Our experience of religions is ambivalent. In Central Europe, particularly Germany, the public importance of religious communities, especially the Christian churches, seems to be declining; this appears to be the continuation of a long-term trend that is constantly invoked or regretted. In other parts of the world, we are seeing a truly astonishing revitalization of religious communities within Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, but also Christianity, in North and South America for example. Taking one of the world religions, Judaism, as a paradigm, this chapter investigates the causes of each process, the secularization and theologization of public life, but above all the question of whether there are connections between these developments, which appear to run counter to one another. We will see that the dialectic of secularization and theologization merely involves shifts within one and the same system, which, already discernible in antiquity, are by no means a characteristic only of modernity, but which constitute a universal of religious history: processes of secularization trigger processes of theologization and vice versa. In this sense, it makes no difference whether one believes oneself a member of the descending or ascending branch of religious history, as the philosopher of religion and Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch put it as early as the 1920s. The questions raised here can be answered only if we correlate religion as a system of ideas with its forms of social organization in a given case.
The Charter of the United Nations disapproves of a practice long a standard feature of human history, one often glorified by history books and religions. Article 2 stipulates:
3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered. 4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
On this view, when Alexander the Great acquired territories ‘with the spear’, deriving from this the right to rule without limitation, he would, according to contemporary law, have to reckon with a war crimes trial. The settlement of land by the tribes of Israel or the conquest of the Middle East by Islamic armies are also violations of current law, though they are transfigured and idealized in religious writings. ‘Conquest no longer constitutes a title of territorial acquisition’, as Graf Vitzthum sums up the modern-day conception of the law in the volume Völkerrecht (‘international law’). I would like to look into a case which demonstrates howgreat, even today, the tension can become between this international prohibition on violence and religious claims to a territory, bringing out the political turbulence to which this gives rise.
Even from a methodological point of view, references to Catholic Christianity are far from straightforward. Such references are possible only if we have already referred to Christianity in general, for it is only within the genus ‘Christianity’ that we can deal meaningfully with the Catholic component in the sense of a specific difference. It is, however, certainly possible to dispute this, for there are those who believe, specifically with respect to Christianity in general, that the specific activities in which the denominations are engaged are underpinned by a fundamental hermeneutic difference, such as the Protestant principle.
We may attempt to escape this difficulty in a number of ways. We may attempt to draw up basic models of the individual world religions and, within Christianity for example, outline the denominational variations. This may be done, as we often find today, in a way understandable to the general reader. It is not unusual for it to be done in a fairly vulgar fashion. A more sophisticated variant is the attempt – with more stringent philosophical means, and above all with the aid of the phenomenology of religion – to convey the specific ways in which the Christian faith has been elaborated. Here again, differing emphases are to be found, because there are of course very different forms and types of philosophy of religion, not to mention predominantly sociological or psychological foci. While scholars have generally been wary of producing denomination-specific accounts, some respectable attempts have been made in this direction.
Even for those who visit the USA only occasionally and lack deep historical knowledge of the country, its religious pluralism and vitality are probably impossible to miss. While the German village often seems to be built around its only church, its American counterpart generally features a large number of churches, often lined up along a single street – a reflection of the great variety of religious faiths. In Europe on the other hand, despite all the changes wrought by industrialization and urban growth, flight and expulsion, the principle that there can be just one religion in one territory is still much in evidence geographically. American churches are often provided with large car parks, and these regularly fill up on Sundays, when services are held, but also throughout the day on weekdays, because a large number of activities are organized within the parishes and congregations. After the Second World War, when settlement structures changed radically as increasing numbers of town dwellers moved into homes in the country, giving rise to the vast ‘suburbs’, it sometimes seemed that the new malls in the open countryside were taking the churches' central place in social life. But before long, numerous new churches and synagogues were also constructed in these suburbs, and it is arguable that the average American suburban family continues to attend church more often than it goes to the mall. In the cities, the (often enormous) historic church buildings remain, the congregations now often consisting entirely of African-Americans or new immigrants.
‘Secularization’ is a Latinism used in European languages referring to the helplessness of the individual whose world-regulating God has died on him. All that is left to him is to cope, at his own risk and taking full responsibility, with the finite and fragile nature of his individual and social existence in this time and in this world.
