Available languages:
Carta di credito
Religion and Society

Civil relationality: the public role of religions

It is clear that if we want to avoid this [proceduralistic] drift, we cannot consider the deliberative plane as the only modality of the term “civil”. We must take a further step, as Donati and Colozzi explain, and admit that a society is civil if and to the extent that it can make it easier for people, independent of their physical, social, economic, political and cultural differences, ‘to mutually recognise their unique and shared dignity in both the public and private spheres.’ Therefore, religions must play a fundamental role. In what way? Let us be clear: Because democracies today suffer from a solidarity gap, bringing back religion as a motivational prop appears for some as a desirable option, but it would reduce religion to the status of a psychological crutch for public ethics in crisis. [. . .]




When we speak about the public role of religion, we do not endorse any pragmatistic notion. It is clear that reducing the religious to the political leads to an immanent drift. When we reduce religion to the status of mere social glue, its innermost content is denied, that is its capacity, as Donati put it, ‘of transcendence in the relationship with reality and the truth about being human.’ [. . .] Thus it would be impossible to guarantee ontologically the experience of otherness as an experience of distance. At that point, there would be no limit to the use we could put our fellow human beings, even when we want to recognise them. As Badiou pointed out, if we eliminate the religious dimension as a condition for the relationship, mutual recognition means ‘Become like me and I shall respect your difference.’ This is why for Donati, the ‘the capacity of transcendence is an indispensable requirement for the recognition and protection of human dignity.’


If we keep in mind this requirement, what does it mean then giving religion a public role? For us, it means going beyond the simple motivational contribution of religion to assert its cognitive potential. In other words, we must measure ourselves against the contents and meanings of religions without denying aprioristically the contribution that can come from elaborating ‘one shared dignity’, which constitutes the good life. Naturally, this does mean that the content and meanings of religions can be proposed as such in the public sphere. We must take into account the need for translation and must reflect upon the matter. However, even before we do this, we must bring into question two commonplaces that pervade liberal culture.




1) The content of religions, since it is about faith, is opposed to knowledge, so that what a religion says is valid only for those who identify with it.




2) The self-referential nature of religions, due to their intrinsic irrationality, leads to an idea about the separation of state and religion that excludes every religious reference; only those forms of knowledge that can be potentially understood by all are admitted.




In order to counter point 1, we must admit, as Habermas does, that religions have ‘an epistemic status that is not absolutely irrational.’ Only if we admit this, can we proceed against point 2, and admit the possibility that ‘the cognitive content of religious traditions can be recovered,’ that their ‘semantic content can be translated in a discourse freed from the blocking effect of revealed truth.’Let us see how.


There is a difference between a religion’s inner dogmatics (which remains a private affair about orthodoxy) and public dialogue with other religions, whose onus requires reformulating one’s symbolic codes so that they are understandable by others.




Whether this public reformulation is possible will depend on religions’ non-irrational epistemic status. In Rawlsian terms, it will depend on the reasonableness of ‘comprehensive religious doctrines’, i.e. their capacity to introduce in the public debate ‘specifically political reasons”, and not reasons taken exclusively from comprehensive doctrines, that are adequate to justify what is claimed by comprehensive doctrines.’ The times we live in show that such a public reformulation is necessary, despite the idea that the separation of Church and state implies mothballing religion.


‘It is an already established fact, as Scola rightly points out, that the marginalisation of religion from the social sphere is not acceptable in those non-European cultures where religion is essentially a public fact.’




From this, we can infer that talking about the public role of religions means thinking about a public sphere that is religiously qualified. It is, as Donati put it, a civil society defined as the ‘meeting place where individuals engage in social exchanges (market and social integration) not deprived of their religious affiliations, but qualified by such affiliations [. . .]. It is the place of civil relationality elaborated by religions themselves when they act outside of themselves through the influence they have on social actors.’




For example, let us think about the Christian mystery of the Trinity. We have seen, following Rosmini, that this kind of truth is required to think through human relationality/filiality. But how can this Trinitarian reference, this principle of difference in unity, become publicly relevant? The point is that this principle, as Scola explains, ‘transcends history, because of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to become, in accordance with the law of analogy, the principle of understanding and valorisation of each difference. At both an individual and communal level, this is not only tolerated but actually extolled because held in unity by that Truth [. . .], which reaches the uppermost of human experience, preventing that difference, even the most radical, from degenerating into an element of more or less violent dissolution.’




Thus, the law of analogy regulates the translatability of the Trinitarian reference into a public principle of coexistence, avoiding the risk of fundamentalism and pragmatist drift. It is not about proposing a dogma or arriving at a civil religion; it is about locating the potential truth about human beings within a religious meaning in order to make “a religiously inspired neutral sphere” possible (Donati).




Outside all the ‘postmodern chatter’, as Habermas put it, this is what happened in the history of the West. ‘Christianity is not only a precedent or catalyst for the normative self-understanding of modernity. Egalitarian universalism—from which stem the ideas of liberty and solidarity, autonomous life and emancipation, individual moral conscience, human rights and democracy—is the direct heritage of the Jewish ethics of justice and the Christian ethics of love.’


Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

I authorize the use of my data after agreeing to the privacy-policy

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal