The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5

What is freedom of heart, and how does it differ from freedom of mind? Are the two compatible? Should we follow our hearts?

In Part 4 we talked about various methods used by oppositional groups to abridge the civil rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, and by laws guaranteeing freedom of choice in spiritual matters. Some of those tactics include spreading alarmist misinformation, or attempting to portray minority choices as unethical, irrational, or even criminal. Yet, the many spiritual groups which dot our land are part of America. They do not lie outside her borders, and participating in them can be an ethical, sensible, and (dare I say?) joyful choice for someone who feels a genuine spiritual calling.

Many people inherit secular beliefs and values by default and accept them unquestioningly. But of course, the whole point of laws guaranteeing religious freedom is that they’re there to protect minorities from maltreatment at the hands of aggressive majoritarians.

An analogy to freedom of speech can be made in that the latter is hardly tested by walking down Main Street at high noon whistling “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Free speech is only tested when one whistles a less popular tune or acts in some unexpected way, such as opposing a popular war.

The attempt to crack down on unpopular views and unpopular religions often entails looking for some excuse — some way of redefining matters so that the crackdown no longer appears as an affront to human rights, but rather as a necessary imposition of social control. The reason some Commonwealth nations (such as our next door neighbour Canada) have passed laws against religious vilification is that they rightly perceive such vilification as leading to religious persecution (which historically it has). First come the angry denunciations, then come the townsfolk with flaming brands to burn down the convent, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

In Part 4, after exploring the question of whether faith arrived at by nonrational means can be moral and ethical, we closed by noting that 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 practising techniques which lead to direct spiritual experiences, and as proliferating a philosophy and culture in which these experiences make sense, become comprehensible.

Yet, as the secular world becomes increasingly estranged from the spiritual world, secular do-gooders want to wage war on spiritual groups in order to “rescue” adherents from “magical thinking” and other fates apparently worse than death. (See “Putting The Wind Up Richard Dawkins” for a humorous look at the effort to “batten down the hatches of reality so that no trace of imagination can infiltrate the 39th parallel of dull and boring.”)

One way of describing these conflicts is as relating to differences between “freedom of heart” and “freedom of mind.” The latter has become a cornerstone of Western democracies, but the former is sometimes thrown into question. One method used by anti-cultists to circumvent constitutional protections is to impose a host of conditions on faith, including the requirement that faith be arrived at through a rigidly prescribed course of critical reasoning.

At first glance, this requirement seems modest, since as a society we find critical reasoning immensely helpful in science (which it certainly is). However, spirituality is a quite different field, and critical reasoning is not always beneficial to faith — in fact, it may sometimes be an impediment, not because faith is bad or because it inherently conflicts with reason, but because faith is intuitive or “of the heart” and relates to matters which cannot be resolved empirically. As we discussed in Part 1 via William James and Carl Jung, conversion experiences tend to come as personal revelations rather than analytical conclusions. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, we are each entitled to our personal revelations, and to act on them in a positive way which does not harm others.

Analytical thinking and intuitive faith are quite different modes of exploring any question. Both tools are part of the human toolkit, and each individual has a right to decide how best to use them. The mode chosen will often determine the outcome, as this Scientific American article suggests:

Religious belief drops when analytical thinking rises

Why are some people more religious than others? Answers to this question often focus on the role of culture or upbringing. While these influences are important, new research suggests that whether we believe may also have to do with how much we rely on intuition versus analytical thinking. In 2011 Amitai Shenhav, David Rand and Joshua Greene of Harvard University published a paper showing that people who have a tendency to rely on their intuition are more likely to believe in God. They also showed that encouraging people to think intuitively increased people’s belief in God. Building on these findings, in a recent paper published in Science, Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia found that encouraging people to think analytically reduced their tendency to believe in God. Together these findings suggest that belief may at least partly stem from our thinking styles.

— Daisy Grewal, “How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God”

There is a sense, then, in which insisting that faith be subjected to critical thinking is like insisting that virginity be subjected to penetration: by definition, it cannot survive the ordeal. Indeed, without wishing to be overly alarmist, I would describe what is often done to minority adherents by anti-cultists as a kind of “faith rape” in the sense that adherents are force-fed hateful depictions and imagery which are not so much an appeal to reason as an attempt at emotional savagery.

Nevertheless, it’s a frequent trick of exit counselors to manipulate the target of a so-called “cult intervention” into critical thinking mode and away from faith-based mode. But if a person has not signed a consent form, why should she be subjected to these professional faith-breaking techniques? She has a right to her faith, and a right to decline to subject it to a stranger’s demand for critical thinking, especially if her intuition is that the stranger means her no good. This also applies to apostates who may come in the guise of friendship, but then try to sabotage our faith by subjecting us to the same faith-breaking techniques which were practised on them.

