Religion, culture and democracy (1/2)

One of the most important controversies in our societies today is about the cultural diversity that continues to grow within these institutions. Pluralism is a complex reality. It refers both to the existence of a growing diversity of religions and beliefs in the context of contemporary “open” societies, thus a social “fact”, but also to a political ideal increasingly characteristic of advanced democracies, which ensures that religious diversity does not reinforce social inequalities or create new ones.

The vital question of pluralism

The question of pluralism comes first in that it is the founding fact of our modern societies. It is on the premise of the legitimacy of a plurality of forms of life, value systems, convictions, and beliefs that the society resulting from the dismemberment of the ancient world was established. This plurality, at first experienced as inevitable because of the collapse of religious unity, was then conceived as a value, and the notion of pluralism came to mean the positive qualification of plurality.

At the foundation of our modern societies, pluralism remains a political, social, religious, and epistemological issue. Indeed, it is not self-evident that plurality is preferable to unity: Western philosophical tradition has long asserted the opposite since the solution given to the aporia of the one and the multiple has been to unify thought and the universe under a transcendent principle that guarantees both the primacy of the one and the reliability of the multiple. But the fact remains that, particularly since the invention of individualism and voluntarism, pluralism has become the foundation of living and knowing together, and it is on this conviction of the naturalness and primacy of pluralism that liberal democracy has been built.

Even if one accepts the rules of the game imposed by liberalism, the question of the limits of pluralism continues to arise, first and foremost, since so-called comprehensive doctrines are excluded from the debate and are only tolerated insofar as they remain confined to the private sphere. And even in this space, tolerance is not complete, since the state prescribes or prohibits a certain number of behaviors. This is why we have been able to speak of the “paradox of liberal justification“, which holds that liberalism is based on the premise that all individuals can share its premises, while the social plurality engendered by liberal society itself reduces the likelihood that such sharing is accessible.

According to an author such as John Gray, liberalism and pluralism are in fact incompatible since the former asserts the constant priority of individual freedom and autonomy while the latter posits that no one value can in all circumstances take precedence over any other. Liberalism must thus renounce any universalist justification of its principles or risk denying them. According to William Galston, on the contrary, pluralism implies liberalism because the promotion of individual autonomy appears to be the indispensable condition for conferring value on the various conceptions of the good life that confront each other.

Finally, it is known that John Rawls establishes his theory of justice on the promotion of a criterion of reasonableness that is binding on comprehensive doctrines and enjoins them not only to share the common liberal political conception, established independently of the various visions of the good, but even more to implement it from their own premises, which must be translated into the liberal language.

The new fact facing both the philosopher and the legislator is indeed that of a different kind of religious pluralism. A contemporary experience is no longer that of conflicts within Christianity or of the hegemony of the Catholic Church threatening the authority of the State, but of the integration of Islam, a religion characterized by orthopraxis, the importance of collective ritual practices, and not only individual faith, which poses problems of a completely different order. Is secularism as it was imposed in France still relevant to these problems, as it was at the time of the religious quarrel at the beginning of the twentieth century, or is it no longer compatible with the pluralist democracy of the twentieth century? Is it, in particular, capable of guaranteeing the equality of all citizens, religious or not? Does it still represent the best solution for ensuring civil peace and the allegiance of citizens to the institutions and values of pluralist democracy?

A frequently heard argument is that the problem is that pluralism no longer seems to be about competition between religions or beliefs that are compatible with each other and share a common cultural heritage that is easily identified as such. While modern democratic states shared a common religious identity, that of the Christian tradition, this is no longer the case with Islam and its varied traditions from the Maghreb to the Middle East, from South-East Asia to sub-Saharan Africa.

Beyond the growing numerical importance of populations with religious practice and thus refractory to contemporary secularism, it is above all the non-European, non-Christian, mostly Muslim character of beliefs and practices that seems to create major difficulties for the collective identity. The latter seems to be under threat, these threats are exploited politically and it then becomes impossible to serenely protect the equal rights and freedoms of citizens who are separated and even opposed not only by their socio-economic conditions, their culture, but also by their faith and religious practices.