The word claims to describe a historical state of global dimensions. It is difficult to conceive of the existence of God as a regional or local phenomenon and just as difficult to imagine that His absence applies only as far as the Bosphorus. Yet, however much the notion of secularization may make sense in Europe, it fails to do so in the USA of the ‘moral majority’, the revivalist gatherings of the Pentecostal movement in Latin America or in large parts of the Islamic world. With his finger on this contemporary pulse and one eye on the newspaper headlines, Jürgen Habermas, in conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger, believes we have already entered a ‘post-secular age’. While in this reading we have now wound up with the opposite of secularization, we are not out of the woods yet. Our horizon is still dominated by monotheism, and that means we have remained within a geographically and culturally delimited part of the world, for the notion of secularization or that of the post-secular age makes sense solely within this horizon.
This essay is divided into three parts. First, I offer a very general and therefore somewhat superficial overview of the contemporary religious situation in Europe. In the second part, I offer a series of arguments why the paradigm of secularization is not very helpful in trying to explain the complex religious situation in Europe today, and why we need to look at the secularization of Western European societies with new eyes and with new perspectives, which can only come from a more comparative historical and global perspective. Finally, I offer some suggestions as to why the expectation that religion would become increasingly privatized and therefore socially irrelevant has not proven to be correct and why, on the contrary, we are now witnessing the fact that religion is once again becoming an important public issue in Europe.
Overview of the religious situation in Europe
First of all, it is important to emphasize that there is not one single and uniform religious situation in Europe. There are multiple, very diverse and ambiguous religious situations and trends throughout Europe which one should avoid characterizing in simple terms. I can only indicate here some of the most obvious differences. Former East Germany is by far and by any measure the least religious country of all of Europe, followed at a long distance by the Czech Republic and the Scandinavian countries. At the other extreme, Ireland and Poland are by far the most religious countries of Europe with rates comparable to those of the United States.
Strictly speaking, the above title is incorrect. It is certainly possible to speak of ‘Catholicism’ to designate that form of Christianity which, alongside the Orthodox churches on the one hand and those decisively inspired by the sixteenth-century Reformation, together with religious revivalist movements and ‘sects’ on the other, represents the third strand of Christian tradition: the Roman Catholic ‘world church’ centred on the office of the Pope. But there is neither a Protestant ‘world church’ comparable to Roman Catholic centralism nor any other kind of globally organized institution that might be in a position to unite the factual diversity of Protestant churches and groups. Since its beginnings in the reformist movements of the sixteenth century, ‘Protestantism’ has been a highly plural, multi-layered, even contradictory phenomenon, and there are many good reasons, from both a sociology of religion and a theological perspective, for consistent use of the plural ‘Protestantisms’ rather than the overly abstract collective singular. For ‘Protestantism’ or the adjective ‘Protestant’ exist solely within an almost overwhelming profusion of thousands of churches, voluntary communities, charismatic movements and groups. Despite elementary differences in piety, liturgical tradition, theological doctrine and moral behaviour, however, these converge in the fact that their roots can be traced back to the reformist protest of the sixteenth century and that, as a result, they understand the Christian church not as a powerful institution of salvation in which the ordained bishops and priests take spiritual precedence over the laity, but as a community of blessed sinners living the ‘priesthood of all the faithful’ and constituted by the Holy Spirit.
The question of religion, its contemporary and future significance and its role in society and state is currently perceived as an urgent one by many and is widely discussed within the public sphere. But it is also – and has long been – one of the core topics of the historically oriented modern social sciences, indeed, of the modern disciplines of history and philosophy of history since their emergence in the eighteenth century. Increased public interest opens up an opportunity to think in new ways about the immense stock of knowledge furnished by the history of religion and religious studies, theology, sociology and history, and to introduce it into the public conscience. It is of course beyond dispute that a contemporary treatment of these issues cannot remain limited to Europe or the North Atlantic world, but must adopt a truly global perspective. This means that we must take full account of religious traditions other than those of Christianity and consider other parts of the world – beyond Europe and North America. It has, in any event, become quite impossible to draw clear boundaries between territories with respect to concepts of religion – as the notion of the ‘Christian West’, for example, attempts to do. The drawing of such boundary lines has always been problematic historically, as it underestimates the reality of religious pluralism, with respect, for example, to European religious history.
From 31 March to 5 April 2006, the fifth conference of the Forum für Verantwortung foundation, entitled ‘Secularization and the World Religions’, was held at the European Academy, Otzenhausen (Saarland). The foundation invited scholars in various fields, among them Cardinal Lehmann, to cast light on the topic in a way comprehensible to the approximately 180 attendees, whose interests cover a broad spectrum. The discussions with the audience that followed the lectures showed that they had fully achieved this aim. We would like to take this opportunity to again thank all the speakers.
