Cultures of constraint; Islam, India and Marxism

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Pew has a new report, Global Restrictions on Religion (HT JohnPI). It illustrates rather clearly some general trends which I’ve been mulling over for several years looking at cross-cultural data. Here’s a 2-dimensional chart which plots the 50 most populous nations in their data set along an axis of governmental vs. social restrictions on religion.

There are the set of countries which have been shaped by Marxism in the recent past, or still are officially Marxist, which have strong legal sanctions against organized religion. China, Eritrea and Uzbekistan fall into this camp. But look at Russia. Perhaps Russian intolerance is a function of its Eastern Orthodoxy, but it seems plausible that Communist era elites have simply continued the tendency to control “subversive” religious groups that they had honed during the Soviet period (most Western nations were very restrictive of minority religions when the Russian Revolution occurred, but during the Soviet period many evolved toward a more tolerant state).

Then there are the Muslim countries. While China has official atheism, religious groups can flourish (at least within the natural bounds of the religiosity of the Chinese people, which seems to be set rather low) so long as they keep a low profile and don’t get on the wrong side of the state. But in many Muslim countries hostility toward non-mainstream religious movements runs very deep. I don’t need to elaborate on this, Muslims are the modern apotheosis of the Abrahamists of old, atheists toward other gods and promoters of their own (listening to the radio recently I noticed how talk show hosts given Muslims a pass when they get all effusive about how incredible their religion is. If a white Christian did this it would seem gauche). This probably explains on some level the extreme outrage in Muslim majority countries when Muslim expression in the non-Muslim majority countries is restrained. This response is totally not dampened by the strong tendency for Muslims to severely constrain the rights of non-Muslims when they themselves are in the majority. The Single Truth needs no apology, and why would one want to be fair and balanced between Truth and delusion? (I think back here to debates between pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity, as the latter brushed aside the pleas from the former for tolerance of belief and practice by arguing in effect that freedom of religion would only give succor to delusion and was therefore ultimately an obscenity. This stance remained dominant in the West down to the Enlightenment)

Finally, there’s India. By India, I don’t mean the nation of India. I mean the civilization, which includes Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and yes, Pakistan. Poking through survey data it seems that Hindus are quite religious, like Muslims, but they are far less atheistic, as one would expect. The philosophical aspects of Hinduism which tend toward universalism and cultural parallelism seem to percolate down rather far (though the survey data I see probably excludes the illiterate masses). On the other hand, like Muslims Hindus seem to have really strong attitudes when it comes to religious defection or switching. India has laws discouraging or banning conversion which might be appropriate in the Muslim or (post-)Marxist world. When looking at survey data on South Asians from India in the UK or USA it is interesting to me that though the Hindus are only moderately religious in their self-conception, very few avow that they have “No Religion.” This is in strong contrast with East Asia, and among East Asian immigrants, who routinely assert that they have no religious affiliation. While Indian Hindus by and large have no need to convert the world in totality to their religion, as Muslims and Marxists must in regards to their faiths, they are strong believers in the necessity of some religious identity. Additionally, they have an attachment to the idea that people should not defect or switch between identities, lest inter-communal harmony be disrupted.

In the report they express some surprise that Africa is relatively tolerant. I am not. From what I have read religious conversion and switching is very common in Africa, from Protestantism to Catholicism to Islam and back. Even heads of state have switched religions without extreme controversy. Perhaps this has something to do with the sheer fragmentation and diversity of most African nations, which are cleaved along many dimensions besides religion. Additionally, the roots of any given organized religion are generally rather shallow in most of these nations. So unlike Indian civilization switching religion doesn’t carry a lot of historical baggage. The best analogy to Africa seems like the United States, which also have a huge diversity of religious sects, and where switching is generally not particularly surprising or controversial. Individual preference is balanced with communal identification.

Finally, I want to note the distinction between some European nations which are secular (France) and East Asian ones (Korea, Japan). Without the totalist influence of Marxism East Asian nations tend to take a relatively muted stance toward religion. Just as Sri Lankan Buddhists show that the identitarian reflex of Indians is not a function of Hinduism, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong all illustrate that without official Marxism there is relatively robust tolerance of religious sectarianism. The power of one organized religion in East Asia was always much less than it was in Europe. Talking to many Europeans who are secular, though they themselves are not believers, they often find “non-traditional” religions rather weird. There is clearly a particular favoritism toward the traditional religion of a society, and a suspicion of new religions. This in some ways resembles the Indian attitude, except it is much more stripped of any supernatural content in terms of belief.

