While my colleague Pat O’Callahan was working on today’s editorial about the McNeil Island prison chaplain and his religious quandary, I asked UPS religion professor Judith Kay for her thoughts on the matter.
For instance, I asked, who decides what is a legitimate religion, and how? Here’s Kay’s response:
This is a complicated issue.
From an individual’s perspective, we ought to be free to formulate our own understanding of the universe and ultimate reality, including the nature of God, if there is one, etc. There are limits on this freedom, as there are limits to any freedom—minimally, my religious practice ought to be restricted if it harms others without just cause. (Killing innocents in the name of religion does not make the killing of innocents right.)
Prisoners are perhaps even more need of such autonomy because their spiritual freedom is one of the few freedoms they truly possess. With their bodies imprisoned, their minds and hearts are free to adopt perspectives outside the repression that surrounds them.
Religions, however, are ultimately communal in nature. A religion of one is not really a religion, despite the individual freedom to believe what you want. Communities are important because they carry on traditions over periods of time. They also can engage in ongoing debate about the "true" meaning of their tradition and what it does and does not imply for contemporary struggles.
As such, most religions do draw boundaries around them. If one rejected Jesus as an important figure, it would be hard to call oneself a Christian. If one worshipped many gods or argued that the only way to God was through Jesus, it would be difficult to find a home in Judaism.
It seems permissible for religions to draw boundaries around themselves and say, there are certain beliefs and practices that bar one from truly being an X. Few religions in the US require exams where one checks off one’s beliefs against a required check list. Probably most churches and synagogues house many people who quietly do not believe in God, disagree with their church’s stance on the death penalty, etc., but who still find their tradition comfortable and familiar.
Representatives of religions do bear the responsibility to be gate-keepers, hopefully in non-punitive ways. If a prisoner represented himself to a Catholic chaplain as "I’m a Catholic but I’m really finding myself attracted to paganism," then hopefully the chaplain could explore the similarities and differences between the two, what the man found attractive, etc.. If the man rejected a belief in a single creator God and Jesus as God’s son but still wanted communion, the priest might be right to deny the sacrament.
The coercive nature of prisons complicates matters. Many religious groups come in and proselytize to the prisoners. The chaplains are paid by the state and often serve the prison’s interests, not the prisoners (this is not to deny the good work that they accomplish, but there may be conflicts of loyalties).
The state cannot afford to provide a formal representative of every religion on earth. And the prisoners can claim religious belief in order to obtain certain privileges (claiming to be a Jew in the hopes of getting better food (kosher). Many prisoners used to come to the religious group I helped lead at the County Jail just for a chance for fellowship and an escape from their cells (this also could be true of many people in the pews of your local church on Sunday morning).
But prisons should make every reasonable effort to accommodate religious belief and practice that is communal and doesn’t actively promote harm to self or others.
These are my ruminations for the moment.