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Religion and Society

When Europe Demands that Religions Become “Liberal”

The Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels

The debate surrounding Islam in the European Union refers to the broader question of the role of religions in a secular society

Recent debates in Europe and the U.S. about key societal issues like abortion or same-sex marriages show that, in contemporary Western societies, there is no longer a natural law common to believers and non-believers. In other words, and whatever the intellectual genealogy of contemporary secularism may be, the gap between religious and secular values has become such that there is no longer a “common Go(o)d”. In this context, many share a concern on how to maintain cohesion within increasingly diverse societies. Far from being a theoretical issue, this question is becoming more urgent because of the growing presence of Muslims in Europe. But in essence, the debate is not limited to Islam; it deals with the meaning of religion (any religion) in a secular Europe.



Christian identity vs. European values



Two answers are often put forward in a transnational public debate, which spans from philosophy (Habermas, Gauchet, Taylor, Walzer, Manent, Brague…) to law and politics.


The first approach insists on the “Christian” or more preferably “Judeo-Christian” European identity, which is more or less explicitly opposed to Islam. In this kind of discourse, the reference to “Christian identity” instead of “Christianity” actually represents a means of secularizing Christianity. This trend emphasizes the notion of a “dominant culture”, while de-universalizing the concept of human rights. The way the debate on the Christian roots of Europe was framed is instructive in this respect. Mentioning the “Christian roots of Europe” was not an issue for the founding fathers of the EU (Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Alcide De Gasperi and others), although they were more often than not practicing Christians, probably because, on important societal issues, there was little discrepancy between a religious-inspired and a secular worldview. If fifty years later the Christian identity has become an issue, it is precisely because Christianity as faith and practices faded away in favor of a cultural marker which is more and more turning into a neo-ethnic marker (“true” Europeans versus “migrants”).



The second option consists in placing emphasis on “European values” and “European (secular) identity”. These values were originally thought of as a mixture of political liberalism, human rights and welfare state policy, but while the last dimension has been significantly dropped and the first suffers of a growing disaffection, human rights are left as the only consistent trademark of the West. Respecting them is a sine qua non condition for accession to the EU. They constitute the “European identity” or even the European ideology. They were initially established in opposition to totalitarian ideologies, but since the 1980s, they are advocated to “tame” religious norms perceived as being in opposition to them (women’s status, freedom of speech versus blasphemy, etc.). Inherent to this trend is indeed a call for religious traditions to reform themselves. Incidentally, this stance is implicit in the support provided by secular media to Pope Francis (“will he be able to reform the Church?”) and is very explicit when it comes to Islam. There is almost an authoritarian dimension in this call for reformation to the point that the more Europe asks religions to become “liberal”, the less Europe is keeping in line with its supposed “congenital” liberalism.



For sure, freedom of religion is always listed amongst human rights. However, it is both defined as a human right and as a potential threat to human rights. As a result, there is a questionable tendency in Europe to bestow rights only upon those with whom one agrees on values. Such a trend tends to exclude faith communities, which by definition cannot accept secular values as a whole. It seems not exaggerate to state that in many cases freedom of religion is in danger not because there are limitations to it (there should be limitations), but because the very practice of religion in public space is increasingly seen in Europe as “weird” at best and fanatical at worst.



A third option



What both approaches fail to see it that no society is based on a full consensus of values among its members, or more precisely, the rejection of the consensus does not exclude the individual from the society. In present-day Europe there is a right to reject same-sex marriage, to contest laws on bio-ethics etc. and it is not possible to reduce religious norms to the private sphere, because that would entail expelling religion from the public sphere and hence forbidding religious practices.


Religious norms are not negotiable for the believers, but they should not be imposed on non-believers. Secularists should accept the idea that there is a “religious sphere” that does not follow and may contradict the secular values and even the “national culture”, but whose members are also part of the polity. The Catholic Church typically constitutes such a “religious sphere”, which does not follow the dominant norms and values (democracy and feminism, to mention just two issues) and should not be construed into appointing female priests.



To sum up, the real condition for true religious freedom in a true democratic society is not to construct the norms of this society as a culture, but as a system of rights. We should “secularize secularism” (Étienne Balibar) in order not to transform it into a religion, ideology or culture. Human rights are just what they are, rights. They are not a specificity of European culture: European culture has produced and continues to produce many other political ideologies, and the Arab Spring showed that many Muslims would readily endorse human rights. They are a recent construction, fragile, often contradictory, difficult to implement in a systematic way. They are not a legacy of the past, but rather a project for the future.


A last caveat, not without importance under the present circumstances: Europe should drop the permanent advocacy for reforms within religious traditions, especially Islam. Let us not forget that, contrary to the dominant doxa, a reformer is not necessarily a liberal (were Luther and Calvin liberal, feminist, philo-semite and democrats?) A theological reformation, however desirable it may be, might arise only from inside a given religion through the interaction of its members with the surrounding society. It is not a prerequisite for living in a secular democracy.



* This article summarizes some of the findings of the "ReligioWest" research project, funded by the European Research Council and carried out at the European University Institute

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