"Religion as a Private Matter" in the West!




"Religion as a private matter" attitude in the U.S had its roots in Europe. How it developed in America is best illustrated in the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1830's .  I have written about Tocqueville' s observations of the United States in another article before. 


How was it possible to shape religion as a private matter in the United States? Was it because of the U.S. being a Protestant country from start?  Well, that is an important factor and true that in the U.S., religion had *no clearly defined social role* in the life of individuals. But the U.S. history also had its own dark ages when the Protestant zealots did their witch-hunting, and pushed religious dogma against science that reminded one of Luther's own attack on Copernicus, which was not any better than the Catholic Church..


In Europe, first the decisions for burning the apostates were made in the Councils of the Catholic Church.  Then during the reformation, similar religious differences were fought out in the wars between the Catholics and Protestants, and finally there was the stalemate of the Thirty Year War in the15th Century, and thus the birth of individualism in Europe, because if neither the Council was able to make such decisions, nor the war could make it one way or the other, the individual was left to decide for himself/herself. 


Nonetheless even the Lutherans looked to the monarch, head of the state, to be the head of the Protestant religion, and Calvin in Geneva asked the people to follow the state in religious matters,  to challenge the Catholic theocracy, although in some other countries the Calvinists did not go along with the royal power, in spite of their strong opposition to the Catholic religion.  In other words, the civil law took control of *social role* of the religion, and religion in the social sphere was replaced with various forms of *social contract* theories, natural law theories, and similar civil laws, and in this sense religion got  more and more away from its social role, and more focused on individual's spiritual needs. 


But the multitude of Protestant groups  in the U.S. made it more meaningful to have a view of religion as a private matter, so that no denomination would dominate, and the concept later expanded to include other religions such as Hinduism, as one's private matter in the U.S.   If Calvin in Geneva asked the people to follow the state, even in religious matters, to end the Catholic way of theocracy; in the U.S., there was no presumption of a social role for the religion, and thus there was no such dilemma for the protestant priests to deal with, and for that matter, no such dilemma even for the Catholic priests either, and thus "religion as a private matter", was a "natural" reality, in the United States of 1830's, when Tocqueville visited the U.S. 


In Europe the process has been a lot more arduous and never as complete as what one sees in the U.S., where in a way it all started with a clean slate.  This is why still to our times, one sees the battle of Pope and Madonna as a living example of continuation of persistence of the Catholic Church to assume a social role, roles like deciding about contraceptives, but of course this is a far cry from the days when the Church allowed itself to burn apostates at the stake.  Moreover for "religion as a private matter", to become the accepted norm, the civil law, in the forms of social contract or others,  needed to take over the judiciary of the European societies, and the clerics had to be replaced with the graduates of secular law schools, so that no social role would be distinguished for the clergy. 


In Europe, the Protestant attacks on the Catholic Council, caused removal of clergy from the executive branches of government, parliament, and judiciary in different countries at various degrees but the rise of science and secularism was the final blow to the social role of religion. In other words, whenever there was a conflict between the individual right and social right, a secular body was to make the decision, i.e., the Catholic Church  was stripped from the authority to make such decisions or to execute them after the end of Inquisition.  Therefore, if a Christian priest felt that someone was blasphemous, and wanted to burn him at the stake, he no longer had the power to make a verdict, or to execute it, because not only the state took away such social roles from the Church, the pious also no longer considered such decisions or actions within the scope of authority of their priesthood. 


Now let's see what the situation is with regards to Islamic countries.  Even in countries where the executive branch is not in the hands of Islamic clergy, such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the judiciary is controlled by them.  Why didn't the Catholic clergy continue to burn people, after not being in control of the state, in extrajudicial ways, as it has been done by Islamic clerics using fatwa and vigilantes, even during the Shah's regime, to murder heretics like Ahmad Kasravi?  The noteworthy issue to remember is that with the fall of the Middle Ages, European view of the human became more and more as *individuals* and not community, and the Church was no longer able to kill heretics, in a social role. 


In contrast, in Islam to this day, the *ommat* is a community view of the human, and this is what prevails in the Islamic countries.  True that the Greece of Plato and Aristotle viewed the individual as part of the community, and the same view prevailed in Mediaeval Europe, but Modern Europe and the United States shed the community view of the human, and developed the concepts of individual rights, and the individual, as an end in himself/herself.  I have noted the work of John Rawls about Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern views of human in my following article:




In short, the reformation, and the individualism following the stalemate of Catholics and Protestants in the Thirty Year War, ushered in a new view of human, which was an *individual* and not a community, and this view of human was finally triumphant in the European societies after the defeat of the Inquisition in Europe.  Such a process in Islamic countries has not been that long and the *ommat* is what supports the stoning and murders of mortads for blasphemy, as punishment of the outcasts who do not follow the norm of community of *ommat*.  In fact, for "religion to be a private matter", one has to end the ommat view of people in the Islamic countries.


The situation of a similar protestant movement in Iran which was highlighted by Aghajari's case, I discussed extensively in a different article and basically my thought is that may be some Muslims will decide not to have clergy like the Protestants in the West, but as a non-religious person, I do not care how different people want to worship God as long as they do not force it on me and this is why I call for a secular government in Iran so that neither religion interferes in the state nor the state interferes in religion:




Finally clergy should not be allowed to run for office in the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government as long as they have a position in the religious organization.  In Iran, where the Shi'a organization clergy has an organization of its own parallel to the state, their interference in the state will be an issue in the post-IRI secular state and this should be specified constitutionally that Shi'a clergy should not be allowed to hold any state office including judicial roles in the courts.  I have written in details about this topic in my following article:





Sam Ghandchi, Publisher



March 2, 2003





* This article was previously published as part of the following article about the so-called Islamic Democracy: