Researched Works

The Relationship between Religious Freedom and Constraint

Aside from politics, religion is considered a triggering factor that could incite violence or disagreements between and/or among individuals, groups, communities, and nation-states. Such ironic stance mirrors the imperfections of religious beliefs, as well as the paradoxical nature of human beings themselves, including secular atheists. Nevertheless, historical accounts depict religion’s role in effecting social change (Weber 1905 as cited in Guiso et al., 2).

Religion's Paradoxical Impact

The changes religion has inspired or caused are definitely innumerable, including the misdeeds of its proselytizers and devotees. Ian Linden (2010) writes that though many believers, missionaries, and martyrs of various faiths have embraced the marginalized, not a few religious people are also guilty of doing cruel acts such as sex abuse, the Crusades, jihads, and gender discrimination, mostly at the expense of women. Thus, as the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF n.d.) asserts, many “freethinkers” or those with no religion are credited for promoting humane conditions, such as prison reform and women’s suffrage and reproductive health rights.

Given these conditions, it is clear that religion has become a vital force in society. Its scope of influence extends beyond places of worship as it has made its presence felt in cultural norms, public policies, social traditions, school rituals, and economic activities, among others. What are its parameters in the context of political authority, new religious movements, and popular culture and pilgrimage?

State Authority and Religion

Corey Brettschneider’s “A Transformative Theory of Religious Freedom: Promoting the Reasons for Rights” (2010) notes how ardent supporters of religious freedom tend to think that the mere religious nature of their beliefs are enough to “merit protection” from the state. The author refers to this kind of view as “static” and posits that governmental influences on these beliefs already violate such freedom: “…even unintentional burdens by the state on religious beliefs are problematic; intentional attempts at transforming these beliefs are an even more dangerous threat to religious liberty” (187-188).

Brettschneider (2010) espouses political liberalism to counter static concepts of religious freedom and supports a “transformative” paradigm instead. He views religious freedom as “a principled commitment” towards political liberalism. He further asserts “that this transformative account does not require an all-or-nothing choice between a commitment to liberalism or to religion.” Moreover, his model is compatible “with basic rights such as freedom of association” (188-189).

The role of the state in changing certain beliefs, Brettschneider (2010) suggests, should be recognized by religious freedom defenders. He says, “In particular, I suggest that the state has an interest in actively promoting the shared values of free and equal citizenship—values that are rightly understood to underlie the rights of religious freedom” (188). Additionally, he states that the government can pursue such transformative relationship with religious freedom if it would: (1) only temper beliefs that contradict its political legitimacy, and (2) not use any coercive measures in doing so (188).

In “Religion and State: Some Main Issues and Sources”, John Finnis (2006) writes that self-determination pertains to “the bundling of one’s strong desires, one’s “deep concerns”, most considerable when most passionate” (9). He further explains that religion’s constitutional basis is perceived as a “historical relic” and which only serves as “everyone’s “conscience”. Moreover, contextualizing religion vis-à-vis state power would be more appropriate if it is viewed as a form of philosophy and an instrument that advances “the political common good (including politically acknowledged human rights)…” (9).

Although Finnis essentially offers a divergent position, he admits that his standpoint somehow echoes what Joseph Boyle said in “The Place of Religion in the Practical Reasoning of Individuals and Groups” (1998). Said paper notes that “one who is not motivated by religious conviction can be aware of the reason to seek – can see the point of seeking – harmony with the divine”. Finnis recognizes that Boyle views religion as a source or instrument of harmony, but he cautions that conflicts may arise once “the line between a sound theistic belief and confused alternatives” get marred, indicating failure to recognize the limits of religion (8). Boyle attests “that the good of religion has rational appeal prior to such articulate beliefs about God [as that God is a personal being with whom cooperation is possible]” (9). Finnis argues that with God portrayed as a welcoming being, a person shuns this understanding if he or she is unable to contextualize such quality and perceives one’s religious beliefs as “…not simply false (and demeaning).”

With the various existing religious beliefs, it seems that Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion about the capability of public policies to “…entangle government and religion, not only by requiring or allowing intrusive public monitoring of religious institutions and activities, but also through what he called their divisive political potential” which the First Amendment is designed to effectively address (Garnett 1). Such realization could impel the State to lessen its focus on other problems that are far more important than resolving disagreements between political and religious authorities (1).

