The right to believe

January 30, 2006 | 12 comments
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An Italian atheist, Luigi Cascioli, has started a lawsuit against a Catholic priest, claiming that the priest violates Italian law, which does not allow the abuse of popular belief. Such as when people are fraudulently deceived in believing falsehoods, namely, according to Cascioli, the historical existence of Jesus Christ. The lawsuit is drawing international attention.

Many believers will probably view this litigation as one more attack by secular extremists against religion (though in reality it is merely nasty anticlericalism assailing historically abusive Catholicism) .

But viewed from another perspective, this lawsuit could paradoxically be an excellent case in favor of the rights of more recent, “new” religions, such as Mormonism.

The matter can indeed be seen in a political context since the 1980s. The excesses of a few destructive apocalyptic cults (Jonestown, Waco, Solar Temple…) and the subsequent repeated media reports of mental, physical, and financial abuses in certain sects have prompted a number of governments in European countries to take legal measures against those proselytizers “who take advantage of vulnerable persons”, who “brainwash and use mental manipulation”. For years parliamentary commissions have now been studying cases, inviting experts, working out legislative proposals, etc. Departments of Justice have been asked to organize Centers to watch cults. Scientology and Jehovah’s witnesses have been choice targets. Intelligence services are keeping an eye on cults and their members. Assiduous anti-cult organizations have sprung up, led by people who “lost a child to a cult”, or by vindictive ex-members of cults, or simply by self-appointed vigilantes who are often much more cultish in their fever to condemn “dissenters”, than the ones they claim to fight.

This is not to say that concern and protective measures are unnecessary: there are no doubt cases where abuse is rampant, where the health of adepts is undermined, where even lives are put in danger. The problem is that judgments easily cross the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. The problem is that the media quickly jump on the sensational and generalize from one incident to the whole, and that the label “cult” is slovenly applied to any small, minority religion, especially if it tries to convert people. The result is that a number of respectable minority churches are being harassed and its members discriminated against – including Mormons.

The well-established churches (Catholic, Orthodox, main Protestant denominations) have, generally, taken an ambivalent position in the discussion. On the one hand they have, without admitting it, actually enjoyed the limitations set against “cults”, which are perceived as competitors. In some countries, the nationally established church has been using its political influence to further legislation against religious newcomers. On the other hand, some individuals in main churches have seen the risks: the whole anti-cult movement could endanger religious freedom as such and infringe on civil rights.

Indeed, the anti-cult rhetoric also contains references to “brainwashing” and “mental manipulation”, meaning people are “led to believe unproven, impossible or inexistent things”. Like believing in the end of the world ten months from now. Or in divine UFO’s.

But Luigi Cascioli’s lawsuit immediately and spectacularly extends the delusion to belief in Jesus Christ. And that makes the case interesting for us. No one expects the Italian judge to condemn a Catholic priest for preaching faith in a historical Jesus. Nor for belief in the miracles reported in the New Testament. Nor for belief in the flesh and blood of the Eucharist, or divine manifestations to medieval saints. But even if the judge pronounces a condemnation, most of the world will give a shrug and classify the event as bizarre and fun. No European government will put the Catholic Church on the list of dangerous cults and have its members watched by the secret police for believing unproven things. The whole matter, laughable in se, should reconfirm the right to have faith as, in the words of Paul, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

As Mormons we claim that same right. The right to believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, in the First Vision, in the restoration of the Priesthood. It is not because these things are more recent, and outside long-held cultural and religious conventions, that such beliefs suddenly become perilous mental manipulation. So, paradoxically, Cascioli’s case illustrates how anti-cultism, in its attack on faith as such, can extend just as well to any major religion. And how unfair it is to single out innocent minority religions and their — especially in some countries — vulnerable members. They are easy victims of what comes close to oral hate-crimes. And history shows how such rhetoric can lead to worse.

For us, tolerance is an article of faith. We claim the right to believe in a historical Jesus, but allow others the right to believe he never existed. Without lawsuits.

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12 Responses to The right to believe

  1. jp in lv nv on January 30, 2006 at 2:03 am

    Wilfried, you got me thinking on this one. Nous affirmons avoir le droit–et reconnaissons le meme droit a tous les hommes–except if they turn into Stalin or Hitler? Cascioli is fine in his thought process, he has the right to his opinion. Yet, oral hate crimes historically have turned into bombs–

  2. John Mansfield on January 30, 2006 at 8:13 am

    Mexico’s anti-clerical laws come to mind. That government’s controls over religious schools and foreign priests have been obstacles to the work of the Mormon church, but the real target of those laws is to limit the power of the Catholic church. As troublesome as those laws are for us, I suspect they have served the progress of our church more than they have hindered it.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on January 30, 2006 at 10:07 am

    “No European government will put the Catholic Church on the list of dangerous cults and have its members watched by the secret police for believing unproven things.”

    I’m glad you’re confident of this, Wilfried. But do you think the assured place of Catholicism is a result of large (if only nominal) Catholic majorities in many Western European states, or because of some at least latent sympathy for Catholicism on the part of various governing elites (both on the national and EU level), or simply because Catholicism in many of these countries has so long and so successfully identified itself with those governing elites that for most Europeans institutional Catholicism simply cannot be conceived otherwise? The first and third explanation make some sense to me; the second, considering the arguments over the EU Constitution and other issues, strikes me as unlikely.

  4. Kevin Barney on January 30, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Cole Durham of BYU’s law school is heavily involved in promoting religious freedom and pluralism around the world (including an annual conference hosted at the Y and attended by many world leaders over religious affairs in their respective coutries). Cole works closely with leaders of many other faiths to promote our joint interests in religious freedoms around the globe.

  5. Jim F. on January 30, 2006 at 11:24 am

    Russell, obviously Wilfried is more qualified to speak to your question than I, but it has seemed to me that there is a strong identification with “Catholic culture” in Europe, especially among intellectuals and political elites. People need not practice Catholicism or believe its tenets, but they identify themselves, nevertheless, as Catholica and feel strongly about preserving the Catholicity of their culture.

  6. Wilfried on January 30, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Thank you all for the comments up to this point. I’ll respond in little chunks if I may.

    First, jp in lv nv (1), it is indeed a vital question to see to what extent tolerance can extend to the right to believe, when that right is misused to insult or endanger others. Complicated, moreover by different cultural perceptions as to what “free speech” means. An interesting example is the Danish cartoons ridiculing Mohamed and the reactions from Islamic side. Where do you draw the line when it comes to tolerance in such cases? Mormons and Mormonism are repeatedly being ridiculed or misrepresented in the media. At one point does this reach the level of hate-crimes?

  7. Russell Arben Fox on January 30, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    Jim, both you and Wilfried are obviously far more capable of speaking to the European situation than I. But I’m still going to have to ask for some clarification regarding your assertion that many European political elites are interested in “preserving the Catholicity of their culture.” The lawsuit which Wilfried makes reference to has little to do, depending on how one defines one’s terms, with Catholic culture; it has, by contrast, everything to do with the teaching of actual Catholic religious tenants. So that is the focus on my question. I don’t doubt for a moment that most Western European and EU leaders would do whatever was necessary to preserve their artistic, musical, military, architectural, and literary and philosophical traditions, many of which are deeply Catholic. But does that translate into a guaranteed place for Catholic belief? Maybe it does. But considering certain recent controversies (such as over the preamble to the proposed EU constitution, or the rejection of the conservative Catholic nominee Rocco Buttiglione), it seems less than clear to me.

  8. Wilfried on January 30, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    John (2) and Russell (3), you raise the complex question of the relation between Catholicism and politics in historically Catholic countries, like many European nations (and also in Latin America). Thousands of books and articles have been written on that topic, so no way to simplify this to some easy statements. Basically, though, since the 18th century we have seen a constant struggle to free states from the immense influence of the Catholic Church. The principle of separation of Church and State has gained ground, through revolutions and constitutions, and is in some countries an extremely sensitive matter, like in France, expressed in the concept of “laicity”. That sensibility moved to the European level, when the definition of Europe as based on a “Christian” culture became a core issue in the writing of the European Constitution, showing the division between European nations in this matter. Poland, e.g., has strongly favored the inclusion of the Christian reference, while other countries, in the name of laicity, have opposed it. At the same time, however, the growth of Islam in Europe has complicated matters. Any definition of Europe as Christian would now be seen as anti-Islamic. Moreover, quite a few European countries can be viewed as Christian, but non-Catholic (mainly Northern Europe). It all leads to a complex puzzle.

