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Israeli discusses religion and state

Justin Tardiff | Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The positive association of economic development with a religious population is one of the trends Jonathan Fox, senior lecturer in political science at Israel’s Bar-Illan University, explained to students and faculty Monday night.

Fox shared his recent research on the separation of religion and state around the world in a lecture sponsored by the Kellogg Institute and Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies held in DeBartolo Hall.

In his project “Religion and State in the Post Cold War Era,” Fox created a data set that measures the degree to which a government is involved in the religious life of its citizens. By creating scales on such topics as the official role of the state down through aspects of religious discrimination and regulations, researchers can apply Fox’s data to a variety of disciplines.

Unlike previous projects that included only developed nations, Fox made an effort to collect data from 175 countries. Every nation with a population of 250,000 or more is included, along with a smattering of a few tinier ones. Data collected was from 1990-2002.

Fox said he was shocked at the breadth of state involvement.

“Almost 80 percent of countries do not have separation of religion and state,” Fox said. “I really did not think that existed to this extent and with this kind of consistency.”

States may endorse or restrict a religion, and the methods of doing so result in complications for the project. Fox said state involvement in religious life is certainly not clear-cut.

“Does a country support a religion or not? It’s not black and white,” Fox said. “Look at the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, for example. Both have official state religions, but should they really be classified in the same category?”

Fox researched a variety of aspects of state life to account for similar disparities.

Overall, his results were relatively consistent for all denominations, with a dramatic increase in religious discrimination, regulation, and legislation over the last 15 years despite a consistent amount of official state support.

This shows that countries do not always follow their constitutions in this area, Fox said. He noted some Muslim countries contain stipulations in their full freedom of religion clauses subjecting religious autonomy to the laws and traditions of the state. Strictly following this exception opens the door for religious oppression, Fox said.

Fox also pointed out the conflict of his data with social scientists’ modernization theory, which says religion will fade away with secularization. While he noted the importance of considering factors other than state involvement, his research shows the exact opposite trend post-Cold War.

Fox’s data aligns with what some scholars find is a reaction against modernity – that people are becoming more religious as a revolt against secularization.

Another key finding of Fox’s study is the trend that a wealthier nation hosts a more religious population.

According to the study, state monopolies on religion seem to influence behavior – whether people attend services or deem themselves members of a particular sect – but not necessarily belief.

Fox noted time and economic development as two variables that must also be considered in this particular situation. Nevertheless, people are more likely to be religious, this data shows, in states that are wealthier – a controversial conclusion, Fox said.

Since the January release of the research, there are already 20 scholars in five nations applying Fox’s data to their particular fields. In response to a question of the implications of his research, Fox emphasized the importance of collecting data from which to work.

“Much of this data is defining [the] ‘what’ – what exactly, are the trends? The ‘what’ is as important as the ‘why,'” Fox said. “From a clear set of data, the possibilities for knowledge are endless.”