TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

A New Humanism in Europe: Between Secularism and the Return of Religion

An international conference took place on June 22 at the Libera Università degli Studi “San Pio V” in Rome to consider the nature and evolution of “European political thought after 1989 between globalization and new humanism.” Among the issues discussed, the most important was an examination of how the various political and philosophical cultures have come back to questions about God or, at least, religions’ role in public sphere. Together with the problem of identity, this is the central intellectual question of our times. Major events during the last twenty years, such as the fall of Soviet Empire and the 9/11 attacks on the United States, encouraged such a deep change. Reporting on some of the papers presented at the conference is a way to contribute to the examination of religion recently discussed on the Telos blog and in the journal.

Michael Novak (American Enterprise Institute, Washington D.C.) talked about “The End of the Secular Era.” The starting point of his analysis was that 9/11 marked the collapse not only of the Twin Towers but also of secularism to the extent that it represents a way to use reason as an autonomous instrument of knowledge without any reference to other perspectives. On the contrary, both individual existence and group life, that is politics and society, display a profound need for new foundations and answers, probably as ancient as the questions about human destiny. Arguing for a transformation of secular thinking, Novak predicts a coming end to secularism.

In Novak’s opinion, after Jacques Derrida’s death in 2004, Jürgen Habermas must be considered as the most important philosopher in the world. After decades of professed atheism, during the last seven years Habermas has started to raise questions about the limits of secularism, while also conceding some appreciation for aspects of religions that offer a dimension of transcendence and which, at the same time, defend every human being’s dignity, liberty, and responsibility. He seems to reference, implicitly and not often expressly, religions such as Judaism and Christianity. Habermas is more and more sceptical about the thesis of an unstoppable secularization of the West, if not of the entire world. On the contrary, the last years have shown how secularized Europe is much more of an exception than a rule.

For this reason Habermas engaged in a discussion with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2004. After that meeting, the German philosopher was even more persuaded that modern notions of equality and justice are secular distillations of Jewish and Christian religion principles. As Pierre Manent underlined, the history of the last six or seven generations seems to show that Christianity, ultimately, had few difficulties in its meeting with democracy.

Novak also asserted that a language that only uses secular categories has totalitarian tendencies because it denies political and social legitimacy to a religious public discourse. Moreover secularism does not seem capable of persuading religious people to change or leave their creed. The relativism offered by lay culture does not seem to amount to an attractive alternative. Following Habermas’s more recent reflections, it is likely that we are going to face a kind of “secular-religious pluralism.” Nowadays we are increasingly aware of the importance of a substantive dialogue between secular and religious communities. The principal benefit would be for civil society and public opinion in the western democracies.

According to Eric Kaufmann (Birkbeck College, London), we are witnessing “the demographic revival of religion in Europe.” Current commentary juxtaposes the religiosity of America and the Muslim world against a secular Europe. “But is western Europe still secularizing?” Kaufmann asked . Scholars have failed to pay attention to the role that demography—notably fertility and immigration—plays in the secularization story in Europe. Kaufmann concentrated his analysis on privately held religious beliefs, using data from major European attitudes surveys for the period 1981-2004. These show that secularization is taking place primarily in Catholic European countries and has ceased among post-1945 birth cohorts in northwestern Europe. Kaufmann also projected the proportion of religious to nonreligious population to the year 2100. Together with data on religious retention among European-born Muslims, these suggest that western Europe will be far more religious at the end of our century than it is now.

Larry Siedentop (Keble College, Oxford) started from a different question: “Why do Europeans feel happier referring to the role of ancient Greece and Rome than to the role of the Church in the formation of their culture?” The answer can be found in the way that secularism has come to be understood—and misunderstood—in Europe. Attitudes towards secularism were shaped by anti-clericalism in the 18th and 19th century. The French Revolution, in particular, had a decisive effect on attitudes. It created two hostile camps. On the one hand, the followers of Voltaire sought to “ecraser l’infame,” as they described Church. On the other hand, their opponents considered the separation of church and state as an insurrection against God. Of course, the last hundred years have overlaid the hostility between the two camps. The religious camp has come, by and large, to accept civil liberty and religious pluralism. The anti-clericals have—with the exception of hard-line Marxists and writers such as Richard Dawkins—given up on the attempt to extirpate religious belief. But the old antagonism still lurks under the surface. This is Europe’s undeclared “civil war.” It is provoked by a misunderstanding of the nature of secularism: it is not indifference or non-belief, but depends instead on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions. It joins rights with duties to others. Yet this is also the central, egalitarian moral insight of Christianity. Facing the challenge of Islam, Europeans should come to understand better the moral logic that joins Christianity and civil liberty.

