Europe: A Secular Space with Room for Religion

Peter Cumper and Tom Lewis’s Religion, Rights and Secular Society: European Perspectives

Examining the relations between churches and states and the place of religion in modern democracies inevitably raises numerous intricate issues. Given the myriad books published on the subject, it is admittedly difficult to find an original angle worthy of a guaranteed place on the bookshelves. Peter Cumper and Tom Lewis’ book, Religion, Rights and Secular Society:  European Perspectives, offers mainly an academic account of the situation in more than a dozen European countries (United King-dom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary, among others). There are also three essays with a wider scope: on understanding religions in Europe in general, on Islam in particular and on new religious movements.

Religion, Rights and Secular Society: European Perspectives Cover Art

The country review section provides interesting insights into church-state relations in national contexts on the historical and legal level. It remains fascinating to see such a vast diversity of approaches on one continent. In recent history, the Catholic church was associated with dictatorships in some countries (Spain) and with resistance movements in others (Poland). In many areas, despite the growing secularization of constitutions and state institutions, churches remain very influential and are in a position to weigh in on public debates.

The chapter on Italy is particularly interesting with its description of the struggle for defining a secular state in the historical stronghold of the Roman Catholic church. The book depicts Italy as a “Christian secular” country keen on defending its religious culture, but one that is also facing a significant influx of immigrants, and thus, new challenges testing its “Christian roots.” The church hierarchy is willing to see Italy as the bulwark against “de-Christianization” of Europe and “insidious secularism” (in Pope Benedict’s terms). In this respect, the Lautsi v. Italy case dealing with the display of crucifixes in public schools offered a tremendous opportunity for the Holy See. The Vatican managed to convince the Italian government (which needed its support for domestic reasons) to seal an alliance with Russia against Western Europe. After the first ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2009, which found that crucifixes had no place in Italian public schools, the subsequent appeal filed by the Italian government was clearly supported (if not written) by the Holy See. No less than 10 European states intervened in the legal proceedings to support Italy in what some have called a “New Holy Alliance.” The result: the Grand Chamber of the ECHR reversed the ruling, allowing crucifixes to be displayed.

Although many nations are covered in Religion, Rights and Secular Society, the absence of two countries is regrettable. Romania falls in this category, given the historic place of the Orthodox church and its strong political role today. Greece deserves mention for the very same reason, and because of the disturbing context of the rise of extremist parties and their reference to religion as a part of the Greek national identity.

The central thesis of the book is the increasing influence of faith in European public life. A key paradox is derived from the country-specific chapters: on one hand there is a “relatively high level of secularity in most if not all of Europe,” and on the other, there is a “marked resurgence of religion in public debate.” The progress of secularity in European states is a well-established fact. But the “marked resurgence” of religion is more questionable. The book derives this resurgence from disconnected facts: religious extremism and terrorist attacks, child sex abuse scandals and their cover-ups or even best-selling books on religious beliefs. But the history of Europe is made of a blend of cultural, religious but also philosophical heritages (among others, the ancient Greek philosophers, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment). Long-established churches have been very powerful throughout the centuries and remain socially and politically active, but to far less an extent than they used to be. So it is tempting to see a long—though not constant—decline, rather than a resurgence; or a peak in an otherwise downward trend.

The book’s resurgence model is further explained by two overlapping factors: immigration and new religious minorities. The diversity of religious minorities is a new reality and the chapter of the book devoted to this issue rightly points out that the level of acceptance in the reactions from the states varies greatly, from distrust in France or even persecution in Russia to wide acceptance in the Netherlands. This is true but has a limited impact on the public debate. Immigration raises a variety of issues that go far beyond religion. Many migrants are happy to find in Europe a democratic place where they can practice their faith (not only Islam) and this perspective does not raise any concern. Where there are tensions—the headscarf in schools, the burqa in the public space, offending cartoons, etc.—what is new is less the nature of the demands than the fact they are packaged in the human rights discourse, using human rights instruments to claim rights or privileges (e.g., a right to conscientious objection) that sometimes conflict with the rights of others.

The most challenging threats on secular states arguably come from long-established churches rather than from migrants or new religious minorities. Where they still hold a strong power, especially in Catholic (Italy, Spain, Ireland, Poland, Malta) or Orthodox (Romania, Greece, Russia) countries, church hierarchies do not hesitate to play politics (see, for instance, the institutional Catholic church in Malta threatening to excommunicate those who would vote in favor of introducing divorce in civil legislation during the 2011 referendum). Even in secularist France, the main opposition to same-sex marriage came from right-wing Catholic groups and the bishops, later joined by other religious groups. The same is true in the European Parliament and EU institutions where the Catholic hierarchy’s lobby is a much greater danger for secular institutions than Muslim communities or other minority religions. The choice to devote a whole chapter on Islam may reinforce this inaccurate impression about the clout wielded by Muslim groups, although it is well-written and very informative.

The chapter on Islam concludes with what may well be the conclusion of the book: that secularism is necessary to create space for participation and negotiation, but it must be a secularism that is conceived of and functions as a “framework,” and not as a participating (competing) ideology. In Belgium, secularists draw a distinction between political laïcité, aimed at the organization of the state, and philosophical laïcité, which refers to personal beliefs. Whereas most religious people in Europe would have no problem with this conclusion, church hierarchies sometimes seem to be rowing against the current.


Religion, Rights and Secular Society: European Perspectives
Peter Cumper and Tom Lewis
(Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013, 352 pp)
978-1849803670, $150

Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty is a human rights lawyer by training and the executive director of the European Humanist Federation and secretary general of the Belgian Human Rights League.

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