Archive - October 2014

Religion and Violence: John Gray on Karen Armstrong
Who’s Afraid of Secularism?
Religious freedom is for losers…
More on Religion in Hong Kong Protests
Building Capital
Celebrating The Founding of a School of Global Affairs at Notre Dame
Beneath Hong Kong’s Umbrellas: Religion
Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions
More on Hong Kong
Christians (Still) Under Communism

Religion and Violence: John Gray on Karen Armstrong

John Gray, book reviewer for The New Statesman, reviews Karen Armstrong’s book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, in The New Republic.  Though I have not read Armstrong’s book, I find much to recommend in Gray’s analysis of religion and world politics.  Echoing Armstrong, he takes on a view of many contemporary secularists that, as I have often noticed, proves a contradiction.

The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world’s conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervor that religion is in rapid decline. Of course it’s a mistake to expect logic from rationalists. More than anything else, the evangelical atheism of recent years is a symptom of moral panic. Worldwide secularization, which was believed to be an integral part of the process of becoming modern, shows no signs of happening. Quite the contrary: in much of the world, religion is in the ascendant. For many people the result is a condition of acute cognitive dissonance.

Gray goes on to challenge standard blanket views of religion as “violent” or “peaceful.”  He points out that warring on religion was endemic to some of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century.

Who’s Afraid of Secularism?

Comment Magazine - Cracks in the SecularCharles Taylor makes a small, somewhat off the cuff, argument in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience that strong civil religion tends to beget strong religion. In a recent opinion piece for Comment magazine, I summarized as follows:

This is the case, they say, in Quebec where, after the Quiet Revolution, a strong civil religious Catholic political culture was supplanted for an aggressively secular civil religious culture. They find similar trends in Turkey and France, where formerly strong “religious” civil religions were replaced very rapidly by equally strong secular-liberal civil religions. They write, “[t]hat type of political system replaces established religion with secular moral philosophy.” Maclure and Taylor say this is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau meant by “civil religion,” and when strong civil religions are toppled in political cultures, the probability is that they will be replaced by a rival, equally strong, civil religious tradition. Thick moral content is needed to combat and supplant thick moral content.

Apocryphal of a prediction as it may be, a comparative study of American and Canadian ‘secularism’ paints a very different trajectory for the two countries. Whereas Canadian political culture disestablished Christianity so long ago, we’re now on to disestablishing liberal secularism, toward what others have somewhat ambiguously, but provocatively titled, a post-secular age. The American experience, on the other hand, by virtue of its strong civil religion seems to have a more ominous future. “There is no deux-solitudes (two-solitudes, or two different but coexisting poles) in American civil religion: there is a winner, and there are losers.

My friend Kevin Flatt dissents, and writes a fine rejoinder, How to Survive the Secular Apocalypse. The whole Fall issue of Comment is a treasure, including a fresh interview by James K.A. Smith with Charles Taylor himself on the Charter of Quebec Values, the future of the religious/the secular, and more.

Religious freedom is for losers…

… so says ethicist James Mumford.  What he means is that, when we look across history, we see that religious groups that are in the minority, or fear they soon will be, tend to favor liberty.  It is they who lose from persecution.  Majority religions tend not to favor liberty, because they win without it.  Many Americans will be familiar with how Baptists, a persecuted minority in 17th-century New England, pioneered freedom of conscience.  Mumford shows that the story of how European Catholicism came to be the world’s leading proponent of religious freedom is similar:

What is most powerful in this account, I think, is that Félicité de Lamennais in the 19th century, and Luigi Sturzo and others in the 20th, pressed for religious freedom even in countries where Catholics formed a majority of the population.  Like other religious people, they learned from suffering and elevated religious freedom to a principle.

Note, too, Mumford’s conclusions for the United States and other countries where religious skeptics are enjoying more cultural power than ever and are starting to use it on some university campuses to exclude some religious groups.

Building Capital

My friend Richard Hyde with some reflections on architecture and American freedom:

Architecture is embodied values.  From the humblest temporary dwelling to the grandest monument, buildings reveal what a society values.  As Kenneth Clark put it at the beginning of Civilisation, his famous television series of some forty years ago: “If I had to say which was telling the truth about society:  a speech by the minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time – I should believe the buildings.

