Convictions and Beliefs in Future Europe



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Secularism and Religious Diversity

in Europe: Opportunities and Perspectives

Religare Conference

Leuven, 4 December 2012


Marco Ventura*



Convictions and Beliefs in Future Europe

Mr President, Mr Mayor, dear Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,



Convictions and beliefs in the Old Continent are a matter of serious concern for Europeans.

1. Widespread complaint. Complaint is the dominant note on all sides. Non-religious people complain that traditional faith communities are selfish, backward and privileged; but they join forces with them in denouncing that immigrant religions and cultures, with their indigestible diversity, are rocking the boat. Secularists and materialists, along with dynamic competitors in the religious market, haunt mainstream churches. Majorities complain about uncompromising minorities; minorities feel victimized by arrogant majorities. The credit crunch, the debt crisis and political instability empower religious actors, whose relentless social networking is an indispensable component of European welfare. Still, society in Europe is growing adversarial for religions, and alien. On their side, non-religious people are at odds with the rich and visible religious expression of post-secular Europe: despite their many failures and weaknesses, religions are here to stay.

2. A paralyzing fear of religion. Widespread whining is the sound of a Europe paralyzed by the fear of religion, beliefs and convictions. This fear has two faces, one turned to the past, and the other turned to the future. The first face, the face staring at the past, is nostalgic of what is allegedly lost: old convictions and beliefs are gone, and with them a solid and cohesive pattern of law and society. This nostalgic face reshapes history, offering an idealized past: enter the erstwhile splendid harmony of land, community, church and civic institutions; exit the memory of persecuted minorities and religious wars, of ideology conflicts, colonial violence and the compromise of believers and churches with totalitarian regimes. The second face looks anxiously into the future, frightened as it is at new beliefs and convictions. New wrappings do not prevent traditional European beliefs from sounding hollow and disconnected with reality, while the energy of Buddhists and Muslims, fundamentalist Catholics and newborn evangelicals is blinking on and off and benefits the few. Neither do the consumerist god or the religion of science, media and technology offer an alternative. New gods are scattered and partial: they are not conducive to unity. If the lost paradise of a harmonious, idealized past is the first reason for fear, the first face of fear, the second reason, and the second face, is the prospect of a chaotic future inhabited by conflicting and divisive gods.

3. From paralysis to illusory action. Such fear of beliefs and convictions brings paralysis. No model is conceivable; no project is feasible. Paralysis is insidious: it is not just about lack of action: it can also come under the cloak of action, illusory action more precisely. In the last decades, European law and policies have been proactive: only, the relevant actions were paralysis in disguise. Clever maneuvering for the sake of anachronistic advantages for mainstream churches (like in England, Germany and Italy), abusive religious laws, manipulation of symbols, targeting of minorities through women garb bans or anti-sect actions, spectacular state arrogance against the clergy (like in Belgium and Ireland), prosecution of free voices while hate-mongers roam free (like in France and The Netherlands). No side is immune from illusory actions, the sense of which is frustration, not change. Article 17 of the Treaty for the Functioning of the European Union after the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon is the masterpiece: governments and dominant churches coalesce against the European challenge (‘§1: The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.’), while claiming their share of influence (§3: ‘the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations’). As the European Union prepares to announce its guidelines for a European external action to protect religious freedom worldwide, the risk is high that the process will give yet another example, and a particularly dangerous one, of illusory action. The US export of religious freedom, forged during the anti-communist struggle and reframed in the war on terror, is a hazardous model. The risk is acute in forging the category of gross religious freedom violations – perpetrated in our former colonies by our new competitors – in order to forget about our own ‘minor’ violations. It is good to know we are better places for believers than Pakistan, or China. But this is a deceptive feeling, if it serves the purpose of dodging our internal inconsistencies, our divisions on church, religion and state relationships, our failure in creating an equal, free and fair religious arena.

4. From paralysis to true action in four steps. What can Europeans do to transform the liability into an opportunity, the paralysis into true action? How can they turn fear into hope? By which means can the scattered diversity of convictions and beliefs produce a unity of interests and lead to a shared project? An alternative to the paralyzing fear of our beliefs and convictions, an alternative to illusionary and misleading action, is indeed possible. But in order for true action to be engaged in, four steps are indispensable. We need: a) a clear view of the reality of convictions and beliefs; b) a simultaneously secular and religious endeavor; c) an effort to subordinate strategies to values; and finally c) the construction of a serious and consistent European area of religious freedom, equality and state cooperation with faith communities.

