Religious freedom is much in the air these days. In the coming weeks, The Immanent Frame will publish a series of reflections on religious freedom, beginning with four initial posts by a group of scholars involved in a joint research project that steps back from the political fray to consider the multiple histories and genealogies of religious freedom—and the multiple contexts in which those histories and genealogies are salient today. It is only the beginning of what will be, necessarily, an unfinished and complex effort. Talk of religious freedom, or a lack thereof, is always only part of a much larger story. We look forward to learning from the posts that follow.

—Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, TIF guest editors

*   *   *

I have no doubt that freedom of religion or belief is attaining a prominence in international affairs unforeseen and unforeseeable even five, let alone ten years ago. The reasons are distressingly negative—based as it is on increasing levels of repression and violence against believers of many faiths.

—Malcolm Evans

The category of belief is not so easily transferred from one society to another, and…those who seek to do so are subject to the consequences of their deed.

—Donald Lopez, Jr.

Like a good movie, the story of international religious freedom offers something for everyone. It pits cowardly oppressors against heroic saviors. It is a story of the triumph of international law over those who fail to adhere to global norms and standards. It is a story of secular tolerance versus violent religion. And today especially, it is a story of the need for the U.S. government and its friends to “convince” others—particularly Muslims—that they should endorse a particular model of religious liberty as a template for organizing and democratizing their politics and societies. It is a story of human progress and emancipation, of transforming conditions of religious oppression to liberate individuals—particularly women—from their primitive, pre-modern, discriminatory ways. Working alone and in tandem, these narratives justify intervention to save, define, shape, and sanctify parts of people’s (religious and non-religious) individual and collective lives. The projects with which they are associated are diverse yet intertwined, at times supporting and at times vying with one another. It is a mixed bag.

One common feature of these accounts is the notion that belief is the defining feature of religion. Although occasionally paying respect to other aspects of religious life and belonging, belief as the core of religiosity is a powerful unifying trope to which religious freedom advocates return again and again. Rallying around religion as belief, and the assumption that there can be no religion without belief, plays a central role in international religious freedom campaigns. This post asks whether it would be possible to continue promoting religious freedom as a universalizable construct if this modern construct of belief were seen as a political discourse situated in history, rather than as the mark of the sacred. And if it isn’t possible, then what is religious freedom advocacy actually promoting?

In his contribution to the new Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, Talal Asad questions the universality of the liberal democratic requirement that belief or conscience is what properly defines the individual and, for many liberals in particular, represents the essence of religiosity. His argument helps cast in a new light the position that belief is the defining moment of religion, underwriting protection of religious freedom as the right to believe by states as well as by various transnational actors and authorities.

Asad dates the requirement that belief be taken as the essence of religiosity to the religious psychology of seventeenth-century Europe. At that time belief came to be regarded as a privilege (a subject’s ability to choose her belief), a danger (belief’s likelihood of inciting violence), and something that cannot be coerced because it is located in the private space of the mind. Don Lopez has described this seventeenth-century notion as “an ideology of belief, that is, an assumption deriving from the history of Christianity that religion is above all an interior state of assent to certain truths.” This discourse of belief was accompanied by a particular understanding of the secular state. “Although the insistence that beliefs cannot be changed from outside appeared to be saying something empirical about ‘personal belief’ (its singular, autonomous and inaccessible-to-others location), it was really part of a political discourse about ‘privacy,’” Asad explains, “a claim to civil immunity with regard to religious faith that reinforced the idea of a secular state and a particular conception of religion.”

Asad draws attention to the shifting and lived (rather than theorized) orientations through which belief has been experienced historically. Words translated as ‘belief’ are always embedded in concrete and distinctive social relationships and sensibilities, he suggests, as illustrated by Dorothea Weltecke’s description of a young peasant woman named Aude Fauré, who was brought before the Inquisition:

She was unable, she said, to credere in Deum. What she meant by this, Weltecke points out, emerges from the detailed context: She took the existence of a God for granted. It was because, in her desperation, she couldn’t see in the Eucharist anything but bread, and because she found herself struggling with disturbing thoughts about incarnation, that she had no hope of God’s mercy. It is not clear that the doctrine of God’s body appearing in the form of bread is being challenged here; what is certainly being expressed is her anguished relationship to him as a consequence of her own incapacity to see anything but bread. In short, it is not that our present concept of belief (that something is true) was absent in pre-modern society but that the words translated as such were usually embedded in distinctive social and political relationships, articulated distinctive sensibilities; they were first of all lived and only secondarily theorized.