Phases of and Views on Religion

Before discussing about new religious movements, it is vital to have a brief historical overview of religion. According to James Fieser (1995), David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion (1757) narrates the different phases of religion. The book discusses that polytheism was the religion of early humans and that monotheism evolved as years passed. Hume also suggests that these two should not be compared. He also says that fear or natural instincts are the primary reason why religion exists. Based on these observations, Hume concludes that that “we should suspend belief on the entire subject” (Fieser 1995).

Rudolf Otto, however, opposes such dismissive stance about religion, for he believes that it “stands above all natural processes...if there is any single domain of human experience that presents us with something unmistakably specific and unique... religious life" (Lopez 467). Otto calls such religious experience as “numinous” that can only be felt and which defies rationality (Lopez 467).

New Religious Movements

The “feeling” component of the religious experience transcends the individual level and moves towards a group-oriented position. Lorne L. Dawson (1996) mentions John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s model that identifies several conditions why people join new religious movements (NRMs): (1) severely went through “felt tensions in their lives”, (2) opted for a “religious problem-solving perspective”, and (3) viewed themselves as “religious seekers”. These situations are often followed by: the relevance or right timing of one’s encounter with the NRM, establishing emotional ties with other members of the group, elimination of “extracult attachments”, and “intensive interaction with other converts” (145).

Dawson (1996) notes, however, a set of research findings that both confirm and disprove the conditions cited by Lofland and Stark’s theory. She says that such conversions take place due to personal affiliation with one or more members of the NRM. These potential recruiters include friends, relatives, and neighbors (147).

Associated with such affiliation is the presence of affective ties with these recruiters that often strengthen one’s involvement in the group. Consistent communication with fellow members through regular participation in gatherings also fortifies commitment to the NRM. Few interactions with non-members of the NRM contribute to the decision of recruits to show increasing loyalty to the group. The “unchurched” often fall prey to NRMs: “In many cases, lack of prior religious education and family life seems to leave young people more open to alternative spiritual explanations of the world and its hardships” (150).

Aside from the above cited findings, a person’s “active search for religious answers to one’s problems” may lead to joining an NRM. Dawson (1996) identifies several studies related to Krishna Consciousness, Nichiren Shoshu, and The Church Universal and Triumphant which say that converts had decreased participation in their previous religion prior to joining the NRM. Thus, people who become less involved in their existing religion are more likely to join a new religious organization (150).

Dawson (1996) likewise points out that NRM converts receive many intangible rewards. These include affection and improved self-esteem or self-confidence that helps them regain some sense of control over their life. They also enjoy “simple material and social aid, security, new career opportunities and forms of prestige” (150).

Religion as a Personal and Collective Choice

In her “A Matter of Choice: A Micro-Level Study on How Swedish New Agers Choose their Religious Beliefs and Practices”, Jenny-Ann Brodin (2003) tackles how societies with plural religious sects are able to make NRMs capable to attract members. Competition and “specialized producers” offer people various beliefs that they can assess and may embrace later on. The author explains that this could be due to the notion “that religion is a matter of individual choice; people choose religion according to their desires, tastes, and preferences” (382).

Such choice extends to what beliefs they would like to believe and the extent of their commitment and participation in the chosen religion (Iannaccone, in Brodin 382). In this context, the constraint to religion is linked to a person’s free will.

However, in spite of the differences between and among religious groups, Mircea Eliade notes that these communities are all part of “a universal religious history” which equip them with different “common impulses, rites, and themes” (Hyers 256). Such universality serves as the basis on which each denomination is able to develop its uniqueness. Based on Conrad Hyers’ perspective of Eliade’s work, religion is both a personal and collective activity that reflects “a particular tradition, community, place, and historical context” (256).

Popular Culture and Pilgrimage

In her pilgrimage study, Ranjeeta Dutta observes that pilgrimage is both a normative concept and a religious practice that characterize a particular group of believers. Through examining the Srivaisnava community in India that worships Visnu, Dutta notes that pilgrimages allow devotees to engage in a cognitive and sacred activity which offers an “assertion of multiple identities within the community paradigm” (18). She further suggests that such religious pursuit reinforces “an image of a monolithic uniform community with fixed religious boundaries”. She likewise recognizes the dynamic nature of such undertaking as a result of a pilgrimage network that encourages “a continuous interface between various social and political groups, ideas and cultural values” (18).