Respect for religious pluralism is certainly a central element of a free society, as is tolerance towards minorities and the refusal to allow one religion to dictate its values to an entire society. But this respect finds its limits when it seems impossible to separate religious affiliation and social problems from immigration in an amalgam that assumes that religious differences prevent integration. Confronted with unknown cultural phenomena, torn between the concern to preserve their national identity and the concern to respect the equality of citizens despite their different affiliations, contemporary democracies, particularly in continental Europe, seem unable to escape universalist intellectual frameworks, such as that of “France, the homeland of the universal” (Jules Michelet), and historical patterns that all predicted the progress of secularisation. They appear disarmed in the face of this new religious pluralism.

The problem, however, is not really the cultural differences conveyed by Islam, but rather the way in which the integration of religious minorities in a secular state is approached. Major difficulties are looming on the horizon, all linked to the dominant rationalist schema, which proves incapable of understanding and correctly interpreting deeply problematic behaviors and demands for secularism because of their rejection of secularisation and a strictly individualistic conception of religious freedom, the important role played by the community and their demand for a public role for religion. More than the supposed impossibility of Islam to integrate, it is the inability of secularism to understand religious pluralism that is the problem.

The crucial point for respecting pluralism is that such a consensus should not be built directly on values, but, Rawls tells us, by overlapping consensus, by personal reasoning that relates democratic values to the particular values of a specific religion. The important thing is that there is even partial overlap. An example is a consensus on the Constitution, for Rawls.

Martin Luther King’s defense of equal civil rights for Blacks could use religious arguments: the equality of all human beings created in the image of God. But in addition to these non-public reasons, he could appeal to public reasons, those arising out of the Constitution, such as the 1954 decision declaring segregation unconstitutional. The essential point allowing this entry of religions into the public space is that they can be mediated by constitutional values that are acceptable and understandable to all citizens, which provide them with a common idiom, transcending the pluralism of values.

Religion and freedom

To place a reflection on religion in relation to reflection on society and culture is neither to attack nor to defend, it is not even to draw a parallel between the natural order and the supernatural order, it is rather to welcome the cultural dimension of religion and its social significance, and thus to situate oneself within the framework of an inculturation of faith where communication is a two-way street, from religion to society and culture, and from culture and society to religion.

It is not only to reflect on what the Christian faith can bring to cultures and human societies, but also on what the sets of human life in which this faith is always called to a new birth can bring to a deepening of this faith. It means renouncing the pursuit of the ghost of a naked Christianity, thought of as timeless and free from all contamination with human history. Honoring the three terms of the triptych also means not conceiving the last two as inevitable but embarrassing data. It is really a matter of understanding and illuminating the links between these three terms and what each brings to the understanding of the other two, with equal dignity and importance.

Reducing religious freedom to the sole freedom of conscience, which would be made an absolute, is a final error of modern individualism. It is a fundamental thesis in the Catholic Church: without free will, without the freedom to choose, faith has no value. Individual freedom must therefore be protected against the powers of external constraint and interference, what is traditionally called a “negative freedom“.

This also implies, and this is where the problems begin, that the individual has the right to change religion or even to renounce any religion. With such a desocialized and apolitical conception of religious freedom, one refrains from understanding and anticipating the conflicts of rights and freedoms that its exercise entails. How can we intervene in religious communities and in the name of which conception of justice to, for example, impose respect for individual rights if we maintain that religion is limited to private faith? Is it not contradictory to recognize the absolute rights of conscience, as in the case of conscientious objection, and to deny them in the case of a request for a place of worship, because in the latter case the claim is collective, not individual, and meets with insurmountable political objections?

What religious pluralism obliges us to note is that religious freedom is double freedom, a “private” freedom to follow the imperatives of one’s conscience, but also a “public” freedom to follow the teachings and practices of one’s community that can participate in political consensus or, on the contrary, destabilize it. It is unacceptable not to recognize this duality and to want to play both sides.

The rights of religious citizens must be of equal value to those of others, which implies treating them as political rights. Religious freedom goes beyond the framework of conscience and private space as soon as it is a question of orthopraxis and not only of faith or adherence of conscience. It has very important consequences in terms of demography, education, family structure, political participation, economic activity, and so on. It cannot be treated as a matter of private preference.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.

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