Moderate secularism: a European conception

The question of religion’s place in modern secular societies is intellectually contested and politically divisive. Here, the scholar Tariq Modood argues that European experience and institutional development can favour an accommodative model that respects religion yet goes beyond both toleration and even civic recognition. This moderate secularism, he says, meets the test of core democratic values while avoiding the dangers that fear-induced exclusion of religion from the public sphere would entail.
Tariq Modood
7 April 2011

At a time when for many in western Europe politics are being defined by their views of Muslims and Islam, who are deemed to be not secular enough, Rajeev Bhargava has raised an important issue in discussing different conceptions of secularism that are at work in western states (see “States, religious diversity and the crisis of secularism”, 22 March 2011).

I wholeheartedly agree with him that secularism needs defending but that the idealised French and American conceptions, with their interpretation of the separation of religions and the state as one-sided exclusion and mutual exclusion respectively are not the best models. I also agree with him that an alternative and better conception is to be found not by confining ourselves to the models that captivate western intellectuals but by looking at the best moments of historical experience and institutional developments. He suggests that doing this with India provides us with such an alternative.

The Indian practice certainly offers resources to think about how the principles of freedom and equality work out in a context of deep religious diversity and where inter-religious, as well as intra-religious, domination are live issues. Such an inquiry is helpful for western Europe as it struggles to cope with Muslim challenges and the new multi-faithism; for again, as Bhargava observes, it is good for everyone to be open to learning from the institutional experience of others.

If, however, Bhargava’s methodology is broadly applied to Britain - and indeed to northwest Europe more generally - we will find, or so I argue, that on two points it does not agree with Bhargava’s claims. These are:

* the dominant conception of political secularism to be found in northwest European institutional arrangements are quite distinct from the French and American conceptions. So, it is not the case that there are only “two mainstream western secularisms”, and that if they are both flawed then the way forward is to look at the example of countries like India

* the conclusion that “formally or informally established religions, and the establishment of a single religion, even of the weaker variety, is part of the problem not the solution” cannot be unequivocally reached on the basis of the argument.

If I am right on these points, then to speak of “the crisis of secularism” is hyperbolic.

A moderate secularism

The characterisation of western secularism in most of western (especially northwestern) Europe, where France is the exception not the rule, is best understood in more evolutionary and moderate terms than Rajeev Bhargava allows. There are several important features here that reflect a more pragmatic politics; a sense of history, tradition and identity; and, most importantly, an accommodative character which is an essential feature of some historical and contemporary secularisms in practice.

It is true that some political theorists and radical secularists have a strong tendency, when discussing models and principles of secularism, to “abstract out” these features. If this tendency is countered, British and other European experience ceases to be an inferior, non-mainstream instance of secularism but becomes both mainstream and politically and normatively significant, if not indeed superior to other versions.

What can be called accommodative or moderate secularism, no less than American liberal and French republican secularism, can be justified in liberal, egalitarian, democratic terms, and in relation to a conception of citizenship. Yet it has developed a historical practice in which, explicitly or implicitly, organised religion is treated as a potential public good or national resource (not just a private benefit), which the state can in some circumstances assist to realise.

This assistance can be in the form of organised religion’s input into a legislative forum, such as the House of Lords (the upper chamber of the British parliament) on moral and welfare issues; or of a role as social partners to the state in the delivery of education, health and care services; or of builders of social capital; or of churches belonging to “the people” (so that those who do not attend them, or even sign up to their doctrines, feel they have a right to use them for weddings and funerals). All this is part of the meaning of what secularism means today in most west European countries; and it is quite clear that it is often lost in the models of secularism deployed by some normative theorists and public intellectuals.

This is clearer today partly because of the development of thinking in relation to the challenge of multicultural equality and the accommodation of Muslims. This thinking highlights the limitations of the “privatisation conception” of liberal equality, and sharpens the distinction between moderate/inclusive secularism and radical/ideological secularism. I have in my work expressly related the accommodative spirit of moderate secularism to the contemporary demands of multiculturalism (see Tariq Modood, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea [Polity, 2007], and Still Not Easy Being British: Struggles for a Multicultural Citizenship [Trentham Books, 2010]).

I would argue that it is quite possible in a country like Britain to treat the claims of all religions in accordance with multicultural equality without having to abolish the established status of the Church of England, given that it has come to be a very “weak” form of establishment and that the church has come to play a positive ecumenical and multi-faith role. If the context here is an emergent multi-faith situation, or one where there is a political will to incorporate previously marginalised faiths and sects and to challenge the privileged status of some religions, then the context-sensitive and conservationist response may be to pluralise the state-religion link rather than sever it.

