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. Continue reading

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