religion and democracy in the post-modern world: the possibility of a

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Shmuel Eisenstadt
Shmuel Eisenstadt

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Democracy. Reality and Responsibility
Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Acta 6, Vatican City 2001
From the Enlightenment onwards, modern society has seen transcendental religion as an obstacle to democracy. In order to overcome this obstacle it has adopted
two strategies. By the first, it has forced religion to adapt itself to the political symbolic code of democratisation (the “European model”). By the second, it has allowed
religion to have autonomy but it has also relegated religion to a purely private sphere
by separating it from the political arena (the “American model”). In both cases religion has become increasingly irrelevant for the public sphere. At the end of the twentieth century, these historical tendencies and the correlated configurations of society
have fallen into a radical crisis: (political) democracy has lost its conceptual bases and
(established) religion has lost its identity. How can democracy and religion evolve
The field of possibilities is a very large one. From the perspective of sociology
this paper analyses the past configurations of society and present-day scenarios in and
on which religion is a “third entity” in relation to civil society and the democratic
state (or political system).
The thesis is that in a historical framework characterised by an increasing differentiation of the social and cultural spheres, with their respective symbolic codes,
religion re-distinguishes itself as a latent sphere which seeks to contribute – certainly
not without conflicts and frictions – to the construction of an ethically qualified public sphere in opposition to the increasingly secularised and privatised public sphere.
This latter is now being spread by the purely functionalistic processes of globalisation. Religion, in the concrete expressions of the various religious communities, redefines the public sphere (i.e. civil society) and thus calls for a new relationship (or
relational formation) with democracy.
Religion is no longer the field of integrating mediation between civil society and
the political system, but becomes the propulsive impetus behind a “civil society of the
human”. This last on the one hand is opposed to the “civil society of mere market
communication”, and on the other seeks to guarantee the human working of democracy. It challenges the institutional structure of a political system (be it referred to the
state or to a supranational political community) which increasingly works as a mere
function of a globalised market which depersonalises and commodifies daily life.
The Question: Can Religion (and Religious Communities) be a Field
of Encounter between the State and Civil Society?
1.1. The subject of the relationship between religion and democracy is notoriously one of extreme complexity.1 In history there have
been democracies which have arisen and have drawn nourishment
from a religious input, and there have been democracies which have
fought religion. Some democracies have favoured one religion alone,
and other democracies have been opposed to all religions. It is more
difficult to find democracies which have tolerated or had a positive
approach towards different religions and promoted harmonious relations between them.
In reality, ever since the very idea itself was born of democracy as a
system of government based upon a separation between the religious
and political powers, the relationship between religion and the state
has always been one of conflict. It would take too much time here to
outline history from ancient times to modern times. Modern European
This complexity is to be found first and foremost in the many and various ways of defining
religion and democracy. In this paper I use the following general definitions. By “religion”
I mean a message of faith which brings with it a vision – or a system of beliefs – about the
meaning and ultimate destiny of human existence which has a revealed supernatural character and confers a transcendental and not merely sacred meaning (and thus described in a
specific sense as “religious”, which imply not only an attitude of great respect and/or reverence to sacred ‘things’ but also a relation with a transcendent God) on the daily life (actions
and events) of people and their social relationships. Throughout the paper, where not otherwise specified, I will refer mainly to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions. By “democracy” I mean a political settlement made up of : i) a form of government of the people
by the people achieved through the maximum participation of the citizens in public life; in
modernity this participation is achieved through representative and/or direct institutions,
with rules about decision-making based upon the majority principle; and (ii) institutions
which recognise and uphold the set of the rights and duties of the citizenry.
history, as is well known, arose precisely in response to lacerating conflicts between political and religious authorities within Christendom,
and in particular it was seen as a solution to the wars of religion. Modern political democracy took the form of an answer to the conflicts
between different religious denominations which aspired to political
power for themselves.
At the beginning of modernity (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) attempts to make the state once again subject to the power of
religion, or in contrary fashion to make religion once again subject to
the power of the state, still prevailed. However, with the English revolutions there also emerged the idea of liberal democracy, an idea which
sought to obtain a settlement between religion and the political power
through the separation of their respective spheres and the provision of
guarantees in favour of a certain pluralism within both spheres. But
with the French Enlightenment (the eighteenth century) modern society underwent another major change. It saw and treated transcendental
religion as an obstacle to democracy. In order to overcome this obstacle
of transcendental religion, which the Enlightenment held to be mere
superstition, modernity adopted two types of strategies.
By the first type of strategies it forced religion to adapt itself to the
political symbolic code of democratisation, that is to say it saw and treated religion in relation to that code (nothing of a religious character was
accepted within the public sphere unless it subjected itself to the criteria
of democratic political procedures). By the second type of strategies it
conceded autonomy to religion but relegated it to the purely private sphere
and separated it from the political sphere. The first trend was prevalent
in Europe (the “European model”) and the second held sway in the
United States of America (the “American model”). In the modern approach the political power must immunise itself against religion because
the latter is a transcendental force. It does this in two ways.
(I) In the European model, which was born with the French Revolution and then powerfully synthesised in the Hegelian view of history, religion is incorporated into the immanent Spirit which directs the
evolution of society. Here religion appears as one of the subjective and
objective forces which must find their “realisation” (Hegel’s Bewahrheiten as Aufhebung) in the state.
(II) In the American model, which was born in the New World and
began with the Pilgrim Fathers, religion is seen as an autonomous basis
of society but is conceived as a search for individual happiness. For this
reason, in order to avoid one conception prevailing over another, it is
detached from the political power and the sphere of action of the state
by a net separation between the two spheres. This is done specifically so
as not to fall into a hegemony of one religious vision over others.
These models are still dominant. But the transformations which have
taken place in their character have reached the point that they have
become obsolete.
In the European model, after being subject to the rule of the state,
religion was placed at the margins of society because of the idea that
democracy must be based upon a public sphere which should be indifferent to the religious choices of individuals. Religious choices are considered legitimate but seen as relevant only within the private sphere.
Possible agreements (“concordats”) between the state and religious
communities have to be made on the basis of the political code of the
state which, obviously enough, perceives only the external (institutional) aspects of religions. It has to treat them at the level of equality in the
upholding of religious rights which are seen as pure and simple civil
rights (the freedom to practice and express one’s own beliefs within the
limits defined by the state). Religious activity can only survive as a private fact which takes place, however, within a statal vision of private
In the American model, as I have already observed, the range of
freedom has always been, and still is, very wide. Today, the United
States seems to be the most significant and instructive example of the
rather rare instance of a multi-religious society. Indeed, upon this image the USA legitimises itself as being an example of “paradigmatic”
democracy for the whole world. But is such really the case? Many are
doubtful on this point because although it is true that the democracy of
the United States was born on the basis of certain fundamental religious values and upon assumptions about tolerance towards every type
of religion, it is also true that the North-American democratic political
system has never had a real religious foundation. If anything, that foundation has been of the Enlightenment type. But whatever the case may
be, democracy in the USA has also gradually become secularised, and
this to the point that at the present time religion no longer plays a
fundamental role within the public sphere. From a contemporary perspective, the melting pot of religions protected in and by
North-American democracy is no different from that promoted in the
imperial Rome of ancient times. That this empire should appear to be
as strong and secure as ever before should not suprise us, but there are
those who believe that this is a giant with feet of clay. Whatever the
truth of the matter, we have before us the evidence that the relationship between religion and democracy which has been typical of modernity is no longer tenable.
In both the European model and the American model, religion has
been able to survive as a privatised sphere. Does this mean that it has
become increasingly irrelevant for the public arena? The theories of the
state (prevalent in Europe) and the theories of the market (prevalent in
America) claim that this is precisely the case. To them religion is an
important element of vivification for society and democracy, but this is
on the condition that religion does not disturb the political power and
functions so to support the economic market.
1.2. In sociological terms, it is interesting to observe that with the
end of the twentieth century the historical trends which have brought
about an increasingly privatised and residual role for religion because
of the effects of democracy have entered into an increasingly profound
state of crisis. In the contemporary Western context, (political) democracy is losing its belief bases and (established) religion is losing its identity. Thus it is that we ask ourselves: how can democracy and religion
develop and evolve (and above all else how can they survive)? What
relationships should they have in order to strengthen each other rather
than erode each other?
The field of possibilities is a very large one. In order to understand
the possible historical developments, we need a relational framework
endowed with a very high complexity, at least so much complexity as
modernity has created through an increasing separation (differentiation) between religion and democracy.
From a sociological point of view, contemporary Western democracy – which presents itself as the model for the modernisation of the
whole planet – is a form of societal organisation based upon the sharpest structural and cultural distinction between religion and the state
that history has ever known. In this system religion seems to have an
increasingly diminishing qualification to intervene in the public sphere.
In Europe religion is openly opposed by the political power of the
state. In North America it is entrusted to the market where it becomes
a mere article of consumption. These forms of distancing between religion and (political and economic) democracy are sources of crisis for
both – in moving apart religion and democracy lose their mutual synergy. The two terms should be coupled (related) together in a meaningful
way, but it is exactly the symbolic systems of relational meaning which
fail to perform.This is why one can no longer speak – as has hitherto
been the case – of religion as a field of positive encounter between the
state and civil society in the way that it was spoken about in the two
models of the past, the European and American models – or rather, to
put it more specifically, in the models of F.Hegel and Tocqueville.
In today’s world, religion must reverse the attitude which characterised it during the first phase of modernity when it should have upheld
and defended its own “private” rights against the hegemony of the
political power. Religion is concerned with the complex of rights of
citizenship not so much in order to privatise civil, human, and social
rights but more to examine and to “publicise” such rights (in the sense
of illuminating and providing a positive appreciation of their public
contents). In this endeavour, religion is characterised in a new way within
its own boundaries by religious movements which act as the typically
modern movements have acted and continue to act on the one hand,
and by post-modern movements which seek an exit from the constraints
of modernity on the other. Although it remains a specific realm of the
political system (the state), religion is differentiated within its own boundaries by trends towards the further privatisation (individualisation) of
faith on the one hand, and by trends which do not abandon the role of
religion as a (public) builder of social institutions which require a recognition of their own (public) status within the complex of citizenship
on the other.
A series of structural and cultural changes at a worldwide level have
meant that religion – in the concrete expressions of the various religious communities – now has a societal role which is completely new:
religion claims greater relevance for itself in relation to the public sphere
and thus calls for a new relationship with democracy understood as
both a form of government and a structure of institutions which safeguard the rights of citizenship. There seems to be an increasing room
for autonomous initiatives taken by religions i order to create together
a new culture of democracy as an associational configuration opposed
to those lib/lab arrangements which we have inherited by Western
modernity (P. Donati 2000, chapters V and VI).
This paper analyses from a sociological point of view the past structures and present-day scenarios in and on which religion is a “third
entity” in relation to civil society and the democratic state (or political
My thesis is that in a framework characterised by a growing differentiation of the social and cultural spheres, with their symbolic codes,
religion is reorganising itself as a latent sphere which contributes (albeit
not without conflicts and frictions) to the construction of an ethically
qualified public sphere which is in opposition to the alienation spread
by the purely functionalistic process of globalisation which rests upon
an increasingly secularised and privatised public sphere. This is the
contribution which religion can make to the renewal of a form of democracy which has lost its foundations at the level of values.
Whether examined in the transcendental forms of the three great
world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), or in the immanent forms
of modernity (the Goddess Reason, the Hegelian Spirit, or others), reli-
gion is no longer the field of integrating mediation between civil society
and the political system. Religion, indeed, can no longer be confined,
as modernity would like it to be, within the historical space of the
balances, agreements, and negotiations between religious institutions
and political institutions. It is, rather, becoming once again a latent and
transcendental factor. In concrete terms, it is becoming the propulsive
impulse behind a “civil society of the human” which on the one hand
is opposed to the “civil society of mere market communication” and on
the other challenges the institutional structure of a political system (the
state and supranational political communities) which operates exclusively with reference to a globalised market economy which depersonalises and commodifies daily life. Religion itself is redefining itself and
is acquiring a new relevance as the spiritual qualification of that process of civilisation which is in opposition to the growing dehumanisation
of cultural, economic and social life at a worldwide level. In this way it
takes on the goal of guaranteeing and upholding the human face of
democracy. But it must also, in its turn, decide whether to pursue this
goal through further privatisation or make itself the subject of a new
public sphere (without excluding processes of privatistic re-entry).
1.3. In this sociological contribution I proceed in the following way.
First of all I ask myself the following question: is religion an obstacle to, or a prerequisite of, democracy? This involves understanding in
which sense religion is one and/or the other. As we will see, there is no
univocal answer to this question. Religion can be both, and this is because it is intrinsically ambivalent towards every particular historical
configuration (or system of structures) (§. 2).
What is required, therefore, is an analysis of the concrete societal
configurations which have existed in the recent past and are still in
force in order to understand which relational “logic” is now emerging
in the trade-offs between democracy and religion. As we will see, we
have before us processes of uneven differentiation which involve enormous problems of mutual relationship formation (§. 3).
In order to face up to the future it is now opportune to define the
scenarios which we have before us and to define the basic dilemmas
which arise. I would like to advance the point of view that on the
scenario of the processes of globalisation which are destined to spread
during the twenty-first century, the central dilemma is that of how to
define a new public sphere in which religion and democracy can encounter each other in terms of a dialogue which opts in favour of a
relational co-existence between the various civilisations rather than subjecting them to the domination of commercial technology. In my opinion, to put it bluntly, one must choose between a public sphere dominated by further commercial standardisation, which will be even more
alienating than it is today, and a “religiously qualified” public sphere in
which democracy takes the form of government which is subsidiary to
a civil society nourished by the flowering of religious communities which
have a shared interest, and even a shared identity, in avoiding the end
of every form of humanism (§. 4).
In the conclusion of this paper I would like to further clarify this
approach, which seeks to build a “democracy friendly to religion” within
what I call the “society of the human” (§. 5).
2. The Relevance of Religion for Political Democracy: is Religion an
Obstacle to, or a Prerequisite of, Democracy?
2.1. From a theoretical point of view, modernity begins with a
fundamental question: is religion an obstacle to, or a prerequisite of,
democracy? In what sense and in what ways is it (or can it be) one or
the other?
The modern theory proceeds as follows: if religion is an obstacle to
democracy it must be kept out through active neutrality (marginalisation) or passive neutrality (in-difference). If it is a prerequisite, that is
to say that democracy needs religion, one needs to see if religion has
specific functions or instead is supra-functional (that is to say whether
it has determined or precise functions or whether it is a necessary presuppostion which cannot be limited to a small and limited number of
functions). There are, indeed, democracies which are supported by
functional religions, and other democracies which are supported by
supra-functional religions. But whatever the case may be it remains to
be seen which religion has the qualifications and is entitled to act as a
functional or supra-functional prerequisite of democracy, and how this
bears upon the quality of democracy.
In theory many “modernities” are possible depending upon the
answers the various societies give to these questions. This is true not
only of today’s world. Indeed, although it is true that the processes of
modernisation create during the course of their action “multiple modernities” (S. N. Eisenstadt, 1997), it is also true that precisely at the
very origins of what we call modernity we find different conceptions of
the relationship between religion and democracy. However much this
history has been under-studied and little remembered, it remains a fact
that from the thirteenth to the fourteenth centuries societies dominated
by religions, whether by Catholicism, by Judaism and even by Islam,
gave rise to currents of thought and social actors which worked in favour of various models of modernity and in particular of different models
of relations between religion and democracy. There was a plurality of
ideas about civil society and the relations between civil society and the
state (or the political-administrative system), even though only a few of
the solutions which were proposed were to triumph.
R. Collins (1992) has advanced certain important historical-sociological theses in convincing fashion. First of all, he demonstrates that it
is not in the least true that political democracy in the West was born in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in a state of opposition to religion. Instead, Western democracy is only conceivable on the basis of its
Christian religious presuppositions. Secondly, he demonstrates that it is
not in the least true that religion during the eighteenth, nineteenth and
twentieth centuries was an obstacle to democracy, as positivistic thought
has accustomed us to think. On the contrary, religion gave fundamental impulses to democracy. He also proposes the thesis that Catholicism
was much more decisive in the construction of the modern democratic
system than Protestantism.
R. Collins supports his theses with an abundance of historical references and evidence. To these we could add many others, such as those
proposed by the recent studies of G. Maddox (1996) on Anglo-Saxon
countries, or more specific inquiries such as those which demonstrate
the support of the so-called democratic Catholics for the construction
of the French democracy of a Jacobin character (V.E. Giuntella, 1990).
Furthermore, there is also the historical evidence on the contributions
made by Catholic thought to the construction of modern Western democracy (G. Campanini, 1980). But it is not appropriate to dwell here
upon this long history.
What I would like to emphasise is the fact that religion shows itself
to be a positive factor in the development of democracy if, to the extent to which, and when, it is able to develop a specific civil society: a)
in which there is a differentiation between the political power and the
religious power, and b) where religion has the opportunity to influence
the political system through its initiatives in the public plural sphere.
The Western prototype is described by de Tocqueville in Democracy in
America. In contrary fashion, O. Kharkhordin (1998) demonstrates that
the Eastern countries of the Orthodox Christian world (and Russia in
particular) are not able to achieve democratic forms because they have
a prevailing communitarianistic conception of civil society which does
not allow that differentiation of spheres and that (secular) political pluralism upon which a democratic system grows. In the middle, between
the West and the East, there seems to be the Catholic religion which
mixes together Western and Eastern characteristics. The formula of
“communitarian personalism” (E. Mounier, J. Maritain) expresses this
singluar combination of promotion of the individual as a person and at
the same time of the bonds of community.
However, during the course of European history over the last two
centuries the Enlightenment version of the relationship between religion and democracy has triumphed. This version only provisionally
accepts religion as a temporary auxiliary instrument in the emancipation of humanity. Enlightenment thought thinks that once emancipated, humankind (and with it democracy) will no longer have need of
religion. In America things have not developed differently. Although
American rhetoric loves to bestow a position of importance on religion,
seeing it as a permanent source of spiritual nourishment for human
history and democracy, it is also true that in the USA a “civil religion”
has evolved which has had consequences which are not very different
from those which have been witnessed in the European democracies.
2.2. Enlightenment modernity, as a “contingency formula” which
triumphed from amongst the various possible forms of modernity (N.
Luhmann, 1992), has accustomed us to think in terms of dualistic oppositions.
On the basis of this modernity, religion is described as extrinsic – if
not refractory and contrary because of its dogmatic contents
(N.Luhmann, 1984) – to democracy. Democracy is understood as an
escape/exit from religion: “sortie de la religion” to say it with M. Gauchet (1998), who prefers this expression to those of “secularisation”
and “laïcisation”, meaning that democracy becomes an instrument for
absolute politics (“sortie de la religion ne signifie pas sortie de la croyance religieuse, mais sortie d’un monde où la religion est structurante,
où elle commande la forme politique des sociétés et où elle définit
l’économie du lien social”, ibid. p. 11). The symbolic codes of religion
and democracy are understood as two opposed ideal types. Religion
means: non-rational faith or belief; (traditional or affective) choice in
terms of values; a charismatic character; and partisan or “coloured”
ethics. Democracy, on the other hand, means: instrumental rationality;
individual choice; a procedural character; neutral ethics or indifference
towards presuppositions in terms of values. The distinction between
religion and democracy works within a symbolic code which thinks in
terms of good/bad and pure/impure. In the eyes of the champions of
the Enlightenment, democracy is supposed to be a system of good and
pure thought, whereas religion plays the part of a system of beliefs
which must show that it is not bad and impure.
In Europe this model was brought to the point where the nation-state
came to take the place of the Church. The process of the construction
of the European Union as an economic and political entity (and thus
indifferent towards its religious presuppositions) has not changed, indeed it has accentuated, these features.
In North America, in different fashion, the model was moderated
through the idea of a net separation between religion (church) and the
state. In this way the state (the democratic system) was immunised
against religion without having to try to bring it within its own realm,
as in contrary fashion took place in Europe.
However things may have developed, Western modernity today
continues to see religion as a merely private affair which becomes relevant for democracy only when it exercises an influence on the public
sphere. It is at that moment that one must decide if, and how, to deal
with it politically. Both when the policy is simply to confine it to the
private, as mostly happens in America, or to regulate it so that it functions in accordance with the democratic political project, as mostly
happens in Europe, the outcome is the same: religion is separated off
from the public sphere as an element which disturbs it and it can be
admitted only after receiving suitable democratic treatment.
This model (or value pattern) of modernity, which is dominant in
the contemporary West, raises two major categories of questions.
Firstly, if religion is confined to the private what contribution can it
make to democracy? Very little, it would appear. The contribution made
by religion must be restricted to the sound upbringing of persons and
where possible to a socialising control of their life-worlds. But this does
not take place without democracy always being suspicious about the
kind of upbringing which is given and which kind of control is effected. Indeed, democracy introduces itself progressively into the socialising processes and introduces into them its principles of ethical neutrality. This has the result that today the rhetoric of religion as a contribution to the civic sense of citizens, which was dominant throughout the
Victorian nineteenth century and during the first half of the twentieth,
has to be consigned to the rubbish heap. All in all, the public sphere
turns out to be naked in terms of values and thus becomes a terrain of
quicksands which are very dangerous for democracy itself (R.J. Neuhaus, 1986).
Secondly, can a democracy conceived as meaning the privatisation
of religion be received in a positive sense by those non-Western cul-
tures (or peoples) for whom religion is a public fact? The modernity to
which reference is being made loves to demonstrate that non-Western
cultures are engaged in a process of increasing privatisation. The case of
Japan is emblematic of this (M. Sasaki, 1999). But what has happened in
Japan is not different from what has taken place in nearly all those countries which are following the path of Western modernisation, including
Africa and South America (M. Sasaki and S. Tatsuzo, 1987). Any different path is here understood as a lag, delay or deviation.
In short, Western modernisation ends up by seeing religion as a
functional element specially directed towards dealing with the undetermined, that is to say what remains indescribable, “appresented” (appresentiert),2 and inexpressible (it is to be found in the environment of the
system, to employ the language of systems theory). At the same time,
because this modernity believes that everything can have equivalent
functions, in it religion becomes a system of beliefs which can be substituted by something which it is thought can have the same purpose.
Thus there is a search for functional equivalents such as aesthetics or
the esoteric, phenomena which obviously enough do not provide the
hoped for answers. But things do not stop there: given that democracy
is not qualified to choose which religion (or religions) are most congruous (or functional) to it, it ends up by not choosing any religion at all.
It does not choose, in the end, even from among its own “religions”,
that is to say from the modern ideologies which have been proposed as
substitutes for revealed religion – the liberal, socialist or Enlightenment
ideologies, whether in their strong or weak forms. As such, democracy
is simply without faith, without trust, and without a belief in any values
which are not merely instrumental and procedural. It must always make
resort to the trust or social capital of civil society. But the fact is that
given the present condition of Western countries, democracy finds that
it has powerfully devitalised civil society, and this to the point of having
to recognise that the public sphere is now “dead” (R. Sennet, 1977).
Appresentiert is the word used by E. Husserl, and generalized by N. Luhmann (1977) to
mean what cannot be seen directly and therefore remains unvisibile and at the same time
undetermined, i.e. “unable to be represented in so far as it is the other side of the moon”.
2.3. The relationship between religion and democracy as defined
by Western democracy appears to be in an increasingly critical condition, both with regard to its own internal developments and in situations where it has been exported to non-Western contexts. This is true
of both the European and the American models.
(i) In Western modernity the relationship between religion and democracy has plunged into a paradox. Politics cannot do without religion but the theories and practice of democracy still (indeed increasingly) tend to separate the political and religious spheres. The illusion
that democracy can control the thought of its citizens has been revealed to be an illusion (N. Chomsky, 1989). Religion can no longer be
seen as being on a higher level than politics, but the converse is also
true. What are the alternatives? Or to put it another way: what relational schema should be adopted? Western modernity does not have
solutions of a specifically relational character because it is based upon
systems of thought and social practices which systematically seek to
immunise themselves against relations (R. Esposito, 1998).
(ii) When the arrangements of Western society are exported to other socio-cultural contexts, to other “civilisations”, they generate enormous kinds of problems. These arrangements, indeed, delegitimise the
religious foundations of each democracy and secularise its forms and
contents, thereby producing anti-Western reactions in an increasing
number of national and regional contexts. Although there can be processes of convergence and consent in relation to Western-style arrangements, in empirical terms there more prevail forms of latent or masked
contestation, when, that is, such reactions are not openly violent and
aggressive in character.
The relationship between religion and democracy proposed by
modernity provokes contradictions which people do not know how to
overcome. The fact is that modernity postulates a certain equilibrium
between the civil sphere and the political sphere which is to be achieved
through the mediation of a civil religion. But modernity itself helps to
upset this balance in a progressive way, although in a form whose speed
or unevenness varies according to circumstance.
In Europe, the crisis of the modern forms of equilibrium has coincided with the fall of idealistic thought which made a certain civil religion (the bourgeois-socialist civil religion) the cement of the Spirit. This
Spirit acts by means of theses and antitheses which are able to achieve
the forward movement of history.
In America, the crisis expresses itself in the practical distancing of
the paradigm (the myth of origins) which was originally espoused by A.
de Tocqueville and then reformulated by T. Parsons. These authors see
religion as the basis of a cultural system of “adaptive up-grading” which
makes a “societal community” possible. This community, in their opinion, ensures that individual religious communities reproduce a shared
creed (the American creed) and thus socialise individuals into a determined balanced separation between political democracy and religion
(T. Parsons, 1967, 1994). But the sleight of hand of the internalisation
of values shared by all citizens (both “American” and “Americanised”)
which overcomes their particular religious differences presupposes the
existence of the power of a religion which is the agency of an effective
socialisation which makes them internalise. Today the ability to be effective of this power is growing weaker day by day precisely because of
the backlash effects of democracy. As a system of thought and living, in
addition to being a political regime, democracy exalts the emotional
and private aspects of life and thus limits and undermines the meaning
of religion understood as a well-source of public life.
Both the European (idealistic and derivative) paradigms and the
American (Tocquevillian and Parsonian) paradigms emerge today as
being no longer tenable. The principal problems spring from external
pressures which culture applies to democracy seen as a political system,
both within Western societies and within non-Western societies. The
Enlightenment formula must once again come to terms with the “other
modernities”, both inside and outside the confines of the West.
The reformulation of the Western ways of defining the relations
between democracy and religion follows two distinct paths: we can call
them the path of impersonality and the path of the search for the common good. Their failure gives rise to another path - the path of plurali-
sation. But, within the context of modern relativism, this third path
cannot find any plausible outlets.
a) Regarding the first path, this defines democracy as a political
system which guarantees everybody an impersonal, anonymous, procedural sphere where each individual is free to pursue his or her own
ends without disturbing other people. Politics thereby becomes a system for securing binding collective decisions which are indifferent to
the various religious communities. These last co-exist in a multi-cultural
and pluri-ethical space in which they ask only to be recognised with
regard to the legitimacy of their values and particular interests. Politics
then refers to a public sphere as a depersonalised place where each
person is allowed to do what is legitimate according to his or her opportunities and on the sole condition that he or she does not damage
the equal opportunities of other individuals. In this path, religion is
defined as any system of beliefs and practices which are based upon a
group (“tribe”) which seeks such a definition for itself independently
of any possible tradition. Religion then becomes a new form of paganism, something which is now evident in both Europe and America (M.
Maffesoli, 1989; L. Tomasi ed., 1999).
b) Regarding the second path, this defines democracy as a political
system that pursues the common good, that is to say that it defines the
public sphere as a community of discourse between social groups (including religious groups) which should be directed towards the same
common good. In this approach, religion is defined as a system of faith
which must gain credit on the basis of certain fundamental ethical requisites, and these must find recognition in the political community which
has the task of pursuing the common good.
c) The theory of pluralisation of the social spheres elaborated by M.
Walzer (1983) has had a certain success because it grasped the failures
of both the first and the second approaches, and brought out the difficulties involved in following both. As a solution, Walzer proposes a
sort of “third way” distant from both anonymous democracy and ethical democracy committed to the common good and which is to be
achieved through a recognition of the fact that each social sphere (including every religion) has its own contextual (“local”) code of justice.
This sphere should practise a democracy seen as a way of regulating
the pluralisation of spheres which are in themselves auto-normative,
including the religious spheres, based upon their own code of what is
just. Walzer, however, does not say how these spheres can avoid colliding into each other when they act within the shared public sphere. In
order to avoid coming into conflict, they would have to respect certain
shared equitative criteria. That is to say that democracy would have to
recognise a qualified pluralisation of religious spheres which converge
on universalistic criteria when public interactions are involved. But the
theory of pluralism à la Walzer does not offer any kind of solution
along these lines. Indeed, it reproposes the same dilemma which renders
impossible a choice between the other two paths – how can a democratic political system establish equitative criteria which are valid for,
and shared by, all religious groups in the public sphere?
2.4. From these brief observations, based upon accessible historical and sociological research, we can draw certain conclusions.
First, religion from certain points of view is an obstacle to, and
from others is a prerequisite of, democracy. On balance, it is
“ambi-valent”. The conditions in which it expresses itself in one way or
another must be seen in their respective historical contexts.
Second, the question of the relationship between religion and democracy cannot be dealt with in terms of relational co-existence within
contemporary Western modernity in so far as the modernity to which
reference is made loses a sense of the transcendent, engages in a process of secularisation and no longer perceives the relations between democracy and its presuppositions at the level of transcendental values.
Third, the evolution of the modern world nonetheless displays a
trend by which religion, from being an obstacle to democracy, becomes
a complex and necessary presupposition of democracy, even though it
is potentially always ambivalent.
It is in this framework that one speaks about “other” modernities.
But how should they be seen? Obviously enough, here we are dealing
with a question of understanding. Modernity cannot be understood as
a formula which is good for all uses. The thesis according to which
today all societies and all cultures, including those which are
post-modern, cannot be anything else than a variant on modernity (as
S.E. Eisenstadt argues) is an empty thesis.
The hypothesis that I would like to explore is the following: one
can speak about other modernities which are sensitive to religion, and
indeed to such an extent as to require the contribution of religion in
order to cement the public sphere, if, and only if, certain presuppositions of modernity are abandoned and certain others are maintained.
This discontinuity must be found where modernity cannot solve within
itself the observation of religion as a source of social life, and thus must
necessarily make way for an after-modernity in which the symbolic code
of democracy and of religion do not mutually exclude one another.
The question moves onto the terrain of the competition between
the competing conceptions of civil society which sustain social (cultural
and normative) orders which are in conflict. But at the same time we
need to be careful not to reduce religion to particular groups (lobbies
and groups of influence) to be found in the public arena: religions
conserve a view of the whole because they aspire to universalism and
project their own values onto the whole of society.
2.5. In contemporary historical conditions the subject of the relationship between democracy and religion has become increasingly complex because of the impact of certain major sets of factors.
i) First of all, there is the fact that the two terms themselves appear to be increasingly contingent: ways of defining religion and democracy appear which are not only many in number but also have
greater internal variance. Generalisations can be formulated but these
necessarily have many limitations. However useful they may be, generalisations imply in turn further problems in the definition of the concepts and symbols to which they refer. Contemporary consciousness
emphasises the possibility of contingency of each defining term (or symbol) and their different relationships. The vision of their (cooperative
or conflictual, mutually synergising or erosive) relationship often depends upon how the two terms of democracy and religion are actually
defined. Usually the vision of one term by the other tends to be selective and discriminatory in its stance. Democracy sees those aspects of
religion which are most convenient to it, and vice versa religion sees in
democracy only that which interests it.
ii) Secondly, the historical events of the past (wars of religion, struggles for power between the state and the Church, etc.) act to influence
public opinion and theories of the present more than one would believe. This occurs through a kind of still persistent unconscious or collective imagination. In many countries religion is still thought of as a
challenge to democracy, both in the sense that it impedes the establishment of forms of democratic government (the case of countries where
fundamentalism predominates, for example Islamic fundamentalism,
or where orthodoxy is at the service of nationalistic regimes, as occurs
in the Balkans), and in the sense that religion is not satisfied with the
proposal of a Western democratic system based upon the market but
asks for more substantial democracy (this is what happens in many
countries in Latin America and in the Far East).
iii) Thirdly, it is increasingly evident that the two terms are incommensurable. The concept of democracy which is usually employed refers to a typically modern and Western political structure, whereas religion represents the ultimate values of culture and has a universal claim
in space and time.
If we can make religion and democracy draw near, be compared
and be related to each other, this is only because both are interested in
how the public sphere is defined and organised. And thus their dialogue is identified, circumscribed and mediated by such an interest.
In order to address this subject we need to develop a theory of the
relations between religion and democracy which is of a sufficient level
to match the complexity implicit in each context of discourse. Every
society, within its own contours, has made, and continues to engage in,
special selections from all those that are possible. And we must see
which selections are the most suited to solving the paradoxes and dilemmas of a modernity – that is to say Western modernity – which has
ended up by producing a “meaningless” relationship between religion
and democracy.
2.6. Within Western modernity the question whether religion is an
obstacle or a prerequisite loses meaning simply because the relationship
between religion and democracy is no longer perceived. Every alternative
form of thought must rethink the relationship between religion and democracy and take into account the fact (a) that the contingency of the
terms which must be related to each other is growing; (b) that “local”
cultural traditions not only persist but are created anew, and that these
“reduce” (in a systemic sense) this relationship in very special selective
ways which are at times drastically reductionist; and (c) that, on the other
hand, there is an emerging need to maintain the confrontation between
the two terms on distinct and multidimensional levels.
Which religion for which democracy? On this terrain is to be located the competition between religions which express different projects
in relation to society and the state. It is interesting to observe that Catholic social doctrine as it has been developed during the course of the
twentieth century has stood forth as a system of thought which, in a
totally different way from other such systems, (i) raises the question of
the meaning of religion for democracy and (ii) offers meaning selections, in the management of the relationships between religion and
democracy, which are the most articulated and complex among those
available. In twentieth-century Catholic social doctrine, religion is presented as a prerequisite of democracy which is at the same time distinct
from, and supra-functional in relation to, democracy.
We need to explore at a detailed and profound level the very special
way in which the social doctrine of the Catholic Church raises the question of the relevance and the consequences of religion for democracy.
If there is a distinctiveness in the “Catholic” way of addressing the
question of the relationship between religion and democracy, that distinctiveness is based upon the fact that the Catholic position lays great
emphasis upon avoiding both the privatisation (secularisation) and the
radicalisation (fundamentalism) of the possible solutions to the problem
of how to relate these two realities. This position is singularly unique
and autonomous when compared to the other religions. This is borne
out by the whole of Catholic thought of the twentieth century (G. Campanini, 1980), which expresses a theory of democracy as a development
of human rights (P. Donati 1992, 1997); as constant concern with the
common service which religion and democracy must render to the human person (M. Schooyans, 1998); and as awareness that religion itself
(indeed every religion), in the way it moulds an appropriate democratisation of society, is deciding whether it has a future on this earth
(H.K. Zacher ed., 1998, 1999).
Catholic semantics answers the cultural and structural questions
raised by contemporary so-called democratic societies by affirming that:
(a) religion is an obstacle to democracy if by democracy is meant a
political system without a cultural identity. Democracy must recognise
cultural identities. It cannot be culturally neutral but must instead be
committed to nourishing respect for cultural identities; (b) religion is a
prerequisite of democracy if by democracy is meant a political system
which respects cultural identities along the lines of subsidiarity and
does not colonise them or invade them – something which involves the
risk that they will be eroded to the point that they produce the opposite of democracy.
In this way, the Catholic position expresses a point of view which is
both well-balanced and universalistic: it is balanced in so far as it avoids
the extreme poles of privatised or privatising alternatives, and, vice versa,
fundamentalist alternatives; it is universalistic to the extent that it proclaims the necessity to struggle for the promotion of fundamental human
rights (the dignity of the human being, the principles of equality, freedom and solidariety among human persons), and asks other religions to
adopt the criteria of reciprocity and real active mutual respect.
Although Western political democracy no longer seems interested
in the contribution that religion can make, it would be an error to
think, as many people indeed do (including many theologians) that the
salvation of religion is to be found in a policy of becoming self-referring
and autopoietic. Religion cannot fail to ask its questions because it is,
or rather it must be, missionary; it must go towards the Other, it must
concern itself with the whole man and with all men in a non-self-referring
way. The guiding problem, therefore, becomes that of the relationship
between religions, much more than the relationship between individual
religions and the state (or political system).
3. The State, Civil Society and Religion: Old Historical Structures and
New Processes of Differentiation
3.1. In order to address ourselves to this question we must understand how the relationship between religion and democracy changes
with the expansion in the complexity of society. Indeed, the more one
moves from pre-modern society to modern society and then to contemporary (or post-modern) society, the more the distance between the
two terms becomes greater. And with this distance the problems of
mutual observation, comprehension and interchange also increase.
From a theoretical point of view, there are three great models by
which we can relate these realities: (I) in terms of hierarchy; (II) in terms
of functional differentiation; and (III) in terms of societal pluralism.
The first two semantics concern the experiences which we have
encountered up to the present day. The third is in fieri. Let us now
examine them briefly.
(I) The semantics of hierarchy assumes a relationship of superiority and/or inclusion in the relationship between one term and another.
The reciprocal observation is carried out in terms of the power of one
term over another. Understanding is limited to the fact that a term
strives to refer the other to itself. The exchanges are agreements at the
summit of society and are strongly institutionalised. In other words,
there can exist, and indeed there have existed, societies in which religion includes the state (theocratic regimes which are still today to be
found in certain Islamic societies) and societies in which the state has
included religion (we can mention certain historical experiences de-
rived from the thought of Luther and certain Protestant denominations, although these have been on a rather small scale). In Catholicism,
as is well known, theocracy (where the Church includes the state) has
been almost only a temptation during certain historical periods. In the
hierarchical code it is theoretically possible for the state to have a “democratic” form and for religion to be directed towards political democracy, but only on certain conditions which are in general of an exceptional character. The hierarchical code (or of inclusion) has prevailed in
a decisive way in Europe and non-Western countries. Taking everything into account, it has proved itself increasingly unsatisfactory, both
for religion and for democracy.
(II) The semantics of functional differentiation assumes a relationship of distancing between religion and the state based upon the functional specificities of the two terms. These specificities can be elaborated in various ways. The reciprocal observation is carried out by trying
to distinguish continually the functions which can, and must, be performed by each sphere with a minimum of mutual interference. The
reciprocal understanding between religion and democracy is achieved
through competitive interplay. The exchanges involve consensus/conflict between religious communities and the state. This model is notoriously associated with the “American case” in which the most varied
kinds of experience have flourished. The attempt to entrust the mediation between religion and democracy to civil society (the “societal
community”, to employ the terminology of T. Parsons: see J. Alexander
ed., 1998) does not solve the problems which are involved in the achievement of a meaningful integration between religion and democracy. This
is because the society which springs from it tends towards a systemic
separation of religion and politics which in the end defeats itself as a
mode of positive relationship formation (A. Seligman, 1992). But contemporary society, and presumably the society of the future, no longer
has the semantics of the past to hand. It can no longer take advantage
of the semantics of hierarchy because post-modern society is now engaged in a process of denormatisation, nor can it avail itself of the
semantics of functional differentiation because mere functionality is not
able to regulate these relations.
After-modern society (as I call it, meaning what comes after modernity in terms of relative discontinuity with it) must try to look for new
semantics. In sociological terms, semantics must in some way reflect
the emergent tendencies of religion, democracy, and the new forms by
which they relate to each other. These tendencies are increasingly differentiated according to criteria which in part are functional and in
part are of another order (supra-functional).
(III) The semantics of societal (corporate) pluralism sees the relationship between religion and democracy in terms of a differentiation between spheres which have sui generis qualities. Societal pluralism means
the recognition of spheres of justice which have their own symbolic
codes and at the same time know how to relate to each other synergically because they have a shared relational meta-code. Democracy should
be this meta-code, and not so much as an external power imposed on
the subjects (actors and agents) of democracy. In these semantics democracy is not merely procedural and religion is not a mere private
affair. Religion becomes the sphere of vivification of a civil society of
the human which gives substance and motivations to the democratic
procedures. Reciprocal observation is not merely functional but also
supra-functional. The understanding between religion and democracy
takes place through co-operative interplay in the public sphere. The
exchanges between religion and the state become secondary to the primary role of the direct exchanges between religions.
This third form of semantics has weak and strong points. The weak
points are to be found in the fact that it presupposes civil action which
can do without a constrictive political power which makes co-operative
interplay between the different religions obligatory, that is to say that it
can do without the Hobbesian solution of social order.
The strong points are to be found in the fact that in this form of
semantics democracy can make use of a public sphere based upon the
impulses of transcendent values. For this reason, it can be legitimated
in a much stronger way than in the case of a purely procedural democracy related to a public sphere of merely negative or relativistic tolerance.
3.2. In order to understand the move from hierarchical semantics
to those of functional differentiation and then to those which are corporate (in terms of an associational or societal pluralism), we require a
framework which is sufficiently complex to deal with the enormous
relational complexity which is implicit in these developments (see the
relational diagram of figure 1).
Fig. 1 – Spheres and Actors of a Highly Developed (Differentiated) Democratic Societal System.
Democratic Political
External The Market Sphere
Civil Society
(the third sector of
communicative action)
“Visible” Religion
(religious communities, with their
cultural models and institutions)
The transcendental world
This framework must identify the different spheres (with their logics of development) and the relations between such spheres, thereby
demonstrating that these “make society” through processes of differentiation and mutual integration, by outlining interfaces between them
where necessary.
The spheres to which I refer are:
A) the sphere of the economic market, which is increasingly globalised and externally limited only by the conditions of material resources;
G) the democratic political system, which is increasingly influenced
internally by proceduralism. At the same time, however, it cannot but
legitimise itself with reference to values;
I) civil society understood as a place of communicative action and
social bonding (the third sector);
L) the “visible” religions, that is to say the concrete religious communities, with their cultural models and their institutions, which are on
the boundaries of the transcendental world and the source of ultimate
It is interesting to observe: first, that each of these spheres must
integrate with the others without seeking dominion over, or
pre-eminence in relation to, such spheres. This is because each sphere
has its own guiding relations. Second, the institutions of visible religion
are distinct from civil society, whereas throughout modernity they have
been considered as being constituent parts (elements) of civil society
and as elements defined by it.
The relations between these spheres becomes increasingly dynamic
not only because each relation acquires its own dynamic but also because indirect relations are developed between the various spheres (see
fig. 1). Of the very many observations which can be made here, I would
like to limit myself to drawing attention to the following phenomena
(numbers refer to fig. 1):
1-2) The economic market and the state interact in the form of
relationships between globalisation and democracy. The impulses of
the global markets are certainly stronger than what it is possible to
achieve at the level of democratic direction and control. In response to
these processes, the democratic political system can only be emptied,
or enter into crisis, or merely adapt itself to globalisation, unless it takes
the step of resorting to religion and/or civil society to combat the phenomena of commercialisation and depersonalisation brought about by
3-4) The political system and civil society interact in the form of a
democracy which must be sensitive to the culture and the peculiar normative character of a third sector (made up of associations of the social
private world) directed by the communicative action and the positive
appreciation of social bonds.