This indeed is what is happening across many countries in western Europe, in the face of critics on both the left (especially among radical secularists) and the right (especially among Islamophobic populists). In relation to the British case, this pluralising (or “multiculturalising”) can be seen in a number of incremental, ad hoc and experimental steps, of which two suffice the make the point.

The first is the indication by Prince Charles, the heir to the throne - and to the office of Supreme Governor of the Church of England - that he would as a monarch prefer the title “Defender of Faith” to the historic title “Defender of the Faith”.

The second is the use by the current sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, of her Christmas television and radio broadcast - an important national occasion, especially for the older generation, on the most important national Christian day of the year - to affirm the religious diversity of Britain. Her message was (in the words of the sociologist of religion, Grace Davie) that “[religious] diversity is something which enriches society; it should be seen as a strength, not a threat”. The TV broadcast, moreover, was accompanied by film of the Queen visiting a Sikh temple and a Muslim centre.

“It is important to put these remarks in context. The affirmation of diversity as such is not a new idea in British society; what is new is the gradual recognition that religious differences should be foregrounded in such affirmations. Paradoxically, a bastion of privilege such as the monarchy turns out to be a key and very positive opinion former in this particular debate” (see Grace Davie, "Pluralism, Tolerance, and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe", in Thomas Banchoff ed., Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism [Oxford University Press, 2007]).

If such examples may be regarded as merely symbolic, it may further be noted that British governments of centre-right and centre-left have felt the need to create multi-faith consultative bodies. The Conservatives created an Inner Cities Religious Council in 1992, chaired by a junior minister; in 2006, the (New) Labour government replaced this with a body with the Faith Communities Consultative Council, which had a much broader remit.

Moreover, after the election of 2010 which resulted in the formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, a division devoted to faith communities was created under the new department of communities and local government (which is represented in the cabinet). This suggests that a “weak” or “reformed” form of establishment can be one way of institutionalising religious pluralism.

I am not suggesting it is the only or best way, but in certain historical and political circumstances, it may indeed be a good way - and that care should be taken before ruling it out by arguments that appeal to “the dominant self-understanding of western secularism” or other abstract and non-contextualised definitions of secularism. Bhargava’s idea of “principled distance” is meant to insert flexibility into secularism, but his establishment vs secularism view is as dichotomous and inflexible as anything he rejects.

By contrast, the new institutional accommodation of minority or marginal faiths runs with the grain of mainstream western European historic practice of secularism. This practice has its imperfections, and like much else in Europe today, has to be pluralised. But the steps that are being taken in this direction do not categorically suggest that “weak” establishment is “part of the problem”, nor that pluralisation requires the abandonment of the European conception of moderate secularism in favour of another conception.

The respect for religion

There is an influential image of religion as organisations or communities around competing truths, which are mutually intolerant - perhaps even hate each other. This has some occasional empirical basis; but a very different (indeed opposite) reality is far more prevalent.

Let me illustrate this by reference to the decision of my late father, a devout and pious Muslim, that I should attend the daily Christian non-denominational worship at my secondary school. I told him that I could be exempted from it, like the Jewish children, if he sent in a letter requesting this. He asked what the other exempted children did during this time each morning. When I replied that some read comics, some took the opportunity to catch up with homework and some even arrived late, he said I should join the assembly. He said that as Christians mainly believe what we believe I should join in fully, but whenever it was said that Jesus was the son of God, I should say to myself, “no, he is not”.

It is a view that can perhaps be expressed thus: it is better to be in the presence of religion than not, and so the value of religion does not simply reside in one’s own religion. One’s own religious heritage is to be cherished and honoured, but so are those of others; and the closing down of any religion is a loss of some sort.

The respect for religion can be found amongst contemporary Muslims in the west. A recent Gallup world poll finds (in the words of a report) that the “expectation of respect for Islam and its symbols” among Muslims in Paris and London “extends to an expectation of respect for religion in general”; the reporters add add that the British Muslim member of parliament Shahid Malik had “complained about what he called the ‘policy wonks’ who wished to strip the public sphere of all Christian religious symbols’’ (see Dalia Mogahed & Zsolt Nyiri Mogahed, "Reinventing Integration: Muslims in the West" [Harvard International Review, 29/2, 2007]).

