VIII. The Incidence of Dissent

Quite apart from the development of distinct schools within the mainstream tradition, in advanced societies, deliberate and conscious dissent from orthodoxy has also been a common phenomenon. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are divided into the orthodox (of all schools) and dissentient groups which follow a divergent pattern of religious practice, subscribe to deviant beliefs, and create their own separate institutions. Dissent is most conspicuous in contexts in which religious exclusivity prevails: that is to say, in which the individual is required, if adhering to one religion, to renounce allegiance to all others—a pattern of commitment rigorously required in the Christian tradition. As some European governments ceased to prescribe specific forms of religion for their subjects, and as they have, at least formally, reduced in some degree even their discriminatory preferences for one religion above another, the situation in those countries has come more closely to approximate that prevailing in the United States. Thus, a situation designated as “religious pluralism” has come into existence. Yet, the formal equality of religions within a given society—equality, as is often said, before the law—should not conceal the fact that not infrequently discrimination often persists in one respect or another. In England, a variety of laws maintain the superiority of the Church of England, the church established by law, of which the monarch is temporal head. A number of Anglican bishops sit, as of right, in the Upper House of legislature, and episcopal appointments are made by the Prime Minister—among other indications of preferential treatment. In other European countries, various discriminatory arrangements favour one or more traditional churches, over and above other dissenting groups or new religious bodies. There is, generally, freedom of religious practice in Europe, but different religious bodies still experience differential treatment from the state, and have to contend with often hostile mass-media which work to promote public suspicion of whatever is unfamiliar in religion. Such differential treatment and the associated hostility arises at least in part from the persistence of normative commitment of most of those who have traditionally been concerned, as “experts”, with defining religion and specifying its character. There is, in all societies, an inheritance of learned language about religion which bears the normative stamp of religious commitment. Early definitions and descriptions of the essentials of religion frequently used terms borrowed from the religious traditions of those who formulated them. It is readily recognized by social scientists that the use of terms peculiar to one religion must distort the depiction of other religions, and may frequently involve false assumptions about their character and dispositions. Concepts evolved within one cultural and religious tradition will misrepresent the functionally equivalent but formally distinctive elements of religion in another. Instances of such inappropriate usage include references to “the Buddhist church”; “the Muslim priesthood”; or (in reference to the Trinity) “Christian gods”. The very terms “church” and “priesthood” carry powerful specific cultural and structural connotations, and the phenomena to which they are applied are in many respects unlike their functional equivalents in other religious systems. The intellectual, ideological, moral, and organizational attributes which characterize them are specific to the Christian tradition and using these terms must lead to confusion, misrepresentation, and false expectations of other religions, and hence to suspicion and perhaps hostility.

IX. Abstract Definitions