CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Roundtable “Mission of Religion in the Modern World: In the Search for Cooperation” – Saint Gregory the Theologian Charity Foundation, Moscow, December 17, 2018

by Massimo Introvigne


On December 8, 2018, somebody spread pepper spray in a disco club in the small town of Corinaldo, Central Italy, while a crowd of youngsters was anxiously waiting for the arrival of a controversial singer known for his songs promoting heavy drugs and transgressive sex. The crowd rushed for the exit, causing a stampede where six died and more than a hundred were seriously injured. The youngest victims were only twelve. The police arrested the teenager who had spread the pepper spray. He was a sixteen-year-old who went to the disco after having assumed a potentially lethal mixture of heroine and cocaine. Spreading pepper spray and then filming the consequences with a cell phone is becoming popular among Italian teenagers. Only in 2018, there were fifteen pepper spray incidents in public schools, with many students intoxicated.

From the President of the Republic to the Pope of Rome, many commented on the tragedy. It created a national soul-searching phenomenon, the more so because the only reason the town of Corinaldo is known to most Italians is as the birthplace of Maria Goretti, an eleven-year-old girl who in 1902 fought to preserve her virtue against a young man who tried to rape and finally killed her. She is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church, and is popular in Italy as a model of female bravery.

One question returning in the discussion was where was religion in all this, why the Catholic Church, in a part of Italy that was once one of its strongholds, was not able to offer to these young people an alternative to a deadly subculture of drugs and transgression.

This is not only an Italian problem. Statistics on drugs are a matter of controversy, but estimates by international agencies put the numbers of death directly caused by drugs in the world between 115,000 and 230,000 every year. Even by the lower estimates, somewhere in the world somebody dies of drugs every five minutes. The majority of these victims are younger than 25, and the most alarming detail is that numbers increase every year, notwithstanding the efforts by the  .

These efforts are laudable and necessary, yet drug addiction is also, as Pope John Paul II once said, “a pathology of the spirit.” It is not the only one. Juvenile alcoholism is increasing. All over Europe and beyond, we see a resurgence of right-wing extremism, sometimes explicitly using Nazi slogans, targeting ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and refugees. And sometimes our young people seems to have replaced the century-old European passion for beauty with a cult of ugliness.

A pessimistic approach would argue that there is nothing religions can do. Some scholars believe that those who are now teenagers or young adults are the “first irreligious generation.”

However, this is not entirely true. Data show that atheism is not popular among young Europeans. They regard atheism as just another dogmatic, cold, boring system. Many have prejudices against the word “religion,” or “organized” religion, but they like what they call “spirituality.” British sociologists have created the acronym SBNR, “spiritual but not religious.” However, where the boundaries between religion and spirituality lie is not clear. Hailing spirituality and criticizing religion may just be a question of words, or a fashion.

In fact, in their majority the young people of Europe still believe, but they do not know in what they believe. Religions can still help them to overcome their many problems, but religions claiming a monopoly of truth or banding together to form elite clubs to exclude newcomers are increasingly met with reactions of annoyance.

Here, the question of religious liberty acquires a new dimension. Religious liberty is an ethical imperative, but sociologists have demonstrated it is also needed to keep young people interested in religion. We may like or not like it, but they want to be free to experiment with different paths, and react negatively to claims that a certain religion has a monopoly of truth and, worse still, is in league with the state to curtail their freedom to explore. Religions who deny religious freedom may feel protected for a while, but they soon become irrelevant.

Some days ago, on December 10, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everybody knows that its Article 18 refers to freedom of religion, but not many reflect on the meaning of the two words, “freedom” and “religion.”

As for “freedom,” Article 18 includes the freedom to “teach” a religion and to “change” religion. One of the distinctive features of religion in the 21st century is that many, and in some countries most, people do not die in the religion they were born into. Religious conversion and change, exceptional in many European countries just one century ago, are now daily occurrences. Many religions have problems in accommodating to this new situation. However, in the present context, this is the real test of religious liberty. Do I recognize to other religions the right to come and try to convert members of my own faith? This is part and parcel of Article 18. Freedom of religion is not limited to freedom of worship. This is one of the reasons some Islamic countries have not signed the Declaration. They may accept the freedom of non-Muslims to worship in their own churches, but do not want them to preach and try to convert Muslims to a different faith. In a way, these Islamic states are more coherent than others who have signed the Universal Declaration, yet create obstacles to missionary activities aimed at converting their citizens out of the majority faith.

As for “religion,” I would stress the importance of General Comment 22 of 1993 to the Universal Declaration. General Comments are official interpretations of international treaties by the so called “treaty bodies” of the United Nations. GC 22 explains that,

The terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. [It includes faiths that] are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community.

Article 18 protects new as well as old religions. New religions are often dismissed as “cults” or “dangerous sects.” Most scholars do not recognize these labels as part of objective social science. A “cult” is simply a religion somebody does not like.
I will conclude by suggesting that, as it is true for religious liberty in general, respecting the freedom of new religions is not only a moral and a political duty mandated by Article 18. It is also advantageous to society. We have a problem with young people turning away from beauty and being attracted by ugliness. New religions contributed very significantly to the visual arts not only in the Americas and Western Europe but also in Russia. Kandinsky acknowledged how much he was influenced by Theosophy, and Nicholas Roerich founded with his wife his own new religious movement, Agni Yoga. And we have a problem with thousands of young people dying of drugs.

Traditional religions have often very brilliant drug prevention and rehabilitation projects. Sometimes, however, youngsters are reluctant to listen to traditional religions. New religions such as the Church of Scientology have devised anti-drug programs recognized by the governments as effective in several countries. Obviously, those who do not like new religions would refuse to take seriously their anti-drug activities either. However, in a world in desperate need of cures for the “pathologies of the spirit,” for how long can we afford not to give a chance to new religions too?