Toward a Post-Secular Europe? A Review Essay

Toward a Post-Secular Europe? A Review Essay

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Religious America, Secular Europe? A Theme and Variations by Peter Berger, Grace Davie and Effie Fokas,  Ashgate, London, 2008; and  “A Christian Europe? Europe and Christianity: Rules of Commitment” by JHH Weiler in the journal European View, Vo. 6, n.1, December 2007, Springer, Berlin-Heidelberg.

“Advocates of multiple modernities recognize two very simple things: first that is more than one way of being modern, and second that not all modernities are necessarily secular…the United States and Europe should be seen simply as different versions of modernity.” (Peter Berger, p. 44).

“In the name of freedom, individual autonomy, tolerance and cultural pluralism, religious people (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) are being asked to keep their religious beliefs, identities and norms ‘private’ so that they do not disturb the project of a modern, secular, enlightened Europe” (Jose Casanova, p. 62).

width=328The above statements by Peter Berger and JosË Casanova from the book Religious America, Secular Europe? hint at how topical, and relevant to present day cultural contrasts and tensions between Europe and America, is this particular book. It tackles head on a very important question: why does religion flourish in America, but languish in western and central Europe? Why are some issues about religion and public life in America nearly incomprehensible to Europeans (such as the use of religious language in political campaigns), and vice-versa (such as the French controversies over head-scarves)? The authors look at history, institutions, and the intellectual ethos of the two areas across the Atlantic pond. They also point out that “Europe” is not presently a religious unity as it might have been in medieval times.

Europe is a relatively secular part of the world in global terms. A 2004 study by Dr. Jocelyne Cesari, a research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research at Harvard, states that “Europe is the only part of the world which has a general hostility toward religion. Europeans tend to explain every sign of backwardness in terms of religion…”  Why is this so? And why is the situation in Europe so different from that in the United States? These are the key questions, clearly articulated in the first chapter, that the authors try to answer.

Subsequent chapters explore the nature of Euro-secularity in more detail (the variations on the theme) – paying attention to its historical, philosophical and institutional dimensions. In each chapter, the similarities and differences with the American case will be carefully examined. These are the basic question analyzed by Peter Berger, the eminent Professor of Sociology at Boston, Grace Davie, of the University of Exeter, and Dr Effie Fokas. The final chapter explores the ways in which these features translate into policy on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, the question of Euro-secularity as related to social difference (class, ethnicity, etc.), is also explored in depth.

Important to notice that the main title of the book ends with a question mark. That means that whether or not we can categorically describe America as ‘religious’ and Europe as ‘secular’ remains problematic. To be sure, the theme of “euro-secularity” is throughout compared with the “religious” United States by looking at four dimensions or variations of the differences between the two.  In that process one is struck by the exceptional and rather negative nature of Europe’s religious life vis-‡-vis the more positive pro-religious trends elsewhere in the world. Why, for example, was it so contentious to suggest mentioning the Christian God in the preamble to the proposed European Constitution? Why do some Eurosceptics think that there is ‘altogether too much religion in the United States leading to a dangerous effect on policy’, and why are Americans in turn ‘taken aback by Europe’s secularity, what the French dub “laicitË”? Why in Europe religion is regarded as part of the problem, while in the United States it is considered part of the solution?

No less than seven specific differences between Europe and the United States are examined: differences in Church-State relationships; questions of pluralism; different understandings of the Enlightenment; different types of intellectuals; varieties in culture and how these are understood; institutional contrasts; how, in concrete terms, the Enlightenment and associated cultures are sustained; the contrasting ways that religious organizations’ relate to indices of social difference. In short, how did the French idea of freedom from belief mutate as it crossed the Atlantic into a freedom to believe and freedom of religion?

The authors mince no words in stating that in Europe both Catholic and Protestant Churches are in deep trouble (11). The existence in European nations of a state Church  is contrasted with a ‘seemingly limitless number of denominations in the United States.’ Noteworthy for the authors is that Europe has not been influenced by ‘the massive presence of Evangelical Protestantism which remains a crucial part of the American scene,’ and by American the authors mean South America too which has also experienced one of the most dynamic religious movement in the world today: Pentecostalism rivaled only by militant Islam. It is that contrast that revives fear of religious wars, clashes of civilizations and theocracy, religious fanaticism redolent of cultic extremism.

In order to analyze this, and other differences, Religious America, Secular Europe? traces the different histories of religion in Europe and the United States, paying particular attention to the relationship between context and theory. In less theological and more economic terms, religion in Europe is characterized by a declining if not decaying monopoly of state subsidized Churches, while in America by “a flourishing market” (p.35). Europeans regard their Churches as a sort of public utility rather than competing firms; useful social institutions to be benevolently tolerated, available to some portion of their population at one time or another of their lives. It is a sort of utilitarian God as a crutch or an aspirin of sort, to be utilized when needed. Most of the times, when times are good, the crutches are not needed and soccer stadiums are much preferred to churches on Sunday.

