An exploration of why the concept of “conscience” plays a pivotal role in Tai Ji Men’s pursuit of peacebuilding.
by Peter Zoehrer*
*A paper presented at the seminar “California Land of the Free: A Call to Freedom and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Action Alliance to Redress 1219 on October 8, 2023 at the Hilton San Jose, San Jose, California.
This paper embarks on a profound exploration of the concept of freedom of conscience. California, renowned as a symbol of freedom and progress in the United States, provides an ideal setting for this discourse. The state’s rich cultural diversity, progressive policies, and historical ties to civil rights and social justice movements make for a fitting backdrop. As we explore the historical significance of conscience and its contemporary challenges, we unveil freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right upon which all other freedoms are constructed.
Table of Contents
The historical evolution of conscience
The concept of conscience possesses a storied history, having been a subject of contemplation and discourse across diverse cultures and eras:
Ancient civilizations: In civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece, interpretations of conscience varied. Ancient Egyptians regarded the heart as the seat of conscience during the soul’s judgment in the afterlife. In Greece, philosophers such as Socrates and Plato emphasized conscience’s role in guiding ethical behavior. Socrates believed in the existence of a personal “daimon” or inner voice that acted as a moral guide, helping individuals differentiate between right and wrong.
Religious influence: Religions have played a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of conscience. In Christianity, conscience is closely associated with moral discernment and a sense of right and wrong, guided by religious teachings. The New Testament contains references to conscience as a moral compass. For example, the great American Christian leader Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “Conscience is that inner moral guide that urges us to do what is right, even when it is difficult.”
Philosophical perspectives: Philosophers throughout history have explored the nature of conscience from diverse philosophical standpoints. For instance, Thomas Aquinas, a renowned Medieval Catholic theologian and philosopher, viewed conscience as innate knowledge of morality inherent in human nature. German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant emphasized the importance of adhering to pure moral intentions dictated by conscience, even in the face of external pressures.
Scientific thought: As scientific thought evolved, so did our comprehension of conscience. Sigmund Freud, the prominent Viennese psychoanalyst, proposed that conscience is influenced by the superego—an internalized set of societal and moral standards. Psychologists and neuroscientists continue to explore the complexities of conscience from a scientific perspective.
Freedom of conscience as a fundamental right
The practice of conscience necessitates freedom. Therefore, freedom of conscience stands as the cornerstone for freely practicing one’s beliefs and values. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly enshrines freedom of conscience as a foundational human right, serving as the bedrock upon which all other freedoms rest. It recognizes the inherent nature of conscience in guiding individuals’ moral choices and actions.
Challenges to freedom of conscience
At the 2023 IRF Summit in Washington D.C., Dr. Jan Figel, former EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), underscored that over eighty percent of believers worldwide face restrictions on freely practicing their faith. The Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan vividly illustrates the erosion of fundamental freedoms. Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men practitioners have confronted unjust persecution due to their unwavering commitment to following their conscience. Even in Taiwan, celebrated for its dedication to freedom, challenges emerge when beliefs diverge from the mainstream. Accusations and discrimination against Tai Ji Men trace their origins to rogue officials driven by greed, prejudice, and a lack of understanding, culminating in slander and persecution.
Dr. Hong’s blueprint for sustainable peace
Amid these formidable challenges, Dr. Hong, the visionary founder of Tai Ji Men, has devoted his life to promoting inner peace, harmony, and ethical values through the practice of Qigong. His blueprint for sustainable peace is founded on the cultivation of a well-nurtured conscience. He posits that by nurturing our inner moral compass and making ethical choices, we not only promote personal well-being but also contribute to a more harmonious society. Tai Ji Men’s teachings advocate for a proactive approach to spreading these principles through social media and other avenues, engaging with the wider world to promote inner and outer peace.
This underscores the enduring battle for freedom of conscience and the pressing importance of safeguarding individual liberties. It is a call to collective action, urging the preservation and defense of the fundamental principle encapsulated in the words “freedom of conscience”—a principle that serves as a compass guiding humanity toward a more peaceful and harmonious future.