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what is freedom of religion for?

By: James Miller

A Taiji quan peformance
A Taiji quan performance at a Daoist temple in Sichuan

There is hardly a truth more sacred to the contemporary American imagination than that religion must be free from interference by the state and that the state must be free from interference from religion. Neither of these ideals holds true in China, and this fact is an enormous thorn in the side of Chinese-American relations, especially as regards the Tibet question.

The fact is that religions and the state in China have co-existed in something of a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. In medieval China, Buddhists seeking to ingratiate themselves in the life of the court proposed rituals to bring about the salvation and prosperity of the empire. Daoist priests also ordained emperors and oversaw court rituals. In return, the Emperor bestowed his patronage on monasteries and temples, granting them land, money and prestige. At the heart of this arrangement was a very simple and natural proposition: you help me and I’ll help you.

Similar versions of this arrangement operated in medieval Europe until they were disturbed by the Protestant reformation. In the wake of this upheaval, zealous sects fuelled by pious visions of absolute purity sought to cut themselves off completely from the state and create utopian societies of their own devising. In many cases this involved travelling to the New World where they could be free to live out their utopian visions as Shakers, Mennonites, Hutterites, etc.

The American model of religious freedom thus became defined negatively rather than positively: freedom from interference was absolutely necessary in order to have freedom for for the pursuit of a religious life.

But this is a purist vision of religious freedom. It suggests than the only kind of religion worth having is the absolutely pure kind of religion, the religion of zealots, fundamentalists and puritans. In most cases in history, these types of religious movements die out very quickly, because eventually people have to live in the real world, make compromises with outsiders and grapple with an existence that is not perfect but worthwhile nonetheless. Yet this purist ideal of religious freedom took hold in America and now has become embedded in its culture and society.

To me it seems absurd that this rather unusual and puritanical religious vision should be a major obstacle to US-China relations. It is a rather naive and narrow vision of religion, and it is a naive and narrow view of freedom.

Religion does not have to be extreme or pure. It can be modest, compromised, liberal, mixed and still valuable. And as for freedom, no one has absolute freedom. Freedom is always circumscribed by the compromises necessary for communities to form and for everyone to get along.

My point is this: the fact that China does not have the same vision of relations between religions and the state does not mean that there is no freedom of religion in China. What it does mean is that religions must operate within the law and for the benefit of society. This “compromise view” of religious freedom is certainly different from the “purist view” of religious freedom that operates in the US, but it does not mean that there is no religious freedom in China.

The reason why I am interested in this question is that whenever I bring up the subject of religion and the environment in the West, there is invariably the following reaction: religion is a personal matter and it has nothing to do with the natural world, and it should steer clear of interfering in things that aren’t its business.

But when I raise the question of religion and the environment in China, invariably the reaction is the opposite: yes of course religions have an important role to play in bringing about a better relationship with nature.

In China people are open to the possibility of religion helping society to achieve something positive, whereas in the West people often are not. We in the West are prisoners of the idea that religious freedom only means freedom from interference by the state. In my opinion, this is only one aspect of freedom. Ideally we should be more open to the Chinese idea that religious freedom is something positive — freedom for, not freedom from. Religious freedom should mean freedom to help improve society for the benefit of all.

Religion is such a powerful force in people’s lives. If only we could unleash this force in the right way and for the good of all, imagine how our society could be transformed.

Categories: Blog, Opinion, Questions


  1. Thank you James,
    I gratefully enjoy your posts on this site.

    As a promoter of sustainable development in Sweden and also deeply interested in religious issues I feel a bit relieved by your conclusion and report in this post. In the Swedish debate there is a quite strong consensus on the importance and challenge of climate change. Those who oppose this, or more common, oppose deeper environmental concern, often spike their language with religious markers, i.e. Green Fatwa, environmental fundamentalist. And then there is milder versions means that environmental work (read mitigation of climate change) must be based on science and scientific research. Between the lines I read that arguments that is not grounded in natural science is a kind of superstition.

    With this understanding of the situation I find it hard to convince my fellow promoters of SD to look at the potential of religion.
    (In this context it would be unfair not to mention that the Swedish church is very outspoken when it comes to climate change and environmental protection. Now when it has separated from the state… Which it did as late as 2000!)

    There is more to say about this but not just now : )

    Here is an interesting link about different view on freedom of religion in a lesser case-study in Vietnam.

    Please spread the word on what is going on in Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam

    Best regards
    Björn Eriksson, Uppsala Sweden

  2. Thanks Björn for your interesting response. I think that part of the problem is that discussion about religion is overwhelmingly dominated by people who are either supporters of religion or opponents of religion. The same is not the case for economics or medicine, or music! It is therefore hard for many people to engage in public discussions about the value of religion in a fairly neutral and objective way, accepting that religion is a fact of human existence and trying to see how this might be helpful for developing sustainablity.

    When discussing religion in China, I often encounter reactions like the one posted in the link above, about the monastery in Vietnam. While I don’t think that it’s usually a good idea for governments to manage religions (or car manufacturers for that matter), for me this is not the main issue. The main issue is whether or not the religions (or the cars) are helpful or damaging to the quest for sustainable forms of living together on this planet.

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