Paradoxically, in America the First Amendment served to reinforce a strong link between religion, any religion actually (even metaphysical Deistic religion), and the nation. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution make no sense unless founded on a deeply held religious belief, and this despite the also deeply held belief between a clear demarcation between Church and State. Immigrant communities especially have always grounded their identities in American society in their religious congregations. To the European, this looks like an unresolved contradiction. While public prayer is not allowed in public schools, in the United States Congress chaplains publicly employed lead its daily prayers. The contradiction is all but obvious to those who expouse French laÔcitÈ, where the separation between Church and State is very pronounced and the freedom of conscience claimed by religious believers and the freedom of thought claimed by the teaching secular establishment inevitably clash and become mutually exclusive and incompatible. For the European this obvious question arises: How can strict separation be maintained alongside the evidence of the presence of religion at every level of American society, formal as well as informal? (79)

The other side of that coin seems to be the main focus of this book and it is this: the challenge to the taken for granted theory on the part of Western intelligentsia that secularization is the inevitable result of modernization. The book concludes that that secularization is a particularly European experience. It also powerfully suggests, as strange and paradoxical as it may sound to European ears, that, despite differences between religious America and secular Europe, in the global future it will be entirely “normal” to be more fully modern and fully religious at the same time. In fact, a dialogue between world religions remains an urgent and necessary cultural task of our times. In his recent address at Cairo University, President Obama suggested as much.

There are important implications for foreign policies and western attitudes towards Islamic countries still embedded, unfortunately, by the Voltairian anti-religion virus. It all comes together in Europe in the question of Turkey and this secular paradox as stated by the sociologist JosË Casanova: “In the name of freedom, individual autonomy, tolerance and cultural pluralism, religious people (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) are being asked to keep their religious beliefs, identities and norms ‘private’ so that they do not disturb the project of a modern, secular, enlightened Europe” (p.62). The future reality is that religious people cannot and will not do this as we learn to live in a post-secular society.


It appears that such a scenario will result in a post-secular Europe. This view is not only held by the authors of this book but none other than one of the most authoritative philosophers of contemporary Europe, Jurgen Habermas, who is prominently quoted on pp. 62-63 of the book. Among other things he asks this pointed question originally asked in the Journal of Philosophy (2006:: 14: 1-25): “Are religious issues simply to be regarded as relics of a pre-modern era, or is it the duty of the more secular citizens to overcome his or her narrowly secularist consciousness in order to engage with religion in terms of ‘reasonably expected disagreement’?”

Habermas addresses the debate in terms of John Rawls’s concept of “public use of reason” and proposes that secular citizens in Europe learn to live, and the sooner the better, in a post-secular society; in so doing they will be following the example of religious citizens, who have already come to terms with the ethical expectations of democratic citizenship. So far secular citizens have not been expected to make a similar effort.

He is not alone in that challenge. In the year 2000 an essay came out written by Shmuel Eisenstadt, an Israeli sociologist, titled “Multiple Modernities (see Daedalus 129: 1-30) which right from its outset challenged the taken for granted assumption that modernizing societies are convergent, as well as the notion that Europe is the lead society in that converging modernizing process.

What the concept of multiple modernities implies is that Western (especially European) modernity is not the only conceivable one. It can come with indigenous differences. It would be enough to consider India, the largest democracy on earth which enshrines religion as part of its heritage and cultural patrimony. If one takes a careful look at the world outside the West one immediately notices that it is religion which defines the aspiration to an alternate modernity. That may well surprise the “enlightened” European mind, but there is such a thing as a Russian modernity inspired by Russian Orthodoxy, an Islamic modernity, a Hindu modernity, and what may surprise them even more, an integrally Catholic modernity. That was pointed out by Professor JHH Weiler whom we will examine further down. Those modernities are not illusions, as the old classical secularization theory tended to imply.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all might be that, as hinted above, that in many parts of the world the West is perceived in a pejorative way, as propagating a decadent, hedonistic culture of irreligious materialism. Such a perception is reinforced by both the influence of intellectuals, usually heavily secular, and the omnipresence of the Western mass media, much of whose content can indeed be defined as materialistic and irreligious. If that be true, it ought to be of great interest to the practice of diplomacy of Western democracies. At the very least, this crucial question ought to be asked and discussed: What are the consequences of taking seriously the empirical sociological fact that for the great majority of the world’s populations in the 21st century, it is not only possible, but quite normal to be both modern and religious? Might this question make a difference in the kind of paradigm that we construct in the West to better understand the nature of the modern world, be it European, American, Asian or African? Is it really “enlightened,” as the age of Enlightenment surely supposed in Europe, to isolate the vast field of the sociology of religion, or should it be restored to its rightful place in the overall global social agenda? Which is to say, is the Enlightenment still to enlighten itself?

