Religion and the secular state


RELIGION is an interpretation of life at the most comprehensive level of interpretation. But faced with religious freedom (and the universe of beliefs it has generated), the secularization of knowledge and the neutralization of authority, it has had to give up its claim to be the sole interpreter of whole of human existence.

Therefore, to live in a universe of religions is to accept that while my own religious allegiance gives me an interpretation of my existence as well as of the common world in which we live, others, who have the same rights as me, understand existence and life through the stories, traditions and perspectives of their own religions. It’s not just about tolerating other interpretations. It is a living-with which has its effects on the interpretation of the life of my religion—in the sense that it opens the horizon of interpretation by accepting the possibility of other interpretations.

Equally significant in the situation of religion today is the fact that, like so many other phenomena, religion has become a societal subsystem, with the result that religion is separated from the social milieus in which it exists. This in effect means that religion can no longer claim to be the “colour” or the allegiance of society. Doesn’t that make any exploration of the phenomenon of the universe of beliefs a mere “ghetto” investigation? Not because the phenomenon of religion separated from its social background is a Western phenomenon (and maybe not really) — but some societies come together under the symbols of religion with religious leaders at their head and even in Western societies , religion can still be a powerful motivator, or at least a ready excuse for one’s conduct.

In fact, Habermas himself shows why dealing with the universe of beliefs remains an important concern. The universal legal order and egalitarian morality must be tied to the ethos of brotherhood in such a way that one flows from the other without the threat of dissonance. In fact, the secular justice that lives in a secular society must be consistent with each group of religion or orthodoxy. Cognitive dissonance is never practicable and feasible; the result is either the erosion of religion or the dilution of what should be secular morality with orthodoxy.

Importantly, Habermas draws attention to the fact that the secular state expects sects and religious congregations to uphold the legal regime and ideals of justice that such a state espouses. Religion welcomes this as an opportunity to influence the whole of society. This was evident in Cardinal Sin’s delight in blowing hot and cold on the Ramos and Arroyo presidencies as well as the influence Muslim imams play in shaping Mindanao politics. But a secular society which has made the option of freeing itself from religious commitments has a challenge to take up — in that it must constantly take up the challenge of the frontiers of the Enlightenment, that is to say that it does not can only appeal to the resources of religion can offer the legitimization that it itself cannot provide. Appeals to the law of God, to the commandments of God, to the love of God will therefore still be heard and sometimes raised in a secular society.

Habermas finds not only in Islamic militancy but also in the growing or continuing influence of religious law over secular law (Sharia or Jewish laws, for example) signs of the resurgence and new importance of religion. Fundamentalism is for him the result of violent colonization and failed decolonization. The capitalist modernization that imposes itself in these societies creates uncertainty and cultural upheaval. Habermas draws attention to the astonishing revival of religious enthusiasm in the United States where modernization has had the most success. And what is even more amazing is that the religious revival in the United States is not traditionalist. It paralyzes the laity because it inspires revivalist and renewal movements.

The self-understanding of the rule of law has developed today within the framework of “natural reason”, arguments accessible to all so that they are accessible even to those who do not claim to be beneficiaries of the revelation. This is what constitutes the premise of the separation between Church and State on the institutional level.

Freedom of religion enshrined in the Constitution is the only appropriate way to respond to religious pluralism. Potential conflicts between believers of cognitively undiminished religious beliefs are thus defused. But the condescending tolerance of the state for churches or communities of faith is not enough to guarantee equal religious freedom. What is needed is for the members of the various ecclesial or denominational communities themselves to come to understand the precarious separation between their right to believe and to live as they believe, and at the same time their obligation not to impose others their beliefs. And to go beyond the tolerance which is only condescending – the tolerance – then it will be necessary to put forward reasons and they will have to be acceptable so that this tolerance and so that limits are fixed.

What we have is an argument for giving religion its due, despite the crisis to which modernity has led it. But the fact of its resurgence and the nature of democracy make it a matter of legal relevance.

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