According to leading sociologists and philosophers like Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, and Levi-Strauss, religious symbols are an essential part of all religions in the sense that they establish a strong pervasiveness and feeling of motivation among the followers of a particular religion (Geertz, 1973). Similarly, religious symbols are primarily acquainted with coping and the role that it plays in religion. Many scholars have studied the effects of religious symbols as being immediate and almost naturally-occurring (Bargh, 1994); these effects are believed to reiterate specific ideas and opinions in the minds of believers and followers, ones that emotionally drive them into following a specific religion and its teachings. Religious symbols like the Christian crucifix are a form of summarizing the defining points of religion and its ideology; in such instances, the symbol gains the ability to evoke conceptions that are generally associated and interlinked with the symbolic object itself. The cross, for example, has become an object whose image and presence directly evokes images that are symbolic and representative of Christianity (Langer, 1942). Consistent with the ideas mentioned above, Carl Jung presented his argument about the manifestation of symbolic images in reality through unconscious representation. This representation manifests itself in ways that often have astute consequences for every individual’s reality and experiences.
In keeping with the studies mentioned above, it can be argued that religious symbols have the ability to substantially and unconsciously influence the opinions and behavior of individuals. According to the same argument, positive symbols can make positive aspects of religion more accessible, thereby allowing religion to be used as a coping tool; conversely, negative symbols may make negative aspects of religion more prominent and accessible, thereby making religion a threat to society at large. The presence of religious symbols in the public sphere is one that has been widely debated and has led to various political disagreements all over the world. This essay will aim to argue that even though religious symbols that are presented to an individual’s innermost being may psychologically influence the individual and his or her behavior, it is vital to understand the importance of these symbols and their practical significance in daily life. It will do so by assessing the positive and negative psychological consequences of these symbols for religious and non-religious people, while also referring to theories like the self-affirmation and the environmental, psychological theory for supporting evidence.
Religious symbols have the collective quality of implying the inner attitude and meaning of the symbol (one that is not visible in the physical nature of the symbol itself), and of symbolizing the invisible meaning as a symbol for something else. The crucifix, for example, directly symbolized the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; this symbolization, in turn, is symbolic of the redemptive characteristic of God (Tillich, 1958). A second, distinct characteristic of religious symbols is their perceptibility, which makes the idea behind every symbol more transcendent. Thirdly, the acceptability of religious symbols is one that allows every symbol to be socially ingrained and supported – only when it is supported and accepted, can it exist as a universal symbol and become representative as the general science of a particular group and/or community. Finally, the innate power being religious symbols is one that allows the impotent physical being of the symbol to gain almost divine importance. This characteristic is the most significant one of the four because of the distinction it draws between a sign and a symbol (Tillich, 1958).
The first and foremost matter of dispute when it comes to the opposition against the public display of religious symbols pertains to questions regarding the secularity of the state and its responsibility to ensure religious neutrality while dealing with legal matters. According to this argument, a pluralistic state and its laws and policies must be entirely independent of any and all religious influence; therefore, while all individuals do have the constitutional right to practice their own religions, that right may only be practiced so long as it does not interfere the working and proceeding of the State. Since religious symbols have been proven to have a psychological impact on the decisions and behavioral patterns of individuals, the opposing side argues that such religious symbols in the public sphere may sway political and legal decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously; in these cases, such symbols are considered to go against the principle of neutrality that must be adhered to in all matters of the state (Ollero, 2011). Additionally, people on this side of the argument believe that religious symbols can easily be turned into catalysts for religion-based violence; since religious symbols are seen as conveyors of empowerment, it is believed that that empowerment can (and is) used to perpetuate violence. This argument promotes the idea that religious symbols create divisions and barriers between individuals in society and makes it increasingly difficult for people living in the same community to find a common set of core values and beliefs.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to determine what constitutes a religious symbol and to distinguish a cultural symbol from a religious one. Regardless of what the state defines as secularity, it does not have the right to define the religious nature of an act or symbol.