We sometimes harbour the assumption that faith must be subjected to extreme doubt and skepticism, and only then may it be considered worthy. Particularly as applied to beginning seekers whose faith is not yet strong, this is like saying a newborn infant should only be allowed to live if it can survive exposure to wind, rain, and cold — to all the destructive elements. Such a view lacks the milk of human kindness.

Anti-cultists tend to be ultra-rationalists who demand that all decisions must be based on critical thinking. Yet, a spiritual seeker is not required to investigate all possible contrary views before accepting a faith which he or she finds admirable. To put the latter in traditional Christian terms: the person who is considering accepting the teachings of Jesus need not first listen to the promptings of Judas. Indeed, to do so might well be inimical to the means and goals of faith. Nascent faith can be as delicate as a budding plant, in need of protection not assault. Adherents who refuse to sit still for such assault may find that they’re spammed with hate e-mails from anti-cultists, or that hate material intended to “deprogram” them is physically mailed to them using false designation of origin (a type of mail fraud).

It is a fallacy to suggest that one is entitled to forcibly “rescue” adherents from a minority faith on the grounds that they made their choice without reading (for example) anti-cult material portraying the faith’s leader as a scoundrel or criminal. This fallacy may reflect a bias toward critical thinking on the part of those objecting to faith-based decision-making. Yet, people are entitled to choose a faith in the same way that they often choose a political candidate or fall in love: based on what they feel is true in their hearts. Though this may sound like heresy to strict rationalists, the heart can be a very effective truth meter, especially the pure heart which aspires to become one with some higher vision.


Chyi Yu (sometimes called the Chinese Enya) sings the “Heart Sutra,” a work of Buddhist mysticism here sung in Mandarin.

For many people, spiritual faith is found primarily in the heart rather than the mind, and indeed, there have been many heart-based spiritual movements. There is nothing wrong with choosing to live life “in the heart” rather than “in the mind.” The freedom to do so is an indispensable component of religious choice.

It is often thoroughly appropriate for spiritual seekers to be concerned that their heart’s faith might be eclipsed by their mind’s reason, since this is in large part the history (and tragedy) of the modern world. There are people who sense intuitively (and correctly) that if they subjected their faith to an onslaught of critical thinking, their faith would not survive — not because their faith is wrong or bad, but because it is primarily heart-centered. As Miranda Hart humorously relates, one may have a feeling of spirituality, but find that “empirical reasoning makes it stop.”

There may be sound reasons why the existence of God is more easily discovered and maintained in the heart than in the mind, but I am not here endeavouring to write a spiritual treatise. Suffice it to say that heart-centered faith can be very fruitful, and does not constitute a type of anti-intellectualism. It is perfectly reasonable for people to choose their heart’s faith when it comes to spiritual matters, while fully respecting and utilizing the mind’s capacities when it comes to inherently scientific and mathematical matters, such as predicting annual rainfall or calculating square roots.

Moreover, the process of spiritual unfoldment occurs in stages. Many people go through a phase in which they explore life’s mysteries using the critical mind. Paradoxically, they may find that this approach does not lead to spiritual fruition, and so they make an intelligent, sensible decision to change their mode of inquiry to one which is faith-based or heart-centered. To do so is neither anti-intellectual nor anti-scientific, but merely represents a personal decision about which tool in one’s toolbox can best do the job at hand. (After all, both the heart and the mind are our possessions.)

Such a change in strategies is logical given the numerous examples of intellectuals who spent their whole lives speculating and puzzling about spiritual matters, but seemingly got nowhere. Somehow they became trapped in a formal system (like Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica), but unfortunately God is found outside that formal system. So if we are sincere seekers, we need to search where God is, using means which are known to work. Otherwise, we may become trapped endlessly exploring our own mental pathways, and God will remain a far cry.

Just because someone has ultimately opted for a faith-based approach doesn’t imply that they’re unacquainted with reason or have not used it to good advantage at an earlier stage of their spiritual quest. Many accounts by converts to new religions show that such conversion was the outwardly noticeable culmination of a more gradual process which included initial skepticism, investigation, study, self-examination, and finally a decision that “Yes, this is right for me — this is closest to what I believe and feel.” But again, this process need not be perfect nor satisfy some external authority in order to qualify for protection under laws guaranteeing freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

There are, moreover, different types and degrees of faith. Some faith groups emphasize spiritual methods which yield practical results. These groups require less “pie in the sky” type of faith; adherents merely need enough faith to practice the techniques mentioned by John LeMoult in Part 1, such as chanting, yoga, meditation, and renunciation of base desires. (See this question and answer by Sri Chinmoy from Mind-Confusion and Heart-Illumination, Part 1.)

