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Published on: March 18, 2014
A Confucian Approach
What Is Religious Freedom Good For?

Saying that religious freedom is important because it leads to economic prosperity may strike some as unnecessarily amoral. But we should not be overly disturbed by narrow interests bringing about morally desirable consequences.

On March 13, 2014, Asia News, a Roman Catholic periodical, published an interview with Brian Grim, who for many years was Director of Cross-National Data for the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project and is now president of the Business and Religious Freedom Foundation. Grim is one of the most trustworthy religious demographers in the world—ask him how many Buddhists there are in Venezuela and he’ll right away give you the best available numbers. Quite apart from counting religious noses, one of Grim’s professional as well as personal major concerns has been the condition of religious freedom in different parts of the world.

The immediate occasion for the interview was the massacre on March 1 in a crowded railway station in the southern Chinese city of Kunming which killed 29 people and injured over one hundred. Although Kunming is far removed from the northwest province of Xijiang, where there have been previous acts of terror by Uighurs, an ethnic minority of Muslim faith, speaking a Turkic language. The Chinese authorities immediately blamed Uighurs for the massacre, probably with some justification. There has been massive migration of ethnic Chinese into the province, where indigenous Uighurs now constitute less than 50% of the population. Any movements favoring Uighur autonomy have been roughly suppressed.

Grim here wants to make a point in favor of religious freedom, but he would not be a professional nose-counter if he did not use the occasion to emphasize that China is a religiously very pluralistic country. The largest number of Chinese have been listed as adherents of “folk religions”, a rather fluid category spanning Taoist temples and cults venerating very local deities (such as the famous “kitchen gods”). Officially there are 244 million Buddhists (also an iffy category, as many of these also have beliefs and practices from other traditions—the First of the Ten Commandments has never resonated well in China). Again officially, there are supposed to be 68 million Christians and 25 million Muslims. The latter figure, as it mostly overlaps with Uighur ethnicity, may not be too far off the mark. The Christian figure is almost certainly much larger—most of the recent explosion of Christianity, much if not most of it charismatic, has been spontaneous, unregistered if not illegal, and thus very hard to quantify.

Grim’s main point is that religious freedom is an important factor in keeping this heterogeneous society united—and thus providing social conditions for its remarkable economic success:

I’m not making the argument that religious freedom was what launched the country’s economic success, but if draconian restrictions on religion and other things [as during the Cultural Revolution] had no been lifted, the level of success we see today would not have been attained.

To be sure, this is a very strong statement, and historians might have some problems with it. Still, I think that the argument has some plausibility – (“…don’t expect me to work hard, if you smash my kitchen gods…”).

The regime still has some difficulties with religion. Its official dogma still affirms Marxist atheism (though few, even in the Communist party, take it seriously). The regime has some specific religious problems—Buddhism because of Tibet, Islam because of Xinjiang—but the party is quite prepared to concede that religion can be a positive factor for modernization and development—especially Christianity. A few years ago, when I visited the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) in Beijng, I was surprised to hear its then chairman refer to Max Weber. I think that today the regime’s policy toward religion (though erratic and regionally diverse) is not so much Marxist as Confucian. The main political good is peaceful order (Chinese historical memory contains quite a few incidents where religion produced the opposite, as in the Taiping and Boxer rebellions). The underlying goal, often today quoted verbatim,  is “the harmonious society”—arguably the core principle of Confucian political philosophy. If the government is careful and discriminating, it can assure that religion serves harmony rather than disorder.

It is of course a very pragmatic (if you will, Machiavellian principle). Officials of the late Roman Empire, or of the British Raj in India, would have been comfortable with it. Of course it has nothing whatever to do with the truth of a religion. Pontius Pilate put it well at the trial of Jesus, when he asked contemptuously, “What is truth?” Brian Grim is a passionate believer in religious freedom. Yet he was making an essentially Confucian argument here. (Perhaps, since the immediate issue was China, perhaps he was actually thinking of a Confucian-minded audience. Actually, in a lecture at Renmin University about the time of my meeting with SARA, I made a similarly “Confucian” argument, not just about religious freedom, but about human rights in general.)