Davidson and Gitlitz (2003) define a pilgrimage as an individual’s determination and “commitment to travel to a site that offers the potential to affect the pilgrim on a spiritual plane” (582). Slavin (2003) conveys that such a journey bears “an abstract dimension, or even one that is repeated at regular intervals, such as an annual holiday” that even agnostics could join (1). He refers to individual pilgrims as a “walking body” that is both “productive and generative” (2) and which promotes “reinterpretations of the self as well as something that ‘reinterprets space and place’ (Edensor 82, in Slavin 1). He also considers the pilgrims as cycling or horse riding bodies to describe acceptable modes of transportation in exploring various sites (3).

The purpose of pilgrimages essentially depends on the person’s motivation and desire to fortify her/his “sense of ethnic identity” (e.g., immigrants flock to religious shrines in Europe and Blackfoot Indians participating in Roman Catholic services in Canada) (Davidson and Gitlitz 582). Pilgrimages can also take place to commemorate a loss or historical event like in the case of post 9/11 trips to Ground Zero, the murder of Matthew Shepherd in his death site in Wyoming, and visits to war graves such as those in Wounded Knee and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC (583). Other non-religious pilgrimages include travels sites associated with popular culture – e.g., Graceland in Tennessee (Elvis Presley), Jimi Hendrix’s place in Washington, and Jim Morrison in Paris. Past media reports mentioned Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch in California as a possible tourist site or a pilgrimage destination for his avid supporters.

Slavin (2003) notes that pilgrimages are designed to enable those involved to achieve either “transcendence or immanence” (2). The visited places carry a social and historical significance that is subject to personal and varying interpretations and reflections of the pilgrims. He also notes that engaging in pilgrimages and in the midst of modern times illustrates different cultural expressions – “as signifiers of things, rather than things in themselves” (2). It is then important to recognize and respect “the integrity of the pilgrims’experiences, as well as their own thoughtful and critical reflections…” which are parallel to “the social meanings they produce” (2-3).

Religious freedom and constraint in the context of popular culture and pilgrimage somehow reflect the conditions that apply to State authority and NRMs, i.e., the human being’s capacity to create a space for personal beliefs and expressions of faith in spite of the dynamic nature of human interaction that spells both similarities and differences.

Works Cited

Brettschneider, Corey. A Transformative Theory of Religious Freedom: Promoting the Reasons for Rights. Political Theory 2010 38: 187. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

Brodin, Jenny-Ann. A Matter of Choice: A Micro-Level Study on How Swedish New Agers Choose their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Rationality and Society 2003 15: 381. Print.

Dawson, Lorne L. Who Joins New Religious Movements and Why: Twenty Years of Research and What Have We Learned?” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. 1996 25 (2): 141-161. Print.

Davidson, Linda Kay and David Martin Gitlitz. Pilgrimage: From the Ganges to Graceland: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Cahners Business Information 2003. Print.

Dutta, Ranjeeta. Pilgrimage as a Religious Process : Some Reflections on the Identities of the Srivaisnavas of South India. Indian Historical Review 2010 37:17. Print.

Fieser, James. The Natural History of Religion David Hume (1757). 1995. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Finnis, John. Religion and State: Some Main Issues and Sources. American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 51, 2006, Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 06-34, Oxford Legal Studies Research Paper No. 48/2006. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

Freedom from Religion Foundation. Welcome to the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Garnett, Richard. Religion, Division, and The First Amendment. Georgetown Law Journal Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-23. 2006. Print.

Hyers, Conrad. Critics Corner: Mircea Eliade: A Retrospective. Theology Today. 1987 44: 251. Print.

Linden. Ian. What is Religion Good For? The Guardian. UK, 26 Nov. 2010. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr. Approaching the Numinous: Rudolf Otto and Tibetan Tantra. University Press of Hawaii, 1979.

Slavin, Sean. Walking as Spiritual Practice: The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Body & Society 2003 9: 1. Print.


Written by Leann Zarah (leannzarah@gmail.com)

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