Professor Elina Vuola: “The significance of religion should not be over- or underestimated”

The selectivity related to discourse on religion should be exposed in public, says Elina Vuola, professor of global Christianity and dialogue of religions.

“Religion is the root of all evil.” This seems to be the opinion of a surprisingly large group of people, at least based on public debate in Finland.

According to Elina Vuola, professor of global Christianity and dialogue of religions, the media also serve religions as a comprehensive cause for social inequity. Religion is used as a reason for oppression, violence and inequality in the news, social media and politics.

The overemphasis of religion stands out particularly well in discussion on terrorism, where religion is often distilled into a primary cause or factor. Religion’s relation to a certain phenomenon or ideology, such as nationalism, fascism or communism, may not even be given consideration.

This ignores questions of poor socioeconomic status, level of education and feelings of alienation underlying radicalisation, as well as their links to militant interpretations of religion.

Vuola gives an example of overestimating the importance of religion:

“People coming from another, unfamiliar culture are only examined through the prism of religion. This is typical particularly as regards women. Their weak status may be attributed to the Catholic Church in Latin America or to Islam in Muslim countries.”

Feminist thought and gender studies are also susceptible to similar ways of thinking. Among these fields, the figure of Virgin Mary (link in Finnish only), central to Catholicism in Latin America, is considered a symbol of female subjugation, even though ordinary women often see her in a positive and complex light.

At the other extreme is the underestimation of religion, or its dismissal altogether, even in cases when it should be taken into account. You don’t have to look far to find an example. Vuola herself has studied the Orthodox identity of the Skolt Sámi.

“Religion, both the Lutheran and Orthodox Church, is one of the areas examined by the Sámi truth and reconciliation commission. It is important to also understand the positive meaning of both religions to the Sámi people today.”

Unchallenged secularism, or the separation of church and state, is a value-based ideology

According to Vuola, social sciences, as well as ordinary citizens and the media, occasionally err on the side of over- or underestimating religion. This happens when researchers lack the appropriate knowledge and understanding of religion.

Secularism, a phenomenon distinct from secularisation, is sometimes expressed in research as an unstated and coded ideology rife with assumptions about secularisation as positive and religion as negative, without providing any analysis.

“Different shades of grey fade into the background if the picture is only black and white, accentuating opposites: secular as progressive and religion as backward. What’s more, this outlook is Eurocentric and colonialist. On a global scale, the significance of religion for individuals and communities is different in, for example, Asia, Africa and South America compared to Western Europe.”

In such cases, studies are not objective depictions of religion’s importance to society, but expressions of hope for or predictions of secularisation, which may be considered as a universally neutral and agreeable phenomenon, and a symbol of the modern world.

“Secularism as an -ism akin to an ideology is based on values. It’s another matter when scholars examine secularisation neutrally as a transformation of individuals, societies, social systems and states towards non-religious values. The religious neutrality of government institutions and legislation is, of course, important for a rule-of-law democracy,” Vuola notes.

Selective religiousness and exercise of power

If the media and scholars exploit religion, so do politicians.

Recently, Minister for Foreign Affairs Timo Soini’s anti-abortion comments (link in Finnish only) have been a topic of public debate. The chancellor of justice asked Soini to explain his decision to participate in an event organised by the anti-abortion movement during his official trip to Canada in May. In his blog, Soini extolled Argentina’s decision to refrain from legalising abortion. Now, four opposition parties are proposing a vote of no-confidence in Soini due to his comments on abortion.

“The freedom of opinion and religion certainly applies to everyone, but that is not the crux of the matter. Rather, this is about his statements as minister for foreign affairs. Abortion is a big ethical question that divides people. However, Finland has in its foreign and development policy committed to promoting the rights of women and girls. The minister speaks for his country, not himself,” says Vuola.

Furthermore, Soini’s habit of invoking religion is glaring in its selectivity.

“Pope Francis has stated that global poverty and inequality are the greatest sins of our time. To my knowledge, this dimension has never been highlighted by the Catholic Soini. Instead, he has actively endorsed cutting development cooperation funding, contrary to the opinions of the highest authority of his church. Appeals to religion should be consistent,” Vuola offers.

Minority perspective critical to religious literacy

How, then, can scholars and the media better understand religions and provide the public information on them without over- or underestimating their significance?

“A good way of assessing one’s personal religious literacy is to consider religions from the perspective of a certain minority or a group excluded from decision-making. For example, matters of gender and sexuality expose the internal power structures of religions: who gets to make decisions, to have their say and to act as an authority,” Vuola lists.

The media should also pay heed to the dimension of religion topical at any given time.

“No religion can be reduced merely to an institution, a doctrine or its leading figures. It is always much more – rituals, spirituality, community, everyday life and experiences,” Vuola continues.

“For instance, how much do we know about the dimensions of various religions that increase wellbeing, coping skills, feelings of relevance and community in Finland? As important as intervening in religious exercise of power is, there is a multitude of factors positive to individuals and society inherent in all religions.”