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Exploring Religion

Session 13: Overview

Religion and the State

Learning objectives

  • Become aware of the diverse relationships between religion, the state and the surrounding culture
  • Understand the consequences of different religion and state relationships
  • Understand how the state and culture discriminate against minority religions

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At first glance, there appears to be global agreement that all people hold the freedom to profess religious beliefs and openly worship without facing discrimination. The 1948,  Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stated that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and has the freedom “to manifest [their] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”  Today, more than nine in 10 countries with populations greater than two million have constitutions modeled in part or whole after Article 18. Yet, despite these formal endorsements that everyone has the right to hold and practice their religious beliefs, a growing body of research has found that the chasm between what the government promises and what it practices is wide. This module explores the complex relationship between religion, the state and the surrounding culture. Relationships that are highly diverse, constantly changing and often fraught with tension. 

Throughout history, national governments and the majority religion have often formed alliances to strengthen their own institutions. For the state, this alliance helps ensure political stability and provides a mechanism for the state to control the dominant religion. For religious institutions, these alliances offer opportunities to procure resources from the state and to restrict the activities of competitors, such as other religions and secular institutions (e.g., secular courts, schools, etc.). As a result, the alliances often lead to fewer freedoms for minority religions and other cultural competitors. As a government becomes more stable and powerful, however, even the majority religions have found their activities being curtailed by the state. Today, the formal alliances between religion and state are most evident in several Muslim majority countries, but informal alliances are common across the globe. As you explore data on the ARDA, you will find that majority religions often receive government benefits as minority religions face increased restrictions or even open persecution.

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Rather than forming state and religion alliances, however, many other nations have sought to have a secular state. For some nations, this is an ideal where the state is free of religious interference, religions are free of government interference and all religions are free to openly practice their faiths. This ideal was often held up in America. For other nations, the ideal is for the secular state to be anti-religious and strive to reduce or eliminate religious influences in the culture. An ideal in the 1960s for Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. In practice, neither ideal is fully met. Even when the state is officially secular, the cultural and religious majority will seek, and often receive, favored treatment from the government. Likewise, government attempts to eliminate religion have failed. The relationship between religion and the state has proven an ongoing negotiation. 

The relationship between religion and the state, however, also is heavily influenced by the historical and cultural context. The national culture, or more likely the many competing cultures of a nation, influence how religions are treated both by state and non-state actors. When ethnicity or distinctive cultural identities overlap with religion, the minority religion and culture often face discrimination on many fronts. Popular culture, social media, religious and political advocacy groups, and economic and educational institutions can all promote biases and discrimination against minority groups. Tensions between the groups can result in open conflict, where the minority religions are both the targets and the perpetrators of violent acts. 

To explore these complex relationships, the readings and the exercise for this week will draw heavily from three global collections: the Religion and State Project at Bar Ilan University, the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and the Association of Religion Data Archives at the Pennsylvania State University. Although the collections vary in the research methodologies and information sources used, their measures on religion, the state and the surrounding culture are highly correlated and have produced very similar results. The readings will offer global overviews and the exercise will allow you to explore specific nations and regions more closely. Finally, we will interview Jonathan Fox, who is the Director of the Religion and State Project data collection, to learn more about how the data are collected and a few of the key findings.

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