I have spent much of the past two decades studying the buildings of the nation’s capital as a way of understanding this vast nation, now doubled in population since I was born in 1951.  The waves of building up and tearing down in Washington indeed parallel what has happened in the rest of the nation:  enormous growth and confidence in the 1950s and early 60s; vast upheavals and disruptions in the late 60s and 70s, the era of the downtown street demonstration, the growth of the suburbs and interstate system, and the withering of the inner city.  More recently we are observing in Washington and elsewhere a resurgence of the inner city as the population continues to increase and suburbs outgrow the ability of railroads and highways to get people back into the city to work and to recreate.

As a scholar of religion, what I study in particular are the memorials in this city whose task it is to put up monuments that proclaim our common values, evaluate our history and pass on to future generations the lessons that the living have so painstakingly learned.

In this regard, despite the growth and turmoil, Washington has changed remarkably little.  It is still a city iconically defined by five classical buildings that mark out east, west, north, south and center, making the city itself an enormous compass:  Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, White House, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument.  Each one is sedulously classical, or traditional, if you prefer, especially the Capitol, with domes, pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, the works.  You might say that the Washington Monument is even older than classical, being an obelisk, of Egyptian origin.  These buildings have not changed significantly in over sixty years, nor are they likely to, and their fundamental message remains the same:  what Americans value over everything else is freedom.

A lot of water has come down the Potomac and a lot world-shattering events taken place since this configuration reached its completion in the still-dark days of World War II.  At the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943, Jefferson’s birthday, President Roosevelt said, “Today, in the midst of a great war for freedom, we dedicate a shrine to freedom.”  At no time in world history before or since had freedom been so threatened and the need for united action against its enemies been so great. Fortunately this nation and its allies mustered the necessary unity and a greater percentage of people on earth now enjoy some measure of any number of freedoms than ever.

Nonetheless, many threats to freedom remain and we Americans argue amongst ourselves, as we must, about how to face these threats and how to balance freedom with unity.  How the other classical memorials and the many recent ones reflect this argument will be the subject of subsequent postings.

Richard Allen Hyde is interested in the religious background of contemporary politics and policy.  The roots of this interest are various, but perhaps the deepest is simply a suggestion made by mathematician Freeman Dyson in Disturbing the Universe: “We shall not understand the dynamics of science and technology just as we shall not understand the dynamics of political ideology if we ignore the dominating influence of myths and symbols.”  There is no better place to investigate this interaction than the nation’s capital, he says.

Hyde earned his Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, where he was a teaching assistant for Huston Smith, renowned authority on the religions of the world.  He also has a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he studied with presidency scholar Richard E. Neustadt. 

Celebrating The Founding of a School of Global Affairs at Notre Dame

The Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) celebrates the founding of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.  We are honored to be one of the several centers and institutes who will help to constitute the school.  Already, the school’s vision is congenial to CCHR’s mission, especially its emphases on global justice, human rights, integral human development, civil society, and religion.  Likewise, CCHR has much to offer the school, including a long track record in human rights education, extensive ties in the Latin American system of human rights, a commitment to Catholic teaching, and its recently expanded vision of human rights research, especially in the area of religious freedom.  We eagerly anticipate working with Dean Scott Appleby to make the school a success and to bring glory to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission.  Equally so, we look forward to strengthening ever more our partnership of four decades with Notre Dame Law School and to continuing to build our LL.M. program in human rights law.

Beneath Hong Kong’s Umbrellas: Religion

Key to the leadership of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution is religion.  This should not be surprising.  In the long wave of democracy movements beginning around 1974, religion has played a major role.  My colleagues Monica Toft, Tim Shah, and I found that among 78 democracy movements that we studied, religion played a prominent role in 48.

