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Religion and Society

UN Secularism at a Turning Point in the Debate on Religions

The post-9/11 world places religion back at the centre of public and diplomatic life: religion as a universal phenomenon no longer to be confined to the private sphere but also involving the public lives of billions of people. Often presented by the media as a source of division and conflict, religion disturbs, to the point that it is questioned by some as a dimension to be contained and "neutralized" and by others as an inevitable reality which all, believers and non-believers alike, must reckon with; others, again, see it as the sole possibility to resolve conflicts and a crucial one to the various development programs. Such phenomenon is particularly evident inside the UN where, for a number of years, the contribution offered by the various religions has been almost entirely relegated to particular issues as, for instance, abortion, birth control, the freedom to practise one's religion, etc. This has produced, on one hand, various forms of collaboration and, on the other, acute divergencies between the religious communities and the UN offices. Today, however, the horizon has changed. Religion is seen at the UN as a useful development tool, hence the inter-religious dialogue (perceived as interesting by the diplomats) is increasingly promoted. This represents a novelty opening up new opportunities for collaboration but also involving new problems, first among which the tendency to reduce religion and the inter-religious dialogue to immediately usable tools. This happens because of a basic lack of understanding of what constitutes the religious dimension: its raison d’être, in fact, cannot be dealt with through the methods applied to the economic, political or social dimensions. By nature, in fact, it contains non-measurable aspects which, being related to the search for truth, transcend any functional implications. However, such tendency to reduce all to practical elements is also found in other aspects of diplomacy and development policies. Just as the concept of security has become one major yardstick to assess current policies and stability is used for gauging the effectiveness of ongoing projects to the point that pace and development are equated with security and stability, in the same way the inter-religious dialogue and the involvement of religious representatives are often considered instrumental to a number of purposes: to guarantee a certain level of security through, for instance, the official condemnation of terrorist acts perpetrated in the name of religion or, again, to obtain support for anti-AIDS projects, although these may contain ideas to their creed. Given this new scenario, the UN is now facing some questions that can no longer be deferred: can or should the religious issue be dealt with? If so, where to draw the line? As an inter-governmental organization, how can the UN take on such responsibility whilst abiding by its own nature? To what extent can and should religions be involved with the work of the UN? A decision by the UN to tackle the religious issue in any radical way would lead to extremely complex consequences for the actors involved of whom a strong sense of collective responsibility would be required; on the other hand, this would inaugurate a season of new great opportunities for all the peoples.

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