“The Public Role of Religion”, in Davies, Powell (eds.), Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings. Reflecting Hans Mol, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, Burlington, VT, 2015, pp. 87-100.

Roberto Cipriani

Public Role of Religion

by Roberto Cipriani (Roma Tre University, Rome)


For some decades now specialists of religious phenomena have been heatedly discussing secularisation, the death of God, the end of religion, or – to the contrary – a religious reawakening, a return to God, an expansion of the influence of religion. In a number of cases there have been reconsiderations, a softening of tone, 180-degree shifts in direction. By way of example, it would be sufficient to refer to Sabino Samele Acquaviva (1971), previously known for his theory of the eclipse of the sacred, and to Harvey Cox (1968), prophet of the secular city. The one was later to specify that he simply meant the end of the magical use of religion (Acquaviva, Stella 1989: 11) while the other, more simply, admitted having been mistaken about the future of religion. Because of these changes of position, the staunchest theorists of a significant return of religious practice too have had to rethink their positions.

Whatever the case, what is lacking is a serious examination of the empirical reality, accompanied by results based on scientifically serious and rigorous investigation, not on preconception. In some instances where reference has been made to it, the approach has been applied only in part, without contextualisation and has been too easily overgeneralised compared to the variegation and changeability of the scenarios addressed. Above all, insufficient attention has been paid to the significance of historical roots, traditional culture, the socialising function of diffused religion, the weight and influence of confessional organisations, often extremely capillary and efficient in their action (even if immediate appearances might lead one to postulate the opposite).

From Habermas to Böckenförde

The German philosopher-sociologist Jürgen Habermas, by many considered the heir to the so-called Frankfurt School, expresses a certain concern regarding social solidarity. This may be deduced from his greatest work the theme of which is communicative action [Habermas 1986b, II: 603-18] the ‘normative background’ of which is closely interlocked with the authority of the sacred, which Habermas recognises as being the source of ethics. Moral obligation derives, he maintains, from the sacred by means of symbolic mediation, which leads to language (and to the ethics of discourse, that is, to non-instrumental, non-coercive, communicative action). In actual fact, Habermas holds that only a universal type of morality is capable of holding secularised society, which depends on consensus,  together [Habermas 1986b, II: 669].

Without necessarily accepting and adhering to all the implications contained in Habermasian thinking on communicative action, it is important, nevertheless, to recall that his ‘systematics of forms of comprehension’ regards four areas:

(1) ambits of cultural practice, (2) spheres of action where systems of religious interpretation retain powers to guidance such as impact immediately on daily behaviour, and, as a result, on (3) environments of secular, non-religious action, where the store of cultural knowledge is availed of for communication and (4) used to inform focused activities, without the structures of the world view involved being overtly declared as being among the aims of the activities themselves.

This means that the first two ambits are associated directly with the sacred. With regards to the first he states: ‘ritual (and sacrificial action) performed by the members of a group correspond to the myth, sacramental practice (and prayer) correspond to the community’s religious-metaphysical image of the world, finally, contemplative [emphasis by Habermas] actualisation of auratic works of art corresponds to the cultured religion of the early modern age’ [Habermas 1986b, II: 801]. In more explicitly social terms Habermas maintains that the sacred is grounded in cultural practice (with rites institutionalising social solidarity; sacraments/prayer institutionalising the pathways of salvation and knowledge; the contemplative representation of auratic art institutionalising the fruition of art); the second ambit is concerned with the world views that guide practice (myths; religious and metaphysical images of the world; the religious ethic of conviction; natural rational law; religious citizenship) [Habermas 1986b, II: 802]. Rite and myth belong to archaic society, sacraments/prayers as well as religious and metaphysical images of the world belong to the great ancient civilisations, contemplative representations of auratic art and religious ethical conviction as well as natural rational law and religious citizenship belong to the early modern age.

 Even today, religion represents a kind of cognitive challenge in that it bestows content and strength on social norms and, therefore, on solidarity among citizens. Rather than fade [Habermas, Sölle, Luhmann 1977], religion occupies a place within the public sphere [Habermas 2006a], where it acts as a mediator between two opposites, between fundamentalisms and secularisms. This is how Habermas responds to a provocation by Böckenförde [2007], who denies the secularised state the possibility of guaranteeing its own normative premises (possessed, instead, by the Christian religion) and invokes its reconstruction as a post-secularised state capable of addressing the present-day marked increase in religiosity and in fundamentalist movements[1].                               