John Lindblom, a doctoral student in the World Religions World Church program in the theology department here at Notre Dame, notices what many others have not: religion’s role in the Hong Kong protests. He has been involved in China-related teaching, research, and work since 1997.  Here’s John:

 The pro-democracy protests unfolding in Hong Kong during the past week, appear to have reached a decision point as of Sunday, with student leaders and government officials agreeing for the second time to hold negotiations after the first round of talks were canceled by protestors. At issue is the Beijing government’s announcement that the pool of candidates for the 2017 election to Hong Kong’s top office, the Chief Executive, would be pre-selected by the Communist Party, while protesters demand genuine democracy with universal suffrage and free and open elections. The first planned talks were canceled after protesters were violently attacked on Friday by counter-protesters who students claim were gang members (who spoke Mandarin, indicating they are from mainland China, not Hong Kong) sent in by officials to disrupt the peaceful demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of protesters, mostly students, have taken to the streets in a movement called “Occupy Central” (Hong Kong’s administrative district) since last weekend, and tensions have escalated step by step during the past week, after police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters, who responded with greater numbers and firmer resolve, carrying umbrellas and wearing face masks and goggles. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying rejected their demands that he step down, while stating that students would be treated “with the greatest tolerance.” By Saturday, however, there were warnings that if students did not disperse and allow civil servants back to work Monday morning, that a “tragedy” may ensue. On Sunday, government and university officials urged students to disperse, stating that they had effectively made their voices heard. Even Hong Kong’s retired archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has joined students the streets and strongly supported them in this movement, urged them in a Facebook post Sunday “not to sacrifice a single one” in this cause. As of Sunday night, most protest sites had only a fraction of their earlier numbers, and sites near government buildings showed walkways cleared so that government workers could reach their offices on Monday. Whether or not large numbers return to the streets remains to be seen.

In addition to Cardinal Zen, many among the students leading and participating in the demonstrations are Christians. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Cheng, a political-science professor at City University of Hong Kong and a supporter of the protesters said, “Christians, by definition, don’t trust the communists. The communists suppress Christians wherever they are.”

Beijing’s has used familiar rhetoric in its statements, writing that cadres and the masses “resolutely oppose” the protests, that these protests are an instance of unrest being instigated by a small number of troublemakers, and that this matter is China’s “internal affair” with which foreign entities must not “interfere.” A commentary on the English website of the People’s Daily, China’s largest state-run newspaper, quoted numerous non-Chinese experts to express opposition to the Occupy Central movement. One Catholic news source, Asia News, wrote in late August that Beijing fears that a “germ of democracy” could be implanted in the former British colony and from there “infect” mainland China. The People’s Daily, for its part, commented on the front page of the Chinese edition on Saturday, “As for the ideas of a very small minority of people to use Hong Kong to create a ‘color revolution’ in mainland China, that is even more of a daydream.”

To those who remember the pro-democracy movement of 1989 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, these events and words bear a sadly familiar and ominous tone. We hope and pray that the violent Tiananmen Square massacre (which is remembered by thousands every year in Hong Kong, and to which there is a permanent memorial sculpture at the University of Hong Kong) will never be repeated. In fact, Beijing’s words and actions before, during, and since the Tiananmen movement are the same. Almost always, the CCP blames the unrest on a few lawless instigators, claims that force is needed to regain or maintain stability, and tells outside actors not to interfere with China’s internal affairs. This is the most important test to date for China’s promise to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” as promised for Hong Kong. Students and many others see Beijing’s actions in recent years as incremental encroachments on their previous way of life, which, shaped by 150 years of British colonial rule, is completely different from that in mainland China. Simple gestures such as students continuing to do their homework while sitting in the streets, and cleaning up after themselves at protest sites, indicate that their intentions and commitment to non-violence are genuine, yet their frustrations and fears are real. As recent history has shown, a peaceful resolution to conflict is rare when confronting the Chinese government, but in this case we must still hope and pray that the planned talks will move forward, an agreement will be reached, and a tragedy, which could have enormous repercussions for Hong Kong, China, and the rest of the world, will still be avoided.

Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.

The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.

Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.

Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.

Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation.  By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.

In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.

