Thursday, June 9, 2011

Religious Freedom

Elder Oaks recently spoke about threats to religious freedom to Chapman University.  His speech got me thinking. 

I like and defend religious freedom.  I like separating the state from church.  I'm glad that religious belief and practice enjoy protections in the USA as well as in many other countries.  However, I've struggled to resolve one question to my satisfaction.

What is religion

Certainly the answer to this question carries immense implication.  Non-religion does not receive the same level of legal protection as religion- corporations, for instance, receive much more invasive regulation than churches (e.g. corporations often do not enjoy the same freedoms to discriminate that a church enjoys).

One response to this question, from wikipedia:

"Religion is a cultural system that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or belief system, but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect. Most religions have organized behaviors, including clerical hierarchies, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural), and/or scriptures. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture."

Certainly the government wants to avoid favoring religion A over religion B.  However, if the way they define religion as separate from non-religion is overly narrow, won't the same undesirable outcome result?  Imagine a number of religion-esque "cultural systems"- the corporate culture at Google, or environmental activism, or the Navajo culture, or a strong family culture such as the Medici, or a monarchy, or Taekwando, or being French, or Duke University, or the Tea Party, or Mardi Gras, or the Boy Scouts, or Kiwanis International, or the an NGO such as Childfund International.  All are capable of and do relate humanity to moral values.  Often, deeply held beliefs result for those who identify with that particular cultural system.  Many of these beliefs likely occupy the same space in the brain where spirituality/belief/Godviews live.  Many treat their histories reverently, and indoctrinate using narratives, symbols, and ceremonies.  All have organized behaviors and many have hierarchies, meaningful festivals/events, etc.  Are these religions?  Certainly some of their faithful behave as though they are.  Are they different enough that they deserve less protection than a religion?  Do we still think the theism is a hallmark of religion, and would we grant a level of protection to theistic cultural systems that aren't granted to atheistic ones?  If providing a touchstone of moral values is the reason religions are protected, ought we not to evaluate a cultural system in those terms, rather than on notions of what is religion vs. non-religion?

I'm sure there's some developed literature on this idea.  My analysis is inchoate so far- hope I get some more answers in coming months/years. 

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