The significance of internal views

As part of my Clark Byse fellowship this year, I taught a small workshop during the Fall semester on religious freedom. One of my sessions was devoted to getting a glimpse at the internal views of religions on religious freedom. In that session, I tried to examine religious freedom in two internalist intertwined senses. The first is a faith’s particular attitude to adherents of other faiths, while the second is freedom of conscience for its own adherents. Of course, these religious traditions are far from monolithic and surely there are dissensions within each faith community. There are enough similarities however to be able to paint one tradition’s views on the matter with broad brush strokes, I think. As expected with these kinds of topics, there was a lively discussion regarding the value of such viewpoint. One of the claims was that it does not matter what religions think internally because in any case they will have to conform to the overarching values of – more often than not – the liberal democratic state in which they find themselves.

The point that I was trying to make in the session of course was that it does matter what religions think. The clearest example would be the turnaround of the Catholic Church (though not all would probably agree with me that this could be considered a turnaround – some argue that it is a development in doctrine) with regard to freedom of conscience from the Syllabus of Errors to Dignitatis Humanae. For the past decade, the subject of these reconciliation efforts, that is, to recover internal resources which could be made compatible with external liberal values, and to judge a faith by its own terms, has been Islam. This internalist view can be undertaken by both one who is a member of the community as well as one who is outside of it. Each carries different implications. And if we are to proceed any further in these paralyzing debates about the compatibility between democracy and x-religion, one must take a closer look at the advantages that an internal engagement provides both to the external world and to the community itself.

But why should we give importance to these internal views? As outsiders, why should we bother with what religions say? The most obvious answer is that the ability to speak using the internal resources of the community is significant because it gives the faithful compelling doctrinal reasons for accepting new ways or reorienting old ones as authentic interpretations of their respective faiths. It gives the outsiders too some measure of awareness of what the doctrines purport to say, if only to discern them from the claims that extremists or radicals within the community make. That these doctrinal reinterpretations might come from an outsider makes the difference a matter of degree, not of kind. Clearly, this subject matter is too complex for a blog post but my goal here is more humble. I introduce the topic of internal views for a particular purpose. To use an example, the recent furor over the contraception mandate and the objections of the American Catholic Church hierarchy brought out a dilemma. In an NYT op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd, she noted that 98 percent of U.S. Catholic women practice birth control, notwithstanding papal teachings to the contrary. Clearly, there is some kind of divergence within the religious community on the salience of particular teachings, to put it mildly.  But the conclusion should not be that this 98 percent is the real Catholic Church or that the Catholic Church is only made up of the bishops. Either does not make sense. What is a liberal state to do?

When the state is confronted by dissenting views of a religious group, depending on the view or practice involved, the options are a) give them an exemption, or b) penalize them. In both cases, dissenting views are treated as outsiders, not quite the same as the real outsiders, but not on the same level as the insiders either. My suggestion in this post is what I would call something akin to transformative facilitation. Internal views are important because they represent authentic interpretations of religious doctrines by members of the community itself, among others. A rather undertheorized role of the state in this process is to facilitate this internal conversation, either among members only or members vis-à-vis outsiders. If one approves of the state’s role to see religious groups as fluid entities, i.e. capable of changing, it must therefore make an effort to ensure that dissenting members of the religious group are given an adequate opportunity to contest those views and be able to persuade their fellow members of the correctness of their positions. In other words, internal contestation must be made possible. One implication of this suggestion is that it is one less source of anxiety about the potential tyranny of recognizing religious group rights. By acknowledging that groups are always fluid, keeping everyone in to slug it out might just turn up the right mix fit for contemporary times.

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