This valuing of religion and respect for the religion of others, even while not requiring participation, is based on a sense that religion is a fundamental good as part of a shared humanity at a personal, social and civilisational level: as well as an ethical good, and so to be respected as a feature of human character - just as other such features (truth-seeking, the cultivation of the intellect or the imagination, artistic creativity, or self-discipline) might be respected, and not just because of its utility or even truth.

It is possible to think religion as a good of this sort regardless of whether or not one is a believer, just as we music or science can be considered a good whether or not one is musical or scientific. A person, a society, a culture, or a country would be poorer without religion. It is part of good living, and while not all can cultivate it fully it is good that some do, and they should be honoured and supported by others.

The respect for religion tout court clearly amounts to more than the recognition of religious minorities; and while I am mainly concerned to argue for the latter I also emphasise the importance of the former, especially as I believe that respect for religion as such is quite common amongst religious believers irrespective of their particular faith (the mirror-image of Richard Dawkins’s view), and because I worry about an intolerant secularist hegemony.

There may indeed have been a time in Europe when a powerful, authoritarian church or churches stifled dissent, individuality, free debate, science, and pluralism; but that is not the present danger. Increasingly since the 1960s, European cultural, intellectual and political life - the public sphere in the fullest sense of the word - has become dominated by secularism, with secularist networks and organisations controlling most of the levers of power. The accommodative character of secularism itself is being dismissed as archaic, especially on the centre-left. Thus respect for religion is made difficult and seems outlandish, but it may be necessary as one of the sources of counter-hegemony and a more genuine pluralism. Hence, respect for religion is compatible with and may be a requirement of a democratic political culture.

I appreciate that this may seem to be, and indeed may be, a form of “privileging” religion. For in this idea that the state may wish to show respect for religion I am going beyond not just toleration and freedom of religion but also beyond civic recognition. Nor am I simply pointing to the existence of overlaps and linkages between the state and religion. But the sense of “privilege” may be weaker than it may seem. After all, the autonomy of politics is the privileging of the non-religious, so this is perhaps qualifying that non-secular privileging.

Moreover, it is far from an exclusive privileging. States regularly “privilege” the nation, ethnicity, science, the arts, sport, and economy in relation to the centrality they give each of these areas in policy-making, in the public resources devoted to it, or in the prestige attached to it. So, if showing respect for religion is a privileging of religion, it is of a multiplex, multi-logical sort; and it is based on the recognition that the secular is already dominant in many contemporary states.

The renewal of Christian and radical-secular identities

The above trends are grounds for optimism in relation to a multi-faith and multiculturalist society, but contemporary counter-trends exist. An overt one is the considerable negative reaction to Muslims. In the main this involves a racialisation of Muslims in terms of culture, politics and terrorism, but it is manifested also in relation to religion, secularism and the institutional accommodation of Muslims.

An example of an institutional accommodation resulting from Muslim pressure is that in the United Kingdom census of 2001 included a question about religion for the first time since 1851; this was exceptional too in being voluntary, the only such in the census form. There were misgivings that the question would be declined, but in the event 94% answered it. The real surprise, however, was that 72% identified themselves as “Christian” (rather than ticking the “no religion” box), and that fewer then 16% declared themselves to be without a religion. These figures were considerably higher than recorded in most surveys, such as the British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys (which in 1992 found that 31% professed no belief in a god and in 2010 that 43% self-identified as non-religious.

There is no single explanation for these variations, but it is quite possible that the presence and salience of Muslims is stimulating a Christian identity. There is some research foundation for this; two scholars find that in neighbourhoods with a high Muslim populations, the percentage of white Britons who chose “Christian” is considerably higher than in otherwise similar but less mixed neighbourhoods (see Steve Bruce & David Voas, "The 2001 Census and Christian identification in Britain" [Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19/1, 2004]).

The emergence of a new, sometimes politically assertive cultural identification with Christianity has been noted in countries such as Denmark and Germany; it was also politically apparent in the debate over the European Union constitution and is so in the ongoing debate about Turkey’s accession to the EU member (see José Casanova, "Immigration and the New Religious Pluralism: A European Union–United States Comparison", in Geoffrey Brahm Levey & Tariq Modood, eds., Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship [Cambridge University Press, 2009]). Some proponents of the constitution wanted it to include a reference to Christianity as the religion of Europe, and even some critics of this suggestion oppose Turkey’s membership on the grounds of its non-Christian character (and, worse, that it would bring 70 million Muslims into the EU).

These public assertions of Christianity are not necessarily accompanied by any increase in expressions of faith or church attendance, which continue to decline across Europe. Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France who chaired the Convention on the Future of Europe which drafted the EU constitution (later substantially revised) expresses neatly the kind of assertiveness noted here: “I never go to church, but Europe is a Christian continent.”