I think that a much more profound argument for religious freedom is in one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, which directly linked religious freedom to the inviolate dignity of every human being. Every individual exists in a world full of mystery and wonder, and therefore has the right to confront this reality freely, without coercion.

Can one believe in the most profound reason for a particular course of action, and then publicly give other, much more practical, reasons for such action? Since Max Weber was mentioned, let me refer to his well-known distinction between an ethic of attitude and an ethic of responsibility: the former is guided by principle, the latter by results. The “vocation of politics” should follow the latter, not the former. The purpose of political action is not to “speak truth to power”, but to achieve specific (morally desirable) results. An example that I was in a position to observe closely: After the mid-1980s the great majority of the South African business community (including most of its Afrikaans-speaking sector) decided that the apartheid regime had to go. There were some business people who believed this out of moral conviction (a very honorable case was Harry Oppenheimer, the mining tycoon, who had opposed apartheid from the beginning because he was deeply convinced that it was morally wrong, an unacceptable violation of human dignity). But many business people who jumped on the anti-apartheid train in the late 1980s were not persuaded by, say, the sermons of Bishop Tutu, but rather by the conclusion that, unless stopped, apartheid would bring down the entire economy (including their own businesses). Whatever the motives, the result was a great moral victory.

I don’t think we should apologize for making “Confucian” arguments for religious freedom. Of course it would be preferable if more people acted out of moral conviction than vested interests. But we should not be overly disturbed if the latter brought about morally desirable consequences.

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  • ltlee1

    “Every individual exists in a world full of mystery and wonder,” hence spirituality is inherent in the human soul. However, spirituality is not religiosity. Religious freedom is in concordance with human spirituality. Pursuit of religiosity, on the other hand, can restrict one’s spirituality and extract a heavy human toll, for example, in Tibet. The question is how to draw the line separating anti-religiosity and anti-spirituality.

    The following is excepted from A YEAR IN TIBET by Sun Shuyun:
    “The rate at which mothers die in child birth is high in Tibet, around
    400-500 deaths for every 100,000 live births, much higher than China
    as a whole, where the figure is thought to be about 45 per
    100,000. …
    I ask Lhamo why the maternal and infant mortality rate in rural Tibet
    is so high, considerable higher than in the rest of China…
    Most of the mothers won’t even come to the clinic,’ Lhamo say angrily.
    “You know we Tibetans believe in ghosts and spirits. The women worry
    about people being jealous and putting the evil eye on them, so they
    don’t talk about their pregnancy, let alone come in for regular check
    us. They also think the clinic is full of evil spirits because babies
    die here. So they give birth at home. Then because they believe given
    birth is unclean, they will do it in a store room or a stable so as
    not to pollute the rest of the house. You can imagine how easy it is
    to get infected. Even if they have their delivery here, it can be too
    late. I need to tell them how look after themselves, how to prepare.
    So often they rush here at the last moment when there is a
    complication at home, and the baby is stillborn; and they blame the

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Let’s say some evangelical Christians, or Charismatic Christians, showed up in Tibet with a medical ministry as they do in Africa and South America. And the result of that ministry was a greater respect for the dignity of women, less Macho-ism found in traditional cultures, and a lower infant and maternal mortality rate. Would we oppose the positive consequences because they came from a fundamentalist religion?

      In Peter Berger’s book “Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World” (2003), it is described how Latin American women gain the most under Charismatic Christianity because men stop treating their wives as chattel and learn to respect them as persons. This runs counter to American liberal notions that women suffer the most under the influence of conservative religion. And the situation described above in Tibet seems to infuse that same modern prejudice against religion into the equation of whether the dignity of women is or is not enhanced under such religion.

      Berger is no apologist for fundamentalism, religious or secular. But the question he raises of consequentialist ethics is apropos. Would we oppose the influence of even fundamentalist Christianity in Tibet if we clearly see the positive consequences to women were socially revolutionary but without any revolutionary social movements, state coercion, destruction of local cultures, and mass murder.