5-6) But this can only be done if the political system can observe
religion and recognise it, interacting with it on the basis of mutual agreement, however much this last is negotiated or marked by conflict.
7-8) Only if and when democracy recognises religion as something relevant to it, can religion interact autonomously with civil society. This interaction is necessary if one wants religion to be able to supply motivations to the communicative action of the third sector. But
the converse meaning of the relationship also exists, that is to say that
civil society must introduce civil dialogue into every religion. The democratic principle requires that every organised religion open up its own
internal public sphere (in line with the principle of civil association)3
and on such a basis enters into civil society in which it will find other
civil associations which belong to other organised religions, as well as
encountering the presence of non-religious actors.
9-10) The economic market and religion interact in the form of a
confrontation between instrumental action and action directed towards
value. That this relationship is not conflated but played out through
continual re-distinctions (re-entries according to the Luhmannian terminology), depends upon the fact that it is seen as a relationship proper rather than a dilemma-like or binary opposition.
11-12) The economic market and civil society interact with each
other in the form of an alternative between globalisation and “local”
communicative action. The way in which these terms are articulated
depends on whether the economic market and civil society appeal to
the state or to religion.
As I have already observed, the relations between the four spheres
are made more complex by the fact that in a system which is highly
differentiated indirect relations enter into play. For example, religion
can influence politics (and the polity) through the market, or, vice versa, it can also influence the market through politics.
As regards the Catholic Church, see the volume edited by the “Associazione Canonistica
Italiana” (1999).
This set of direct and indirect relationships is (constitutes, makes)
the new public sphere of the post-modern world. The question which
presents itself is the following: can such a sphere be religiously qualified in the sense that the (individual and collective) subjects which act
within it, and the cultural standards with which they themselves work,
are positively recognised and promoted because of their religious connotations ?
Most scholars believe that this is not really possible. The principal
motive behind their negative answer to this question is to be found in
the fact that the public sphere becomes too complex to be able to be
sensitive to criteria of special recognition and behaviour, in addition
to the fact that democracy cannot accept possible violations of the
human rights within specific religious groups. This argument has much
to be said for it. But on the other hand its limitations can be seen
when it maintains that, to the extent that society becomes more complex, each domain and each actor should make themselves less sensitive to religious connotations because these latter imply ties, restrictions, and bonds which are disfunctional when it comes to the mobility, the readiness to change, and the communicative flows of a public
sphere which must be able to influence each private domain. The
argument according to which democracy cannot do otherwise than
become fixed on liberal tolerance (conceived as mutual indifference
between the various religious connotations) is dangerous, in addition
to being at variance with the facts. It is precisely thinking about, and
acting at a practical level in relation to, the public sphere in abstract
terms – that is to say as an interaction between depersonalised individuals – which creates problems. This is because subjects deprived
of their religious qualities also come to lose the deep meaning of their
own action. They become incapable of managing the complexity of a
system which must instead maintain a high level of differentiation.
Intolerance and fundamentalism are precisely two of these outcomes,
which are fostered by an incapacity to sustain a culture of distinction.
Under many aspects, these outcomes are a direct product of modern
liberal culture, not just a reaction to it brought about by premodern
traditional cultures. What needs to be done, therefore, is to explore
whether there are other possible solutions.
3.3. To understand the framework of possibilities which exist one
must first and foremost observe that we have available to us three
ideal-type ways of seeing and organising the relationship between religion and the state, which are also ways of mediating the social relations
which are generalised by religion (see fig. 2).
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
(a) Ancient Societies: Religion as the Cement (Strong Mediation) of a “Political” (Holistic) Society
State Å Religion (mediating structures made up of religious communities) Æ Society
(b) Modern Society: The Differentiation of Spheres
Religion (church)
State (democracy)
Civil Society
(includes “A” and “I” of diagram c below)
(c) Post-Modern Societies: Relational Complexity
The Political System
The Social Private World
(civil society
of the human)
(a) In ancient societies religion is the cement of a society and coincides with its “political” organisation (in the analytical sociological
sense). The religious community organises structures which are the
natural place to mediate between the political function and daily life of
the population. The mediation provided by religion is almost undisputed and usually every political community is also an ethnic community
with a recognised prevalent religion. A large part of the world, especially in the Asiatic and African regions, is still organised in this way.
(b) In modern societies religion detaches itself and is detached
both from political society (the state) and from civil society (which includes the economic market and spheres of social solidarity – what we
today call the third sector). Here the cement provided by religion is
taken for granted by the other spheres. Indeed, early modernity still
works by basing itself upon the traditional values of previous social
formation (the Scottish moralists, John Locke and very many others
take it for granted that there are natural ethical values and these are
naturaliter Christian in character). Modernity utilises traditional religion as a non-problematic resource but in actual fact erodes it.
(c) In post-modern societies what was called civil society further
differentiates itself from the market (profit-making firms) and spheres
of solidarity (the so-called third sector), and in such a way that today
the overall societal system is based around four great differentiated
spheres: the market (globalisation based upon commercial communication), the state (political democracy), the civil society of the human,
and religion. Here the cement of society must be generated moment by
moment, situation by situation. The mediation between religion and
the state finds two “interfaces” which did not previously exist: on the
one hand the market (in the form of globalisation: M. Albrow, 1996)
and on the other the social private world (defined as the new civil
society of non-profit-making spheres: P. Donati, 2000, ch. 2). It must
be realised that religion still encounters difficulties in acting as a cement of society. But, together with these difficulties, there also grow
the needs and the opportunities to connect of the various spheres, and
in particular between religion and democracy as a system of government. The selective criterion becomes the relational criterion: action
has to take place from time to time asking oneself if and how religious
membership influences action in each sphere and with what consequences with respect to other paths and other forms of membership.
The conceptual framework which is here advanced shows that:
(a) the distances and interactions between the market (A), the state
(G), the social private world (I), and religion (L) grow. For this reason,
it becomes more difficult for (both visible and invisible) religion to
integrate society, even civil society alone. Indeed, religion encounters
greater difficulties in integrating itself;
(b) but the various spheres (including organised religion) cannot
operate without religion (L), and this demonstrates that religion does
not provide only a functional service or supply a limited number of
functional services. Its supra-functionality is to be found in the generalised symbolic media of interchange that it places in circulation for the
whole of society.
It is this dual movement, (a) of separation and (b) of societal linkage, which requires a “religiously qualified” public sphere in the sense
that the public interaction must produce a positive recognition and
legitimation of the various religious faiths. It cannot be neutral in its
approach towards religion.
The alternatives to this solution are:
– a public sphere dominated by one component, or function, or
sub-system over the others, and this means – in concrete terms – that
societal integration is ensured by the dominion of politics and/or the
economy (legitimated on the basis of power and/or money) over the
life-worlds of civil society and religion;
– or a public sphere which is radically differentiated through a
hyperbolic structure in which every function goes its own way independently and exits from any configuration of equilibrium. This means
and involves, in both theoretical and practical terms, the political and
cultural disintegration of the public sphere.
In both cases there would be a lesser presence of the presupposition of isotropy (the principle of the equal expansion of everything in
all directions) which has been the guiding principle of modernity. If
modernity must be conserved at the level of its finest acquisitions, it must
reintegrate the religious values (as something legitimated to be manifested
and recognized) in the public sphere. Only in this way can democracy
avoid falling into forms of dominion or societal disintegration.
At the centre of these alternatives is the dilemma (pointed out in
fig. 3, c) between globalisation (or abstract decontextualisation) and
localisation (or local contextualisation), in the most general symbolic
meaning of these terms: that is to say as a dilemma between the prevalence of imperso-nal-instrumental standards and the prevalence of
particularistic-expressive standards, even in religious behaviour. This
kind of polarisation is presently underway throughout the world. It
brings with it the germs of what we usually call the “clash between
civilisations” (S.P. Huntington, 1996). However it is defined, this clash
cannot be resolved through strategies which appeal to the same factors
which bring it about, that is to say through strategies of globalisation
(with the neutralisation of religion) or, vice versa, involving the localisation of problems, cultures, and religions. In my opinion, the solution is
to be found in the dimensions of the value legitimation of democracy
and in an appropriate use of socio-cultural time (the L-G axis of fig. 2,
taking into consideration the fact that democracy is in the present and
religion is in the future). Let us now examine what this may mean.
4. Scenarios and Hypotheses after Enlightenment Modernity: Secularisation, Fundamentalism and the Religious Qualification of the Public Sphere
4.1. We can briefly summarise the present-day scenarios as follows. The fall of the Communist regimes (the fall of the Berlin wall in
1989) demonstrated the existence of a phenomenon which was certainly unexpected at the end of the twentieth century: the fact that throughout the world, including in the West, religion has undergone a major
renewal and has once again presented itself as a source of freedom.
Religion has led many civil society movements (one thinks here of Po-
land, the countries of the former Soviet bloc, and various countries in
South America). This has occurred because religion was no longer seen
as a an obstacle to freedom, or as an inhibitor of action, but as an
inspiring motive force of civil liberties (E. Gellner, 1992) and of a democratic public sphere (M. Khatami, 1999). There have also been phenomena in the opposite direction where certain religions have led processes of an authoritarian political nature. But in the case of Christianity
this religion has certainly been at the base of what S.P. Huntington
(1991) has called the “third wave” of democratisation.
What forms of freedom and democracy are we talking about? This
is a question now posed by the whole world. Many see the revival
processes of religion as merely a force of political democratisation which
today reproduces the well known processes of the construction of that
civil society which presided over the birth of the typically modern
nation-state. But history never repeats itself. The present-day processes
of religious revival are the delayed explosion of a phenomenon which
elsewhere took place a few centuries ago. These processes also reflect
the needs of desecularisation which are reactions against the phenomena of modernisation and propose a civil society which is different from
modern civil society.
The freedom championed by the new religious movements, furthermore, can lead, in line with their instrinsic ambivalence, to various outcomes. They can lead for example to symbolic and structural conflations which confer an absolute primacy on religion (as in the case of
the fundamentalist movements), or to more or less meaningful shifts in
boundaries between politics and religion (in the case of movements along
the lines of the Catholic Counter-Reformation), or to processes involving a further secularisation of the religious sphere (in the case of revolutions on the Protestant model).
At a practical level, all these cases are to be found. Whether one or
the other prevails depends on the country or the region which is taken
into consideration. Fundamentalist movements are present in various
areas of the planet, and in almost all religions, including the West (in
the Protestant field one thinks of the Evangelical Pentecostalists, in the
Catholic field the followers of Lefevre come to mind, and in the Jewish
field the ultra-orthodox Jews may be cited by way of example). In countries which are Catholic by tradition we can observe a religious pluralisation within the Catholic Church, in addition to the growth of other
religions. At a global level, new religious movements are appearing, of
the holistic “New Age” kind, which suggest horizons of soft secularisation made up at the same time of a new cultural sensibility along ecological lines, an esoteric and pantheistic religious spirit, and a new mode
of consumeristic secularisation (P. Berger, 1995; L. Berzano, 1999), or
religious movements of the more individualising “Next Age” type.
This process of growth in religious freedoms is also a process of social
differentiation because religious freedoms are born in the various points of
the interactions between the spheres and contexts of life and impinge on
all the social spheres and their relative relationships (from the economy to
social, political and cultural exchange, for this see figs. 1 and 2).
This differentiation, however, is uneven in many ways but in particular in the sense that in general terms it implies a weakening of the
political function (the political system in G). Hence the fact that the
importance of the religious factor is indirectly accentuated either positively (as a transcendental inspiration) or negatively (as secularism) in
relation to its influences on the system of the social private world (social associations) and the adaptive social systems (economies both as
productive systems and as systems of consumption and cultural modes).
The development of these systems – both adapative (A) and associative
(I) – completely modifies the scenario for democracy. This is not only
because democracy as a political system must now deal with a configuration of society in which the market and the organisations of the social
private world are no longer politically controllable as was previously
the case, but also in the sense that now both these poles, which are
differentiated within the old civil society, that is to say the globalised
market (A) and the spheres of pure social integration (I), encounter
each other in a dilemma-like way. There is an objective struggle between these two great actors: the emerging challenge which confronts
us is globalisation versus local social integration. As is borne out by so-
ciological inquiry into this field, in this challenge it is religion which is
once again decisive and discriminating.
The decisive role of religion (L) is to be found in the fact that it can
influence the public sphere through the spheres of social integration (I)
or through the economy (A). The ambivalence of religion is emphasised
once again. When it affects the the public sphere through organisations
of the social private world it can create cultural segmentations on a religious basis or it can draw up new universalistic standards (for example in
the form of human rights). When religion affects the public sphere through
the market it can motivate processes of further privatisation or a
re-ethicalisation (in the form of fair trade, “ethic banks”, “communion
economies”, etc.) whether of production or consumption or lifestyles.
It is on this scenario that H. Cleveland and M. Luyckx (1996) believe that faith and politics are drawing closer together: “it seems much
more probable that “religion” (defined as ‘organised spirituality’) is
destined to take on a greater role of governance, and in truth that individual spirituality will become an increasingly important element in every
kind of leadership. These two concepts of religion and governance will
take into the twenty-first century a heavy cultural baggage: the inheritance of ancient spiritual traditions and all the theories, experiments
and errors committed in the organisation of human beings in relation
to shared objectives. It will be essential to understand this mixture of
experience and folly, and to analyse how the changing dynamics of
spirituality interact with the equally changing dynamics of givernance.
It will be useful to think of our time as a period of transition from
modern thought, still besieged by a cluster of pre-modern mental clothes
towards a vision of the world which we will call simply transmodern
(...) In the new vision there exists a distinction between religion and
politics but not a separation. This means that political leaders can use
arguments in which they really believe (...) Organised and spontaneous
‘religion’ will probably play an increasingly important role in the definition of public policy and its implementation”(ibid., pp. 256, 264.).
The dilemma that accompanies the scenario of the challenge of globalisation versus local social integration is expressed in the contrast be-
tween an ethically neutral public sphere (fed by the processes of globalisation) and an ethically qualified public phere (fed by the flowering
of a synergic pluralism of religious communities). Democracy must
choose whether to trust (more) one or (more) the other. But this choice
involves dilemmas which democracy with difficulty manages even to
identify and even less knows how to face up to. The democratic state
must choose whether to continue to exercise its power basing itself on
conventions (agreements, concordats) with individual religions, as indeed has happened in modernity, or bestow greater autonomy on civil
society, recognising the agreements that can intervene between different religions and the subjects of civil society. In the first case it reproduces the Hobbesian solution of order; in the second it opens up to the
hypothesis of a new public sphere in which subjects do not alienate
their political power to the state. It remains to be seen what is, or could
be, such a kind of public sphere.
4.2. In order to expound hypotheses about the possible developments of the public sphere in post-modern society it is useful to present
a diagram which expresses the problem in a schematic way (see fig. 3).
Fig. 3 – The Framework of Possible between Religion and Democracy (in brackets the configuration
according to the hypothesis of a democracy based on a religuously qualified public sphere).
The Political System
(democracy based upon
principled tolerance)
The Public Sphere
(civil society
(civil society
of the global market)
of social integration)
(with religious tolerance)
A B C ………. N
(dogmatics within the
individual religions)
Amongst the various possibilities presented by the model (fig. 3), I
would like to lay stress upon three major hypotheses which are also the
three principal strategies of the relations between religion and democracy mediated by different forms of public sphere.
a) The first hypothesis (progressive secularisation). The public
sphere can be influenced by religion through agreements that each religion makes directly with the state. In this case the religion acts directly on the political system and influences its policies in such a way as to
indirectly determine what takes place in the public sphere. In the past
the Christian churches have acted first and foremost in this way. At
times they have supported authoritative or corporative forms of the
state, but it is generally recognised that they have also performed a role
of democratisation of the public sphere understood as meaning an increase in freedoms and equality, even though in different ways and
with different partners (H. Wilensky, 1981; F.G. Castles, 1994; D. Lehmann, 1996). The Constantianian and Caesaro-Papist variants were
further versions of these relational styles. They are still to be encountered in some Eastern societies, for example where the most traditional
Orthodox Christian Churches prevail. In the Western systems, this procedure is present in some European countries where there reigns a
kind of compromise between Western Christianity and the welfare state,
or rather the lib/lab systems. This configuration is often regulated by
“concordats” between the state and organised religion.4 Civil society is
by-passed by the dialogue between the individual religions and the state.
This is a solution which characterises not so much the liberal democracies as (and principally) the republican (Jacobin) democracies. In figure 3 it is the solution represented by the A+B line (compromise between religion and the state) which prevails over all the others. This
strategy has produced or at least favoured – both directly and indirectly – the secularisation of the public sphere in the past and very proba-
It is a sociological fact that those countries in which state and established religions have
closer relations show higher rates of secularisation in respect to other countries.
bly will continue to do the same in the future wherever this strategy
b) The second hypothesis (fundamentalism). Religion rejects dialogue with the secular state and shuts itself up within itself. It proceeds
by affirming its own civil society and adopting strategies of the Gramscian type, or rather by seeing the conquest of civil society as the path
to political hegemony. This hypothesis is more or less fundamentalist.
It can be manifested in any religion. But today there can be no doubt
that it characterises the more traditionalist currents of Islam5 and Hinduism (in some parts of India). In fig. 3, line a+c is emphasised. This
strategy clearly leads to authoritarian democracies, in addition to clashes between religions.
c) The third hypothesis (emergence of a religiously qualified public sphere). Religion becomes the promoter of a dialogue between different religious denominations and supports a public sphere based upon
such dialogue, thereby contributing to the creation of a plural democratic state based upon “ultimate values” which are affirmed by consensus by and among the different religions. In fig. 3 is to be found the
arrangement which favours the complex of lines a+b+c+d in relation
to direct influence between the state and the religions. This is a strategy
which could produce what I call a religiously qualified public sphere.
In this paper I am primarily concerned to develop this last hypothesis.
As an instructive example one can cite here the speech by the Bishop of Izmir (Smirne) to
the Second Synod for Europe which was held in the Vatican in October 1999. Bishop
Giuseppe Germano Bernardini wanted to illustrate the difficulties of achieving dialogue
with Islam, and referred to certain significant statements by important Islamic religious
leaders who have declared that “thanks to your (European) democratic laws we will invade
you; thanks to our (Muslim) laws we will dominate you”; “you have nothing to teach us and
we have nothing to learn”, and similar such remarks. On this point it should be repeated
that a religiously qualified public sphere implies, in that it is a sphere of religious tolerance,
the first principle of reciprocity between subjects and faiths. As the Instrumentum Laboris
of the recently mentioned Synod states: “the dialogue with Muslims must be conducted
with prudence and with clarity of ideas about its possibilities and its limitations and with
trust in the project of salvation of God towards all his children. For mutual solidarity to be
sincere one has to have reciprocity in relationships, above all in the sphere of religious freedom” (the italics are mine).
4.3. The idea of a religiously qualified public sphere corresponds
to that of a sphere regulated by mutual tolerance no longer based upon
the presuppositions of neutrality and indifference typical of modern
liberalism, but upon the presuppositions of an active and promotional
tolerance of religious values.
This is a sphere of tolerance based upon principles which have a
shared foundation among the religions in a way which is proportionate
to their being “capable of transcendence” in their relationship with the
reality and the truth of the human being. The requisite of capacity for
transcendence is indispensable to achieve the recognition and the safeguarding of the dignity of the human person.
The religiously qualified public sphere is that of a civil society (at
the centre of fig. 3) as the field of encounter between subjects which
enter into market exchanges and exchanges of social integration which
are not already deprived of their religious membership but defined by
such membership. They interact with each other positively appreciating such membership within the context of a political democracy which
regulates the joint-presence of different religions through such spheres
of exchange. This is the sphere of civil relationality elaborated by the
religions themselves at the moment at which they act beyond themselves through the influence that they exert on the social actor. The
religiously qualified public sphere does not correspond to the idea of a
civil religion (which by now no longer has good reasons to go on existing: N. Luhmann, 1977), but corresponds instead to the idea of a religiously inspired sphere of secularity.
The need for such a sphere arises from new requirements: on the
one hand from the gaping void of modernity with its concept of liberal
tolerance, and on the other from the need for a positive and active
tolerance based upon an appropriate combination of faith and reason.
It is known that modernity advances a strongly negative objection
in relation to such a hypothesis. The objection maintains that religious
membership should not have weight in the public sphere because democracy must see each citizen as “equal” (that is to say as an equally
“random” individual). The supporters of modernity believe, indeed,
that the daily problems of democracy are due to the fact that there has
not been enough modernisation and argue that we should go beyond
the “reasonable” principles of modernity, that is to say: 1) the principle
of the privatisation of religion; 2) the prevalence of the “politics of
rights” over the “politics of goods”; and 3) the principle according to
which the self, as a moral actor, should be understood in a secularised
way (that is to say without the individual being able to justify his or her
ethical action on the basis of religious presuppositions). In the opinion
of the champions of modernity, these principles alone can maintain a
public sphere made up of freedom and equal opportunity for everyone. Their belief is that only if the public sphere is based on such
principles is there a real possibility of achieving mutual tolerance.
But the arguments of the champions of modernity do not work,
and this for at least two reasons.
The first reason is of an empirical character and consists of the fact
that the advance of secularisation has not progressed as it was believed
it would as recently as the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, in all continents
we are now faced with the re-emergence of fundamentalist movements.
