Religion and Religious Practices

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Concept description defines religion as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

Wikipedia notes that religious practices “may include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of God or deities), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trances, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture.”

Wikipedia goes on to say:

“Religions have sacred histories and narratives, which may be preserved in sacred scriptures, and symbols and holy places, that aim mostly to give a meaning to life. Religions may contain symbolic stories, which are sometimes said by followers to be true, that have the side purpose of explaining the origin of life, the Universe, and other things.”

There have been intense debates in many Western countries over the extent to which certain religious practices (such as wearing a Niqab) should be permitted in certain government-sponsored roles (such as taking the oath of Citizenship, or serving the public as a civil servant). See for example: Woman at heart of niqab debate granted citizenship in private ceremony, Globe and Mail, 9 October 2015.

Politics as religion

Andrew Sullivan (2018, reference below) writes:

“Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

“By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods). …

“Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress – a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity – as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.

“But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs. And this matters. We are a meaning-seeking species. … So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.

“Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.

“For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression – from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. … And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke. To the belief in human progress unfolding through history – itself a remnant of Christian eschatology – it adds the Leninist twist of a cadre of heroes who jump-start the revolution.

“The same cultish dynamic can be seen on the right. There, many profess nominal Christianity and yet demonstrate every day that they have left it far behind. … They have turned to idols — including their blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country. They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ. They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made. And because their faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion. This is why they could suddenly rally to a cult called Trump. He may be the least Christian person in America, but his persona met the religious need their own faiths had ceased to provide. The terrible truth of the last three years is that the fresh appeal of a leader-cult has overwhelmed the fading truths of Christianity.

“This is why they are so hard to reach or to persuade and why nothing that Trump does or could do changes their minds. You cannot argue logically with a religion – which is why you cannot really argue with social-justice activists either. …

“And so we’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion. It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults. Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion. And both cults really do minimize the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.

“And this is how they threaten liberal democracy. They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise.”

The inevitability of conflicting values

Religious differences require societies to deal with irreconcilable value conflict. As Shaun Young and Phil Triadafilopoulos (reference below) note:

“Liberalism has long concerned itself with the socio-political challenges of diversity. The wars of religion that plagued Europe during much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries convinced John Locke (1983) and others that toleration of religious diversity was essential to the realization of a stable, peaceful society: Given the critical importance that many citizens attach to their religious beliefs, their ability to live (relatively) contentedly – or, at least, ‘acceptably’ – requires that they be allowed to pursue their lives in accordance with those beliefs, without fear of persecution for doing so. During the course of the preceding four centuries, the initial focus on religious diversity has broadened to encompass moral, cultural and philosophical diversity in general. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Isaiah Berlin (2002, 213-14; see also 2000, 11) eloquently and persuasively argued that value pluralism is an empirical fact, observing that there are many genuine, “ultimate” values that may, and often do, conflict with one another: “the world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between [many] ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others.” Moreover, those values are at times irreconcilable and incommensurable, thereby denying the possibility of choosing between them based upon an objective or universally acceptable rank-ordering of them (Berlin 2002, 216). Accordingly, conflicts between values are “an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life” (Berlin 2002, 213; see also 216).

Although the acknowledgement and (at times grudging) acceptance of value pluralism has long been a staple of liberalism, the range of groups privy to liberal recognition and accommodation has shifted over time. As Alan Cairns (1999), Will Kymlicka (2007) and a host of others have persuasively demonstrated, the twentieth century marked a profound shift in our understanding of concepts such as race, ethnicity, nation, and human rights and, consequently, the relationship among groups separated along those lines. Prior to the Second World War, ethno-cultural and religious diversity in Canada and other liberal states was characterized by illiberal and undemocratic relations “between conqueror and conquered; colonizer and colonized; master and slave; settler and indigenous; racialized and unmarked; normalized and deviant; orthodox and heretic; civilized and primitive; ally and enemy” (Kymlicka 2010, 35). These hierarchical relationships were justified by racist ideologies that cast white Europeans from the British Isles and northwestern Europe as superior and therefore worthy of rule over others. Liberalism was the preserve of ‘civilized’ Europeans; those outside the sphere of civilized peoples could be treated with coercion without recourse to justification.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Diversity, Identity, and Rights (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.

Sources, religion, at, accessed 26 December 2016.

Wikipedia, Religion, at, accessed 26 December 2016.

Andrew Sullivan (2018), America’s New Religions, New York Magazine, Intelligencer, 7 December 2018, at, accessed 10 December 2018.

Shaun P. Young and Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos (2013), Multiculturalism as a Deliberative Ethic. Public Reason 5 (1): 49-68, at, accessed 30 December 2016. References cited:

Berlin, I. 2002. Liberty – Incorporating “Four Essays on Liberty.” Edited by Henry Hardy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Berlin, I. 2000. The Power of Ideas. Edited by Henry Hardy. London: Chatto and Windus; Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cairns, A. 1999. Empire, Globalization, and the Fall and Rise of Diversity. In Citizenship, Diversity, and Pluralism: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Alan C. Cairns et al. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Kymlicka, W. 2009. The Rise and Fall of Multiculturalism? New Debates on Inclusion and Accommodation in Diverse Societies. In The Multiculturalism Backlash: European Discourses, Policies and Practices, edited by Stephen Vertovec and Susanne Wessendorf. New York: Routledge.

Kymlicka, W. 2007. Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 10 December 2018.

Image: at, accessed 26 December 2016.