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Religious Secrets: A Human Rights Issue? - Christian Szurko

It is no secret that some religions have secrets. And so what? Why should they not have secrets? Who can rightly critique religions for being esoteric and taking people to the secret realms of human reality?

We have asked director Christian Szurko from the Dialog Center UK to answer these questions. flere is his response:
Practical Considerations

1. What kind of secrets are these? Do they genuinely pertain to the religion or are they the secrets of the group's leaders which are being disguised as religious secrets in an attempt to secure them greater protection. For example, should L. Ron Hubbard's drug abuse be a "religious secret" and therefore not open to scrutiny or criticism? Or Sai Baba's homosexuality? -  etc.

2. Why are these things kept secret? The group's reasons cannot always be taken at face value: "You aren't on the right spiritual platform to know why I as an ISKCON temple president have weekly luncheon meetings at U.C. headquarters". "If you read these incredible secrets before you have gone OT and passed through the wall of fire you'll go mad or even die!" We need to talk about the real reasons; over against the "human rights" of the members of a religion must be balanced the rights at large to know the answer to the question, "Who are these people in our midst who are so cohesive within their group and so divided from the rest of us?" Are their secrets genuine sacred teachings or hermetic/gnostic mysteries? Or are they commercial secrets and manipulative or deceptive techniques for recruitment and covert control? The allegations that Ananda Marga had or has a small squad of assassins should not be made more difficult to prove or disprove by the group's recourse to claims of secrecy, nor should the reports of sexual abuse and violence or financial and tax swindles of countless groups.

3. Secrets for whom? Do the ordinary members really get to learn them or are they only meant for the few who need to know them in order to perpetuate something undesirable or evil in the group? Are they only for the more devoted disciple simply because the inquirer or the new recruit is not yet committed enough and might have second thoughts about membership?

4. Secrets from whom? There is a difference between guarding what is sacred from casual "spiritual tourists", and hiding what is secret from the vulnerable who could be misled, hiding from authorities who would investigate possible crimes, and hiding from the media who would balance the group's PR with the other side of the story.

5. Protected how? Isolation and careful handling of the secrets? Stern warnings? Lock and key plus threats of dire spiritual consequences? Censorship? This leads to the next question.

6. Violations penalized how? Prayer for the people involved? Punishing the member who tells the secrets? The outsider who receives them? Both? With what punishment? Symbolic denunciations? Humiliation? Abuse and persecution? Fair game policies? This question raises the issue of the role of discipline in religions. Does our society wish to endorse a sect's attempts to ruin those who reveal secrets, by calling those attempts "religion"?

7. All this presumes the big question: Are secrets necessary to the religion, or to commercial or criminal expediency?

I can acknowledge reasonable human and occultic arguments for religious secrecy starting with privacy and ending with religious freedom and having a lot of other stuff in between. However, I also see the need to balance this against the need for any society to protect itself and especially those of its number who wish neither to be part of the secret religion nor to be harassed by it for non-membership. That requires the society to know that a religion 's secrets are not dangerous. Otherwise we end up with Aum Shinri Kyo and of course Scientology. This need for balance means some secrecy is more valid than others; hence the questions above. It is easy for religions with untrammelled secrecy to be neither "good faiths" nor "in good faith" and no claims about civil liberties or human rights should obscure the possible consequences. As a US Supreme Court Judge is supposed to have said, " A man 's right to swing his fist ends where the next man 's nose begins". It is society which must define its own "nose".

That takes me to the second set of questions.
Theological Considerations

From my perspective within Christianity, I hold the following propositions as essential to my faith which relate to the nature and extent of secrecy within religion as such.

l. God is the revealer. God lets his creation know about him and know him personally, but also the act of revelation is itself a statement about God which is part of the content of any revelation. Moreover, that revelation is given indiscriminately; that is, it is unmerited by the recipient and is intended by God for all. God's revelation isn't earned or deserved, so there really isn't anyone who "shouldn't" know the Gospel. For me then, real secrecy about my faith is contrary to the revealed purpose of God as I understand it.

2. Extending that point a little, although the Incarnation was done humbly and quietly it was not esoteric. Christ "emptied himself" to redeem man, but that was balanced with proclamation and so was not secret: "...This has not been done in a corner" as Paul puts it (Acts 26,26). Secrecy pushes God into the corner.

3. On the other hand, since the revealer and the revelation are in fact God, the content of revelation is transcendent, and is hidden from anyone who refuses to receive it within grace. Secrecy doesn't have to be created by human agency: the mystery of the Gospel is hidden except when it is seen by the gift of God. Human secrecy cannot "protect" God from proclamation; it can only conceal the revelation from those to whom the Spirit of God is seeking to make it known.

4. To me, God's revelation is supremely personal: in relationship to the Incarnate Word. It is the kind of relationship which calls for openness. Secrecy is a betrayal of that relationship.

5. If this is right then it would follow inexorably that secrecy may be "religious" but it will not in the end be Christian; rather it will work to reduce Christianity to one more elitist esoteric religion in which only some are "worthy" of the Atonement. That doesn't mean that we can or should forbid secrecy absolutely, but we must be clear w hat we're talking about: a religion with secrets could be valid as a religion, a "good faith" which is "in good faith", but it is not Christian. Prospective members might not always be told w hat the secrets are, but they should be told that there are secrets.

6. A final thought is that if I know that some secrets are potentially or actually harmful to at least some people, I have the same duty to announce that as I would have to warn a blind man that he is about to step into a ditch (Leviticus 19, 14, supplemented by Proverbs 24,11). If I need a more explicit theological anchor for that, the example of Christ warning his disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees is an obvious place to start. Such warnings have or should have priority over secrecy or privacy or whatever. Human rights must include consumer rights and modem societies already temper "let the buyer beware" with legal restrictions in other fields. Why not religion?
Last Thoughts

To me the real difficulty is to maintain a religion's genuine right to be self-determining, even if that means secrecy at some points, while protecting individuals and societies from being taken over by extremist authoritarian sects which disguise their totalitarianism with the word "religion". In a way it's the same problem that we have in protecting our societies from Nazism, Stalinism or racism. Guarding the rights of everyone means that sometimes rights clash and there are no easy solutions. Laws declaring Scientology or the Family, et al., illegal without qualifications would be bad laws; equally, laws allowing such groups to do whatever they like without restriction because they call it religion would be bad. How would we as Christians live under the kind of laws that we want to use against these? True, we don 't have obscene doctrines or practices and we don't spy on governments but we want to keep the confidentiality of the confessional and of the counselling room - inviolate. It's a thought.