The lectures delivered in Otzenhausen have been brought together in the present volume in order to make them accessible to a broader public beyond the conference participants. As with the volumes arising from the earlier conferences, all published in German by S. Fischer Verlag and tackling the subjects of evolution; humanity and the cosmos; the cultural values of Europe (with a volume of the same title published by Liverpool University Press in 2008) and the future of the earth, for reasons of space it was necessary to forego reproducing the incisive discussions of the individual lectures. The podium discussion moderated by Hans Joas on ‘Religion and Politics at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century’, which concluded the fifth conference, is also left out of account here.
We would like to thank the attendees for their deep engagement and critical questions, which not only invigorated the conference but also inspired later modifications to the written forms of the lectures and have thus entered into the contributions published here.
While the natural scientific conferences of my Foundation bore the imprint of Ernst Peter Fischer, the scientific advisor at my Foundation, those within the field of the social sciences and humanities bear the unmistakable signature of Hans Joas. The book arising from the third conference, ‘The Cultural Values of Europe’, which he directed, has now run to four editions and appeared in English in 2008.
The fifth conference, ‘Secularization and the World Religions’, was also planned and realized by Hans Joas in exemplary fashion. I would like to express my personal thanks to him both for this and for his editorship of the present volume.
Attentive readers of the Forum für Verantwortung series may wonder what has become of the planned activities of my Foundation aimed at informing and mobilizing civil society with respect to the topic of sustainability. Guided by the motto ‘The courage to achieve sustainability’, this initiative has now taken on clear forms. I first asked renowned scholars to provide an account, comprehensible to the general reader, of the state of research and possible options for action with respect to twelve topics crucial to the future of our planet, with one book devoted to each topic. The twelve volumes originally appeared in German in 2007. They are now published in English by Haus Publishing and tackle the following topics: Our Planet: How Much More Can Earth Take? (Jill Jäger); Feeding the Planet: Environmental Protection Through Sustainable Agriculture (Klaus Hahlbrock).
Anyone attempting to comment on the fate of religion and the religious in the face of the rise of the modern world immediately finds himself confronted with a term used by countless authors as a skeleton key to all the rooms in the shared house of modern Euro-American humanity: secularization. What was initially no more than a legal term referring to the more or less violent acquisition of church property by the organs of the modern nation state following the French Revolution developed over the course of the nineteenth century into one that seemed to address the overall trend characteristic of the competition between church and state – a positive one in the eyes of progressives and laicists, a negative one in the opinion of Catholic modernism. In Catholic milieux, secularization was referred to like an epochal crime committed by a narcissistic and humanistic modern world rebelling against its God-given origins. For progressives, the notion of secularization entailed the promise that humanity could break away from its unworthy, religiously dictated history through work and self-determination.
So begins Peter Sloterdijk's ‘Note on the Changing Form of the Religious in the Modern World’. Here the author does not distinguish between two meanings that are usually kept apart in German: the concrete use of church property by secular authorities – Säkularisation – and the spiritual process ‘which, over the course of modern European history, has endowed individuals with ever greater autonomy over their own lives and with respect to church and religious systems of order’ – Säkularisierung, as the entry on secularization in the German encyclopedia Brockhaus (vol. 19, 1992) puts it.
To write about the religious situation in East Asia within the context of a book on ‘secularization and the world religions’ presupposes that the reader understands a number of points. I would like to begin by reflecting briefly on these.
East Asia is taken here to mean China, Japan and Korea. China will be a key focus of attention because it represents the largest and most influential cultural area in East Asia. The term ‘religious’ covers both major global religious traditions and specifically national and local religious forms that dominate the religious situation of individual regions. Alongside older religious traditions such as Daoism, Confucianism and Shintoism, this includes the new religious movements.
The opposite of religiosus is saecularis. Secularization presupposes an original unity and subsequent separation of religious and non-religious spheres. Otherwise, there is no room for this movement from one to the other that constitutes the meaning of the term. The concept of secularization highlights the relationship between modern European history and the Christian tradition. The separation of church and state and the development of a plurality of perspectives and worldviews, which ended the state's monopoly on orthodoxy, and the emergence of a civil society, are key components of secularization within the process of European modernization. In countries in which religion and the state have for centuries had a very different kind of relationship, it is not meaningful to speak of a process of secularization.