5. A clear view on the reality of convictions and beliefs. As we welcome the outcome of the ‘Religare project’, we have to acknowledge that the European effort in producing culture, education and knowledge on religion is insufficient. Much more needs to be done, especially in order to encourage non-mainstream, talented, critical and independent research. Religious knowledge has to be challenged, no less than stereotyped, self-righteous and superficial secular knowledge on religion. Educational projects across the Continent are essential. National diversity and religious autonomy are no excuse. The referendum in Berlin of April 2009 on ‘Ethik’ courses, and many such examples across Europe, witness that our struggle with religious education, especially that which is compulsory in schools, is not a side issue, but the starting point for any further progress. Methodology has a great role to play. Since 1976, the European Court of Human Rights has championed conveying knowledge ‘in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner’ (European Court of Human Rights, Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen, 7 December 1976, para 53). If we need a clear view on the reality of convictions and beliefs, we have to be inventive, and courageous, with both contents and methods.

6. A simultaneously secular and religious endeavor. The intermingling of the secular and the religious is a key feature of contemporary Europe and indeed of global modernity. There can be no clear winner in the ‘death of god’ v ‘resurgence of god’ contest. Secular actors and religious actors, and the immense grey area in between, are all needed, and vital, if Europe is to move forward. Instead of inflicting paralyzing blame on each other, it is time for healthy competition to be triggered, where the capacity to deliver, and not the vigor in complaining, is assessed and rewarded. The construction of the single market, and the erection of EU law encourage actors who are not afraid of a free European civil society: in the coming years, free circulation of persons, services, good and capitals as adjudicated by the European Court of Justice will benefit self-assured believers more than defensive human rights claims in the European Court of Human Rights. Religion is strongly tempted to become protectionist and nationalist in order to conquer our anxious societies, but the Europe of the future will not be a propitious environment for isolationist believers and exclusivist communities.

7. An effort to subordinate strategies to values. Exploitation of beliefs and convictions for the sake of political or financial strategies is powerful. Canny religious and political leaders devise strategies exploiting beliefs and convictions, no differently from commercial companies, media networks and the advertising industry. Churches are no safe harbor from the expedient handling of beliefs and convictions. We need to acknowledge this reality as a key factor in shaping law, religion and society. But we also need to offer an alternative discourse. By departing from the tradition of political neutrality, so as to expose the populist enrollment of Christianity by the British National Party, Rowan Williams and the Church of England have offered a positive example. Italian Protestants did the same by raising their voice against the blasphemous praise of the crucifix as a ‘passive’ (European Court of Human Rights, Grand Chamber, Lautsi, 18 March 2011, para 72) symbol manipulated by unscrupulous governments. Benedict XVI gave a further example in 2011, when he acknowledged that ‘secularizing trends – whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like – have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness.’ (Benedict XVI, Address to the Catholics engaged in the life of the Church and society, Freiburg im Breisgau, 25 September 2011). With populist parties eager to exploit secular or religious beliefs, and traditional parties overwhelmed by tactics, genuine beliefs and the subordination of strategy to values are quintessential.

8. The construction of a serious and consistent European area of religious freedom and equality. In the last 60 years Europe has done a great job. In an unprecedented venture, nationalism and religion have been largely disentangled, to the benefit of social inclusion, European integration and the flourishing of faith communities. Latent conflicts in Ulster and the former Yugoslavia, and the worrying picture of present Hungary, are reminders that a peaceful coexistence of religions and cultures is a never-ending work. The patient construction in Europe of an open public sphere and an articulate civil society, where beliefs and convictions are welcome as far as they accept being tested and judged, need not stop. The conversation on the role of the state is essential part of this construction. Drawing on the evolution of common constitutional traditions in the light of the principles of the European Convention of 1950, the Court in Strasbourg has highlighted the necessity of the state as ‘the neutral and impartial organiser of the practising of the various religions, denominations and beliefs,’ in order for a plural Europe to be ‘conducive to religious harmony and tolerance in a democratic society’ (European Court of Human Rights, Refah Partisi, 31 July 2001, para 51). Following on this elaboration will be as painstaking and controversial as it has been so far, especially along the fault line dividing Western liberal-democracies and Eastern post-communist countries. The construction of a serious and consistent European area of religious freedom and equality is about courage, realism and hardship. No shortcut can replace it.



9. Let us not be defensive and afraid. Transition from fear to hope demands renouncing the illusion that beliefs and convictions can be controlled through religious orthodoxy or secular objectivity. In a sermon on 18 September 2012, Dominican father Timothy Radcliffe has advocated space for God’s rule within faith communities as well as in society in unusually defiant terms: ‘the bullies must not rule, the fearful must not be allowed to control things.’ His project can be widely shared beyond labels and creeds: ‘faced with the strange mixture of wisdom and stupidity of our contemporary society, let us not be defensive and afraid’ (Fr Timothy Radcliffe OM, Sermon for the 25th anniversary of Bishop William Kenney, St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, 18 September 2012). Europe’s advancements since WWII are a great resource for renewed effort: the potential is there for beliefs and convictions to turn into a great opportunity for the future of Europe.

* PhD Strasbourg, Professor of Canon Law and Law and Religion, Faculty of Canon Law, KU Leuven. Professor of Law and Religion, Faculty of Law, University of Siena. Associate member of PRISME Société, Droit et Religion en Europe, Strasbourg.


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