Besides Habermas and Eisenstadt, there is also an eminent American voice expressing the same ideas regarding a post-secular Europe. I refer to the above mentioned Professor JHH Weiler of New York University. In his article “A Christian Europe? Europe and Christianity: Rules of Commitment” first published in Italy as “Un’Europa Cristiana,” professor Weiler, who has studied the process of European integration for more than twenty-five years, speaks of a European Christian ghetto. Such a provocative statement is of course a mere metaphor rooted in a sad reality used purposefully by Dr. Weiler to jolt people out of their complacency. It should also be prefaced at the outset that Professor Weiler is neither a Christian nor a Catholic but a practicing Jew. This is important because in his knowledge of the history of the Church and its importance for the EU’s identity he puts many Christians to shame.

Weiler writes that the manifestations of the external walls of this ghetto are very much in evidence in the refusal to include in the Preamble to the European Union Charter of Rights even a modest reference to Europe’s religious heritage, completely ignoring the request of the former Pope John Paul II. In the recent draft Constitution there is still no reference to Europe’s Christian heritage–but a generic allusion to its religious inheritance tucked between the cultural and the humanist!

What exactly does Dr. Weiler mean by the internal walls of the European Christian ghetto? The reason he calls them “internal” is that these are walls created by Christians themselves. This fact for Weiler is even more striking than the refusal of the EU Constitutional Conventions to make an explicit reference to Christianity. He points out that despite the explicit Catholic orientation of the founding fathers of the European construct, there isn’t one major work, in any language, that explores in depth the Christian heritage and the Christian meaning of European integration. While writing his article Weiler pulled out from the library of his university 79 books published in the previous three years on the general phenomenon of European integration. None of them had a single allusion in the index to Christianity and its values. Weiler then writes that we ought not be too surprised that the Convention failed to make a reference to the Christian heritage of European integration, given that the Christian heritage has not been proclaimed, explored, debated, and made an integral part of the discourse of European integration by Christian scholars themselves.

This is puzzling indeed. Weiler has three possible explanations for the phenomenon. The first is a puzzling internalization of the false philosophical and constitutional premise of the most extreme forms of laicitË (secularity) as practiced for example in France. Freedom of religion is of course guaranteed and rightly so is also freedom from religious coercion. But on top of that there is the steadfast conviction that there can be no allusion or reference to religion in the official public space of the State, that such allusions are considered a transgression. A transgression of what exactly, we may ask.

There is the naÔve belief that for the State to be assiduously secular it needs to practice religious neutrality. Weiler considers this false on two counts: first, there is no neutral position in a binary option. For the State to abstain from any religious symbolism is no more neutral than for the state to espouse some forms of religious symbolism. The religiosity of large segments of the population and the religious dimension of the culture are objective data. Denying these facts simply means favoring one worldview over the other, masking it as neutrality.

width=328The second explanation is that to accept that view of the relationship between State and religion is also to accept a secular (basically 18th-century) definition of what religion in general and Christianity in particular are. It is a vision that derives from the culture of rights which treats religion as a private matter by equating freedom of religion with freedom of speech, of belief, and of association. But then Weiler asks this crucial question: can one accept that Christianity be consigned to the realm of the private by the secular authorities of the State? That question is not to imply that Weiler does not believe in the liberal constitutional order with its guarantees of democracy and freedom. He does indeed, but he also believes in a vigorous and articulate religious voice and viewpoint in the public spaces guaranteed by constitutional democracies.

The conundrum here boils down to this: many Catholic scholars have confused the public disciplines of constitutional democracy with a private discipline of religious silence in the public sphere. Worse than that, Christian scholars have internalized the notion that to integrate Christian thinking and Christian teaching into their reflections on constitutional law, on political theory, on social science, is a betrayal of their academic standing, of their objectivity, of their scientific credentials.

Another reason adduced by Weiler is fear. Fear that in an academy dominated by an intellectual class which often leans to the left or to the center-left and insists on “politically correct” principles, an incorporation of Christian insight (other than a study in scientific fashion of religious phenomena) would brand the scholar as lacking in scientific objectivity; of not being a “free thinker.” And finally Weiler mentions sheer ignorance. Precious few in the intellectual classes have read, studied, and reflected on the teachings of the Church, even less those of the current pontificate, its encyclicals, the apostolic letters, etc, with the same assiduousness that they study the latest offering from the secular intellectual icons of our generation.