It has to be said, however, that such political views about Europe are held not just by cultural Christian identitarians but also by many practicing Christians, including many in the Catholic church. It has been argued that Pope John Paul II “looked at the essential cleavage in the world as being between religion and unbelief. Devout Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists had more in common with each other than with atheists”. Pope Benedict XVI, the same author contends, “thinks that, within societies, believers and unbelievers exist in symbiosis. Secular westerners, he implies, have a lot in common with their religious fellows” (see Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West [Penguin, 2009]).

The fact that the proposed clause about Christianity was absent from the final draft of the EU constitution indicates that many secularists do not share Pope Benedict’s view. Yet the suggestion that secularists and Christians in Europe have more in common with each other than they do with Muslims is part of a wider reinforcing or renewing of the sense that Europe is “secular Christian” (a term analogous to “secular Jew” in describing someone of Jewish descent who has a sense of Jewish identity but is not religiously practicing and may even be an atheist).

This assertiveness of a secular Christian identity is mainly if not exclusively to be found on the centre-right. Alongside it is a radical secularism more characteristic of the left. This exists in a tradition deriving from the Enlightenment (though more the French than the Scottish, English or German), and is often anti-religion as well as non-religious. Its best epigrammatic capture is Karl Marx’s famous “religion is the opium of the masses” and Nietzsche’s “God is dead”.

The post-9/11 decade has seen the emergence of a radical discourse referred to as “the new atheism”, most prominent in the work of Dawkins, Christopeher Hitchens and Sam Harris (see Tina Beattie, The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion [Darton, Longman & Todd, 2008]). Its cultural-political manifestation in Britain is found amongst intellectuals and political commentators such AC Grayling, Kenan Malik and Polly Toynbee, and organisations such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association.

They tend to interpret political secularism to mean that religious beliefs and discourse should be excluded from the public sphere and/or politics, and certainly from activities endorsed or funded by the state. Thus they argue, for example, for the disestablishment of the Church of England, the removal of the Anglican bishops from the House of Lords, and the withdrawal of state support for faith schools (the greatest beneficiary of which in terms of secondary schooling is the Catholic church).

Today, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are pressing to have some of these benefits extended to themselves (as to some extent has happened for Jews), and religious groups are more involved in the delivery of welfare and urban renewal. In this context it is clear that this radical political secularism is both a break with the inherited status-quo secularism in most parts of western Europe (with France being something of an exception) and at odds with the current institutionalisation of religious pluralism.

Which of these will become dominant, or how these trends may develop, interact and synthesise is not clear. The critical issue of principle is not how but whether religious groups, especially those that are marginal and under-represented in public life, ought to be represented. The real problem today, however, is with an approach that eschews difference-blindness in general but would not dream of being anything other than religion-blind. The BBC - an organisation with a deserved reputation for public service and high standards - is a case in point (an aspect of this is manifested in the assent in 2001 by a serving director-general, Greg Dyke, to an interviewer's suggestion that the organisation was “hideously white” (see Greg Dyke, Diversity in Broadcasting: A Public Service Perspective [BBC, 2002]).

For some years now the BBC has given political importance to reviewing and improving its personnel practices and its output of programmes, including its on-screen “representation” of the British population, by making provision for and winning the confidence of women, ethnic minority groups and young people. Why should it not also use religious groups as a criterion of inclusivity, and have to demonstrate that it is doing the same for viewers and staff defined by religious-community membership?

Rajeev Bhargava, then, is right that European secular states, and their underlying ideology of political secularism, are facing new challenges around multifaithism - and specifically, Islam. French and American conceptions of secularism, based on ideas of one-sided exclusion and mutual exclusion, are distinctly unhelpful for Europeans. He overlooks, however, that northwestern Europe has its own dominant model, moderate secularism, which has begun the process of pluralisation and which can meet the needs of the moment - if it is not diverted by projects of re-Christianisation and radical secularism, or indeed by exaggerated headlines about the “crisis of secularism”.

Radical secularists may be experiencing an ideological crisis but the moderate secular state is coping by adapting. The fact that some people are today developing cultural Christianity and/or secularism as an ideology to oppose Islam and its public recognition is a challenge both to pluralism and equality, and thus to some of the bases of contemporary democracy. This is both a risk to democracy as such and, in the present context of high levels of fear of and hostility to Muslims and Islam, threatens to create a long-term racialised-religious division in Europe.

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