Global Extremes

What is the ‘proper’ place of religion?

The reality of multiculturalism in Western Europe has reawakened debates around religion’s relation to politics and place in society and the public sphere.

Thomas Sealy
3 February 2020, 12.01am
Woman holds placard reading "Don't touch my veil, respect my choice, no to Islamophobia' during a protest in Paris on November 10, 2019.
Picture by Michel Stoupak/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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In recent years, a number of political controversies around religious signs, symbols and practices in public spaces have brought to the foreground a set of ‘anxieties’ related to religion that are at once new but also haunted by history.

Especially prominent are those related to the clothing of Muslim women such as the hijab or burqa, but other examples include crucifixes, ritual slaughter, and are also reflected in negatively impassioned responses to the idea of prayer. In its strongest form this is underlain by fears of extremism related to religious nationalism, that a particular religion will rise to dominate political and social life, or to religiously-attributed terrorism.

Secularism, long seen as the answer to these anxieties, draws a line between public and private spheres, limiting religion to the private sphere and therefore defining the place of religion. This is largely because of the perceived need and importance for the ‘neutrality’ of the public sphere and the state, as equally open to all who abide by certain liberal principles, regardless of their religious or non-religious world views.

In the contemporary context of religious diversity, this neutrality is thought to be more important than ever. Yet, this kind of secular neutrality is not neutral at all and has a real effect on what kinds of reasons, motivations, language and relations are desirable or permitted in the public sphere. The questions become, where and how is the line (to be) drawn, and with what effects?

In its more insistently assertive form, the line drawn in the name of secularism is sharp and one which squeezes out religion from the public sphere, reducing and limiting it to a matter of private, individual conscience. An example of this is the assertive sense of laïcité found in France, where there are bans on religious clothing in public schools (especially focussed on the Islamic headscarf) and face covering in public spaces (targeting burqas and niqabs); ‘burkinis’ have also been banned in some areas, and a recent controversy has erupted in relation to Muslim women wearing headscarves when accompanying children on school trips.

Certain anxieties about religion’s role in politics are misplaced

Other secularisms, such as the forms of moderate secularism of most of the rest of Western Europe, draw a softer line and are more tolerant of religion’s public presence. In many ways religion is not only permitted but also encouraged in the public sphere. This is often through state-religion connections where religious organisations play a significant role in welfare provision in partnership with the state. Thus, for instance, in Germany, the churches, taken together, are the largest recipients of public money and providers of welfare services; and in the UK faith-based organisations have played an increasing role in recent decades as part of the growing plurality and competition among service providers in the ‘third sector’. This is taken to be recognition of religion as contributing to the public good. It calls into question the liberal dichotomy between private and public and recognises that, for the most part, certain anxieties about religion’s role in politics are misplaced.

Yet, although the line is softer, there is still a line between public and private and how religion straddles this line. An example of what I am thinking about here can be seen expressed in reservations about these kinds of state-religion partnerships (by political theologians, for instance). This caution revolves around how, as a result of this role as service providers, religious groups can become shorn of the specific religious motivations which mean they act in the public good in the first place. That is, they are seen merely in terms of public utility, as a repository of useful resources, but the deeper and specifically religious convictions that motivate them are forced to the side lines and even masked in order to comply with certain ‘secular’ and ‘neutral’ conditions.

We might say that the secular state in this sense is interested in religion as far as it can serve the state’s purposes, providing services for its citizens that it is unable or unwilling to provide itself. It is not, however, interested in the religious reasons and motivations orienting these groups, and a deeper engagement at this level is either not sought or perhaps deliberately avoided.

There are a few reasons this is important. One is that, as Grace Davie has noted, at a time when multiculturalism has brought issues of religion and politics back to the foreground, religious literacy is lacking. The significance of this is that type of politics we construct and partake in is not just a set of formal legal and institutional arrangements, but equally important is how we ‘imagine’ our social and political lives and the types of people and relations they consist of. To grasp this is to realise that restricting religious language, rationales and motivations to the private sphere is to restrict in important ways the richness and depth, or ‘fullness’ (to borrow from Charles Taylor), of religious co-citizens from the public sphere. A further reason is that such arrangements may serve to contain the critical voice and positive role religious faiths can play in the public sphere precisely because of their religious orientation, in challenging such things as the misuse of power or excesses of capitalism, for instance, and how this role might contribute towards developing a more equal society.

A religiously literate secularity is a benefit to everyone

Indeed, such a critical role, far from being a source of religious dominance as some anxieties of secularism might suppose, in fact requires a secular political arrangement. We might also note here that secularization in Britain stemmed from within the Church as much as from without it. In relation to these points, this is not just a failure of a will to at least approach co-citizens with a will to understand, it is also a failure to enrich public debate and public space. This is not a call to agree or endorse particular views but to accept their public legitimacy and to argue that a religiously literate secularity is a benefit to everyone.

A final comment is also warranted here in relation to secularism’s anxieties and that is that such literacy improves rather than detracts from the ability to engage with religion when its societal impact might be negative. A will to understand is surely more powerful here than a will to ignorance. The presence of religious reasons, language and motivations in the public sphere provides a deeper engagement with them, which both enables better understanding between co-citizens of different faiths, denominations and none, as well as a more literate way of challenging them where that is necessary and where it is part of a healthy democratic engagement.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.


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