In actual fact, the Frankfurt sociologist does not believe that the values of religion alone underscore democracy, seeing that democratic rules and procedures also make a contribution. However, he holds that it is indispensable that religions renounce their claims to truth, accept the authority of science and subject themselves to the law of the land. Dissent of both a religious and secular nature must always be taken into consideration. This does not prevent the achievement of reasonable consensus. Destructive secularisation is harmful to society itself [Ratzinger, Habermas 2005].

Habermas’s favourite perspective is illuminist, rationalist [Habermas 2002b] and secularist, although Habermas does not appear totally opposed to religion, as he requires it to engage with the secular world in a discourse favourable to dialogue.

In other words, religion is one of the constituents of the life world (Lebenswelt), even if processes of rationalisation and secularisation have reduced its weight, confining it almost to issues of meaning alone, seeing that the modern concept of consensus has replaced the authority of the sacred. This seems to indicate a crisis of religious legitimation [Habermas 1975], along with an extension of secular concepts of knowledge and, therefore, the notion of a public sphere more and more independent of religion. At the same time, however, Habermas [2006a] attributes a certain importance to the role of religion itself within a common language-diffusion process, which gives rise, besides, to a ‘linguistic elaboration of the sacred’ [Habermas 1986b: 648-96]. In short, religious thinking does not fall outside of rationality and may be taken into consideration when seeking to understand the forms and contents of rationalisation processes fully. In actual fact, the role of religion has not dissolved, it has simply changed. In any case, communicative action cannot be attributed to conditionings of a religious nature. On the other hand, however, the increasing secularisation of society must come to terms with the persistence of religious concepts and the confessional communities that express them [Habermas 2002a: 99-112]. Anyhow, post-secular society is called upon to address its own conception of secular rationality in broader terms as far as the enlargement of the horizons of knowledge is concerned (and in terms of learning about religious thinking too). In other words, the principle of separation between religion and state stands on a ‘post-secular’ foundation of mutual respect between religion and reason [Habermas 2006b: 19-50]. The secular state, however, cannot claim the right to impose its language upon citizens who are believers, and who are already obliged by their asymmetrical condition (with regard to non-denominational citizens and a secular state) to seek mediation between faith and secular reasoning, by balancing theology and ethics [Habermas 2006b: 30]. This is how it must ‘spread its wings’, as Habermas [1986a: 202] put it when recalling utopia and hope as theorised by Ernst Bloch.

Believers and Non-believers

Resistance to efficacious communications between believers and non-believers stems, above all, from the insurgence of two fronts built also upon institutional bases[2].

The problematic of secularity – it must be said – is essentially of European origin, initially French, later and gradually, Italian, Spanish, to become widespread. The seed planted during the age of Enlightenment later took the form and content of the revolutionary events of Paris 1789 (and not only). The Federation of the United States of America, during its early stages, was also acquainted with revolution, which did not, however, lead to consequences of a similar nature as far as religious phenomenology was concerned. On the contrary, in North America the link between politics and religion is rather close: the motto on the US coat of arms declares trust in God and the ritual instatement of the president of the United States makes numerous and repeated references to the Bible, the Christian religion, especially to the Protestant form of Christianity. Religious practice is widespread, as confirmed by several empirical surveys carried out in the United States; in Canada too, especially Québec, there seems to be little tendency to raise issues relating to secularity or, at least, it is not one of the main foci of discussion.

Martha Nussbaum (2008) of the University of Chicago, originally an Anglican philosopher and later a convert to the reformed Jewish religion, author of Liberty of Conscience, inher book  In Defence of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, defends the Mormons’ right to polygamy, in compliance with her idea of total freedom of conscience and religion (a little like Poulat did, in his 1987 text on freedom and secularity). Yet Nussbaum does not seem to approve the French kind of secularity because, she holds, it is too constraining for believers, who are invited not to express themselves in public. On the contrary, for the Chicago professor the value of separation between state and Church is barely secondary compared to the primary one of equal freedom for citizens, both believers and non. As to the on-going issue of the refusal of blood transfusion by Jehovah’s Witnesses, she opts for the solution that mature, informed adults be free to choose, while their children ought to be safeguarded at all costs. Finally, Nussbaum also advocates including creationism in the syllabi of comparative religious studies though not in science programmes.

Barely south of the United States, in Mexico, we find secularism again, but here expressed in very different terms. This country too had a revolutionary beginning, Zapatism, which marked the end of religion in the public arena, during the first half of the last century. One of the most evident signs of the secular nature of the Mexican state may be said to be the law forbidding the clergy to wear cassocks in public. In short, this norm intends making it quite clear that religion is a strictly private matter that should in no way impact at state, and therefore, at public level.

