Why Governments Regulate Religion ?

Author: Bugra Kalkan*

Even in pluralistic Western Europe countries governments cannot resist to regulate religious affairs. The obvious result of these regulations is the monopolization of the religions. In developed liberal democracies, such as Western Europe, religious pluralism is under surveillance in highly regulated religious markets. Especially the dominant religion in these countries is monopolized through regulations. As I explained before, this degreases the level of the religiosity in a society by weakening the motivations of the religious service suppliers in a non-competitive religious market.

However in a non-pluralistic society, religious monopoly definitely creates a sacralized society but not necessarily a religious one. The byproduct of the religious monopoly and sacralization is the increased level of religious persecution. In these cases, formal religious regulations are also supported by social regulations on religious beliefs. Thus, as formal and social regulations on religions are increased, religious persecutions will increase as well. Fortunately, thanks to thearda.com, we can keep tracking of the level of religious regulations and religious persecution across the countries. The surveys of ARDA (Association of Religion Data Archives) show that high religious regulations cause high level of religious persecutions.

Although I will examine the statistics of ARDA in my later articles, it might be helpful to give some interesting examples right now. India, for example, is known for her religious pluralism and strong democracy but statistics of ARDA shows that the religious persecution scores 9 out of 10 in this “pluralistic” country. Score 9 means that between 50001 to 100000 people were exposed to religious persecution from 2005 to 2008. Furthermore, the social regulation of religion scores 10, and government favoritism of religion scores 7 in India. On the other hand, Japan can be given as an opposite example. Religious regulation in Japan is very low (Japan scores 1 on religious regulation). Thus, as the theory predicts, the number of the religious persecutions was between 1 to 10 from 2005 to 2008 in Japan. Examples can be multiplied easily but one thing is clear about these case studies; the low level of religious regulation supports social peace, and vice versa.

So, why governments need to regulate religions?  Anthony Gill gives several important political reasons –so, non-religious reasons- to explain the governmental tendency for regulating religions. The first and the obvious reason is that governments want the dominant religion as their ally in order to stabilize the political system. For sure, being a member of a religious community facilitates the collective action, in this case, the political action. The control of the dominant religion by the state -or the control of the state by religious leaders- will increase loyalty of the citizens towards the political system. Therefore, when the state becomes an ally of a religion or a denomination, the freedom of the other religions or the denominations will be restricted in order to strengthen the political power. This happens in Muslim-majority countries almost all the time but it often happens in non-Muslim-majority countries as well. (An important point that must be explored in later articles.)

The other major reason for religious regulation is that the states can see the religions as a competition to their own ideological and political position. If the religion is the prime source for the political legitimacy, the alternative legitimacy sources for political authority will be suppressed. In Muslim world, Sunni political authorities seek to suppress the Shiites, such as Saudi Arabia; and the Shiite political authorities seek to suppress Sunnis, such as Iran. Formal religious regulations also tend to increase social religious regulations, or vice versa.

As it is seen, when the monopolization tendency in religious markets meets the need of political legitimacy, being loyal to the dominant and “legitimate” religion will be an utterly important political issue. And the outsiders will be a great danger to both the religious and the political society.  This is what happens in Middle East to varying degrees. On the other hand, in Western Europe, because religion is not the prime source of the political authority, the monopolization tendency in religious markets does not require the destruction of religious pluralism. Because the risks of religious freedom are not that high. But as the religious terrorism rises in Western Europe, the political demands to limit religious freedom are increasing. (Again, another topic for another article.)

In failed states or weak states where the political stability is fragile and dependent on religious monopoly, the religious communities prefer high cost/high loyalty strategy for their membership. In weak/failed states where political community directly connected to the religious community, members of the religious community are demanded to show high level of religiousness. In a highly dangerous social and political environment produced by religious conflicts, being a member of a religious community might become existential, and the religious community leaders demand high level of religiosity as a proof of loyalty of the members to the religious group. Thus, in this kind of societies, “self-sacrificing” religious behavior patterns can become the new standard of the religious groups, and the religions might get more radicalized. So, as long as the political stability gets more fragile, religious groups might get more radicalized to survive in a hostile social and political environment. Although, this is a reductionist explanation, it still reveals some aspect of the radicalization of religious groups in Middle East. So, radical Islam might not be a religious issue but basically a political one. But, this is the topic of the next week.

(*) Dr. Bugra Kalkan is a professor of political science in Katip Celebi University, Izmir. He is also a senior academic fellow in the Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey.