The time has come to proclaim the truth on a serious case of blatant violation of freedom of religion or belief.

by Marco Respinti*

*A paper presented at the webinar “Telling the Truth About Tai Ji Men and Other Victims of Abuse and Discrimination,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on March 24, 2023, United Nations International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on April 25th, 2023.

Jacob de Backer (ca. 1555–1591), “Allegory of Truth and Justice.” Only when the naked truth is revealed, justice can prevail. From Twitter.
Jacob de Backer (ca. 1555–1591), “Allegory of Truth and Justice.” Only when the naked truth is revealed, justice can prevail. From Twitter.

Over the years, I came to understand religious liberty as the right to truth. The notion was already present in my framing of the concept, its substance was there, I always worked, implicitly or explicitly, on that basis, but I did not know how to formulate the idea on a single, clear sentence.

Then it came to me as a benevolent fulmination when I was invited as a speaker to a conference on religious liberty summoned under that very title: the right to truth. Unfortunately, that conference, scheduled to be held in Naples, Italy, never took place, due to the COVID-19 pandemics. I want to acknowledge and celebrate the European Federation for Freedom of Belief for planning that conference-that-never-happened, and crafting its brilliant title.

In fact, the title conveys the very essence of what freedom of religion or belief is. Being free to be religious means to possess two intangible rights: first, to believe that truth does or may exist; second, to live accordingly as individuals or as a group within the boundaries of natural law—and also of positive law, when the latter does not contradict the former.

Human beings, as individuals or groups, may give different names, shapes and meanings to truth. They may even have different or contradictory concepts of what truth is. But their right to acknowledge the truth remains fundamental.

Truth is the material of religious liberty because it is the substance of religion itself. Of course, I use “religion” here in its most extensive and comprehensive sense, that of the universally accepted formula “freedom of religion or belief:” i.e., religion, belief, or creed, be they a formally organized and institutionalized religion, an unorganized spirituality, or one of the possible ways of “believing,” “bonding,” “behaving,” and “belonging” that sociology describes.

Religious liberty is then not a “right to error.” If it were so, then religious liberty would be simply relativism. However, relativism is the least found feature among believers. No believer in whatever religion or spirituality thinks that the set of beliefs he or she holds dear is just equal to any other belief. It doesn’t even happen in inter-religious or multifaith contexts, at least when they take seriously the premises of their common work. It has to do again with the question of truth: believers rightly consider their beliefs as truth. This is what makes them committed human beings, able to measure themselves in dialogue with believers of different persuasions.

Religion and belief are the most serious human endeavors: indeed, the most serious of them all, since—as it was often repeated in this series of webinars on the Tai Ji Men case—they deal with the ultimate questions in life, whatever the answer human beings may give to issues such as the origin and purpose of life, or the existence of God, a deity, a Supreme Being, or an encompassing spiritual entity. Let me here apply to religion, belief or creed the same concept that the Italian historian of Greek and Roman philosophy Giovanni Reale (1931–2014) used for philosophy: it is the most noble science because either it speaks of God, or it speaks to God.

Giovanni Reale. Credits.
Giovanni Reale. Credits.

Truth is then the key concept of the whole Tai Ji Men case, because Tai Ji Men is a “menpai” (similar to a “school”) with a recognizable and central spiritual dimension, because the injustice it suffered and suffers comes from an eminent violation of freedom of religion or belief, because falsehood (the contrary of truth) is the cause of its ordeal, and because truth on this injustice should be proclaimed in all its facets.

Unfortunately, Tai Ji Men is only one of the many victims of injustice caused by the denial of both truth and the right to it that we call religion and freedom of religion or belief. The denunciation of this is the core business of “Bitter Winter” and of many other organizations, often represented by speakers in this series of webinars.

I just need to cite an evident example. Anthropologists and archeologists say that the clearest sign of hominization, or the process leading to the appearance of human beings as such on this planet, are burials, which are high examples of care for elders and beloved ones based on the belief in an afterlife. Belgian historian of religion Julien Ries (1920–2013) and evolutionist French paleontologist Yves Coppens (1934–2022) indicated that the irreducible symbolic and artistic capacity of representing the metaphysical is what makes human beings humans since the beginning. In what it may be considered a logical recap of these insights, Welsh historian Christopher Dawson (1889–1970) pointed out that the distinguished tract of the human being is religiousness, whose rites are normally performed in groups.

Christopher Dawson. From Twitter.
Christopher Dawson. From Twitter.

Dawson has a Latin term for it, “cultus,” which means “worship,” and it socially gives birth to “cultures.” It is staggering that its English cognate in the modern language, “cult,” is today used, contrary to its original etymology, to stigmatize, discriminate and persecute religious groups that are arbitrarily defined as obscure and dangerous. And also that the equivalent nouns in other languages are words similar to “sect,” which is not offensive in English but whose literal equivalents, such as “setta” in Italian, “secte” in French, or “sekte” in German, are used to offend and discriminate.

Truth in language needs to be restored, if we want truth to triumph in the realm of ideas and create justice in the life of human beings. Individuals and groups of all sorts and persuasions are in fact constantly discriminated through caricatures and parodies of their creed and belief. This happens in many countries of the world. It may come out of ignorance (but even ignorance is no excuse for violating the fundamental rights of human beings), or voluntary misrepresentation.

It happens in places of the world where dictatorial, tyrannical, or totalitarian regimes repress individuals and groups, but it also happens in democracies where a legitimate conception of secularity is twisted and deformed into an aggressive secularism.

In totalitarian regimes, this frequently ends into harassment, violence, rape, torture and killings. Unfortunately, also in liberal democracies, the result may easily be violence and death. While victims of these abuses and discriminations are violated in their most intimate human dignity, the crime that their persecutors commit is the most terrible: it is a crime against truth.

Taiwan is a case in point. It is a country where democracy reigns after a dictatorship came to an end, a country where transitional justice is trying to redress wrongs of the past, a country that wants to present itself as a bastion of the rule of law in a geographical area of the world where this commodity is scarce. Yet, some corrupt branches of its government still perform their aggression against a peaceful spiritual movement such as Tai Ji Men.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

Until Tai Ji Men Shifu, or Grand Master, and dizi, or disciples, will be fully reintegrated in their human dignity and let be free to practice their spiritual way, living accordingly both as individuals and as a group, an attack against truth will continue in Taiwan. Of course, this cannot be ignored.

The time has then come for a broader international group of friends of human rights and freedom of religion or belief and the whole Tai Ji Men movement to proclaim the truth on this serious case of blatant violation of religious liberty. Why does Tai Ji Men need to suffer the consequences of a court case where accusations raised against it were proved as false? Why did the whole case, based on a lie, started almost 27 years ago in the first place? Who created this situation, and for what reasons? Who wants to continue carrying on this serious discrimination after all these years, and why? There is a right to have these questions answered. It is part of the right to truth.