    To come back to your specific question, Russell, in connection with the “assured place” of Catholicism: I believe all three reasons you mention play their role, depending on the country and the place of Catholicism within it. But one thing is certain in all cases: European governments have a long tradition of negotiating and compromising with various major parties in order to constitute workable governments. Nominal Catholic or Christian-inspired parties still constitute in most countries sizeable political blocks with whom cooperation is almost always necessary. No other serious party (socialist, liberal…) will want to annihilate such cooperation by identifying Catholicism or another main Christian church with a dangerous cult that uses mental manipulation. Diplomacy and common sense forbid it. Not so, however, when it comes to vulnerable minorities on which it is easy to shoot.

  9. Wilfried on January 30, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    Jim (4) and Russell (7), this aspect opens another avenue of discussion, namely the place of a “Catholic cultureâ€? in Europe, independent of actual belief in any doctrine.

    Example: Flanders (66% of the Belgian population), as I know this region best. The most recent figures (end of 2005) show that only 3.5 % of Flemish people still go to Church (though more than half of the population claims to believe in God). Belief in the Catholic Church and its doctrines has dwindled to almost nothing. Attendance is at all-time low. At the same time, a slight majority of the people still vote for parties that represent traditional cultural values (i.e. in Flanders the Catholic party, renamed without reference to Catholic or Christian, and the extreme-right-wing party).

    Many right-wing and central political parties, in their promotion, have become sensitive to the preservation of “the own culture” (carefully expressed in the need that immigrants need to assimilate in the “language and culture” of their hosts). One could say this represents concern for a cultural heritage partly tied to Catholicism or main Christian churches, but the ties are seldom identified in those religious terms. At the same time another movement, more leftist, promotes an “intercultural” society.

    Religious freedom, however, must always be respected according to all parties. But again, bottom-line is that majority religions automatically deserve this respect, while minuscule “cults” are the scapegoat.

  10. J. Stapley on January 30, 2006 at 3:31 pm

    I appreciate your analysis, Wilfried, and can see the ramifications for occidental societies. I wonder if this anti-cultism can be related at all to the China. If I am not mistaken they kicked out all the Roman Catholic priests and ordained their state approved replacements. Is this just about maintaining cultural hegemony?

  11. Wilfried on January 30, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you, J. Stapley. I am not any more familiar with the situation in China than what one can read from news items and widely available reports. We know the communist Chinese government has been repressive against religions since 1949. Historically it is of course explained by the antagonism against organized religion, which has often been the source of power-struggle, conflicts and wars. Think of the Taiping rebellion in the 19th century. Moreover, Christianity represents to some in China the “undermining” influence of the West.

    But what is especially interesting (and very disturbing) in the context of this thread is that China and former Soviet-countries have found inspiration in the more recent European anti-cult rhetoric and legislation to harass new religions within their borders. In China the case of the Falun Gong is well-known. As far as I know, Russia and other ex-communist countries have been eager to find inspiration in the anti-cult legislation of France and Belgium in order to limit new “sects” which they find threatening to, as you call it, their “cultural hegemony”.

    It’s also clearly part of political maneuvering: instill fear for what is foreign, create the illusion of threats to the country, mediatize the government’s efforts to protect the population, all this to justify and reinforce control mechanisms that go far beyond the need. Where have we seen that before?

  12. comet on February 1, 2006 at 12:34 am

    I believe that traditionally China, and East Asia, have been quite accepting of religious beliefs and organziations per se. In fact, there is a strong tendency towards syncretism that you can find in the co-existence of the various faith traditions — Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, animistic religions, etc. One of my favorite painting genres is the ink-brush renderings of the Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tzu huddled together in apparent conversation. Anyways, in the case of China my understanding is that both Imperial and Communist governments have been more worried about what cults might do — as counterorganizations that could lead to political rebellion — rather than about belief per se and issues of heterodoxy. Still, the recent oppression in China needs more attention.