theory of religion but with broad and open-ended definitions. I should actually like to get rid of the word religion because of its ethnocentric and theological connotations. However, for the time being I see no alternative to it, but I use it only as an analytical concept to cover a wide range of social and individual institutions, ideologies, and practices.
Religion as an analytical concept to me denotes social and cultural systems of thought and practice. I consider religions to be historical and cultural variables, social and cultural interpretive systems, and communities producing meaning and meaningful relationships even in the face of inconsistencies. These systems primarily differ from other social and cultural systems by postulating or referring to, what we can call another, spiritual, world.
Academic notions of religion are in dialogue with the religious traditions and notions of religions insofar as they are based upon empirical studies. They are, however, not solely based upon religious notions of religion but also upon the norms for a rational and critical study of things human laid down by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The institutionalized, secular study of religion is a result of the same Western history that has resulted in the secular, democratic, and pluralistic state.
It is also a child, of course, of the religious history of the Western world and of theology, but a runaway child constantly trying to expand the notion of religion beyond the borders of Christian theology and the Western world.
These introductory remarks lead us straight to the center of what I am going to talk about, namely, the difficulties pertaining to definitions and notions of religion.
First of all, I consider it a problem for all of us today, and a challenge to everybody thinking about religion and religious freedom, that most people in our society tend to operate, mostly unconsciously, with a notion of religion that postulates that there is some such thing as religion: that there exists a nonreducible, nonhuman, nonhistorical, nonsocial something up there somehow.
Such notions, for instance, make it possible to have a discourse about things like “misuse” and “right use” of religion. I cannot see how we can separate religion “as such” from the human beings that use it. Also, it is very dangerous if this concept is closely connected to a religious conviction that spiritual or religious values are more valuable, for instance, than humanistic or materialistic values.
Maybe, consequently, we have to consider whether it is really a good thing to talk specifically about the freedom of religion and not just freedom of speech and consciousness. Talking about freedom of religion sometimes seems to imply that we think of freedom of religion a fundamental first and better freedom, than freedom and human rights in general. Maybe it is worth considering whether this is the right way to go. Connected to this, we all have to recognize and be highly aware of the fact that despite the so-called secular societies, even built into the concept of the secular societies, we have a pervasive notion of religion. You can call it a biblical notion of religion, which is bound sooner or later to conflict with a humanistic and scientific notion of religion. There will always be tensions, of course, but I think that if we want to find ways out of the difficulties, we have to be very aware of this.
If you look at Europe, the CIS countries, the United States, or the media, if you look at the way the EEC is working for religious freedom, you will see that most of those discourses are pervaded by a biblical notion of religion. It is incredibly hard to get through that. This means that we are moving around in an area that is predominantly mono-religious, mono-cultural, and absolutist. So we will have a hard time recognizing or accepting religions-groups of religious people-and rituals that do not live up to the predominantly Christian notions.
The great challenge to all religions and religious persons, is to reinterpret their doctrines and beliefs in the light of pluralism—both nonreligious and religious—and to take heed of the fact that nowadays it is possible for human beings to cherish more than one religion at a time. You can believe in reincarnation and go to mass, and it may not be a problem for the person who is doing it. But it most often is a problem for the church. In the coming years we are going to see many more people who believe in and practice two or three religions and forms “taken” from a variety of traditional religions. In Europe, CIS, this post-modern kind of syncretism and religious pluralism, contrary to the USA, is still in need of initial recognition. Religious pluralism on the cultural and individual level is still not accepted.
Anyway, to return to the problem of a predominant notion of religion and the difficulties that it causes, I will start with a recent report to give an example of how important this is in the judicial sphere.
A recent report on religious liberty in western Europe (published by Cesnur) notes that the technique used to discriminate against unpopular groups is to redefine the notion of religion. An example of this is the conflict between broad academic definitions and narrow institutional definitions frequently adopted and applied by political and judicial leaders. The report refers to two recent Italian lawsuits.
In a ruling denying the Church of Scientology status as a religion, the appeals court in Milan defined religion as “a system of doctrines set out on the principal position of the existence of a supreme being who has a relation with humans, the latter having toward him a duty of obedience and reverence.” This definition was seriously critiqued by the Italian Supreme Court in annulling the decision of the appeals court. The Supreme Court characterized this definition as unacceptable and based only on biblical religions.
