Values, norms and religion

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The following is a translation of my contribution to a national conference in Rotterdam on 13th December, 2007, organized by Dona Daria – a Dutch Centre for Women and Emancipation. Another speaker was Islamologist Professor Tariq Ramadan.

Dutch politicians often refer to ‘norms and values’ and tend to treat these as an inseparable twins, somewhat like Marks and Spencer. But values and norms are quite different things and do not need to go hand in hand: for a meaningful discussion it is essential to distinguish between the two.

A value is a preference, shared with others from one’s group, for one state of affairs above others. Values deal with what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, normal and abnormal. Values are always collective within a group. An example of a value is respect for older people within one’s group, or that girls should behave one way and boys another. Values are deeply rooted and often unconscious, because they belong to the things we learned as children, before puberty. We learned them from our parents and from other adults and children around us, in the family, in the street and at school, and within a culture they are transferred from parents to children. Reading authors from the past we discover that the same values already existed hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Norms are rules we are supposed to respect, imposed by our environment, regardless whether these rules correspond to our own values. The government plays an important role in norm enforcement, but it has hardly any influence on our values, whatever some politicians may believe. One problem of norm enforcement is that it costs money, money that a government can only spend once, and if you spend it on norm enforcement you cannot spend it on something else you also want.
Today’s conference is about religion as a value or as a norm, in this city of Rotterdam with its many different religions and sometimes different norms. My task will be to say something about religion in general, without privileging any religion in particular. Religion in this case refers to the way in which a group of people deals with the supernatural. Religion in this sense is a general characteristic of humanity: it is present in all peoples and tribes, even among people who consider themselves atheist. Religion is one of the things that distinguish men from animals.
Religious practices are meant to influence events that we do not control ourselves, especially those related to birth and death. Think of prayer, baptism, circumcision, marriage ceremonies, dealing with the dying and the deceased.
Religions exist in many different forms, in their doctrines as well as in the behaviour of their followers. Political systems like communism and capitalism also show religious features. Both in the doctrines and in the behaviours, values, as I just described them, play a role. Religion and values affect each other but loosely: from someone’s religion we can only predict a small part of that person’s values, and in reverse, from someone’s values we can deduce even less about that person’s religion. Differences in values between human societies existed before our present religions were founded, and all great world religions have seen schisms based on differences in values: Sunni versus Shia in Islam, Catholic versus Protestant in Christianity, Mahayana versus Theravada in Buddhism.
In my own research I have met three ways in which values influence religions. One of these relates to differences between religions, and the other two relate to differences within religions.
The first way, the one related to value differences between religions, opposes the revelation religions that in the Middle East emerged from each other: Jewry, Christianity and Islam, to the great religions of Southern and Eastern Asia: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. The basic dividing line between these two groups of religions rests in the priority of Truth versus Virtue. The religions of the Book, the Bible or the Koran, deal primarily with knowing the Truth. Virtue follows from Truth. In the Asian religions, truth is not a central concept. In Asian thinking, one truth, say A, does not exclude its opposite, say B. A and B together can lead to a higher-level insight. Asians switch relatively easily from one religion to another, or even confess more than one religion at the same time. The crucial question is not what one believes but what one does, the ritual and virtuous behaviour. Truth follows from Virtue.
The second way in which values influence religions, this time even within one religion, is the choice between a strict and a pragmatic application of the rules. Sociology Professor Cor Lammers taught me the terms ‘fundis’ versus ‘realos’, coined by German left-wing activists in the 1970s, and these express a distinction that runs through all our religions as well. In the religions of the Book being a ‘fundi’ means: “There is only one Truth and we have got it, and all others have got it wrong”. Being a ‘realo’ means: “We have our truth but others have theirs and that’s a fact we have to live with”. In the Asian religions the distinction relates to the tolerance for differences in what is seen as virtuous behaviour, tolerance which in some places is much larger than in other.
The third way in which values influence religions, again even within one religion, refers to the attitude towards gender roles and toward sex. Procreation is a primordial mystery of human existence, and all religions are in some way concerned with it. The division of roles between the genders is based on the fundamental fact that men cannot have babies. Therefore in any society and in any religion men have got other tasks allocated to them. Most of these could also be performed by women, but the division of roles prohibits that.
Beyond this, nearly all religions have rules related to sexual activities, to what is compulsory, what is permitted, and what is taboo. Examples are commands about circumcision, birth control, abortion, incest. Hindu temples are modelled after the lingam and the yoni, that is the phallus and the vagina; in Taoism the concepts of yang and yin, the integration of the male and the female element, play a crucial role.
The distinction between and within religions is about how strictly the roles of women and men are prescribed, in religious affairs, in society as well as in love. Within Christianity that role division is stricter in Catholicism than for most Protestants, and stricter for Polish Catholics than for Dutch Catholics. Within Islam and the other world religions too large differences exist in this respect, if not in the doctrines certainly in practice, and these differences are based on fundamental values that have been imparted to little girls and little boys right from birth, and that therefore are very deeply rooted.
To summarize, three ways in which values affect religions are: priority to Truth or to Virtue, the distinction between fundis and realos, and the roles of men and women. In our multi-religious society we meet all three, but mostly the latter two. The migrations of the past half century have confronted migrants and host country inhabitants with very different mind- and religious frames from those they were accustomed to.
In this clash of ideas, religions are often blamed for differences that actually derive from pre-religious values, differences that cut right across religions. The problem is not what you believe, but which consequences you draw from it, in your inevitable encounters with other people.
We talked about religions and values, let us now go back to norms. We are here in the Netherlands, and our country has norms that emerged form our Dutch past, and our Dutch government is supposed to enforce them. Immigration to us is nothing new: at least since the 17th century our country has absorbed large groups of migrants. That absorption process has always been resolved pragmatically, in a compromise between our fundis and our realos, in our case our preachers and our merchants. This country’s prosperity owes a lot to our immigrants. Tensions were resolved in a Dutch way through looking the other way, tolerating other churches as long as they were not too visible, pillarization (verzuiling) and within-group-sovereignty while at the same time maintaining one common state.
The Dutch norm is pluriformity and tolerance, towards other religions as well as in gender role distribution. This is most evident from the composition of our Parliament and of our Government. Nowhere in Europe new citizens are as equitably represented in parliament and government as in our country. And after the Nordic countries, the Netherlands at this moment have the highest percentage of women in parliament, 37 percent, and in government, 31 percent.
In spite of other voices, which by the way have also always been there, I don’t think that the Dutch norm of pluriformity and tolerance will change. We should not be too impatient. Experience from other immigration countries like Canada and Australia has shown that while some migrants adapt faster than others, within three generations nearly all migrants have interiorised the values of the host country. In the case of our recently added compatriots, much of that third generation has still got to be born.

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