If international religious freedom advocacy projects claim as their object the need to secure freedom to believe, Asad’s argument points to some of the complications attending these efforts. Inasmuch as the protection and enforcement of religious freedom hinges upon, and even sanctifies, a religious psychology that relies on the notion of an autonomous subject who chooses beliefs, and then enacts them, such projects privilege particular kinds of religious subjectivity while disabling others. They contribute to the normalization of (religious) subjects for whom believing, in the sense historicized by Asad, is taken as the universal defining characteristic of what it means to be religious, and the right to believe as the essence of what it means to be free, excluding other modes of living in the world, as bodies in communities to which they are obliged, without attention to individual “belief.”

Recent arguments by Malcolm Evans in favor of strengthening the framework of international legal protections for religious freedom illustrate the extent to which belief is taken as the essence of religiosity. Evans argues that legal protection for religious freedom should be seen no longer as “only an option, but it is fast becoming a necessity in order to prevent the further erosion of the position of religious believers in many countries.” The international community should start “developing a more precise understanding of what the freedom of religion as a human right actually entails, and … do so in a coherent and transparent fashion to which all interested parties can contribute” so that “we might then be better placed to develop the means by which it can be realised.” The idea is to settle on the norm, agree on a definition, and fix it in an international convention to move one step closer to ending violence. Such a convention would provide “a more detailed, comprehensive and rounded source of legal obligation concerning the freedom of religion or belief.” This reference to religion or belief explicitly includes non-religious belief as well. It is not only religionists but also non-religionists that are defined by belief. It is everyone. A convention would breathe new life into an anemic global consensus that to date has not offered the protection we all deserve, having “done little to combat the rising tide of restriction, hostility and violence experienced by many religious believers” by tackling “the overriding problem, which is how to hold States to account for their own failure to respect and protect the rights of all believers.”

This argument resonates powerfully in international legal and public policy circles.

Yet the historical particularities of the rise of a particular economy of belief and its close ties, and even constitutive relationship, to the modern notion of religion itself calls for a different reading of Evans’ ambitions. Perhaps contemporary international religious freedom projects should be seen as themselves engendering the formation of individual subjects and “faith communities” for whom believing, in the sense historicized by Asad and lionized by Evans, is seen as the universal defining characteristic of what it is to be religious, and the right to believe as the essence of what it means to be free. To achieve this unity in freedom of belief, belief in belief, as it were, across communities of belief (and non-belief), is what it means to have achieved religious freedom. As Evans testifies, “Faith communities must reject the superficial attractions of claiming or accepting such freedoms for themselves alone, and unhesitatingly support the freedom of religion or belief for all. Unless or until religious communities are prepared to champion for everyone the freedoms that they wish their own followers to enjoy, there is likely to be little opportunity for seriously furthering the freedom of religion or belief at all.”

This identification of religion and religious communities primarily with belief and believers writes out of the picture alternative spaces and practices, such as those described in a recent post by Simon During, in which religion is lived as ethics, culture, and even politics, but without, necessarily, belief. Questioning the presupposition that religion implies belief, During calls for atheists to take over Church institutions from the inside, replicating what he describes as “older conditions and styles of at least Christian ecclesiastical practice, in which belief was not a prerequisite for episcopal ordination.”

The foreclosure on religion without belief also leaves little room for dissenters and doubters on the margins of or just outside those ‘faith communities’ described by Evans, whose voices tend to be subsumed or submerged by the institutions and authorities that speak in their name. It endows hierarchical authorities with the power to represent and pronounce on what is or is not religious belief deserving of special protection or sanction. Asad remarks on the instability of the notion of religious belief that underlies Charles Taylor’s vindication of the promise of religion:

The difficulty is this: What are to count as religious beliefs? Should beliefs denounced by the medieval Latin church as superstitio (wrongheadedness) therefore be regarded as secular beliefs? Or should they be pronounced religious on the criteria provided by those Enlightenment critics for whom all religion was superstition? Is the intention to carry out a particular act crucial to its religiosity? If so, how and by whom is that to be judged? Clearly how the phenomenon of belief that historians write about should be understood is a complicated question.

It may be worth inquiring into the extent to which a particular secularized Christian notion of the believing or non-believing human is being disseminated through international institutions and practices associated with the promotion of religious freedom “so that it is, to some extent, everywhere—translated, resisted, vernacularized, invoked in political struggles, and made the standard language enforced by power.” To what extent is the autonomous subject defined by his or her belief (or non-belief) normalized not only by secular states and (their) religious freedom activists, but now, also, through a rapidly proliferating series of transnational legal regimes and administrative initiatives that have eagerly adopted this template and have as their objective to protect and enforce the right to religious freedom?

Consider the crisis in Syria. Calls for the protection of persecuted Christians in Syria and neighboring countries are a cornerstone of religious freedom advocacy in the wake of the uprisings. Joe Eibner of Christian Solidarity International has lobbied President Obama to urge UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to declare a genocide warning for Christians across the Middle East. Howard Berman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has stated that the future of minorities is “on our agenda as we figure out how to help these countries” and their treatment of Christians and other minorities is a “‘red line’ that will affect future aid.” Habib Malik of Lebanese American University calls for Western nations to stand up for the rights of Christians, who he says may be cleansed from lands where democratic elections are used to oppress minorities rather than empower them. While this must be done “in a way that is not misperceived on the other end,” Malik concludes, “the West should not be cowed.” USA Today reports that “Christians in Syria, where Muslims have risen up against President Bashar Assad, have been subjected to murder, rape and kidnappings in Damascus and rebellious towns, according to Christian rights groups, including Open Doors, which helps Christians facing persecution.”

The momentum builds, as persecution of Christians takes on a life of its own and may, in some cases, come to define the conflict on the ground. The logic of the story is clear: when “Muslims rise up against Assad,” the result is Christian persecution. Yet the Syrian protests are not captured by the notion of “Muslims rising up against Assad.” This is the regime’s narrative. For decades the Assad family has relied upon the purported threat of sectarian anarchy lurking just below the surface of society and politics to justify autocratic rule. Defining the revolt “less as a popular uprising against a secular autocracy and more as an armed sectarian conflict pitting Sunnis against Alawites and their Shiite allies: Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah” hardens lines of religious difference and makes sectarian violence more likely. In this case, advocacy in the name of protecting Christians’ freedom of belief is adding fuel to the fire of the very religious and sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be uniquely equipped to transcend. In Evans’ words, the conflict is understood as directly resulting from a refusal to acknowledge the rights of “believers,” concealing the ways in which divisions cut across sectarian divides and the ways forward that emerge when the focus is not on beliefs but on shared needs and visions. The crisis in Syria calls for an approach to protecting human life and dignity that goes beyond these calls for ‘freedom of belief,’ and that loosens the grip of this construct on the political imaginary of the conflict.

Asad concludes his chapter by observing that “the modern idea of religious belief (protected as an individual right) is a function of the secular state but not of democratic sensibility.” In its strongest forms, the story of international religious freedom globalizes the secular state’s power over the individual. Appearing as a guarantee of the worth of the individual’s own desires, it is actually a story of telling people who they are, what to do and how to be. It privileges particular ways of doing and being as deserving special protection by the state or associations thereof, leaving others behind. Like other categories, it singles out authorized representatives of believers (and less frequently non-believers) for legal protection, reinforcing divisions and hierarchies within and between communities. And in its most insistent moments, it is a story of the costs in human dignity and diversity associated with the attempt to make “belief the measure of what religion is understood to be,” and the freedom to believe the measure of what it means to be free. Aude Fauré was brought before the Inquisition at the beginning of this modern attempt at mind control. Today it has become a global enterprise.