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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Vol. 31 No. 2 Fall 2004

Religious Autonomy and World Religions Education

Emile Lester

Imagine a state whose citizens believe due process in criminal trials to be of great value. The state’s constitution mandates that citizens receive a speedy trial, a trial by jury, have a right against self-incrimination, and that evidence obtained in illegal searches cannot be used in trials. The scholars living within the state write treatises explaining the meaning of due process and justifying the value of providing citizens with due process rights. There is one exception, however. The state does not allow defendants in criminal trials to have lawyers while the state uses lawyers for prosecution. The state’s scholars do not argue that the right to have a lawyer is an essential element of due process. We would have to conclude that this state was failing to live up to its own ideals. Since having the right to a lawyer is an integral part of due process, no state could validly claim to promote due process and deny its criminal defendants the right to a lawyer.

The analogy represents the situation of the United States and Anglo-American liberal political theory with regards to religious autonomy. The United States highly values and seeks to protect and promote individual autonomy. Liberal political theorists have devoted tremendous and distinguished effort to justifying and defending the value of individual autonomy, defining individual autonomy, and establishing institutions to promote individual autonomy. But United States educational policy neglects the promotion of religious autonomy. Liberal scholars pay little attention to why autonomy over one’s religious beliefs is valuable, what it means to be autonomous over one’s religious beliefs, and how to promote autonomy over one’s religious beliefs. This oversight and inconsistency is as glaring as the oversight and inconsistency of the hypothetical state that values due process but refuses to allow criminal defendants to use lawyers. Since religious beliefs constitute a profound part of many people’s identities, religious autonomy is an essential aspect of overall autonomy. The United States and liberal political theorists cannot validly claim to promote individual autonomy if they fail to pay attention to religious autonomy.

The history of liberal political theory is not completely lacking in attempts to justify religious autonomy. In his first Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke provides the most well-known justification of religious autonomy. The state should not interfere with our private reflection upon religion because "neither the care of the commonwealth nor the right of enacting laws, does discover the way that leads to heaven more certainly to the magistrate, than every private man’s search and study discovers it unto himself."1 Indeed, Locke does not only argue that we only have the right to develop religious autonomy, but that we have an inalienable and God-given duty to do so:

[N]o man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another.2

From the point of view of contemporary liberalism, the problem with Locke’s justification of the right to religious autonomy is its inconsistency with neutrality because of its reliance on partisan religious and metaphysical premises. Individual rights in liberal democracies must be based upon grounds that are accessible to all citizens. The use of controversial metaphysical or comprehensive principles and justifications for rights manifests a lack of respect for those who do not accept these principles. In order to accept Locke’s defense of the right to religious autonomy, we must not only assume a belief in God, but that God imposes a duty upon us to seek the true religion through individual reflection. This premise is inaccessible to atheists and agnostics. Furthermore, we have no way to verify Locke’s claim that we can best discover the true religion through individual reflection. This claim is not only inconsistent with atheism and agnosticism, but with religions like Catholicism that place a greater emphasis upon tradition and church authority than upon individual reflection.

We can only place the right to religious autonomy upon solid ground if we provide a justification that is accessible to people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The approach in this article to defending the right to religious autonomy resembles the approach that John Stuart Mill takes to defending individual autonomy in the third chapter of On Liberty. Seeking to place autonomy on a more firm foundation than the controversial grounds of natural rights, Mill argues that we should value individual autonomy not because a metaphysical authority tells us to value it, but because a life in which we choose our ideas and actions is more fulfilling and more human than a life in which our ideas and actions are chosen for us. I attempt to base the right to religious autonomy not upon metaphysical premises, but upon an explanation of why religious autonomy is valuable and how it contributes to a happy and fulfilling life.3

In addition to attempting to place the defense of religious autonomy upon more solid ground, this article is also interested in the practical consequences that result from our having a right to religious autonomy. Many liberal political theorists have stressed that our right to autonomy requires the exposure of children to a wide variety of values and lifestyles during their education.4 But since the right to religious autonomy is generally overlooked, these theorists have overlooked the role that a world religions education must play in an education for autonomy as well.5 I intend to show that widely accepted premises advocated by liberal political philosophers require that a world religions education that exposes children to a wide variety of Western and Eastern religious ideas and practices ought to be treated as a discrete and independent course in the compulsory curriculum at the secondary level. If we are to choose autonomously between different religions as adults, we must receive an education about a variety of Western and Eastern religious denominations as teenagers. 6

This article is divided into three parts. Section I is a survey of the major reasons why autonomy is valuable. In Section II, I draw upon the discussion of the value of autonomy in the first section to determine the conditions of achieving autonomy. This section focuses especially upon the relationship of autonomy and education. Which beliefs and practices do we need exposure to in order to realize the full value of autonomy? Which subject matters are so important for the achievement of the full value of autonomy that they merit inclusion in the compulsory curriculum? Section III examines how exposure to a variety of religious beliefs is necessary for the individual to achieve the full value of autonomy.

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