The ever-increasing clash between the sacred and the secular is slowly pulling European society apart, one of the continent’s leading thinkers tells Tom Heneghan
At first glance, Irish Catholics voting for same-sex marriage, British Muslims living according to sharia and French secularists chasing symbols of faith from the public sphere would seem to have little in common. Some seem to be drifting away from religion, others towards it.
But according to a four-year study on religion in today’s Europe, these phenomena have a deeper link that goes beyond Catholicism, Islam or atheism. They all reflect the tensions that arise in secularised societies because of the contemporary disconnect between religion and culture. This break is found all across Europe, and may pose more challenges to the Catholic Church than to other faiths.
ReligioWest, the European Union-funded research project now in its final months, bears the intellectual stamp of its French director, Olivier Roy, a leading expert on Islam and a professor at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. He developed his analysis in the book Holy Ignorance (2008), arguing that secularism fostered the emergence of shallow fundamentalisms in reaction to societies seen as pagan. Starting in 2011, his team of researchers from around Europe began studying controversies about faith in the secular public sphere.
The rise of debates about religion in Western societies is often seen as a reaction to the growing presence of Muslims making demands such as the freedom to wear veils, eat halal and take time off for Islamic holidays. The ReligioWest project shifted the focus.
“The essential crisis is not the arrival of Islam but the disconnect between religion and the dominant culture,” Roy told The Tablet at a ReligioWest conference at the EUI centre in the hills overlooking Florence. “It’s not a problem of the return of religion, but of the victory of secularism, which has expelled religious culture from the public sphere.”
Until a few decades ago, Christianity was a central part of Europe’s cultural landscape. Even atheists were familiar with faith and often shared certain moral values with the believers around them. But with secularism now the dominant way of thinking and practising believers a minority, Roy said “religion is more and more seen as weird and unmanageable”.
The project he is directing describes the change as anthropological, as Roy explained: “Today’s secular culture is no longer founded on common values, neither with those of religion nor of a Christian anthropology with its conception of the family, life and freedom. The laws on same-sex marriage show we are in an anthropological change. The Thomist vision of a natural law that both believers and non-believers can accept is finished.
“The Irish referendum was a prime example of this. It was not only a reaction to the sexual-abuse scandal. That certainly played a part in the Church’s loss of credibility. But the majority of people who voted for same-sex marriage did so because they approve of this anthropological change. They don’t see any problem with homosexual marriage.”
The fact that abortion remains quite restricted in Ireland does not contradict this trend, he said, adding: “Abortion is not popular. It’s a lesser evil, not a value. But same-sex marriage is seen as a value. This is what the Church has not understood well. It’s a cultural change and the Catholic Church is not in phase with the dominant culture.”
born in 1949 and brought up in a French Protestant family, Roy is one of Europe's most original analysts of Islam and religion in the West. He studied philosophy and Oriental languages in Paris and has lectured there at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and the Institute of Political Studies and at the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at the European University Institute in Florence.
Roy first visited Afghanistan at 19, “on the hippie trail”, as he said later. He has been a consultant to the United Nations and the French Foreign Ministry and headed the OSCE mission in Tajikistan in 1993-1994. Since then, he has turned to broader issues of religion and society. His books include The Failure of Political Islam (1994), Globalised Islam (2004) and Holy Ignorance (2010). But he is not solely focused on Islam, turning his attention to Catholicism too.
“Contrary to Protestantism and Islam, which can imagine themselves without roots in the dominant culture (like evangelicals and Salafis), the Catholic Church has always said faith should be rooted in the culture,” said Roy. “That was its great success, combining universalism and a cultural anchoring. The Catholic Church considers European culture to be of Christian origin, so it has a harder time than other religions with this divorce from the dominant culture.”
The gradual tightening of France’s secularist policy of laïcité reflects this loss of religious culture in secular society. When the popular French priest Abbé Pierre was a deputy in the French National Assembly in the late 1940s, he attended sessions wearing his cassock. “Even the Communist deputies didn’t criticise him for that,” Roy said. Now, with religious garb banned in many public places, that would be unthinkable.
This trend has reached the point where French secularists protested when a chain of fast-food restaurants began using halal meat for burgers sold in heavily Muslim areas. But this, as Roy said, is “not about dogma or power now, but about the visibility of religion in the public sphere. In this case, they didn’t want religion even if it was invisible”.
This concern about religion in the public sphere is not just a French exception. The Netherlands announced it would ban full-face veils soon and the issue has been debated in several other European countries.
“There is a European public debate on religion and the national specificities are less and less important,” Roy said. “If you look at the debate on Islam, people in Norway or Italy or Germany ask the same question – is it compatible with Western society? The debate on religion is more and more concentrated on what is explicit in religion.”
The response to this challenge has evolved dramatically in recent years. It was not that long ago that the Vatican was campaigning about Europe’s Christian roots and conservative Christians in the US passed laws against gay marriage. Only two years ago, French Catholics mobilised to mount the stiffest opposition to same-sex marriage seen in Europe.
“Most faith communities were trying to counter-attack against the cultural and sociological changes in society. But they failed,” Roy said. “Now, Ireland is supposed to be culturally Catholic and there was nothing. The bishops said, ‘Well, it was not my choice’.”
The “Demonstration for All” marches against France’s legalisation of same-sex marriage and in support of traditional family values insisted that the state cannot legislate a redefinition of such a fundamental social institution as marriage. Children had a right to a father and a mother, they said.
“They now have to speak the dominant language,” said Roy. “The concept of human rights is now the dominant normative concept.”
The problem with this approach is that the Church can find itself defending non-negotiable stands until it gives them up. The Church in France campaigned against civil unions when they were introduced in 1998, mostly to establish legal rights for same-sex couples. “Now it says they were very good, and it’s gay marriage that’s bad,” said Roy. “The Archbishop of Dublin doesn’t say same-sex marriage is against the law of God or an abomination, a scandal and blasphemy. He says, ‘I think it’s not a good idea’.”
In the end, this defence risks becoming one about the Church upholding the right to govern itself by fighting for clerical exemptions and conscientious objections. The US Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights sometimes grant them these exceptions. But that means they treat the Churches as sects.
“The problem of the Church is the question,” said Roy. “Are we an autonomous faith community turned in on ourselves, like a monastery, or do we have a universal vocation? The new Pope arrived and said, ‘Our universal vocation is love, it’s charity, it’s not about rules.’ This is a logical response. He says very clearly that imposing norms doesn’t work.”
The analysis sounds bleak for faith but Roy does not see it fading away, saying: “Religion will not disappear. I think religions will either ‘sanctuarise’, like a sect, or ‘respiritualise’.”
Tom Heneghan is religion editor for Reuters news agency in Paris.