In the other states of central and south America trends in relations between the state and the Churches have followed the vicissitudes of the single nations, which have undergone various kinds of experiences ranging from dictatorship to military government, from pseudo to effective democracy. Interpretations of the events of the past decades have not always been clear or devoid of basic ambiguity. In some instances there have been cases of cooperation or of ideological non-belligerence between the state and the Churches, with consequences that are still the object of diverging opinion even concerning interpretations of matters of fact.

In Asia, relations between the state and the Churches are associated, essentially, with the types of political regimes in force, but, in general, it is the political authority which establishes the rules and the limitations, independently of the opinions of the interested religious parties. With the odd exception, political power in that part of the world is self-referential and opposes all religious expression that does not comply with the system. A singular case is that of the People’s Republic of China where there are two Catholic Churches, one close to the positions of the national state, the other with the Church of Rome as its head. In Japan, on the contrary, the USA’s Jeffersonian model prevails; this envisages a neutral state which privileges none of the Gods available, thus preventing Caesar-God dichotomy while favouring the growth of a civil religious society which is both pluralistic and pacific. This explains the agnostic character of the Japanese scholastic system.

The African situation varies according to the dominant religious culture in the single countries, but reveals the partial failure of secular-based state interventionist scholastic policies. When Islam is the religion of the majority, it is usually very close to the state and this fact generally prevents the question of secularism from arising at all because of the particular kind of symbiosis existing between the Islamic religion and politics. But Islam (Bozdemir 1996) has had to adapt to animist religious trends, permitting polygamy and forms of syncretism. Relations between secularism and the Christian religions are more complex. In some states a formal separation between the state and the Churches exists, but, in actual fact, there is no real issue of secularism in Africa, because religiosity is widespread, assumes various forms, especially traditional and independent varieties of the animist and Kimbangist creeds. Concluding, we must add that various attempts have been made in Africa to eliminate religion by decree (Madagascar, Benin, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, The People’s Republic of the Congo). Little by little secularism has made some headway and become a feature of the majority of state constitutions, but no real debate surrounds the issue which is seen as a foreign import and, therefore, confined mainly to small circles of elitist intellectuals. 

In Australia the predominant reference-model is British Anglicanism, although the conditions there are in way comparable to those of the United Kingdom; in any case, the question of secularism does not seem to present particular differentiations down there.

When all comes to all, secularism seems to be the issue of important debate in Europe alone. Above all, one has the impression that all sides seem to be striving to provide a definition of secularism based on a sole parameter. When religiously oriented intellectuals, or the official Church itself, propose a definition, the secular community objects. When the opposite occurs, the criticism comes from the religiously oriented.

One must note that it is impossible to disentangle this dilemma unless a joint solution is found, not necessarily one for all seasons, but at least one permitting consensus to be reached as particular issues arise. To demand respect for every definition of secularism would mean, in actual fact, surrendering to the difficulties arising from it and, therefore, resignation to the impossibility of establishing any valid definition at all.

The pivotal point is the public role of religion and religions, or rather, that the public dimension itself become the most fruitful arena where ideas and ways of conducting investigations ought to converge. A well-balanced scientific knowledge is the outcome of epoché, that is, suspension of judgment before expressing an evaluation, after deep and careful reflection.  

It should not be forgotten that there are a-religious, anti-religious and non-religious forms of secularism, expressed by non-believers, as well as varieties of secularity expressed by those professing different beliefs, that is, by those who believe in ways different from the official canon of the Churches or from the statistically more frequent modes of religious expression. This could lead to a boundless range of possible instances of etsi non daretur with God as their subject. The entire question is part of the scenario of the choices to make according to criteria of responsibility or rationality. Opposite, divergent and polymorphic views are always at work and do not favour easy advancement. In the long run, however, secularism – starting with its own plurality of stances and opinions, which assume concrete form as definitions and decisions (Norris, Inglehart 2011: 53-79) – remains profoundly, essentially, secular as long as it foresees and allows that perspectives other than the secular contain multiple alternatives. 

Fundamentalism and Laïcité

In the face of pluralism it is not neutrality but impartiality that is required, above all in the field of ethics and the law, where the power of the state must be exerted regardless of who the object of its legislative or punitive interventions may be. The impartiality of the law entails allowing liberty to embrace religious freedom (the exercise of which includes freedom of thought, association and assembly) as well. This perspective overrides the old principle of cuius regio eius et religio, because people are no longer obliged to follow the religion of their sovereign, their state or government.

