The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 4

What is the ideal balance between faith and reason? Do people have a right to choose faith over reason, at least in matters of faith? The U.S. Constitution says yes.

the-first-amendmentWe’ve been exploring the problem of vilification of spiritual minorities by anti-cult groups. In Part 3 we discussed how hate material poisons the public information space, making people afraid to follow their conscience in spiritual matters for fear of what may be done to them by aggressive majoritarians.

Our consistent theme has been that even as anti-cult tactics have shifted from physical coercion to psychological coercion, the ACLU should still be concerned about the manner in which some anti-cult activities abridge the civil rights of minority adherents.

Part 3 (main section) closed with a quote from the U.S. Supreme Court on religious freedom, emphasizing the right of individuals and groups to believe, practice, teach, and organize as they see fit. Yet, in Part 2 we discussed the “gaslighting” of spiritual adherents — the effort by anti-cult groups to redefine faith-based phenomena as psychological maladies requiring “intervention.”

A “cult intervention” subjects the minority adherent to psychological coercion merely because she is exercising religious choice in a manner considered unpopular by some third party — possibly a family member, possibly an anti-cult activist, possibly some branch of government. The effect of such coercion can be emotionally devastating or even traumatic for the unsuspecting person who suddenly finds herself subjected to guerrilla therapy without understanding why, and without having signed a consent form.

It’s worth repeating that there are conspicuous elements of conformism and interventionism in anti-cult ideology. If minority adherents find meaning in activities like spiritual reading, reflection, prayer, meditation, chanting, etc., there must be something wrong with them that needs fixing, since most secular people don’t care for these things and don’t build their lives around them. An inherent logical fallacy in anti-cultism is to conflate the statistically rare with the pathological.

A neutral, common-sense reading of history and civilization — as well as any decent textbook on comparative religion — tells us that in every society there are always a few people who feel a spiritual calling which is stronger and more definite than what is felt by the general populace. These people are in the minority just as musical prodigies are in the minority, Olympic athletes are in the minority, and red-haired, green-eyed people with Type O Negative blood are in the minority. None of these groups require deprogramming or exit counseling to make them more like the majority, and neither do spiritual adherents. It is, of course, unethical to take people who are peaceably pursuing their minority interests, and subject them to some sort of forced mental health regime.

The implications for religious freedom are shocking inasmuch as few people seem to care about such mistreatment of minority adherents. In 1996, Dena S. Davis — a scholar with degrees in religion and law — penned an article contrasting religious choice and psychological aberration as dueling explanations for why people join new religious movements. Under the subhead “Medicalizing A Political Issue,” she wrote:

This maneuver has a number of results, not all of them consciously intended. First, it takes activities, such as forcible restraint of adults, that would normally be classified, ethically and legally, as harms and injuries, and reclassifies them as helpful and benign, even necessary, if done as part of a “deprogramming” attempt.

Second, by medicalizing a political issue, it attempts to move the locus of debate from freedom of religion and association, subjects which invite the active involvement of all citizens, to definitions and diagnosis of mental illness, a topic on which a tiny percentage of the population can claim an intimidating amount of mysterious expertise.

Third, by changing the definition of the arena from political/legal to medical, anti-cult activists take advantage of a tendency already present in our society to strip people of their legal protections by claiming to be acting in their best interests. Our democracy, and the many fences erected by our legal structure to guard our individual freedoms, has been traditionally understood as a defense primarily against a government wishing to do us harm[.] … We are much more poorly defended against those who would do us good. [Footnotes omitted, emphasis added.]

Dena S. Davis

Parallel arguments may be made about attempts by anti-cultists to falsely portray benign spiritual groups as abusive or even criminal. Here too, the hidden agenda is to remove the targeted groups from constitutional protections which would otherwise apply — to abridge their civil rights by creating rule-swallowing exceptions.

Hard-won civil rights are often subjected to de facto abridgement in this manner. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing all races the right to vote was abridged by state laws instituting poll taxes. More recently, the legal right to abortion affirmed by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade has been abridged by state laws creating massive exceptions. Hypothetically speaking, a state legislature might pass a law that only health facilities constructed out of AstroTurf and having three-hundred-foot high ceilings are permitted to perform abortions, thus effectively outlawing the practice — at least temporarily.

Other than enacting rule-swallowing exceptions, oppositional groups may also engage in extra-legal tactics which have the effect of abridging civil rights. This includes spreading alarmist misinformation, e.g., telling Blacks on the way to the polls that there’s been a terrible flood and the road up ahead is washed out. If they try and vote, they may be drowned. Or telling them to turn back because those trying to vote are being beaten and arrested (even if that’s not really happening).

Likewise, women who’ve made the difficult choice to terminate a pregnancy may find themselves taunted and harassed as they try to enter a health clinic. It doesn’t feel like freedom if you have to walk a gauntlet of name-calling to exercise a right you supposedly enjoy.

