Rethinking the place of religion in European secularized societies: the need for more open societies

Date: 2016

Editor(s): Professor Oliver Roy

Description: Conclusions of the Research Project ReligioWest

Published by: European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies


The contemporary debate on Islam both hides and reveals a deeper debate on “What religion means in a secular Europe”. In fact the more or less conflictual relationship with Islam constraints the Europeans to make explicit what they “oppose” to Islam as “European values”. And here starts the problem: are these Western values first secular or first Christian? There would be little problem if the secular values were just a result of the secularization of religious norms, or at least were congruent with them. But this is no more the case: the deep conflict that is dividing Europe between a secular majority and hard core religious faith communities on abortion, same-sex marriage, bio-ethics, or gender issues shows that there is no more a common moral ground for values. And even in the USA, where a majority of the population still claims to be religious, the “culture war” ended, after the approval of same sex marriage by the Supreme Court, in the victory of new values that hard-core believers see as incompatible with their religious norms. Of course one could show that the Western conception of human rights derives from a Christian matrix. One can also stress that both the Catholic Church (through Thomas Aquino’s concept of “natural law”) and the Kantian agnostic tradition did consider that moral values could be universal and could stand by themselves without depending on faith or theology. But, as we saw, this continuity between Christianity and modern secularism is no more based on common values. The continuity, if any, is now commonly expressed in terms of “identity”. But how to conceive an “identity”, and specifically a “Christian identity”, not based on shared values, if not on a common faith? The reference to “Christian identity” instead of “Christianity” is precisely a way to “secularize” Christianity and to exclude from the common values any specific religious value, norm or practice that could be seen as not being congruent with these dominant secular values (for instance difference of status between men and women, “pro-life” versus “pro-choice”, gay-rights etc.). But the consequence is that any religious values or norms perceived as not being congruent with what we call European values, in a word anything that could be seen as purely religious, should be excluded from the public space. This trend represents a striking departure from the historically constructed mix of compromise and consensus that has shaped the relations between state, society and religion in Western countries since the end of the wars of religions. New tensions are thus rising that go far beyond the case of Islam. And because Europe cannot just revert to a previous stage where religion (in this case Christianity) was intimately linked with culture, it has to rethink the place of religion in the public space and the definition of religious freedom, by accepting that a state of rights is not necessarily based on a consensus on values.

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