Voluntary Religion

March 1, 2005

An interesting story about the growing religious laxness of Iranian youth born and/or raised after the 1979 Revolution provides somewhat of a case study about force in religion.

Religious figures in Iran, including President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, have noted with dismay that Iran’s disproportionately youthful population, around two-thirds of whom were born after the 1979 Islamic revolution, are increasingly turning away from religion.

Mohsen Kadivar, a mid-ranking cleric and philosophy lecturer whose views have landed him in prison, told Reuters in an interview earlier this month that young people in secular Turkey were more interested in religion than those in Iran.

This shows that religion is voluntary. Forcing it on society has the opposite effect,” he said.

This certainly supports my own beliefs about freedom and religion–and about religious freedom. Religion appropriately belongs in the marketplace of ideas. I don’t believe this denigrates religion in any way. For all the doomssaying in Europe and among the American Left about how America is so (too) religious, it remains a solid fact that America is a secular state that fosters not only religious freedom but also religious pluralism. In this sense, the American way is more conducive to the marketplace of ideas for religion and thus, more people are religious.

European commentators relish quoting with disdain figures about American religiosity and they try to portray it as fanaticism or plain idiocy. Whether this is idiocy or not is beside the point; but it is not automatically fanaticism. In reality, the high religiosity seems like a natural reaction to the religious freedom that exists in the United States. In fact, the American system of religious freedom steers an essential middle course between French laïcité–which, in truth, is hostile rather than neutral toward religion–and state-sponsored religion. America has generally managed to promote religious pluralism through its liberal approach to religious freedom better than European countries have been able to achieve. This might have to do with notions of a secular, post-religious Europe, or it might have to do with the state intereference in matters of religion that exists in most European countries. (In truth, I think it is a mixture of both and not one to the exclusion of the other, but this means that the blame is not solely on the “post-religious” nature of secular European development.)

In many European countries, the state actively sponsors a particular church to the exclusion of other, just as legitimate though perhaps not as old, churches and religions. America, on the other hand, views the freedom of religion as a fundamental human right. That is, one “sect” or religion is just as free to foster its own beliefs as others, from an official standpoint, anyway. (It is true, I firmly believe, that personal biases of individual Americans can impede religious pluralism, but this is not official state action.) If the result of a system that not only protects religious freedom but also promotes religious pluralism by avoiding hostility toward religion is that most Americans are religious or even deeply religious, then this is a good fruit and the tree must be preserved.

[UPDATE: Wilfried Decco has provided an excellent case study of Alessia and Adelbert Denaux of the lack of religious freedom in a country with both a state-sponsored church and a state-sponsored list of all the other churches and religions that are "cults," since they are not among the few state-sponsored or tolerated churches. Belgium offers the worst of both situations: a state-sponsored church and state-sponsored discrimination against all others combined with a popular espousal of laïcité; that is, the state sponsors a church that most people don't believe in because of their secular and humanistic biases, which they mistaken believe must necessarily be evidence against religion, particularly others' religions.]


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