To be alone with one's God

In the sanctuary of consciousness shines a light......

In the sanctuary of consciousness shines a light. It illumines the human condition and is spiritual in nature. Organized religion reflects this light, even though at times it has blocked it out. Today, the Monitor explores the history of religion over the past 1,000 years and the light - and shadow - it has cast on the world.

Some clear visions of religious freedom came many centuries ago.

In the 3rd century BC, King Ashoka of India converted to Buddhism and then radically changed the way he treated his subjects: He guaranteed full freedom to all religious sects and exhorted his people to respect other creeds. If you give others no respect, he said, you will harm all beliefs, including your own.

In AD 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine, after converting to Christianity, issued the Edict of Milan giving toleration to Christians and all other religions "so that every man may worship according to his own wish."

But these visions of freedom, granted by rulers to their subjects, didn't last. And it was only in this millennium that the idea of religious liberty as an inalienable right - inherent in each individual, not granted by others - gradually took shape through centuries of struggle.

Many cultures have given value to tolerance. But it was through the furnace of persecutions and violent wars in the West particularly, that the idea of religious rights emerged to be defined, proclaimed, and serve as a foundation of the American experiment.

The horrors of World War II moved the world to the proclamation of human and religious rights as universal and to a set of international standards to be met by all nations. These strides toward the guarantee of rights are hailed as one of the greatest achievements of this final century of the millennium.

But will the vision last? Today, the picture is complex and sobering. With the collapse of political ideologies, "religion has come onto the world scene with a vengeance and plays a role in a number of the violent conflicts," says David Little, professor of religion, ethnicity, and international conflict at the Harvard Divinity School. "People have begun to take it very seriously and ask, 'What are we going to do about this?' "

In the West where religious rights are established, greater contention and confusion exist over their exercise. And in every world region, discrimination and persecution are everyday phenomena.

Despite the progress in establishing legal norms, "no one can deny that we end the century with challenges that were there in the Middle Ages a millennium ago and have not been resolved," says Kevin Boyle, director of the Human Rights Centre of University of Essex, England, and editor of "Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report."

The historical struggle

The medieval world was the crucible for change. In the very first century of the millennium, the Christian church split into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, the pope proclaimed the first crusade to take the Holy Land from Islam, and persecution of heretics began in Germany.

Religious repression became the order of the day, with burnings at the stake and an Inquisition that eventually turned to torture. Jews were banished or persecuted in several realms.

But other developments heralded changes in Christian thinking that would crack the door open for the growth of the idea of religious liberty, says Brian Tierney, professor of history at Cornell University. There were "vigorous assertions of the church's freedom from control by secular governments, strong affirmations of the value of individual conscience, and a newly emerging doctrine of natural rights," he writes in "Religious Liberty in Western Thought" (Emory University Press).

What is called the Papal Revolution in the 11th century proclaimed the church's freedom from the control of kings. The struggles between church and state for several centuries "forced people to think of two jurisdictions," says W. Cole Durham Jr., professor of law at Brigham Young University law school in Utah.

Meanwhile, thinkers such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas began to emphasize individual conscience and the duty to obey one's conscience even to the point of excommunication.

And the concept of natural rights began to develop in Christian jurisprudence in the late 12th and 13th centuries. William of Ockham expressed the idea in the political realm, Tierney adds, "arguing for freedom from any tyrannical government, especially within the church."

By mid-millennium, as European explorers sailed to colonize much of the outside world, voices were raised, though unavailingly, against forced conversion of other peoples.

But a new historical context was also unfolding that would give dramatic impetus to these ideas. The 16th-century Protestant reformation affirmed freedom of conscience, but Luther and Calvin placed many restraints on the idea of rights. The savage wars of religion that followed, however, splintering Protestantism into many sects, convinced people of the need for greater freedoms. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) recognized limited forms of religious liberty: The prince could choose the religion for his realm, and those of other faiths could either leave or practice privately at home.

"This 'freedom of the hearth' was a beginning," says Professor Durham. Then, with the civil war in England and the Act of Toleration (1689), "people were coming to see that these religious divisions were not going to go away, and you had to find some way to live with at least some of them."

A little-known but highly influential landmark was the Dutch Protestant revolt against Spanish monarch Philip II following an inquisition that killed thousands in the 1570s. The Dutch revolutionaries established a confederate government under which "each person must enjoy freedom of religion, and no one may be persecuted or questioned about his religion." It issued a Declaration of Independence, invoking "the law of nature and the "ancient right, privileges, and liberties" of the people.

John Witte, professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta, tells the story in his new book, "Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment" (Westview Press). The Netherlands, Professor Witte says, became "a haven for religious dissenters from throughout Europe" - "and a common point of departure for American colonists, from the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620 onward.

"When comparing this 16th-century Dutch experience with the 18th-century American experience," Witte continues, "John Adams wrote: 'The originals of the two republics are so much alike, that the history of one seems but a transcript of that of the other.' "

Another undervalued contribution gaining attention today is that of Roger Williams, the Puritan minister who founded Rhode Island in 1636 to provide full freedom of conscience to all believers.

"For him toleration wasn't enough. He believed that God required societies to protect the right of people to choose in matters of faith," says Charles Haynes, of the Freedom Foundation's First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. "And that anytime government got involved in religion, religion was invariably corrupted; so a core principle was to keep the government out of religion." Williams was the first to use the phrase "wall of separation."

