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When Tommorrow Comes: Religion and the State in the New Millennium PDF Print E-mail

Jonathan Gallagher
International Religious Liberty Association

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

On March 4, 1997, two Seventh-day Adventists, Hadgimurat Magomedov and his wife, Tatyana Dmitrienko, were tortured, beaten, and burned to death in the town square of Buinaksk, Dagestan, in the southern Caucasus region of Russia. They were not killed because they were Adventists. They were killed because they were different.

For our reflection today comes the question: Was this a last example of old intolerance, or a reflection of the new order?

As we look to the future of religion and the role of the state in the coming millennium, we can point out various factors that will impact religious liberty and human rights.

The Decline in State Control

This phenomenon usually brings wide approval. The state should not be intrusive in the personal affairs of its citizens, and the decline in the influence of the state means greater individual freedoms.

Much of this decline is associated with the explosive impact of communication, which leads to global connectivity. What killed communism was not an ideological battle but the fax machine. What destroyed East Germany was not an assault on the Wall but West German TV.

So religious persecution by governments will not primarily be a state-sponsored ideological activity in the new millennium.

But that is a long way from saying it will not occur. In fact, the reverse is true. Because of the new connectivity, those who are not molded by the World Wide Web factors and its value system will be marginalized and attacked. Individuals whose religious concepts do not mesh will be the new targets for attack.

Old persecution was state-driven. New intolerance is collective rejection by linked individuals, based on the new global identity of humanity. Those who do not “fit” in this new world order are rapidly excluded. I would term this aspect “collective individualism”—an agreed personal decision by many that still works like a mob but is based on appeal to individual values. As a consequence, governments will be forced to act against religious minorities, not out of concern for their own concepts of religion and state but because of the accumulated wishes of the majority.


The Role of Faith

In a world experiencing change at an exponential rate, religious beliefs will have increased value. They provide confidence and stability in a chaotic global society. Instead of becoming less religious, increased “religiosity” is to be expected in the new millennium.

However, this religious expression will not be the traditional and institutionalized forms of religion but a personalized, individualized blending of “useful” religious components. Mutual toleration will be emphasized but heavy penalties imposed on those who refuse to conform.

This in turn impacts the state’s role and religious freedoms. The state’s increasing role will be one of not tolerating those who refuse to identify with the generic brand of religiosity. This comes not from state ideology but by “popular public demand.”

One example is the official designation of religious organizations and their classification into “approved” and “nonapproved” religions. The new laws, both those already implemented and those under discussion in eastern Europe, illustrate this principle. The demand comes from religious majorities that wish to impose their societal control on the nation-state.

Even in western Europe, government designation of unapproved religions under the guise of identifying dangerous sects shows how religious discrimination can easily become a reality in historically liberal and pluralistic nations.

Add into this mix religious fundamentalism, and the prospects for a religiously-tolerant new millennium are increasingly bleak.


The Five Freedoms

Humanity has always struggled with five basic freedoms:

  • The Freedom to Be
  • The Freedom to Do
  • The Freedom to Know
  • The Freedom to Go
  • The Freedom to Believe (and to act on beliefs)

In the future, some of these freedoms will be greatly developed. However, this does not automatically mean freedom across the board. The freedom to know, for example, becomes almost limitless with the accessibility of knowledge, information, and news all over the planet. For religious liberty, the communication freedom has meant that local intolerance can easily become a world issue. Without easy communication, governments could, and often did, do what they liked without fear of any outside reaction. The rest of the world simply did not know. Now and in the future, that possibility becomes increasingly remote. Human rights groups are able to share information so widely using the new communication mediums that any abuses can be readily publicized. And as these technologies progress, any state’s ability to control information flow will be greatly restricted.

On the other hand, even if everybody knows, what does it matter if nobody cares? The danger of mass communication is in the failure to react. However, the freedom to know does generally improve the prospect for religious toleration.

The freedom to go is also much enhanced in a global society. Again, the state’s role diminishes as borders are removed and travel opportunities are enhanced. In the new millennium, the freedom to go will aid globalization, and usually this also means increased toleration.

But what happens when there’s no place to go? At least the Mayflower’s Pilgrim fathers had a New World to go to when persecution became intolerable “back home.” As globalization becomes a reality, so do the accepted norms and values. Those choosing not to accept these norms and values will increasingly find they have no place to run to.

With the new millennium come wider opportunities to be and to do. As traditional role models decline, employment concepts change. Who you are and what you do are open to an increased ability to choose.

And yet, in all of this, the freedoms to be and to do remain under the control of what others are prepared to tolerate. Again, the state in the future is not so much an autocratic machine of control but an expression of the will of the majority of individuals.

This will be most reflected in the freedom to believe and how this freedom impacts the majority. If your beliefs have minimal impact on society, then you will be tolerated but not accepted. If, on the other hand, the implications and impacts of your beliefs are strongly rejected by the majority, the power of the state (read the combined desire of the agreed majority) will be invoked against you.

And as religious organizations become more individualized themselves, expect the results of such intolerance of “nonapproved religions” to be even more severe.


The Future of Religion in the Global State

The ever-widening globalization results in an apparent paradox. More religiosity is found, but a decreasing level of tolerance. For the ultimate question is not what people are permitted to believe but to what extent they are allowed to put their beliefs into practice.

With a more uniform society worldwide, in which local governments are less important than the concept of “global humanity,” the ideal of toleration may well be presented as a glowing tribute to progress, but its implementation will be strictly limited. “You can believe anything you want, as long as your beliefs do not impact others.”

The idea of society tolerating and granting exclusions has been a positive factor in pluralistic societies. As the world becomes more and more connected, and as many freedoms increase, the irony is that the more similar we all become, the less likely we will be to tolerate those who are different.

Especially significant will be the area of religion, since the common value system that a connected world will undoubtedly adopt works against those with strongly held convictions. Discrimination in the future will not so much be a question of mutual religious intolerance but a pragmatic approach that says, “Society cannot afford to tolerate such individuals.”

In this way, the killing of those two Seventh-day Adventists shows that “being different” in the new millennium brings its own penalties. While the new world order says it values pluralism, what this means in effect is that all need to merge toward a common society with a common value system.

We may accept as intriguing different cuisines, even different languages. But different religions, strongly believed and practiced, are a threat to the kind of society based on common assumptions. And the more the world moves toward a global perspective, the less it will be able to accept those who see things very differently.

How ironic that as personal freedoms increase across the globe, and religiosity generally is on the rise, the forces that propel us together will be the same forces that discriminate and bring intolerance.

Like worker bees in the hive, any strange bee will be quickly stung to death in the millennial vision of the global unity of humanity.

In conclusion, wider individual freedoms may well result in a greater intolerance and denial of freedom to individuals who choose to exercise their religious freedom. The rise of globalism that should on the surface usher in a new golden age has the inherent capacity to restrict religious freedom of expression. Religious minorities may well have more to fear from a unified world that is “more free” than the present. Faith concepts will be tolerated as they aid individuals and resisted as they impact social, political and ethical paradigms.

Furthermore, religion will be endorsed as an internal concept; practical impacts that the state (read society) views negatively will be strongly rejected. No exclusions!

“What is freedom?” asked Archibald MacLeish, and then went on to answer the question like this: “Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for yourself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.”

Only as we recognize this elementary truth will there be hope for religious liberty in the new millennium.