These movements may be the product of globalisation or other factors,
but whatever they may be the counter-tendency of de-secularisation
involves conflicts and problems in the public sphere which the principles of modernity cannot solve. Indeed, they can only make them worse.
In short, if the tolerance preached by the champions of the modern has its
basis in secularisation it cannot continue. This is because of the fact that
secularisation is in crisis or is retreating almost everywhere.
The second reason is of an analytical character and involves the
paradoxes of the processes of institutionalisation to be found in modernity. It is precisely the institutions of modernity that lead to the antithesis of their de-institutionalisation: in other words, abstract ethical universalism and ethical neutralism generate particularistic, segmentary and
even tribal ethical attachments. Modernity produces its antithesis, that
is to say reactions which express themselves in the politics of identity
and of difference which spread as a return to ancient ethnic identities
both in a negative sense (as in the case of racism) and in a positive
sense (as in the case of the development of positive differences such as
those of gender). The self practised only because of the abstract autonomy of the individual can no longer satisfy the deep needs for meaning
of the human person which emerge in post-modernity. Such needs can
find an answer only in primordial identities and in new relational capacities. In short, there are constituent points of the self which the
idealistic and rationalistic Reason (whether Fichtian, Hegelian, Enlightenment, or otherwise) does not understand.
There is, however, an argument which modernity rightly stresses.
Often the return to traditional religion which we can witness in daily
life does not bring with it a positive approach towards the other person
(to our neighbour), that is to say towards values which allow an opening up to the Other. Although this tendency is also indeed manifested,
in a great part of the present-day processes of de-secularisation there
prevails the fact that every religion (whether traditional or post-modern)
strives to achieve a validation of its own structure of belief without
accepting, or even without being prepared to engage into dialogue with,
other religions. This is because its followers only seek a legitimation of
their own self in the face of uncertainty.
The fact is that religion must pass through the melting pot of the
Enlightenment in order to transcend its historical-ritualistic forms. Traditional values can not become meaningful once again if they do not
open up to complexity. For this reason, although it is true that the
solutions invented by the historical period of the first half of the fourteenth century to the end of the twentieth century have revealed themselves to be secularised solutions without a future, it is also true that a
fulfilled democracy must be able to observe and positively appreciate
the process of the invention of new de-secularised answers.
There are two possibilities (scenarios). On the one hand we encounter the intensification/absolutisation of the tensions of modernity
between faith and reason as two fundamentalisms which are opposed
to each other. This would mean a certain kind of return to the dilemma
of having a war of religion or choosing the path of secularisation. In the
other hand, there is the promotion of a faith in perpetual dialogue with
reason, or rather the fostering of a religiosity which educates people in
the meaning of reason, something which is a need perceived within all
the monotheistic religions.
The new solutions should meet the need which is now emerging as
being of primary importance: that of having a faith integrated into reason and vice versa a reason rooted in faith. Because when all is said and
done, we also need to believe in democracy. Be this as it may, one is no
longer dealing with a dimissive attitude to faith as ignorance.
4.4. The approach illustrated here seeks to support the idea that it
is possible to recover active and rational tolerance within religious culture and not outside it. It should be based upon values and not upon
indifference. The equality of citizens in the public sphere must not be
understood as uniformity or as a product of similarity, but as the happy
recognition of difference. A. Seligman (2000) invites us to think about
“principled tolerance”, that is to say a tolerance based upon commitment to values able to relate the sacred and the profane; no longer
counterposing them in an irreconcilable way but utilising them as expressions of a common knowledge which is an articulated system of
values. Principled tolerance is basically, and foremost, the recognition
of religious freedom as a fundamental right of the human person to live
his/her relation to the religious truth without any form of social or
political coercion (F. Ocariz 1989, 1995).
One can return to rational discussion and dialogue only within a
“religious comprehension”. Indeed, tolerance implies accepting something that we do not believe in or which we do not see as being credible. It implies that within a certain world of values, we become involved with others. It implies selections (and thus also restrictions) of
thought and judgement. Tolerance is positive energy which involves a
change in one’s own behaviour. It does not limit itself to the constraining of behaviour, but also binds the thought and psychological and
moral judgement of the person and supports it in the tension towards
the truth without wanting the other person to accept that truth if he or
she is not convinced by it. It is a tension between loyalty to one’s own
thought and the sincere effort to accept and respect other forms of
Over the last two hundred years tolerance has been founded exclusively on the privatisation of reason and the circumscribing of the religious elements (claims) of belief within the limits in which such elements could require recognition and legitimation. Democracy, that is to
say, has chosen to base tolerance in a decisive way on secularised foundations. This process has corresponded to the institutionalisation of
Protestant religiosity.
Liberal democracy has produced liberal tolerance for which belief
is left to the interiority of the individual, whilst the external (public)
practices are subject to the coercion (of the state). For modernity, indeed, social control is not a question of faith or belief but of public
practices. This is not only the approach of Thomas Hobbes but also of
John Locke, who is indeed usually cited as the liberal thinker who most
positively appreciated the religious presuppositions of the public sphere.
Seeing things in this way, modernity involves a tolerance which is not
tenable. Freedom, indeed, is understood as a fluctuation free of internal controls and cannot, in the end, do other than go mad. While, in
contrary fashion, democracy must try to achieve public order with a
certain Panopticon (J. Bentham) – something which cannot but have
feet of clay.
Modernity leads to the exasperation of social differentiation and in
particular to the differentiation between the self and society. The
post-modern world manifests, instead, the need for the reintegration of
the self and society, of a relationship between individuality and sociality, rather than the accentuation of differentiation as such, of absolute
differentiation. At a cultural level, advanced societies no longer call for
an indefinite differentiation between faith and reason but require a greater integration between both which is based upon structures of reciprocity. This can come about through a reintegration of the values of
cultural traditions (authority and transcendence) with the values of
modernity. It is possible to favour sensitivity towards a transcendental
authority without falling into authoritarianism.
We must redistinguish tolerance as indifference and tolerance as
sensitivity towards transcendental principles (principled tolerance). This
last is a second best solution for an individual religion which, within
itself, strives for the first best of its own truth. The imposition of its
truth on the external world would mean it becoming intolerant. Tolerance based upon principles is instead the rule of the space of dialogue
concerning boundaries (a dialogue held on the boundaries), the place
where the public sphere is precisely to be found.
This does not mean that persons should adopt a double standard
ethics (one internal to the membership group and one external to it).
They must not become schizoid. It only means that people must learn
how to distinguish the operating validity of their religious beliefs and
ethical principles when they act within their organized religion or outside it. The tolerance of Ego does not mean the recognition of an intangible right held by Alter, but only a (morally legitimate) omission in
regard to an external behaviour of Alter which Ego feels to be bad or
sinful and which he/she does not imped or repress. In the public sphere,
where he acts as a citizen and not as a faithful, Ego renounces to persecute Alter, while acting in order to affirm peacefully what he believes
be a positive and universal good, by this way maintaining one and the
same attitude.
Liberal tolerance conforms to relativistic and negative impulses. It
exalts the in-difference of religion towards politics (democracy), and
sees religion in terms above all else of intolerance. It constructs itself
upon a net separation between the public domain and the private
realm, in which different types of tolerance are operative. In the public sphere principled indifference is at work, and in the private sphere
a tolerance which conforms to the dictates of each religion. Religion
cannot, and must not, intervene in the public sphere, in the same way
as the state cannot intervene in private affairs, which are a question of
tastes and aesthetic preferences. But is this a valid and sufficient form
of tolerance for a fulfilled democracy? In reality this is only a temporary expedient which, deprived of principles, ends up by falling into
what is its opposite.
The liberal bases of tolerance (as indifference and not as active tolerance) turn out to be fragile and fall into intolerance because:
– liberal tolerance is principled indifference, and thus has no
“goods” to affirm; it does not act to promote good – on the contrary it
makes every distinction between “goods” irrelevant;
– liberal tolerance is a practice which, because it in fact sees individual autonomy as an absolute good, produces the contrary, that is to
say intolerance. This is because the person who possesses the sole good
of individual autonomy does not countenance acceptance of other people or of other positions which can bring that autonomy into doubt.
Indeed, in the present-day public spheres of the modernised world,
tolerance is practiced as a formal policy of (morally indifferent) rights
with one single substantial value – that of individual autonomy. A culture shaped in this way leads to the emptying of values and to intolerance, something that is manifested in the conflict between values which
are deprived of justification and comparability.
It is true that there exist variants of liberal tolerance, from the more
sceptic forms to the more empathetic. But these are only minority positions which have a scarse effect and impact on the present-day relations between privatised religion and liberal democracy, relations which
are based upon ethical indifference.
Because of this, A. Seligman (2000) proposes that liberal tolerance
be opposed by religious tolerance, which meets the non-relativistic needs
for substantial and positive values both of faith and reason. Religious
tolerance is that tolerance which recognises the importance for all civilisations and all religions of being receptive to what is outside them,
but at the same time locates interest in truth at the centre of all things,
knowing that, although nobody has a monopoloy of the Truth, truth
nonetheless exists and can be reached through a suitable declination of
faith and reason.
The argument of Seligman is that although on the one hand the
secularised pluralism of beliefs erodes faith in values (as P. Berger has
demonstrated), it is equally true that faith in values can erode the mod-
ern idea of pluralism. A purely liberal democracy cannot survive without a perspicacious religious qualification. This is demonstrated by the
emergence of contemporary intolerance, forms of irrationalism and forms
of fundamentalism at the very heart of the most advanced societies. In
order to combat such trends we need an epistemological modesty, both
of faith and of reason. But this modesty must be religiously qualified.
This is why (with regard to fig. 3) democracy must be sensitive to
religions both in a direct and in an indirect way through civil society.
The two forms of democracy – liberal and republican (or Jacobin) –
which have dominated the processes of modernisation, and which today come together in the complex of lib/lab citizenship (Donati 2000,
chapters V and VI), have eroded the public sphere and cannot regenerate it. An authentic public sphere capable of transcendentality (that
is to say as a sphere of the transcendental as an expression of the shared
values of religions and of their transcendental truths) must be able to
transmit values and trust to the democratic political system. It can do
this if it itself is guided by religious tolerance rather than by liberal
tolerance or even by Jacobin tolerance.
The religiously qualified public sphere exalts the principle of subsidiarity and thus the empowerment of the various civil spheres (P.
Berger and R.J. Neuhaus, 1996). It places the problem of the translatability of one culture into another at the centre of its own elaboration,
and the same may be said of the symbolic codes of a religion into codes
that can be comprehensible for other religions, through a shared relational sphere (S. Budick and W. Iser eds., 1998).
5. Conclusion: the Process of Civilisation and the Challenge of a “Religiously Qualified” Secular Public Sphere
5.1. Seen from the perspective of modernity, religion seems to divide both the state (the political system) in itself and the state from civil
society, and indeed civil society in itself. In the face of this polymognous character of religion, modernity carries out its experiment: it organises (regulates) the public sphere in such a way as to separate reli-
gion and democracy on the presupposition that such a separation acts
to integrate the state and manages to balance the state with civil society
in a better way and to make civil society more free. Political integration
takes place on the basis of the principle of indifferent tolerance towards ultimate and transcendental values. But this experiment has been
a failure.