But an ulterior obstacle exists: that of fundamentalism, which does not mediate, but demands application of the norm in all cases without distinction, failing to recognise the autonomy of interlocutors and insisting on its own reference-principles. At strictly juridical level, the principle of a form of justice which does not take any kind of favouritism into consideration but applies the norm and does not define itself as either secular or religious, may prevail, in compliance with the criterion of equality. What does remain open to discussion, however, is the need or otherwise that the positive legal order conform to the objective natural moral law, to the natural moral order (Dalla Torre 2008: 178). 

In any case, it is opportune to point out that secularity cannot expect religiosity to adapt to it nor can religion be expected to annul secularity simply to avoid meeting with opposition in the public sphere. To arrive at a similar conclusion, there is much to be done at both religious and political cultural level to provide the new generations especially, but the older generation too, with criteria of discernment sufficiently grounded in terms of a non-ideological type of knowledge. It is rightly held that a good religious education cannot but lead to a vigorous defence of the secularity of the state, without accepting surreptitious interest-grounded formulaic adjustments or agreements of the do ut des type, involving undue subjection of the Church by the state or vice versa. The principle of inclusive secularity cannot be considered as being the thin edge of the wedge used to permit the Church to penetrate the state nor, to the contrary, can the public arena be seen as the sphere where the state wields dominion over the church.

Meanwhile, one might advocate the re-introduction of theology into state university syllabi, to be studied from a non-confessional but a thorough and rigorously scientific point of view, in order to increment inter-disciplinary projects like that ground-breaking instance of dialogue between Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger (Ratzinger, Habermas 2005). This might light the way to the lowering of barriers of prejudice and resistance, but also and in particular, it might offer ways of enhancing the quality of scientific approaches to themes like secularity and  religiosity, bioethics and biological jurisprudence.

According to Böckenförde (2007), religion should cease to be the caretaker of the soul of the state (and, therefore, no longer of either Christian or Moslem or of any other religious tendency) but should operate in society as civil religion capable of influencing the social order through individuals and the indications it provides them with. Therefore, one must expect, again according to Böckenförde, that it aim at playing a political role in agreement with its very own perspective, that is, the religious point of view. Dwelling on the secularity of the state, Böckenförde seems to suggest a  French kind of laïcité and prefer the concept of open neutrality towards all creeds (like Germany), but maybe the idea of impartiality would work better in this case and open up a broad enough pathway for the entry of religion or, rather, religions, into the public arena, without confining them, ghetto-like, to the private or at most to the so-called private-social sphere acting in lieu of the state itself. This scenario would permit the full achievement of Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious Weltanschauungen, without any kind of discontinuity between faith and action, between spiritual and worldly life. Once again it is a question of finding a balance between state secularity and the religious exigencies of a considerable number of citizens. This way, it would be possible to recover, as Böckenförde argues, some of the main values of Illuminism: human rights and freedom (of religion too).

There is certainly a link between the tópos of secularity and that of pluralism. The one and the other find themselves addressing once more the resilience of religion, which, regardless of the multi-decade surge of secularisation, maintains a basic solidity of its own. The reasons for pluralism may be pragmatic, a matter of opportunity: given the persistence of religions the only solution governments seem to opt for is widespread permissiveness. In any case, this choice seems to shirk responsibility for the difficulties created for those who expect greater autonomy and equality, but who instead, are required to give way to others and, to some extent, tolerate them. Thus, inclusiveness becomes tantamount to the exclusion of many who were already present inside of a given system. A more pondered kind of inclusiveness should appeal to values like justice, freedom, legitimacy and socio-political duty and accommodate positions at loggerheads with its own pre-existing ones. The risk is that of forcing freedom on those not prepared to accept it and who are entitled by right to disagree,  or of asking even of those who do not intend availing of it, so-called equality of respect, a concept still present, as filótimo, in Greek village culture(Cipriani, Cotesta, Kokosalakis, van Boeschoten 2002).     

Gian Enrico Rusconi (2000) has long been one of the foremost intellectual reference figures in the querelle on secularity, thanks to his forty-year-long standing as a cogent and rigorous contributor to the domain of public debate surrounding religion and politics. He is, therefore, a first-class protagonist and interlocutor, attentive, informed and respectful. In his opinion, the novelty of recent times lies in the Churches’ intention to contribute to a public ethos. This is a source of conflict for secularity which tends to bar religion from making contributions towards public ethics, as if God did not exist (the well-known etsi deus non daretur). The Churches, in truth, do not object to the secularity of the state but propose a so-called healthy secularity based on their own reference parameters. This leads to secular reaction, which refuses to brook any sort of diktat from institutions other than the state itself.

