Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Is Religious Freedom Really the Issue?

In my last post I considered some legislative attempts to preserve, under the heading of religious freedom, the right of private parties to discriminate. (The most recent example is Mississippi's "Religious Freedom Restoration Act.")

But what, exactly, is religious freedom? Doesn't our understanding of religious freedom depend on our understanding of religion?

Consider Friedrich Schleiermacher's claim that religion isn't a "knowing" or a "doing" but a "feeling." What he means is that religion at its root isn't a set of beliefs or practices, but rather a state of consciousness--what he calls "the intuition of the infinite in the finite" in his earlier writings, and the "feeling of absolute dependence" in his later work.

For Schleiermacher, religion is most fundamentally about experience--but it's not an object of experience. It is, rather, about the nature of experience itself. When we become aware of experience itself and reflect on what it is like, what do we find?

For Schleiermacher, there are dimensions to what experience is like that are always there but often go unnoticed. Sometimes they make themselves felt--but, again, not as an object of experience. He calls these things "feelings" or "intuitions." And religion has its origins in a particularly transformative sort of feeling, one he calls "piety." It is an awareness of ourselves and the whole of our experience--including all the objects of experience--as embedded within and dependent on something infinitely greater, something that lies beyond (or perhaps behind) our consciousness.

It is a feeling that, when we bring it into focus, erases our usual boundaries, humbles our vaunted sense of self, and elicits emotions such as awe and wonder.

For Schleiermacher, this feeling of piety can be the object of theological reflection, giving rise to beliefs aimed at making sense of the feeling in the light of other dimension of our lives. But such beliefs are secondary.

The feeling of piety can also motivate behavioral responses. There are behaviors that fit with the religious consciousness, and others that don't. And so the feeling of piety is not without practical implications. But they're just that: implications.

And for Schleiermacher, because piety is about being aware of the infinite ground of all finite things, piety motivates a spirit of inclusion and connection. That which we become conscious of in religious feeling is something that unites, that affirms, that includes. As such, all behavior that is divisive, that draws boundaries between us and them, is essentially at odds with the religious feeling.

If this is the fundamental nature of religion, then the freedom to divide, to exclude, to discriminate, cannot fall under the heading of "religious freedom." It is, rather, the freedom to act contrary to what religion inspires--perhaps out of obedience to authorities who call themselves religious but embody a spirit at odds with religious consciousness.

Arguably, in a civil society people should, within limits, have such freedom--but we wouldn't want to treat it as sacred.

Now let me be clear: I doubt that when our founders acted to preserve religious liberty, they meant by "religion" what Schleiermacher did. But the point is this: Whether conservative evangelical business owners have a right to refuse service to gays and lesbians may or may not be a matter of religious freedom. It all depends on your understanding of "religion."

Or, to cast the point in another light: Under Schleiermacher's understanding of religion, what conservative evangelicals are asking for is a right to act contrary to religion's demands. Maybe this fact will help them empathize more fully with their atheist neighbors who, based on a different understanding of religion, are construed in these terms all the time.

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