Here are two maps which illustrate the axes above:

Labels: ,


  1. In Sweden, private schools get full state subsidy too. They are called “friskolor” (free schools), and since deregulation in the 1990s, everything goes, both among communal schools (controlled by the local community) and private schools. Pupil performance on objective tests are down and grades are getting better. 

  2. Razib, 
    Interesting issues, data, and plots.   I wonder if you could examine correlations between major religions and government-restrictions and social-hostilities?  It looks like it would be high with Islam.  Also, could the position of India reflect its long history with Islam and Christian colonials?  India gave birth to many religions and might have been different in the past.

  3. most Western nations were very restrictive of minority religions when the Russian Revolution occurred… 
    That would be 1917. At that time there were 47 “Western nations”: 
    21 in Europe, not counting micro-states; 20 in Latin America (including Haiti); four British Dominions that were de facto sovereign; the U.S.; and Liberia. 
    Which of these were “very restrictive of minority religions”? Certainly not the U.S., nor Britain, nor the Dominions, nor France, nor Switzerland, nor Germany, nor Austria-Hungary. Not even Russia, where active minority reiigions included Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Islam, and even Buddhism. (The Kalmucks of the lower Volga are Europe’s only native Buddhists, in a sort of communion with Tibetan Buddhism.) Not the Scandinavian countries (which had no religious minorities). Not the Netherlands. Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and maybe the Balkan states, possibly. 
    Latin America? The only religious restriction that I know of at that time was revolutionary Mexico’s crackdown on the Catholic Church – not the minority religion. 
    I think this was a very poorly thought-out throwaway comment.

  4. I think this was a very poorly thought-out throwaway comment.”

  5. did you draw these graphs yourself?

  6. no. pew did. follow the link.

  7. I think Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea’s tolerance toward religion is entirely a product of the Freedom of Religion principle written into their constitutions, a principle they need to adopt if they want to stay on the good side of United States, forced to adopt in the case of Japan.  India’s constitution also guarantee freedom of religion, although there are plenty of Hindu nationalists in India who would love to ban Christianity and repress Muslim.

  8. east asian civilizations have always had pluralism when it comes to religion. you are correct though that a individual right to whatever religion you want, even if that religion is considered socially disruptive (as christianity was in japan in the 17th century because of its association with iberian powers), is due to outside pressure and norms. but you make an important point about the american role after world war ii in enforcing pluralism in japan, korea and taiwan. hong kong is different cuz it was british, but they did the same.

  9. For example, during imperial Japan, every Japanese must worship the emperor, all religion are strictly controlled, children are indoctrinated into believing that Japanese people came from the Sun.  After the Shinbutsu bunri (separation of Buddhism and Shinto), Buddhism was only tolerated if its leaders support the japanese war effort (indoctrinate Japanese soldiers into kamikaze pilots).  Christianity was strictly controlled, but tolerated in order to maintain good relation with Germany, Italy and United states.  And in 1935 launched jakyo semmetsu(eradicate evil cults) campaign to destroy new religion movements not under state control.

  10. As far as religious freedom in Scandinavia goes, Hans Nielsen Hauge (d. 1824)  was imprisoned for most of ten years for preaching outside the church, and his theology was Lutheran fundamentalist. Many Haugeans migrated to the US. Likewise, dissenters in Holland were treated badly even though they were theologically orthodox, because they challenged the state monopoly, and they formed the core of the Michigan and Iowa Dutch colonies. 
    On Chinese and Japanese tolerance and pluralism, they had a public-private religious distinction which confuses the issue from our point of view. The East Asian states had state religions which were nonparticipational but which believers in other religions had to repsect and defer to. By and large this only required paying taxes, respecting the Emperor,  and avoiding of certain sorts of challenges, claims,  symbols, and rhetoric, rather than anything more than that. But any public Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, or Christian challenge to the state’s religious claims would be crushed mercilessly. 
    There really wasn’t a church-state division; the state was the church and the church was the state. But everyone was allowed to pracrtice a private, personal salvational religion as long as it didn’t make public claims. 
    Religious repression in China usually involved state issues, such as large amounts of church property not on the tax rolls, or perceived problems caused by (Muslim-dminated) international trade, or the perception of usurpation of state symbols and incitement of rebellion (the Yellow Turbans and many other sects).