Now, I agree that narrow definitions of religions are most certainly used to discriminate against minority religions. It is, however, not a “redefinition” but an example of a long-standing tradition that continues to disregard notions and definitions put forward by, for instance, secular scholars of religion.
It is extremely important not to overestimate the degree of secularization in our secular states. All the secular states have been conceived of in a frame of Christian thinking. All thinking about freedom of religion is conceived of in that framework.
What is happening right now in Europe and the CIS is a world of change. As historians of religion note, change is always hard for people to handle if they are not used to it or have some kind of cosmology that they want to stick to. Changes are conceived of as chaotic forces threatening stability. The human being needs stereotypes, images, symbols, etc. It is so hard to change. What we are seeing are enormous processes of change all over the world. We have processes of globalization; we have in Europe-such as my country, which was predominantly Christian, mono-religious, and mono-cultural—immigrants from all over the world. And even if there are not that many, people are aware of it. Something is changing. We have so-called new religions crossing the borders. In this way, the mostly mono-religious, mono-secular states are challenged. One possible response to this challenge, one we witness today, is to become less secular by becoming even more protective toward the traditional Christian religion and the church.
I think that the present situation right now provides an excellent matrix for the revitalization and re-politization of religion for the use of religion as a marker for national and ethnic identity and tradition. In various ways and degrees religion, not least the Christian majority religion, has regained cultural, symbolic, and political significance and influence. When one of the founding fathers of the European Economic Community, Robert Schuman, claimed that the democratic ideal on which the future of Europe depended owed its origins exclusively to Christianity he was not only wrong but also using rhetoric that not many of his contemporaries would for various reasons subscribe to.
Today, rhetoric like Schuman’s is still, historically speaking, wrong. But it is far more popular. The Christian religion and heritage is invoked again and again to identify what is specifically European, in contrast to Islam, in contrast to “the other”.
Non-European countries and peoples are consequently defined as non-Christian. Globalization is linked to “localization’, internationalism to neo-nationalism, and besides we seem to witness a worldwide quest for morally binding individual and social values. Such values traditionally were given by religion. Consequently, it will be very, tempting for a lot of people and politicians to look to the traditional majority church for these values, and to forget to look for rational and humanistic values.
We also will be very wrong if we think that it is only extreme nationalists, for instance, in Russia, who can see the opportunities in a renewed alliance with a national majority church or religion. Some kind of partnership with a national church is also attractive to other agents in the so-called secular sphere.
So reactions to globalization, religious pluralism, and the meeting of religion and culture unfortunately seem to root themselves more in the intolerant religious traditions of Europe than in its tolerant secular and religious heritage. Consequently, to come back to my main focus, absolute, closed, or biased definitions of religion modeled primarily upon the traditional Christian majority religion play a central role in a broad context of national and cultural upheaval. It is one of the most significant oppressive forces when it comes to freedom of religion.
I will use the last two minutes to point to ways of helping to solve some of these difficulties and fighting these forces of oppression. First of all, we have to help those who are in charge of things rethink the notion of freedom of religion and the relationship between state and religion, between religion and the secular.
We have to revise all present constitutions to see how they can be updated and become truly secular and truly pluralistic. Consequently, we have to revise all the legal or judicial definitions, with the help of scholars of religion. In Denmark, the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs has just decided to replace the bishop of Copenhagen as chairman of the advisory committee on questions pertaining to public recognition of new religions. He has been replaced by three scholars of religion. This is a promising step forward. This also means that we have to see to it that we replace anti-cult persons pretending to be scholars, due to the position of the majority church and the predominantly Christian notion of religion, are very often the ones the media and politicians consult.
Finally, I would like to say something about religious education. It is a must for the modern secular state, it is a must for public schools, to provide all future citizens with solid information and knowledge of world religions, majority religions as well as minority. This kind of religious education should be a non-confessional subject taught by professional teachers trained in the science of religion and aimed not at religious instruction but at knowledge and understanding. This will help things, but it will take some time.