Klaus Eder (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin) underlined the emergence of a “post-secular modernity.” He started with the premise that any society is necessarily embedded in traditions, which allow people to act. Even the individualistic societies of modernity, which believe to have emancipated themselves from tradition, cannot escape the force of tradition. Arguing that the individualistic type of modernity is just one type of linking tradition with modernity, Eder presented a conception of multiple modernities that provides an analytical framework for making sense of the particular case of European secularism through a systematic comparison of European modernity with other modernities. The most important aspect, however, is to show the increasing interaction of these modernities, which has started to change the secular as well as the non-secular world. The society emerging from this kind of interaction can be conceived as a “post-secular” one.

Philippe C. Schmitter (European University Institute, Fiesole), explored two accounts for a sketch of what a post-liberal democracy might look like. The first model is that, whatever the standards chosen, established liberal democracies will be judged severely by their respective citizens and, hence, will suffer increasingly from problems of legitimacy. The second version is that when citizens get around to examining what dissatisfies them most about the performance of “self-proclaimed & real-existing” democracies, they will tend to focus attention on their liberal (and not their democratic) characteristics. In Schmitter’s opinion, a possible solution could be to combine pre-liberal political institutions with democratic ones, in order to enforce old liberal procedures.

Robert Darnton (Harvard) ended the LUSPIO conference with a speech about “Voltaire, Rousseau and Us.” The opposition between Voltaire and Rousseau provides an extraordinary example of conflict over the symbolic capital at the heart of the Enlightenment, as Pierre Bourdieu might have put it. But it also reveals a great deal about how the Enlightenment is now being rediscovered as a crucial ingredient of the new Europe that has come into existence since the Treaty of Rome. Europe’s identity derives from a common culture, not from the Euro or from tariffs and trade. The Voltaire-Rousseau debate turned on the nature of culture itself. It gave rise to an anthropological conception of culture as a form of power, one that could tear apart or pull together a political system. This issue became a matter of political urgency during the French Revolution. A reassessment of Enlightenment and the Revolution therefore promises to open up a fresh perspective on the history that is shaping Europe into a cultural community.

These observations suggest some reflections. Europe’s future seems to be destined to change deeply within a few decades. First of all, it is highly likely that nationalist parties will grow, becoming increasingly relevant in the single Europe’s political systems. Nationalist in this sense: parties that will claim exclusive rights for people of the same ethnic group, not only the native citizens but every community that is big enough to expect a special treatment for itself: not only European racist parties, but also racist or xenophobe parties of other nationalities. The “Other” you hate or detest and do not accept can be anyone, even the old white Frenchman for new French citizens who are African Blacks or Middle East Arabs, etc. In Kaufmann’s opinion, we will probably have in Europe many traditionalist parties as well. Tradition could be a link between different religious groups. A traditionalist Catholic party could probably come to terms with a traditionalist Islamic party, more than it could with a progressive Catholic party. One might object that there are a large variety of really different traditions. Thinking that the role of woman for an orthodox Catholic is largely the same as for of an Islamic conservative is deeply wrong. Finding agreements between different traditionalists will be less easy than one might think.

No one said that Christian Democratic parties will have a new success thanks to this change in perceiving the public role of religion. Probably, the Catholic Church and the present Pope, Benedictus XVI, will have an increasing influence in European public opinion. The many attacks he received from both secular and Muslim elites inside and outside of Europe since his appointment testify to that. Surely, immigration is the central problem of Europe’s future right now, and for the next few decades. It also highlights how far Europe has to go to become a unified political system. The immigration problem is also a matter of managing boundaries; without a political unity, no decision can be made.

One European country can decide on an immigration policy, but if it is isolated, the decision (whatever it is) will be ineffective. The enormous dimensions of these immigration flows make any politics of restrictiveness practically impossible. The only political answer would be to secure the rule of law inside all European countries. It would be an answer compatible with the principles of western liberal-democracies, but it needs a political will and a strong conviction regarding the European political heritage. Yet precisely this conviction seems to be lacking, according to many of the speakers at the conference. Formulas such as “post-secular” or “post-liberal” define instead what European cultural and political systems have ceased to be: these “post” terms hardly explain to us what it is and what it will become. As Schmitter said, it is likely that present liberal-democracies will have to modify their liberal components. Individualistic perspectives could be deleted by collectivistic ones; collectivistic at least from an ethnic and/or religious point of view. Beyond the political problem of understanding whether collectivism (or corporatism) is compatible with human rights (since Rousseau’s ghost and Jacob Talmon’s alarm are always roving Europe’s streets), there is another question: how can these new political transformations be compatible with the European (and Western) economic system which is, and will remain for a long time at least, based on an individualistic prime mover? Consumerism as a collective practice could be the great revolution of the twenty-first century, but capitalism remains the great force which dissolves everything solid and traditional.

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