I'm going to be headed to a conference in Oxford in a few weeks. When I was invited, I was told that the topic was religious liberty. In looking at the draft program, the topic seems to be religion and science. I was a little irritated by this ambiguity, but it then occurred to me that the debate surrounding religious liberty these days tended to be dominated by "religion vs. science" discussions. So, it may not be such a stretch.
No one seems to know what to do with religion these days. Thousands of years ago, religious practices were the center of communities. It was the people against the great mystery of uncertainty and the unknown. For all of our scientific and technological advances, we haven't eliminated that in the 21st century. However, the 21st century world is not as provincial as it was in the past. You could have a religious belief system, with a group of priestly interpreters, and that belief system would probably be uniformly accepted and unquestioned in a small tribal community. It was the glue that held the community together.
However, basic group psychology tells us that this is an untenable proposition as the group gets bigger. Human behavior is the factor that everyone seems to idealize in communities. Everyone will be a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, etc.), so therefore everyone will work together, respect each other and authority, and behave decently. Why in the world we think this would be the case just shows how delusional we can be about ourselves.
First--personalities count. In a large group of people, you are likely to have a mixture of passive, complacent individuals and controlling authoritarian individuals. I don't wish to suggest there is a strict line there--often we are a mixture of these types--but the ingredients are there for the establishment of a pecking order. The stronger personalities may display leadership qualities that allow them to take over.
This leads to the second issue of survival and greed ; these two go hand in hand. We only need very basic things to survive--food and water to nourish our bodies, clothing and shelter to protect us from the elements. The more we have, the more comfortable we are materially. Ideally, a community of individuals should share among themselves, so that no one goes without. We know for a fact that this rarely, if ever, happens in large groups. Why? Because people are greedy--they don't want to share what they have. The more they have, the less inclined they are to share. In fact--people often want more, and if it's at the expense of others, so be it.
Money and possessions aren't the only thing people become greedy about--power is a big one. And this circles back to personalities--if you have a controlling personality, and are power hungry, this can be a dangerous combination if you are in a leadership position. The other possibility is that you start out honest and egalitarian enough, but are corrupted once you actually have power. When it comes to the worldly things we desire--money, land, possessions, power, status--having some of it tends to make us want more of it. It's typical human behavior.
Religions are frequently shining examples of good, honest intentions gone bad, and it is because of these basics of human behavior and group dynamics. No matter how carefully you screen leaders, it is likely that someone will get into a priestly position of power and behave in a less-than-holy manner. Taking a holy office does not suddenly nullify one's humanity. Religious discipline, designed to keep those in holy offices holy, is a tool ; like most tools, it's only useful if you take it up and really use it.
So now you take all of this outside the tribe, the village, the nation-state. You throw in the complication of a global community, where everyone comes from different smaller communities with different beliefs--and you're all sharing the same space. You also have non-believers--those who have no religious structure whatsoever. There are different worldviews, and different measures of truth. What this leads to in very provincial and authoritarian groups is a xenophobia. They don't want to deal with this outside world and its influences--it is "us against them", it invokes a myth of good forces versus evil forces, and there is a sense that the outside world must conform or be eliminated.
In order for all these different groups to function together in society, secularism is a must. Religion can't be the center of society, because the ruling government would have to choose the religion--and in choosing one, you disenfranchise others. Those who suggest the U.S. is a Christian nation should think hard about what that means. James Madison is credited with being a fighter for separation of church and state. During his term in the Virginia legislature, a motion arose to provide funding for Christian education. He fought long and hard against this motion--and eventually even the local Baptist congregations that were seeking the funds backed him up. Why? Because he made a very persuasive argument. Madison said, in short, that if the government handed out money for Christian education, they would have to define what "Christian" means. Even at that time there were a huge magnitude of Protestant denominations in the "New World", never mind Catholics. Whose version of Christianity is going to be the accepted one? Being a Christian nation sounds like a great idea to Christians, until they realize the form embraced may not be their own. Then what? And it doesn't even touch on other non-Christian groups, and non-believers.
Furthermore--if the government sanctions a religion, then they become the interpreters of that religion for that country. Just look to governments in the Middle East, and places like Somalia, to see how well that works. Would it make you happy to know that you could be executed for saying the wrong word, or wearing the wrong clothes? You can't cite "theocracy" and "freedom" in the same sentence and not be contradicting yourself, unless you are making the mistake of idealizing human nature.
The thing that is feared most by certain religious groups--certainly by the Catholic Church, and perhaps very conservative Protestant denominations--is the loss of purity of belief. If you open yourself up to a secular world and other belief systems, you run the risk of "diluting" your own beliefs. I've always seen this as a case of idolatry, pure and simple. They are clinging to their book of rules in a way that renders it absurd and invalid--they believe that they are in possession of all the knowledge about the great "Mystery" that they call "God". No one is in possession of that--we don't even know that there's a physical God.
Purity is a myth--unless you're living in a box, you're going to be influenced by others' ideas and beliefs in today's world. Instead of fighting it, these groups should embrace it. Religion would have more credibility in society if it looked at things as they really are, not as they insist or want them to be--it amounts to nothing more than arrogance to non-believers, and the idea that religious people are moronic and deluded. Everyone comes around to their truth in one way or another ; if a religion insists it must be their way, then they simply perpetuate the unnecessary battle between worldviews, and it will never end. After all, if you believe in God, you have faith that God will take care of things, yes? Actually no--the need for control is linked with the need for validation. If you are touting a belief and no one else buys it, you start to doubt it yourself. For some people, everyone must espouse their belief for them to feel validated. That's hardly belief at all. But it is human nature.