More on Hong Kong

The latest from Victoria Hui (see earlier posts below):

Tensions in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution were diffused at the eleventh hour last night (Oct. 2, HK time), but could rekindle any time unless protestors find a third alternative between escalating and retreating. Tensions were building up last evening as Hong Kong protestors surrounded the Chief Executive’s office  and threatened to occupy other government office buildings if CY Leung would not step down by midnight. In response, the police were seen to stockpile tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and even bullets for AR-15 at the Chief Executive’s office. Observers could finally take a deep breath when CY Leung announced that he would appoint the Chief Secretary Carrie Lam to open negotiations with students. However, few people are optimistic that the negotiations would amount to anything. Not only that Mr. Leung refused to resign as demanded by protestors, Beijing has also stepped up its hardline position that it will not change the arrangements to vet candidates for the CE election in 2017 — which caused the protests in the first place. Protestors will thus continue to feel that they have to escalate to more disruptive actions or the movement would lose momentum and die out. But protestors have a third alternative. Scholars have argued that methods of dispersal — such as consumer boycotts and nonpayment of taxes — could be as effective as methods of concentration — such as the massive demonstrations that are on display now. If targeted boycotts hurt the interest of business tycoons whose support CY relies on and if nonpayment of taxes make bureaucrats unable to administer Hong Kong, then protestors would have a higher chance of compelling concessions and avoiding direct clashes with the police. And the movement will be sustainable in the long-term even when people have to go back to school or to work.



Christians (Still) Under Communism

In keeping with Arc of the Universe’s theme of religious freedom, Reg Reimer blogs on Christians in Vietnam.  Reimer is part of the team of scholars who make up the Center for Civil and Human Rights’ project, “Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christian Communities Respond to Repression.”  He first went to Vietnam as a missionary in 1966 and served there throughout the Vietnam War. He has travelled to the country numerous times since, connecting with Christians churches, researching the repression of Christians and advocating for them. He is an acknowledged authority on Christianity in Vietnam, particularly of the Evangelical tradition, whose followers have increased more than tenfold since the communist takeover in 1975. His book on the Evangelical movement, Vietnam’s Christians: A Century of Growth in Adversity, was published in 2011.  Here is what he writes:

Christian believers in the remaining communist countries, even those that have made some progress toward religious freedom, continue to experience local or widespread reversions to discrimination and harsh treatment.  An ugly campaign to remove crosses from hundreds of church buildings in eastern China is underway. From Laos and Cuba come periodic but regular reports of brutal persecution in local areas. In Vietnam, certain remote areas have never experienced the relaxation of persecution promised by changing regulations and experienced in urban areas.

A clear case in point is Dien Bien province in northern Vietnam. A rare and lengthy testimony of a Christian leader in the province was obtained by advocates. It details 25 years of repression against Christians of the Hmong ethnic minority. The leader himself spent 8 harsh years in various prisons, often in a “small dark cell”. He and fellow Christian villagers were often raided by officials, and forced to feed them – after which the villagers were thanked by beatings and attempts to pressure them to recant. This was done by forcing them to drink the blood of chickens freshly sacrificed to spirit or ancestors. Officials helped themselves to the Christians’ property, fields and crops and encouraged their animist neighbors to do likewise.

Many other abuses are listed, and the latest are very current. Earlier in 2014 groups of officials and animist Hmong they recruited raided Christians’ homes, abused the occupants, then tore their houses down, also destroying their gardens and taking their crops.

Authorities, whose goal is containment of the growing Christian movement, go to great lengths to prevent Christians from receiving teaching from qualified leaders. They confiscate Bibles and Bibles and Christian literature, and forbid meetings larger than the nuclear family. These enforced restrictions, all against Vietnam’s own religion regulations, have led directly to some Hmong Christians being led into cultic beliefs for which they suffered a brutal military crackdown in May 2011.

The Christian leader begs for the “the world” and the United Nations to come to see if Vietnam is living up to its promises on religious freedom. He also gives names and addresses of offending officials and Christian victims.

That such still happens in some places in Vietnam puts all religious believers under a cloud.  There are no extenuating circumstances for abusing people for their religious beliefs and peaceful practices. As long as some people remain subject to regular abuse because of their religious beliefs, the whole fragile religious freedom project in any country is jeopardized.




© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.