Some historians are now showing, Dr. Haynes adds, that John Locke, the English Enlightenment philosopher and theologian, was influenced by Williams's writings, and that Jefferson and Adams were influenced by him through Locke.

Locke, living in England after the civil war and for a while in the Netherlands, wrote the extraordinarily influential "Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689). He argued it was pointless to try to force people to take a particular religion. And he challenged the established view that dissenters were a threat to social order.

"Locke introduced the idea that maybe it's not homogeneity that causes stability, but that respect for religion causes stability," Durham says. "He suggested violence by religious groups resulted from their being pushed into a corner with respect to something they care about more than life. But if you respect them, they would be grateful and become some of your most loyal citizens."

This idea that pluralism can be a force for stability was "a fundamental turning point, a seminal idea," Durham says. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were profoundly influenced by Locke. They were instrumental in the passage of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), which both men considered to be "the most significant battle of their lives," Haynes says.

The statute begins, "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free..." "It's a fundamental starting point for the American understanding," Haynes adds, "that it is not something that the state defines, gives, or tolerates, but it recognizes that freedom is inherently part of what a human being is about." The concepts in the Virginia law led to the First Amendment to the US Constitution (1791), which begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"The American Founders were very conscious that this was an experiment - a Lockean experiment," Durham says. "Other than possibly the Netherlands, nobody had tried this as an idea. We now have two centuries of experience that fundamentally religious freedom does work.... If you respect smaller groups, in general, people are grateful and that transfers into strong citizenship."

Despite many problems with discrimination over the decades, "this arrangement in religious liberty is our greatest contribution to world civilization," Haynes says. "Nothing is as unique or powerful. It is the way we have stopped the rivers of blood that characterize human history."

Indeed, it was the 20th century's rivers of blood that propelled rights onto the global stage. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and subsequent instruments constituting the international bill of rights "are all due to World War II," to a worldwide reaction to the horrors of fascism, says Dr. Little.

Still, religious rights have remained one of the most sensitive. Only in 1981 did the United Nations flesh out Article 18 of the declaration in detail by adopting the "Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief," which spelled out the rights of individuals and groups and specific guidance for nation-states on what they must do. A Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance receives complaints and investigates.

But states still have not passed a binding legal convention on matters of faith, as they have on the issues of race and gender, says Professor Boyle.

There are heartening signs. "Most of the world's constitutions are postwar documents," Durham says, and they have generally turned to these models. "The long-term legitimizing impact of the norms articulated in those documents is really phenomenal."

Religious freedoms have risen much higher on the human rights agenda. More rights groups monitor religious violations, and the 1998 US International Religious Freedom Act created a State Department office and an independent commission to report on religious freedom and consider US responses to countries' violations.

The Norwegian government recently gave $1.5 million to boost the UN Special Rapporteur's budget, and the Oslo Coalition has been formed to raise more money and publicize UN efforts.

But the challenges are formidable, and some states have fundamental issues with the norms. China tends to ignore international standards. And according to the World Report, "some interpretations of shariah law pit Islam against the principle of the primacy of international law," and "no Islamic state will formally accept the position" that the individual has the right to change religions. In Indonesia, however, the new president of the world's largest predominantly Muslim country has taken a stand for religious tolerance.

Growing pluralism in many societies is proving difficult to adjust to. Proselytism has become a major issue.

In Eastern Europe, some states have retreated from religious freedom laws passed after the collapse of communism, partially in reaction to evangelistic inroads. "Some churches were under attack under communism, and they feel they need an 'infant industries' protection," Little says.

A few Hindu groups in India have taken violent measures to resist it. But Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard Divinity School, says the idea of many paths to the one truth is basic in Hindu tradition.

She sees today's proselytism as raising issues in many parts of the world. "The right to religious freedom and the right to attempt to convince others of your beliefs are generally accepted. The right to radical forms of evangelization is not so accepted."

Evangelism today "travels with lots of money and power and is seen by many as a form of religious and cultural coercion," she says. It often "denigrates other traditions and capitalizes on the poor by bringing advantages that go with becoming Christian" local traditions can't provide.

The issue of "proper and improper proselytism" is one the World Report says needs attention, perhaps even international standards. "Proselytism introduces a conflict of rights," Little says. Laws restraining proselytism could be passed complying with rights norms, he adds, but a good way to proceed would be for missionary groups to agree to informal, nonlegal pacts. "In Britain, for example, proselytism in some Muslim areas is being worked out by agreements between local Muslims and evangelists," he says.

Missionary groups need to examine their methodologies, says Robert Seiple, US ambassador for international religious freedom. "If a methodology is culturally insensitive, it can make it difficult for all faiths that practice missionary activity."

In essence, it comes back to the issue King Ashoka raised many centuries ago. In an increasingly pluralistic world, there has to be respect.

"We are all minorities," Durham says. "The logic of pluralism demands religious freedom - there is no other way we can live together."

One way to restrain the negative influence of religion in today's conflicts, Little says, echoing Locke, is to guarantee freedom of expression for all kinds of groups, minorities as well as majorities.

Everyone agrees much work still needs to be done along the major divides - between Islam and Christianity, between the Orthodox world and Western Christianity - that existed 1,000 years ago.

Much work has to be done at home, too. "If we honestly believe in the rightness of our own faith, we shouldn't be fearful of another faith," Mr. Seiple says. "It somehow shows a lack of trust in the things we say we believe in."

"All it requires," Boyle says, "is that faiths should respect one another and accept that diversity of belief is the human condition."


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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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