Religious Freedom: A Human Right that Needs Human Agency in Asia Today

By: Stephen Bailey

Many nations have the freedom of religious belief inscribed in their constitutions and statutes, yet this right often exists more on paper than it does in actual practice. As has been meticulously documented, the last few years have seen an increase in restrictions on religion around the world. In many cases, the wording of law and policy is explicit, but has little to no effect on the actual actions of governments and citizens with regard to respecting the faith and practice of minority religious groups. 

Consider religious freedom (or lack thereof) in China. The widely cited sociologist of religion in China Fenggang Yang speaks of the need to go beyond law when he points out that although the words “freedom of religious belief” are in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China, they have not been fully realized due to a “lack of some common understanding of religious freedom, especially that among political and cultural elites.” Yang is proposing that culture change is also needed to supplement legal codification.

Let me suggest further that cultures only change when people begin to exercise their choice to resist culture. This brings us to the topic of what anthropologists and philosophers refer to as “human agency,” or as Sherry Ortner calls it, “the interested practices of real people.”

I was reminded of the critical importance of human agency last month as I was traveling in Southeast Asia to contribute to the Institute for Global Engagement’s series of programs on religious freedom, reconciliation, and the rule of law across the region. The context was a local level peace-building training for religious and government leaders, and the trainers were leading the group in a role-play about a religious conflict in a village.

In the center of the room sat three volunteers: a Buddhist young man, a Catholic elder, and a Protestant young woman. The young woman was sharing the experience of deciding to become a Protestant Christian and facing the rejection of family and friends. The young man and the elder sat listening. What began as a typical role-play, in volunteers trying to best respond to a specific situation, suddenly became a real conversation. Tears filled the young woman’s eyes as the room became alert to the realities of the discrimination and rejection that she was describing. The Buddhist and Catholic listeners leaned in closer. Quietly, they took turns discussing her options of engaging her parents and neighbors, trying to help her find a path that would lead to reconciliation with people she so clearly cared about deeply.

What the rest of us were observing made deep impressions and may have taught us more than the rest of the training workshop. Here were three people of the same ethnicity but whose identities and allegiances had been profoundly shaped by very different religious communities. The men were trying to understand the pain caused by broken relationships and misunderstanding. Neither man shared her religious convictions, but both chose to cross over and help her carry the very human experience of suffering. 

Entering into the experience of those whom our social groups have categorized as “other” does not come naturally. Our social DNA seems to give us an instinctive loyalty to our kin, be it biological or social “fictive” kinship. Crossing over for peace requires human agency—an intentional moral decision to act in love toward the unfamiliar tribe.

Scholars have long debated the power of cultural paradigms and social structures in individual decisions and innovations: how much freedom does culture actually allow us? I side with those who suggest that we are not simply choosing among variables that already exist within the framework of our cultural systems. Individuals have the power to go against and “put at risk” their cultural categories and conceptions by exercising their human power to act. Cultural paradigms are powerful, but we can remake our world. We must resist the notion that humans are completely constrained by the instinct to protect their own from strangers of unfamiliar agendas.

The role-play I experienced last month is just one example of the many encounters I have had over years of fieldwork in religious freedom in Asia. As I have seen so often, educating people in a common and safe social space can help religious strangers realize they have the option to cross over towards each other for peace. Ultimately, however, social change conducive to making religious freedom a lived reality (and not just words on paper) depends a great deal on courageous individual human agency. Individuals must use their power to act on the new vision that education brings, especially when cultural patterns suggest otherwise. Only when enough people act will cultural change line up with laws, thereby giving governments the impetus to actually enforce these laws. As Ortner writes, “social transformation must also be cultural transformation or it will be nothing at all.” 

Stephen Bailey is a professor of intercultural studies at Simpson University and the Laos Program Officer at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE).

This piece was originally authored on March 25, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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