      When I was in the Vietnam War, there was a saying among the rural South Vietnamese. They would say that the Communist Viet Cong would first come into a village and murder the school principle, then the Catholic priest, then the Buddhist priest. Then the Viet Cong would introduce free village health care that promised lower infant mortality rates as a way to legitimate their violent takeover. As Berger points out, societies are held together by beliefs and political legitimations. Reduced infant mortality rates are often one of the major legitimations used by coercive and totalitarian governments.

      Berger brings up the Machiavellian Principle of pragmatist ethics. Once again, just the sheer mention of the name Machiavelli to Americans evokes images of political manipulation of religion for state ends. But Machiavelli had an ethical system that most American’s pop understanding of his written works don’t understand. Here I would refer readers to philosopher Erica Benner’s great book “Machiavelli’s Ethics.” It is from Machiavelli that Max Weber devised his famous dichotomy of the Ethic of Attitude (and good intentions) and the Ethic of Responsibility (and consequences).

      As Berger points out, Marxism promises the blessings, services, and goods of modernity and a restoration of premodern, de-alienating, communal life by the paradoxical rejection of the opiate of religion; but the consequences everywhere Marxism has been tried are mass murder, state-caused droughts and famines, extinguishment of local cultures, and loss of religious freedom. Only Capitalism has brought about modernity without destroying local cultures (although perhaps not always).

      Perhaps the resistance of Tibetan women to go to modern clinics is not only their folk religion and a macho culture where women are considered property, but also reluctance to go to such clinics based on past experience with Stalinist pogroms or Maoist Great Leaps Forward and Cultural Revolutions? I don’t know.

      Even in the U.S., many immigrants may be reluctant to sign up for Obamacare even if eligible because they would then have to identify their immigration status or be subject to taxation or even deportation. Modernity is seductive and enticing but there are often undesirable consequences that come with it. Social and medical policies whether in Tibet or under Obamacare in the U.S. have to learn to respect indigenous definitions of the situation.

      Here it is best to take a more anthropological view of the introduction of modernized medical clinics in traditional cultures (see Everett M. Rogers, The Diffusion of Innovations).

      • ltlee1

        “Would we oppose the positive consequences because they came from a fundamentalist religion?”

        1. DXP’s famous saying is “Black cat, white cat, it is a good cat as long as it can catch mouse.” Well, the world is full of wonder and mystery. Some will describe the cat black and some will describe the cat white according to what they have experienced. Does it matter how do they describe the cat as long as they are expressing the same underlying spirituality? Again, the question goes back to separating spirituality from religiosity. In my analogy using Deng’s saying, religiosity is the color of the cat, spirituality is the ability to catch mouse.

        2. What does the term “fundamentalist” tell us? Simple. It shows that people in general can tell the difference between religiosity and spirituality.

        3. However, whether anti-religiosity is anti-spirituality is more complicated. For example, one can distinguish among US Christians different kinds of fundamentalist. Those who believe the Christian bible as really the words of the Christian god is a kind of fundamentalist. Those who further believe racial purity as the prerequisite for spiritual pursuits is another kind of fundamentalist. That latter are also called white supremacists (not an autonym). Supporters of this movement certainly see US government intervention as anti-religious freedom. They also see themselves engaged in a holy war against the illegal US government.

        To answer your question, I would say “Yes” to the first kind of fundamentalists and “No” to the latter kind of fundamentalists. As a matter of fact, Tibet already has its kind of ethnicity based fundamentalists.

        On why Tibetan women did not go to the clinic, I will rely on the first hand reporting of the cited book rather than groundless speculations. If you had visited Tibet, please share your experience.

        • Wayne Lusvardi

          I have not visited Tibet. But I was in the 25th Medical Battalion, 25th Infantry Division in the Viet Nam War stationed in Cu Chi, a rural village 40 miles north of Saigon. The Medical Battalion used to take an ambulance into the village to render medical care to the South Vietnamese. Most often the Vietnamese would line up and complain about some malady that they needed drugs for. Then once we dispensed the drug, they would proceed to go and sell it on the black market. So here is an example of good intentions, but bad consequences.