Many studies talk about the “paradox whereby to educate [students] for life in a pluralist society required that they are taught in a space from which all plurality had been stripped” (Ollero, 2011); this goes directly against the idea of a society built on tolerance. If a country refers to itself as pluralist and secular, it is opening the doors to its communities to people of all religions and cultures; consequently, it would be unreasonably and discriminatory to expect those culturally and religiously diverse individuals to refrain from practicing their beliefs through the use of religious symbols (Mancini, 2004). With the increasing de-privatization of religion, the religious aspect of individuals’ lives diffuses into the public and political sphere; more often than not, this diffusion consists of ideas and beliefs that are consistent with those held by the majority existing in the particular state. In such incidences, all religious manifestations of minorities may come to be seen as offensive and socially unacceptable (Mancini, 2004).
The importance of symbolic representation and expression in religion is so crucial for many religious groups and individuals because of the transcendent and spiritual characteristics that religious symbols are believed to hold. The system of symbols in religion is one that significantly contributes to the formation and maintenance of a bond between individuals in a community; it acts as a mediator between human beings and the divine presence that they choose to believe in (Goldammer, 2018). In this sense, religious symbols are seen as bridges between an individual’s consciousness, reality, and the sacred; for many, it is a means to transform the material into spiritual, and spiritual into empirical. This, in turn, provides a link between every believing individual’s actual reality and his or her ‘quest for salvation’, something that is innate to every human being, while also being an overarching theme for most religions (Kokosalakis, 2001). In simpler words, religious symbols act as facilitators for a more precise and more easily accessible understanding of concepts and ideas [of a religion], so that followers [of that religion] can easily connect on a social, as well as spiritual level.
The freedom of religion is granted to every individual based on constitutional protection; therefore, banning individuals from wearing and publicly displaying religious symbols in public spheres directly violates that right. This is illustrated in Quebec’s introduction of legislation that bans schoolteachers, police officers, lawyers, and other workers in the public sector from adorning religious symbols on their being. In essence, this included scarves for Muslim women and turbans for Sikh men, which are regarded as religious symbols (Bilefsky, 2020). While a vast majority of the public broadly criticized the passing of this legislation, the Satanists of Oklahoma received much less support for their right to religious freedom. In 2014, a group of Satanists released an image of a monument of Baphomet, that they wanted to be erected on government property. The supporters argued that as a pluralist state, the erection of a Satanic monument in contrast to the pre-existing monument of the Ten Commandments should be encouraged. Since the legislature had already allowed the construction of the monument for the Ten Commandments on government property, they were unable to offer legally sound explanations for their refusal to allow the construction of other religious displays on the same property (Jones, 2014). While this may be an extreme example, it is still representative of government favoritism of certain religious groups and its outright opposition against others. Another example of this kind of favoritism is illustrated in the utilization of memorial crosses that reduces the crucifix to a symbol that memorializes war sacrifice. This act, in mainly is quintessentially American, a society where religious interference in the political sphere is mostly discouraged. In a religiously pluralistic society, such symbols can mean different things for different people and can be a source of conflict among religious communities. Even though the cross (in this example) is meant to signify war sacrifice, it cannot be stripped of its pre-existing religious meaning; therefore, such memorials acts as further proof of the existence and prevalence of government favoritism of the majority religious group in the country (Walker, 2019).
The topic surrounding religious symbols and their place in modern public spheres has sparked much controversy in all parts of the world, especially in countries that claim to be pluralistic and secular. Even though adorning religious symbols on one’s person is a personal choice, the practice has come under attack in many nations because it is seen as one that goes against the practice of neutrality that must be maintained in professional settings. Symbols like the hijab, which are seen as a representation of a woman’s modesty, are seen as backward and repressive; therefore, they are opposed by individuals who are not familiar with the teachings of Islam. In many cases, religious symbols are frowned upon not because of the impact they might have on administrative and legal proceedings, but because they are associated with stereotypes regarding particular religious groups. Deciding whether a symbol or practice is religious or not is a difficult one, and one that cannot (and should not) be decided upon by the government. Therefore, if a society brands itself as secular and pluralistic, it must ensure that the cultural and religious practices of its minorities taken precedence over the need to maintain cultural neutrality.
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