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Understanding Religious Liberty in East Asia: A Matter of Definitions and Legacies

By Helen Faulk

The idea of religious liberty as a universal human right is a complex and nuanced subject accepted by one’s culture and world outlook. This is especially true for East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Japan etc. where the idea of religious liberty as a universal human right is increasingly discussed, however in practice is not applied to a country’s laws a or social fabric due to several issues including the variations of religious liberty’s definition, cultural ideals, and historical legacies.                                                                                             

First, there is no definitive term for what exactly religious freedom is or entails. There are common definitions when discussing religious liberty.  The “non-interference standard” focuses with no bias discrimination, support, or regulation for any religion (C 36).  The “neutrality standard” bans religious discrimination with the exception of government regulation if done so equally to all religious entities(C 36). The final “minimalist standard” only on prohibits religious discrimination while still being able to support any religious entity (C 36).  The ability to evaluate an idea such as religious liberty as a universal right thus becomes more difficult without a set definition to guide its application to a society. As cultural influences also shape the perception of what religious liberty is, religious freedom as a universal human right’s application in East Asian culture is, thus to a degree trapped by definition ambiguity creating variance on the interpretation on how religious liberty is and should be carried out occur.

East Asian cultural being generally collectivist greatly influences how universal the right of religious freedom is. A collectivist culture values the peace, safety, and order of the group (family or company) as the basic unit of the of society over the needs of the individual. The values of the base unit of the group in such societies are maintained by individuals knowing their place and usually adhering to a strict moral code that enforces the order. The strict adherence to a moral code for the safety of the group often comes into conflict with the idea of religious freedom as a universal human right. Religions often hold their moral codes in at least some aspects above civil laws, which can threaten the security of a group or a nation in such a culture. If individuals are not abiding by the same moral code, then confusion on an individual’s place in the society and treatment by the civil law arises. Such dynamics often cause division among different sub-groups of East Asian societies, which threatens the primary goals of peace, and order for the group of a collectivist culture. While the above progression of events is somewhat simplified, the overall threat that religious freedom poses in East Asian cultures is still the central idea. Overall, collectivist cultures often view human rights within the lens of how risking an individual’s rights are to the safety of the group before implementing a proposed right into their societies.               

The religious nationalism is another issue in East Asian culture concerning religious freedom. Religious nationalism can be defined as: “a social movement that claims to speak in the name of the nation, and which defines the nation in terms of religion” (Neo 6). Religious nationalism often causes tensions between major religions and political parties in East Asia countries.  Religious nationalism is also often associated with new religions being viewed as intruders to the nation, which can upset of the status quo of the religious climate of a county. Such a dynamic can involve an “us versus them mentality” producing violent reactions in some cases.  Religious nationalism, because it relies on a moral code to enforce a political viewpoint, could threaten the group safety of a country with warring political and moral parties vying for power.  The dynamics of religious nationalism, thus often discourages the universal right of religious liberty in East Asian countries as it is associated with being a cause of social distress. A several centuries historical legacy also threatens religious liberty’s ability to be considered a universal right in East Asian culture. First, many East Asian countries were occupied by European powers during the age of Imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.  During the age of Imperialism, the traditions and ideals of Western European culture were often forced upon East Asian countries, especially, the push to adopt Christianity. Christian missionaries were often viewed as meddlesome and at points abusive relating to their often lack of wanting to try to understand and respect the rights of East Asian people’s native religious beliefs. Such sentiments derived from Imperialism make the current push for religious liberty seem historically hypocritical coming often from a western perspective which only a few centuries early who at times tried to eradicate native East Asian religious cultures.  Religious freedom, especially when coming from Western influences, thus is often not viewed as an idea of equal treatment of the beliefs for all individuals.                  

Within the last hundred-fifty years, many East Asian countries either were communist for some period of time or are currently communist.  The main issues with communism in regards to religious liberty are it is either nationalized or suppressed altogether for the sake of a nation’s identity. Such principles in communism naturally suppress the idea of religious liberty as a universal human right.  Combining the unequal treatment of religious freedom during imperialism and the suppression of often religion in general with communism in recent centuries religious liberty, unfortunately, is often met with resistant or not considered an important matter.               

While the idea of religious liberty as a universal human right is increasingly seen as a need in East Asian countries, several terminological, cultural, and historical factors prevent its universal application as a human right from coming to fruition in East Asian countries. Several delicate and overlaying factors must be considered when promoting the ideal religious freedom as a universal human right with cultural and historical legacies often posing as the greatest obstacles to changing the law and hearts of men towards to be more accepting towards religious liberty.  

References

C, Jonathan. “Freedom of Religion in Southeast Asia: An Empirical Analysis.” Review of Faith & International Affairs, vol. 14, no. 4, Routledge, Dec. 2016, pp. 28–40, http://10.0.4.56/15570274.2016.1248448.

Neo, Jaclyn L. “Religious Freedom and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration: Prospects and Challenges.” Review of Faith & International Affairs, vol. 14, no. 4, Routledge, Dec. 2016, pp. 1–15, http://10.0.4.56/15570274.2016.1248505.


Helen Faulk is a Psychology major with a writing minor at Southern Adventist University. She is pursuing a career pathway towards becoming a librarian in a public or collegiate setting who is also interested in teaching. Her other goals include publishing a book of poems or a novel. She enjoys reading a variety of subjects being particularly interested in the folktales and fairy tales of other cultures, which have helped her understand the conceptual historical legacy of the principles of East Asian culture that she used to draft my article.

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