Most spiritual groups combine beliefs, practices, lifestyle, culture, and philosophy in an integral way. Together, these things comprise a particular approach to the truth. While each group is different, through the study of comparative religion and the practice of religious tolerance, we can discover common elements and shared experiences which lead to a universal understanding of religion. This type of study and practice requires basic human empathy. If we begin by “otherizing” spiritual groups or are obsessed with discrediting them, this will act as a heavy-handed filter of information and an impediment to understanding.

Minority religionists are not fundamentally different from majority religionists, nor are they a world apart from human beings who make mainstream secular choices or who aren’t even aware that they have a choice. In an increasingly multicultural and multireligious world, a helpful way to respond to seemingly unorthodox faith groups is by practising tolerance, not by stigmatizing minority religions or adherents.

The civil liberties/religious tolerance POV recognizes that the scientific method is extremely valuable, but is not the only mode of reaching knowledge. Secular rationalism is only one item on a menu of choices available to every person. There are a wide range of spiritual options, and people are entitled to choose them without being harassed by anti-cultists. Nor are the choices mutually exclusive. One might choose the scientific method for exploring scientific questions, and a faith-based method for exploring spiritual questions. In this way one might enjoy both freedom of mind and freedom of heart.

Freedom of mind and freedom of heart must go together; yet we fail to understand their differences and how each can be applied successfully to different areas of life. Science and spirituality must go together. Freedom of mind can lead to the farthest horizons of scientific exploration, while freedom of heart can lead to the deepest recesses of spiritual knowledge powered by faith. The problem with those who champion freedom of mind only — but suppress freedom of heart — is that they lead us to a heartless and faithless world in which love of God is skewered on the naked barbs of intellect. This is not the right balance, the balance we need to move forward into the next epoch.

The balance we need combines maximum scientific freedom with maximum spiritual freedom so that both science and spirituality can bring us truths hitherto undreamt of in their respective fields. In Galileo’s time, science was suppressed at the expense of material progress. Today, religion is suppressed at the expense of spiritual progress. What we need is for both to flourish, and for each to respect the capacities of the other to improve the human condition.

Against this backdrop, assaults on religious freedom by those claiming to represent science, rationality, and liberal thinking are simply unconscionable. Like freedom of speech, freedom of religion is needed to express the full palette of possibilities inherent in the human spirit. There is no end to human progress, and we cannot predict where the next great breakthrough will lie. Both scientific visionaries and spiritual visionaries have the potential to ease human suffering and advance human understanding. Both kinds of visionaries are needed, and both must be free to pursue their very different kinds of work, to experiment and innovate, and to offer the fruits of their labours to their fellow human beings without fear of persecution. Only through freedom and cooperation can we ensure that the twenty-first century does not repeat the twentieth century’s sad lesson of unparalleled human destruction.

Freedom of mind must be restored to its exalted Jeffersonian meaning, implying also freedom of heart, freedom of conscience, freedom of faith, and freedom from persecution for daring to differ from the majority. Freedom of mind must (as the Supreme Court has said) encompass the “freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse,” and the “right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”

Though the Court so stated in a compulsory patriotism case (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette), it applies no less to the notion of compulsory rationalism. No person is required to satisfy an external authority that his or her spiritual faith passes some arbitrary test for rationality. Rather, as Mr. Justice Douglas opined in United States v. Ballard:

Freedom of thought, which includes freedom of religious belief, is basic in a society of free men. It embraces the right to maintain theories of life and of death and of the hereafter which are rank heresy to followers of the orthodox faiths. Heresy trials are foreign to our Constitution. Men may believe what they cannot prove. They may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs. Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others.

Justice William O. Douglas, United States v. Ballard

Douglas was writing in 1944, when the reigning orthodoxy was Judeo-Christian. Some would argue that in the ensuing 70 years, that orthodoxy has shifted to secularism. Yet, the same principle still applies: Men (and women) may believe what they cannot prove, and may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs.

The visionary aspect of religious freedom is that it’s meant to apply equally to the innovators, not just to churches and temples which have stood for three hundred years or more. Living religions demand living freedoms.

There will inevitably be areas of life where the differing methodologies of faith and reason lead to different conclusions. Each individual has a right to choose faith over reason if that is what he or she feels is the right decision based on conscience. Nothing in the law (or the way it is practised or put into effect) should penalize a person for faith-based decision making.

Ultimately, a compassionate and tolerant society is one which respects not only people’s right to choose different faiths, but also their right to arrive at those choices by different means, including intuition and listening to the truths that the heart speaks in silence.

When minority adherents are subjected to harassment, vilification, and psychological coercion simply because they choose to follow their heart in spiritual matters, the ACLU still has a great deal of work to do to help safeguard their civil rights.

Michael Howard

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


Read all five parts in this series:

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 4
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5

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

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

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

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

  6. Pingback: Jayanti Tamm Rebuttal, Part 1 | Ethics and Spirituality

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