Friday, October 27, 2006

The European Soul: A Rose between two thorns?

Europe is a constellation of liberal democracies characterised by the conviction that the public sphere should be strictly secular, and where religious arguments should be ruled out from the realm of public reason. We may call this attitude ‘secular confidence'. In the last years, secular confidence has been put under considerable strain by a number of cases such as the scarf, the cross in the classroom, the Mohammad cartoon saga or, very recently, the Pope’s speech in Regensburg. It quickly appeared that secular confidence could not provide convincing arguments to decide those issues. The principal explanation for the lack of a convincing secular position is reflected in the dogmatic character of the secular confidence which assumes, instead of articulating a sound justification, that religion, religious symbols and religious opinions are best kept away from our sight. This artificial situation creates more tensions than it solves and it is time to review this fundamental weakness in the secular strand of thought.

The main question at stake is the following: what place should European liberal democratic states make for religion in the public sphere? The short answer of many Europeans as things stand is: none. The long answer, however, is more complicated since the impression is that our secularist doctrines are not anymore able to justify why religion should be wholly privatized. Moreover, in Western countries, secularism is a phenomenon proper to Europe, but not to America. From this perspective we can clearly distinguish two broad ideal-models: on the one hand we have a tolerant religious state (USA) and on the other we have a tolerant secular state (Europe). At this point one could argue that Europe is not a state and, more importantly, it does not have a homogeneous position in relation to the place of religion in the public sphere. Recent sociological studies, however, have clearly demonstrated that Europe as a whole shows a powerful trend toward secularisation.

The relation between politics/law and religion in Europe is hard to grasp. A broad liberal attitude in European States tends to exclude any type of exchange. The classical example of this attitude is France. But religion keeps fighting back for a place in the public sphere, be it in the name of Christian or Muslim values. More specifically, religion claims that our liberal democracies are unable to deliver a sound model of good life. Atomized individuals, religious leaders claim, are lost in our consumerist societies and are unable to work out for themselves a set of ideals that would make their lives meaningful. The response of the leaders of our liberal democracies is that religion is unable to offer a model of life together where religious and non-religious people can be treated equally by the neutral institutions of the state.

This icy relationship could have continued rather blandly were it not for the tragic events that shook the western world in the last five years. Since 2001, Bush, Blair, Barroso and Berlusconi raised their voices in the name of objectively good western values that they want to spread all over the globe. Thus, before invading Afghanistan or Iraq they sought the benediction of the Pope. The Vatican suffered a major blow as well. John Paul II, possibly his most charismatic leader in centuries, expired in 2005 after a long illness. His successor, Joseph Ratzinger, is an intellectual with strong views on the role of Christian roots in Europe, but a very poor record as a leader and communicator. Both Religion and secularism are doing very poorly; as a result, in the last few years a copious literature on the relationship between faith and reason, State and Church, Christianism and Europe attempted to show that the two are mutually supportive and they should not be regarded as mutually exclusive.

The first real battleground to test the place of Christian values in the European polity was the draft proposal of the European Constitution, which now sits still awaiting happier days. John Paul II had repeatedly asked for the inclusion of Christian values in the preamble of the Constitution. Joseph Weiler, probably the most influential European lawyer and academic, wrote a short essay in Italian –Un’Europa Cristiana-- hammering the same point. A Catholic alliance of European States including Italy, Poland, Spain and part of Germany (Bavaria) were created to support the reference of Christian values in the text. The alliance failed to achieve this task. But not very long after the whole Constitution failed to pass the democratic test of referendum in France and Holland, two of the founding states that take themselves to be very secularist and liberal.

The real problem is that if the public sphere is not defined in terms of few selected public values, but instead is considered as a mere stage for pluralism and tolerance, then the distinction between public sphere and private sphere collapses. In Britain, for example, the debate concerning the veil is raging stronger than ever. British Muslim women have recently argued that wearing the veil is an entirely private choice; as a result public institution should not intervene in this issue. They also argued that the liberation of Muslim women start from their ability to choose how they want to lead their life starting with the issue of the veil. Feminism, so they say, should support this kind of position. This kind of arguments are puzzling. The reason why they are so is that they use the notions of public and private sphere interchangeably, just in relation to the strategic effect they want to produce. Is wearing the scarf in public a mere private choice? I really wonder. Unfortunately, there is no clear framework to decide these issues, which transform every argument into an issue of perspective including the question of the public/private divide.

Why are we now there? My point is that liberal democracies by insisting on the importance of the private sphere and individual rights have voided the public sphere of any meaningful content. More precisely, and in philosophical terms, the transition from comprehensive views to more moderate forms of liberalism emptied the public sphere of its content of values. We have no yardstick to decide what is permissible and what is not in the public sphere. We simply know what the public institutions should refrain from doing in the private sphere. This has been a welcome improvement, but the price to pay in terms of the impoverishment of the public sphere is worrying.

Religion is trying to reconquest the public sphere by intervening on issues of public domain such as bioethics, same-sex unions, and many other issues at the edges of life. But what kind of argument can we accept as far as religion is concerned?-- after all its claim to truth has been swiped away long ago. What kind of function can religion play if it cannot ground its position on an alleged objectivity of values. Even if we are somehow 'terrorised' at the moment, this is not a good reason to engage in endless dialogue with no content. Let's pause for a second and think more deeply about what kind of a dialogue is possible and what are the objectives to be achieved. Only then, we could start listening one another. Perhaps with some results.

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