“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1869)
Individuals generally don't like any restrictions, valuing their freedom to pursue life in accordance with their thoughts and desires. Yet, there are many who willingly and gladly follow a host of restrictions as part of their daily routine; most are for religious or spiritual reasons. Jews. Christians. Muslims. Hindus. Sikhs. Others. Self-Imposed Restrictions.
Humans generally recoil against restrictions; one of the first stories in the biblical narrative is how both Adam and Eve shared a fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil—the only recorded restriction given by God. And, yet, they could not resist the need to disobey that only restriction, and thus suffered all manner of consequences. Such is what the well-known narrative in the Book of Genesis says.
Yet, Erich Fromm [1900-1980) writes in “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” (1963), that their disobedience was a necessary act to become independent humans:
Adam and Eve, living in the Garden of Eden, were part of nature; they were in harmony with it, yet did not transcend it. They were in nature as the fetus is in the womb of the mother. They were human, and at the same time not yet human. All this changed when they disobeyed an order. By breaking the ties with earth and mother, by cutting the umbilical cord, man emerged from a pre-human harmony and was able to take the first step into independence and freedom. The act of disobedience set Adam and Eve free and opened their eyes. They recognized each other as strangers and the world outside them as strange and even hostile. Their act of disobedience broke the primary bond with nature and made them individuals. “Original sin,” far from corrupting man, set him free; it was the beginning of history. Man had to leave the Garden of Eden in order to learn to rely on his own powers and to become fully human.Yet, thousands of years later, individuals continue to willingly follow restrictions and taboos that seem oddly out of place in our modern society. The central question is why this appeal is so strong today, even among individuals who have been educated in secular institutions. I mention secular because the religious desire remains strong today even in a society that provides viable and meaningful non-religious, or secular answers. Some scientists suggest that a religious meme is imprinted in some people's brain, a genetic disposition to religiosity and all of its traditions and requirements.
Perhaps so. This will take further investigation; we do know that the need for religious explanations will likely never be extinguished in humans. Even if they seem illogical and irrational. That in itself might be the appeal, a recoil against modern society; a shot at science and rationality; a movement toward the past and its traditions. A seeking of religious, spiritual and mystical answers. Not all of this is necessarily bad, but not all is good. The separation into tribes can be troubling, disturbing and consequential. It can and often does lead to all kinds of human horrors and tragedies.
The greater evil is to impose religious edicts and ideas on others, who value their freedom of thought and action and who want to both investigate and reside in the large, complex modern world. This need to impose narrowness persists in most religious communities for reasons that confound me. If you are happy living in a small circumscribed world, why compel others to do so, unless you need validation in numbers?
Perhaps that’s it. And yet, when it comes to the modern apparatuses, the latest findings of science, the appreciation of technology and in particular the latest advances in health and medicine, the religiously minded have no problem, eagerly in many cases, to take advantage of such progress, while at the same time diminishing, rather ignorantly I would say, secular society's important contribution to humanity's betterment—theirs included.
An important fact often lost in the discussion of self-imposed religious restrictions is that these same individuals who willingly and to great lengths follow all the details and minutiae of religious observance often are less stringent in their following the laws of modern secular society. Or at least give these the consideration they are due. The answer is painfully obvious: the law of their god supersedes the law of the land. Always. One is man-made, and thus subject to human error; the other ordained in the heavens and thus is perfect.
Therein lies one of the chief problems facing us today, notably if we cherish a modern secular western-style democracy.