Weiler maintains that while it is shocking that the explicit request of the Holy Father would be denied by the Convention, it is even more shocking that the call of this pontiff to the laity to be the messengers of Christian teaching in their own private and professional lives goes in many cases equally unheeded. The lives of those touched by faith cannot, once they exit the sphere of home and family, become identical with those not touched by faith. This is true for the shopkeeper in the market, for the conductor on the train, for a minister of the republic, as well as for those whose work is, in one way or another, a reflection on the public policies of public authorities.

One is led by the above reflections to inquire as to what is the relevance of Christianity and Christian teaching to the narrative of European integration. Weiler finds it laughable not to recognize Christianity as being a hugely important element in defining what we mean by European identity–for good and for bad. In art and in literature, in music and in sculpture, even in our political culture, Christianity has been a leitmotif–an inspiration as well as an object of rebellion. There is no normalcy within secularism in affirming this empirical fact; there is only normalcy in denying it. Weiler goes on to explain that while Christianity is a sociological and historical phenomenon, it is also a living faith based on revealed truth. Here is where Christian teaching becomes relevant.

The reader may now ask: what has all of this got to do with European integration? Weiler, speaking as a scholar and not merely as a believer, insists that indeed a great deal is at stake, that the narratives of history such as the story of European integration have no inherent meaning. They have the meaning we give them. What is at stake is what meaning we want to give. A Christian Europe is not a Europe that will endorse Christianity. It is not a call for evangelization. A Christian Europe is one that can learn from the teaching of Christianity. To reflect, discuss, debate, and ultimately assign meaning to European integration without reference to such an important source is to impoverish Europe. For lay people and for non-Christians, this becomes a challenge to match. Christianity today offers interesting “takes” on the central issues, the core issues, the deepest challenges in the very self-understanding of what Europe is about but few, even among Christians, are aware of it.

Weiler offers some examples which he hopes will motivate the reader to read and reflect on those teachings: the relationship to the “other”–within our society, across our boundaries within Europe, and beyond Europe–is arguably the most important challenge to which European integration tries to respond. Well, the encyclical Redemptoris Missio is a profound statement on how to think, to conceptualize a respectful relationship with the other. The Catholic teachings expressed in this encyclical are concerned with tolerance, respect, and inclusion, concepts inextricably connected with freedom and democracy.  On the one hand, the encyclical bravely eschews the epistemological and moral relativism of post-modernity by affirming that which it considers to be the truth. But at the same time, it treats with the utmost respect those who do not share in that Truth. One cannot truly respect the other if one does not have respect for oneself, individually and collectively. Forgetting one’s heritage is indeed a shabby mode of respecting oneself individually and collectively. Much can flow from this insight in the various debates on European integration.

For Dr. Weiler, the marketplace is another core issue of the European Union. Some would even argue that it is the core issue. Here again, Weiler points out that the encyclical Centesimus Annus offers one of the most profound reflections on the virtues of a free market but also of its dangers to human dignity. It is a reflection that goes well beyond the mantra of “solidarity” so dear to political activists of many stripes and which one finds endlessly in the debate of European integration. Europe need not espouse the teachings of the Church in this matter. But why exclude them from the debate? And there are many other examples in the book.

And of course the logical last inquiry is this: how would non-Christians react to the notion of a Christian Europe? Are we to exclude Turkey for example? Professor Weiler explains that a Christian Europe does not mean a Europe for Christians. It does not mean an official endorsement of, or call for, evangelization. That is certainly not the role of the European Union. It simply means a Europe that does not deny its Christian inheritance and the richness that public debate can gain from engagement with Christian teachings.

Weiler points out that there is something comic bordering on the tragic in observing those most opposed to any reference to religion or Christianity in the draft Constitution at the forefront of opposition to Turkish membership in the Union. It is indeed an insult to Christianity and its teaching of grace and tolerance to claim that there is no place in Europe for a non-Christian country or worse, for non-Christian individuals. Weiler underlies the fact that he is an observant Jew, the son of a rabbi with European roots that go back hundreds of years and that his ancestors were often the victims of Christians and Christianity; yet he finds it puzzling that anyone would fear the recognition and acknowledgment of the dominant culture (i.e., Christianity) as an empirical historical fact,  and reveals a fear of his which is also an insight, and it is this: “If I have a fear, it is the following: to deny the relevance of the Christian heritage in European public symbolism and European public space, for to deny that is to deny, too, the relevance of my own religiosity in that same public space.” That would probably be just fine for those who wish to eliminate religion altogether from both the public and the private sphere, but it remains a shortsighted social and political strategy, for if a body politic is based on the rejection of one’s history and heritage, it will be built on sand and will ultimately not survive.