          I can’t follow your distinction between religiosity and spirituality. Religiosity is usually defined as something bahavioral; spirituality something emotional or contemplative. In real life there may not be such a dichotomy. I could make a case that the Mortgage Meltdown and Bank Crisis of 2008 was a spiritual crisis, in that public policy, banks, and house flippers got caught up in the speculative “spirit of the times.” The famous sociologist Max Weber wrote a book on how the Protestant Work Ethic sprang from the “spirit” of Capitalism. To Weber, even the most secular commercial pursuit was influenced by or motivated by religious institutions and spirituality.

          “Spirit” can also be defined as a socially contagious emotional state characterized by vigor and animation.

          • ltlee1

            Spirituality comes from one’s inner being or his heart in response to the universe’s wonder and mystery. Religiosity as a behavior is outside looking in. Similarly, people who describe a certain religious movement such as White Supremacist is also outside looking in. If you asked those inside the White Supremacist movement, they would certainly tell you that they were also moved by their hearts. And their movement is not about racial superiority. Rather, their goal is about racial survival as well as a commitment to forge a better and newer Aryan. However, not all things come from the heart are responses to the universe’s wonder and mystery.

  • Corlyss

    Religion is the only organized force large enough to fight the state. History has proven that repeatedly. It’s a savvy tyrant that co-opts the church, whatever it is, ere long into his reign.

  • qet

    Freedom ought not to require any argument. It ought to be an axiom, an a priori (qualifying it by reference to “inviolate human dignity” is simply tautological, as any definition of such dignity will of necessity include freedom). You may call that a “moral conviction” if you like but the danger there is that you yourself, and your readers, will then relativize freedom and entertain the idea of exchanging it for other goods. Exchange requires a common unit of measure and there is no such unit where freedom is concerned. Vaguely conceptualized goods such as “human well-being” do not constitute such a measure nor a market or an end within or toward which freedom can circulate. The lesser interests you offer as helpers to freedom can turn on a dime tomorrow and impede it. We should not be satisfied with some historically accidental coalition of freedom. We should not encourage people to weigh freedom in some balance. The Confucian principle of social harmony may work very powerfully in the hearts and minds of the Chinese and that is fine–for them; but a true Westerner should not be too quick to bless what is merely another pretext for the control of some persons by others, for the particular social calculus of a particular minority in a particular time and place. There is nothing conceptually unique about religious freedom as against any other part of the whole of freedom.

    • ltlee1

      Freedom in the abstract is an a priori. Freedom in the real world is not. Freedom to swim requires the ability to swim. And the resource to build a swimming pool if one is living in the middle of a desert. For the Chinese people, it is “life, education, and the pursuit of happiness.”

  • Lama Surya Das

    Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.

    Surya Das | Lama Surya Das Married

  • free_agent

    You write, “But we should not be overly disturbed by narrow interests bringing about morally desirable consequences.”

    That’s certainly true. But if we disliked good consequences brought about by self-interested people, we’d get rid of the market system!

  • Anthony

    “What is Religious Freedom Good For?” Perhaps, one may posits the interchangeability of perspectives as a reason – that there exist a universal human nature. Equally important, essay brings to mind Humanitarian revolution and changes in sensibilities and behavior that now generally recognizes “every individual exists in a world full of mystery and wonder and therefore has the right to confront their reality freely, without coercion.” Inference being people are autonomous and consequences follow with moral implications. But even so and in line with essay’s thrust, here’s another perspective: “the vast set of movements we call religions have little in common but their distinctness from the secular institutions that are recent appearances on the human stage. And the beliefs and practices of religion, despite their claims to divine provenance, are endogenous to human affairs, responding to their intellectual and social currents.”

  • RedWell

    Fascinating, as usual, but while I’m not one to demand moral purity in the public sphere, I don’t quite buy this conclusion.
    Berger is treating religious freedom as an end that is good in itself. So far, so good. He concludes that if we get there by something other than an innate respect for human rights, the end result of religious freedom justifies the means. In this case, the means are, as I understand it, authoritarian Chinese leaders applying Confucian thought. Here’s the problem: if China’s pragmatic, Confucian leaders decide that religious freedom has once again become a problem, they can throw it out. There might be some protest, but dissenters will have no legal or philosophical leg on which to stand. On the other hand, if religious freedom is enshrined as a good in itself, or as an immutable aspect of human rights, that is far harder to revoke.

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