A real world example targeting spiritual minorities is the case of someone who posted this alarmist material on an anti-cult site:

If you are considered a minor (in NY I believe it is under the age of 17) and believe you have been raped while in [name of faith group], don’t remain silent, please for your sake and others, let your voice be heard. Call the police precinct where the incident took place, find out how long the “statute of limitations” is for that charge and tell the desk officer at the precinct that you would like to fill out a complaint report. Someone there will help you do it. If you are still not sure what to do, call the precinct where the incident occurred and ask to speak with a detective… If you believe you were raped (minor or not) and the occurrence just took place, even though it is incredibly tough, DO NOT take a shower or wash the clothes that you wore when the incident took place. Call or go to the precinct where the incident occurred as soon as possible to make a complaint — bring the clothes you wore at the time of the incident with you (especially underwear).

The faith group being targeted had a sum total of zero rape complaints in its 35-year history; yet in an increasingly information-driven society, one of the extra-legal means used to abridge the civil rights of spiritual minorities is information terrorism. If no one shows up at a particular church or temple because the public has been warned they’ll be raped (even if there’s zero chance of that happening), then no law specifically outlawing the spiritual group is needed. The same result has been gotten through hate propaganda.

A more subtle form of propaganda is the ethical attack — an attack which frames participation in minority faith groups as unethical because it’s said to constitute an abandonment of secular goals and secular relationships.

Here’s how I view the ethics of the situation: If a person feels a genuine calling to lead a more spiritual life, then they’re following the highest ethical obligation. This call, if it is genuine, comes from God and leads to God, just as ethics also comes from God and leads to God. As I discuss in “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics,” people of low ethics sometimes attack people with high ethics. Low ethics can manifest itself as mindless conformism to the endless rules, obligations, and familiar patterns of behaviour to which most people become unhappy slaves (and yet they want to enslave others, or pull them down). High ethics lives close to the light of God and therefore lives in freedom and love.

When a person feels a calling deep within to pray, meditate, read spiritual books, seek spiritual counsel, and make spiritual friends, to follow this call is deeply ethical behaviour, even if it’s sometimes criticized by worldly people. Here I am not speaking of a momentary whim to run off and join the circus, but a genuine longing for higher truth — for the peace, light and joy which we only get in abundant measure when we make some effort to lead a spiritual life.

Some people make scientific rationalism their God, which is fine for them according to their level of development, but not so good when they try and force others to conform to it. When scientific rationalism is applied harshly and inappropriately to spiritual matters, we often get an accompanying ethic which says that no appeal other than to reason can be moral. This creates problems for spiritual seekers, since (as we discussed in Part 1), conversion experiences are typically intuitive or mystical in nature rather than being based on a series of logical steps.

Sociologist Joseph E. Davis — who is somewhat sympathetic to minority adherents and critical of the anti-cult movement — nonetheless makes the traditional case for rationalism in this passage:

At least since the time of Plato, a distinction has been made in moral philosophy between persuasion that consists in offering reasons for holding a particular belief and persuasion that consists in subjecting someone to a psychological pressure which produces an ungrounded — i.e. without reasons to back it up — conviction. This distinction is the basis for evaluating the morality of particular persuasion techniques. Why this is so rests on the belief that a man’s exercise of rationality is essential to his position as a moral agent. Unlike animals which act on the basis of instinct, men are rational, capable of voluntary choice, and can thus be held morally responsible for their actions. The exceptions — very young children, madmen, for example — prove the rule for they are exceptions precisely because they comprise classes of persons who are not yet in full possession of or who have lost their rationality.

Whether one comes to hold a belief by reasoning or in some nonrational way, therefore, is not morally neutral. Techniques of persuasion not based on argumentation that is backed up by reasons, which the one being persuaded can inspect and consider, cannot be considered moral. In this light a great deal of the political grandstanding, mass media advertising, and ideological sloganeering that is a regular feature of modern American life is morally problematic. Using this criteria [sic], some of the techniques used by some [new religious movements] — e.g. “flirty fishing” (winning converts through the arousal of sexual passion), and deception of new recruits — can clearly be morally rejected.

In general though, in matters of faith, a great deal of caution must be exercised. Individuals must be allowed to submit their reason to the demands of their faith and to hold their religious convictions with intensity. Anti-cult polemics work from the unspoken assumption that many [new religious movement] beliefs are so wild that no rational person could ever adopt them. Thus, the [new religious movement] member’s rationality must have been subverted by some clever milieu manipulation techniques, important information withheld, and so on. The very notion of “totalism” contains a built in moderation-in-all-things bias against those who hold exclusivist truth claims. But this chauvinistic approach misses the moral point.

— Joseph E. Davis, from “Thought Control, Totalism, and the Extension of the Anti-Cult Critique Beyond the ‘Cults'”

Davis is outlining a dichotomy whereby only two main means of persuasion are recognized: the rational (deemed to be good and ethical), and the nonrational (equated with emotional appeals and considered unethical or manipulative). This is a primarily secular taxonomy which largely disregards the nature and varieties of religious experience.

The kinds of experiences catalogued by psychologist William James include those where a person is alone — devoid of human company — but becomes utterly convinced that they have been “touched by the hand of God.” If we accept some such testimonies as true, must we also fault God as an unethical and manipulative being who fails to approach the person with a thick philosophical tract, elucidate its meaning point by point, and try to win them over to His side through clever arguing? I think not.