The question is thus posed once again: can the political system of
the democratic state immunise itself against religion ? And can it be
different from (not make a difference between) religions? Given that
civil society cannot, as such, be indifferent to religion, because of the
fact that it lives off religious impulses, how can the different religions
be reconciled in civil society and in the relations between civil society
and the state?
The answers must be looked for in the complex of relations and
interchanges (the AGIL complex of figures 1 and 2) which make up
the public sphere. It is the public sphere which decides the possibility/
impossibility of responding to the questions posed above. The public
sphere once again becomes the place of civilisation, and this after modernity had founded the process of civilisation on the emergence of the
private world. We need to see whether the democratic principle par
excellence, that of mutual tolerance, can still survive and what form it
must adopt in order to sustain the new relationships between religion
and democracy.
Indeed, the relationship between democracy and religion evolves in
a way which depends upon which point of view in the polarity between
the public and the private (along the private-public continuum) comes
to prevail and leads the processes of change. The processes of civilisation can take place through the private world or through the public
world, and normally they are a balanced combination of the two. But
in modernity the dominant point of view is that of the private world:
the state has seen religion as a private affair, and religion has had to
observe democracy from the viewpoint of the private world. In the
after-modern world exactly the opposite is required. Everything must
be seen from the public sphere: the democratic state must see religion
as a public fact and religion itself returns to observing itself as a public
We should draw all the necessary implications from the fact that
whilst in modernity it is within the private sphere that the configuration of society is decided upon, in the after-modern the destiny of society is decidedly in the hands of the public sphere. For the state this
means finding a principle of action which makes the various religions
compatible from not merely the private point of view but also from
the public point of view. For religion this means finding an internal
configuration within its own institutional structure which enables it to
be able to distinguish between its own internal constituent nucleus (its
own orthodoxy) and a prospect of action towards the outside world,
on the boundary with the environment (its “secular” dimension) which
can enter into the public sphere with systems of pluralistic direction
and action, of relational joint-living with the other religions.
In a brilliant essay, J.A. Waldron (1993) advanced a series of convincing arguments to the effect that a religion such as the Catholic
religion has a full right to enter into the debate about the public sphere
and about all the subjects and issues of political discourse. He does this
in opposition to those who maintain that religious arguments must remain within the sphere of the private.6 His arguments identify, in my
opinion, certain valid principles by which to justify what I call a religiously qualified public sphere where both the ordinary citizens, and
those who have institutional positions of importance, are not required
to keep silent about their religious convictions either when they vote or
when they decide about the public welfare or take institutional decisions (and this is perfectly compatible with liberal political principles,
even though this does not require liberal philosophical beliefs). Waldron argues that “something like the pastoral letter has a natural place
in public deliberations, even when public declaration is conceived in a
secular liberal spirit and even when many or most participants in that
See the special issue devoted to the question of “the role of religion in public debate in
liberal society” of The San Diego Law Review, 30, Fall 1993.
debate do not accept the premises on which the bishops construct their
arguments. We will miss its potential relevance if we insist that all contributions to such debate must connect syllogistically with premises that
are already part of a public consensus. If, on the other hand, we see the
value of rethinking the structures of our premises, or of being disconcerted with the richness of their Christian provenance, or if, in general,
we see the value of an open, challenging, and indeterminate form of
public deliberation in which nothing is taken for granted – if we loosen
our conception of public reason in these or other ways – then we may
be less uncomfortable about the deployment of religious ideas, even
explicitly and unashamedly theological ideas, in what we may still regard as ultimately a matter for secular politics”.
At the centre of this area of concern, that of a new model of civilisation implemented through a public sphere of shared discourse, there
is the question of the difficult space of secularity. What do we mean by
the secularity of the public sphere ?
Modernity has defined secularity as the suspension, if not the negation, of the religious point of view. Such a conception has today become self-destructive. From the perspective of the twenty-first century,
secularity understood as pure secularism can only retreat. We need to
define secularity without suspending or denying the religious point of
view. In this sense there can naturally be different positions which go
from a greater to a lesser connection between elements of faith and
elements of religion. But it cannot be doubted that secularity should be
redefined as a capacity for dialogue and principled tolerance between
positions which must not abandon their faith in order to enter into this
space, something which has been requested by modernity. It should no
longer be necessary to demonstrate secularity, even on the part of religious currents, on the basis of the fact that in them the element of
reason must in the final resort prevail over that of faith.
There is more than theretical and empirical evidence that within
the great world religions there exists a distinction between dogmatics
within the individual religion (orthodox Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and
the secular space of dialogue with the other denominations or religions
(as has been shown by E. Lévinas 1960 within the context of Jewish
culture; E. Pace 1999 with regard to Islam; and A. Del Portillo 1998 in
relation to the Christian world).
Legal and political orders can be brought into being in which faith
and reason are mutually moderate. Secularity then means a faith tempered with reason, a reason tempered with faith. This new way of understanding secularity is built upon the assumption that it is possible to
achieve an encounter between faith and reason not only within each
religion but also – and as a consequence – in the dialogue between
religions, and in particular in the relationship between the reason within each faith and the other “reasons”. In this way it becomes practically
possible to achieve a healthy religious pluralism on which to build a
legal order which respects the religious definition of the public sphere
(O. Carré, 1995; S. Ferrari and I.C. Iban, 1997).
Indeed, the relationship between faith and reason is a constituent
part of both because of the real distinction which differentiates them
and connects them at one and the same time. Faith is a constituent
part of reason in the same way as reason is a constituent part of faith.
Reason must operate within religion and vice versa. The methodological use of doubt has its justified value, especially when different religions compare and contrast their truths, but it can never have an
absolute value (this was observed by Plato with his concept of scepsi
which has nothing to do with the systemtic scepticism of the moderns
but means only the rejection of a self-enclosed dogmatism. It is thus
a methodological expression of love for truth, of wanting to take the
language of the other person and his or her own reality seriously into
consideration as a meaningful difference). This doubt, today, must be
above else exercised in relation to the conflation that modernity ends
up by producing between Wertrationalität and Zweckrationalität. Instead of levelling the former to the latter it seems necessary to commence a public discourse on the values of civilisation as a point of
direct encounter between the religions, and which is not mediated
through the political power of the state (or political system, however
democratic it might be).
Pluralism based upon abstract universals is no longer tenable: we
need to differentiate the universal with particular semantics, on the
condition, however, that they maintain the tension towards a universal meaning. This societal (corporate) pluralism cannot be the work
of the political system, but is a task which can be performed only by
religious cultures which take into consideration the contribution made
by reason.
The challenges of Sarajevo and Jerusalem are two emblematic metaphors of the need for a public sphere in which only active religious
tolerance can construct a universal sphere based upon particular universalisms. The tolerance which we need must concede the particular
and the universal at the same time, but it would be more precise to say
that it must draw up a universalism which is differentiated according to
the particular approaches of each religion, at least to the extent to which
the religions referred to are capable of transcendence. Something of a
transcendental nature is required in order to maintain the dialogue.
This is why the hypothesis of a civil society which is pure unlimited
community of discourse cannot form a plausible basis for that public
sphere needed by the after-modern democracies. It is not enough to
communicate without restrictions and without differences of power.
We need to communicate together our own truth out of love for truth,
knowing not only to respect the Other but also to love the Other, and
this is possible only if it is done with religious tolerance.
Fides et Ratio, according to the recent encyclical of John Paul II,
means directing one’s efforts towards the creation of faith (trust) through
a religiously qualified civil society and at the same time towards a democracy that can decide on the basis of rational assumptions. The secularity of the state (the “secular state”) at the beginning of the third
millennium can no longer mean the indifference of democracy towards
religion or of religion towards public life, but must mean, instead, the
circulation of the religious dimension of the public sphere, seeing religion as a source of vitality for the various social spheres which it promotes, on the condition that the concrete religion referred to demonstrates a capacity for transcendence and reciprocity.
5.2. In a correct and sound relational approach, religion must be
seen as a necessary dimension of both particular and generalised social
relations. At a real level this is what is experienced in ordinary life
where – in opposition to the hypothesis of future progressive secularisation – religion becomes increasingly (and not increasingly less) relevant in the spheres of even the most differentiated social life. In the
after-modern life-worlds, religions tend to produce rules and lifestyles
which impinge upon the economy and the organisations of the social
private world and by this route influence the world of democratic interplay. There is more than one reason to support the view that religions must unite in order to combat the commodification and standardisation of the collective and individual mind which are generated by
the processes of globalisation. The hypothesis presented here is that
religions can do this through the construction of a religiously qualified
public sphere which supports an associative democracy.
What about the so-called non-believers ? To my mind, they should
be included as a significant part of this dialogue, provided that they
too keep a keen distinction between what they think in the private
sphere and what they recognize as valid for everybody in the the public sphere. There are good reasons to think that believers and nonbelievers can agree upon basic values and universal rules for the common good of all on the basis of human rationality and not of a particular religious credo.
The old slogans of modernity, like for example “a free Church in
a free state” (the European model characterised by ‘inclusion’) and
“free Church and free state” (the American model characterised by
‘separation’) are by now obsolete. Freedom is increasingly turning out
to be a relational phenomenon as an interaction between. From a
religious point of view, it has become so in a dual sense. First of all as
the freedom of religion to create social relations which are goods in
themselves (relational goods), i.e. as a right that exists independently
of the state. And then as freedom to promote synergical relations
between the strictly religious sphere and the political sphere through
a new public sphere. In both cases positive freedoms are involved,
which promote the Other, and not purely negative freedoms, of defence from the Other. The motto could be: “church and state relate to
each other in terms of positive freedom” (relational model), meaning
that religion and democracy adopt a principle of subsidiarity towards
each other, and enforce it reciprocally. By this way they can empower
and develop their own identity within a relationship of complementary
freedoms which work ‘at distance’ (religion and democracy must positively – not negatively – free their relationships in order to avoid conformity and/or instrumental actions towards each other).
Modern democracy has sought to create its own “civil religion” based
upon liberal tolerance, but this attempt has failed. After-modern society needs active and propositive tolerance, that is to say religious tolerance which is not mere permissiveness or a melting pot or a salad bowl
of the different religions.
Religions must face up to the challenge of a civil culture elaborated
“in the plural” by religions which otherwise would exclude each other.
They must, to this end, reject both the processes of secularisation and
the new forms of fundamentalism. The goal may seem utopian, but it
is, instead, made ever more concrete and urgent by the fact that democracy is no longer managing to counter the processes of commodification of human life brought about by globalisation. At the same time,
because we certainly cannot return to the pre-modern era, religions can
be legitimised as autonomous subjects of the public sphere on the condition that they bring about a more fulfilled democracy through the
intermediation of the spheres of the social private world which promote the “society of the human”.
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