Statistics have taught us to regard Hinduism as the third largest contemporary religion in terms of number of adherents, after Christianity and Islam. Hindus make up 89 per cent of the population in Nepal, 82 per cent in India, 52 per cent on Mauritius, 38 per cent and 37 per cent in the South Pacific and the Caribbean; and they also live, as extremely large and, for some years, rapidly growing minorities, in the USA and Canada, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Arab countries, Africa and Europe. Hindus number around 900 million in total. If, as has been argued for many years with reference to the Indian constitution by the ‘World Hindu Council’, the highly active Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), we add all religions originating in India, in other words Buddhism, Jainism and the indigenous tribal religions, Hinduism even appears, statistically, to be the second largest of all religions. On this point, the authors of the constitution have followed the views of Vināyak Dāmodar Sāvarkar, who describes as Hindus the followers of all religions originating in India. Such religions fulfil all the fundamentals of Hinduism: common land, common culture and common origins (jāti). The gods invoked within them inhabit the holy land of India.
But is Hinduism one religion in the first place? Some years ago, I pointed out that so-called Hinduism comprises a whole number of different religions, which, however, coexist so peacefully and are blended together to such an extent on the Indian subcontinent that Europeans, used to bloody religious conflicts, inevitably come away with the impression that we must be dealing with just one religion.
To a significant degree, the origins of the modern Western state as a form of political organization lie in its departure from the medieval unity of state and Christian church. This occurred because the state no longer had to deal only with one Christian church, but rather with Protestantism and Catholicism. The competition between these religions, which was carried on within the various political camps, along with struggles for dominance between religious and political power, made peace impossible. This resulted in the chaos of civil war, and terrible wars between states. The secularization of worldly power thus seemed inevitable over the long term. The idea was that politics should focus on worldly concerns–on worldly welfare. With respect to religious matters, the attainment of salvation in the hereafter, the sword of state power should no longer function as a means of sanction for ensuring the dominance of whichever religion was preferred by the government, though Christian thought long continued to make itself felt. In most European states and in the USA, this development ultimately led to a structural differentiation of the spheres of state and religion or state and church. Areas of responsibility were also divided: the state would take care of worldly welfare, while the churches would attend to salvation in the hereafter. The pursuit of salvation itself was to adhere to the principle of freedom: within the context of freedom of religion, it was to be the responsibility of the individual and his conscience.
For a number of years, public debate has distinguished more clearly between Islam and Islamism than was formerly the case, and quite rightly so: Islam is a world religion with well over a billion followers, who live and experience their religion in a wide variety of ways. Sunnis differ in certain respects from Shiites, traditionalist Muslims from liberal ones; some seek a spiritual path to God, others want nothing to do with mysticism; some lead an ascetic lifestyle, others enjoy life to the full; many see politics as an important aspect of their religion, while others reject politics in the name of Islam. Different ways of understanding and living Islam stretch far back into history; in the present era, they have taken on distinctive, specifically modern aspects. Overall, Islam is certainly as plural and diversified as Christianity, and it has been so from the very beginning, particularly with respect to how Muslims have imagined community and society, the good life and good government. Islamism, which receives so much attention today, is therefore just one possible way among several of applying Islamic teachings to individual conduct and the social order. The boundary between Islam and Islamism is, however, not always easy to draw. In many fields, Islamists now dominate to such an extent that one might think that they are in fact the only legitimate representatives of Islam (and this is, of course, how they view themselves).
Secularization involves several dimensions, but refers in particular to the decreasing salience of any reference to the transcendent or to a realm beyond, above or interfusing with mundane reality. Any tension between the transcendent and the mundane is relaxed, or else taken over by the secular utopias of politics or by the myths of nationalism. This process has been seen in an enlightened perspective as the erosion of superstition by rationality or science and/or the liberation of humanity or the human as such from oppression and alienation. It has also been seen as inevitable, spreading out by degrees from its Western European heartland, with France at its epicentre, to encompass the whole world. France is frequently identified as the secularist country, whereas (say) Britain, Scandinavia, Holland and Germany are sources of mere secularity. There are serious differences here. Secularism is a doctrine promoting the secular, secularization is a process whereby a secular condition becomes progressively more dominant, and mere secularity is not so much a doctrine as a state of affairs in which the transcendent is irrelevant for most individuals and for the nation as a whole.
Secularization is more than the decline of church-going or even of Christianity. If one adopted a rigorous definition it would involve indifference to ‘the spirit’ and that, at least, seems not to be the case, even in Western Europe. In Germany church-going diminishes but spirituality in all its many forms appears to be on the rise.
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