When Davis proclaims that “Individuals must be allowed to submit their reason to the demands of their faith and to hold their religious convictions with intensity,” he’s implying that there might be spiritual means of persuasion which, on the one hand are not rational, but on the other hand are not unethical. In a Zen Buddhist monastery, for example, the techniques used to reach enlightenment are distinctly nonrational, but few would suggest they are unethical.

Davis is opening the door to the possibility that the “exercise of rationality” is not the only test of human beings as “moral agents.” A person might act morally and ethically by following the dictates of their conscience in spiritual matters. To hold “one’s religious convictions with intensity” might be the moral and ethical thing to do, and might lead to a state of grace or enlightenment in which one comes naturally to act in a moral and ethical manner, no longer having any motive or impulse to do otherwise.

Spiritual intuition differs from base animal instinct. To follow one’s spiritual intuition is not unethical, and may indeed provide a visionary quality which has significant transformative capabilities. One might make faster progress by following one’s spiritual intuition than by taking the (often glacially slow) path of deductive reasoning. But are there historical or political reasons why intuition is treated as something “irrational” or “feminine”? In “Faith & Feminism,” Kimberly George writes:

Problem #2: We assume that religion is inherently “irrational.”

There is a tendency, especially within the academic world, to secretly assume that religious people aren’t quite on board with the modern “rational” project. But, it’s a serious misrepresentation. We have to realize that when we use the language of “rational” and “irrational,” we are borrowing (consciously or not) a hierarchical system of thought gifted to us largely by Anglo-patriarchal Enlightenment philosophers. It’s a binary that has justified sexism, racism, and colonialism. We feminists ought to be suspicious, to say the least, whenever the terms of this binary are invoked, implied, or even just snuck into the conversation by our dismissive attitudes.

When we assume women of faith are “irrational,” we elide their agency, and worse yet, we tend to marginalize important players in women’s history — because the truth is, women’s history is infused with super smart religious women who are writers, peace-keepers, reformers, and political agents.

— Kimberly George, from “Faith & Feminism”

Let me go one step further than Kimberly George: Religion is sometimes nonrational, and that’s okay! — that doesn’t remove it from the sphere of protection vouchsafed by religious tolerance and human rights. I see a subtle distinction between the words “irrational” and “nonrational.” “Irrational” can imply a lack of needed faculties of rationality, while “nonrational” can imply arrived at by means other than rationality. (Some people use the term “transrational” consistent with their belief that spiritual knowledge transcends the mind.)

Mystical experiences play an important role in many spiritual traditions; and while mystical experiences are themselves nonrational, they’re often explained within a larger philosophical framework which is rational and consistent. Thus, many living, vibrant spiritual traditions can be described as practicing techniques which lead to direct spiritual experiences, and as proliferating a philosophy and culture in which these experiences make sense, become comprehensible.

I’ve written before about the regrettable French obsession with banishing all traces of religion from public life. This underscores the need for there to be spiritual communities where spiritual experiences become possible because there is support for them, as well as a context for interpreting them and understanding them. As the public space becomes increasingly secularized and sanitized of religious feeling, it’s obvious that the spiritual action is found elsewhere. Criticizing spiritual groups for creating their own intentional communities is both unfair and hypocritical. They are often driven to do so by the forced secularization occurring in the mainstream.

Since the physical public space and the media space have become highly secularized, then if you visit a spiritual community, naturally you’ll find that people there are living their lives differently. Why is this a bad thing? Difference does not equal abuse. Life in a convent, monastery, ashram, or other spiritual community can be quite harmonious and fulfilling because it’s a voluntary community where people consciously choose to lead their lives based on spiritual principles. Secular chauvinism aside, there’s no reason to assume their lives are any less meaningful than the lives led by people who inherit the default set of secular values. Quite simply, there’s more than one way to be happy.

In the U.S., there are (in theory) strong constitutional protections for minority faith groups; but we are an intensely populist nation, and making such groups unpopular is one de facto method of abridging their civil rights. When we encounter anti-cult material which tries to criminalize faith, it’s well to remember this quote from John E. LeMoult writing in the Fordham Law Review:

Parents’ real concern is not with any allegedly illegal action on the part of various sects, but with the process by which new members are proselytized and then confirmed in their beliefs by leaders of the groups. That process is speech. Preaching, praying, chanting, teaching, and meditating all constitute practices heavily protected by the Constitution.

— John E. LeMoult, from “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects”

Why did our founding fathers see fit to protect these practices? Not because they are unethical, but because they are essential to the free exercise of religion.

In Part 5 we’ll continue to seek the ideal balance between faith and reason, and take a look at an interesting Scientific American article. We’ll make the case that “freedom of heart” is just as important as “freedom of mind,” and just as deserving of legal protections.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


5 comments on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 4

  1. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3 | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5 | Ethics and Spirituality

  3. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1 | Ethics and Spirituality

  4. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

  5. Pingback: Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy | Ethics and Spirituality

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