The greatest misunderstanding stems probably from the label “dictator ship of relativism” (Joseph Ratzinger, Homily for the Missa pro eligendo romano pontifice, April 17th, 2005; De Mattei 2007) which some exponents of so-called church-religion (an old term so dear to Rusconi) attribute to secular statements, which, on the contrary, prefer to refer to consensual regulation of ethical principles and their enforcement. On the one hand, stands the authority of the criteria of faith, on the other, those of the citizens as a whole, including believers of various kinds (or “differently believing”, as Rusconi likes to say).

It is held that public, secular ethics can differ, in a tolerable manner, from the ethos of private life; the religious public ethos, on the other hand while appearing more compact, also encounters divergences within the private sphere. The greatest distinction emerges from the different procedures applied by the two perspectives: the secular stance denotes a tendency to decide case by case, while the religious one seeks to draw up a general corpus of principles to be applied on all occasions.

So, the secular does not accept that the divine trespass on operative choices based on rights proceeding from rationality and consensus. Therefore, it requires the religious subject to adapt to the rules of the secular state. In other words, the convergence between faith and reason finds no support outside of church religion. But the secular position does not at all legitimise, Rusconi adds, the absence of any kind of moral rule, but, to the contrary, it foresees norms based on a consensual ethos, which is not easily accessed.

Rusconi, while contesting Böckenförde’s thesis (2007) whereby the Christian religion is capable of guaranteeing the normative premises the secular state lacks, observes that the historical roots of Christianity may be transformed, in time, into secular reasons and harmonise in the end with Habermas’s request that religions renounce their claims to exclusive truth, and engage in a real, reciprocal dialogue, for the advancement of science and the acceptance of the supremacy of secularity in the field of the law.  


Relations between the state and religion/s impact on several politico-territorial realities leading to results that depend heavily on historical contingencies, electoral trends, and systems of government. Indonesia, for example, is a country with a two-fold Islamic (just over 87%) and Christian (a little under 10%) presence, alongside two significant religious minorities (Hindu at around 2% and Buddhist at about 1%). In a similar context, as occurs in many other parts of the world (from Ireland to Cyprus, Israel to India, the Sudan to China), the problem of coexistence between diverse religious traditions and cultures within the same territory exists.

Universal history, besides, is a long litany of war and conflict between creeds as well as clashes between politics and religion. In the case of Indonesia, the solution found seems to have emerged thanks to a particular national ideology called Pancasila (Intan 2006), within which religion plays a relevant role and which is based essentially on inter-religious dialogue between Moslems and Christians. Neither the Islamic nor the secular character of the Indonesian state would be able, otherwise, to offer a way out. So Pancasila was the only possible alternative available if Indonesia intended maintaining its unity and diversity. Being obliged to deal with two conflicting ideologies, the solution Pancasila provided, showed that Indonesia did not want to be either a secular state where religion was totally separate from it, nor a religious state founded on one particular faith. In short, ‘both Pancasila and ‘secularisation as differentiation’ […] allowed one to avoid choosing between a secular state and a largely religious one’ (Intan 2006: 18). In other words, according to the principles of Pancasila the state remained religious without being theocratic.

The idea of variety within unity was the brainchild of Sukarno (the first president of Indonesia), who, keeping in mind the divisions within Indonesian Islam itself, expounded it on the 1st. June 1945 in a speech regarding the five principles of Pancasila, a word of Sanskrit and Pali origin indicating five (panca) fundaments (sila). Originally the five principles were: nationalism, internationalism or humanitarianism, deliberation or democracy; social justice or social wellbeing; and finally ketuhanan or Lordship. As can be seen, it was a mixture of Islamic and secular contents, and, indeed, tended to favour the latter. When however, the principles were reformulated and, eventually, reduced to one, reference to the Lord was retained and referred to on the basis of his oneness. The unity of the nation was guaranteed by a common reference to the Lord, shared and to be shared by all citizens. Thus, the religious content remained and the nation was not divided but strengthened in its unity by reference to the same Lord. It was, in fact, the oneness of the Lord that satisfied both Moslems and Christians because both considered the idea as being in perfect keeping with their faith. Not only, but the advocates of the secular state were gratified by the compromise reached thanks to the existence of a unifying factor in the best interests of the entire Indonesian nation. Later on, however, the situation grew less tranquil and episodes of tension between the various sectors of the Indonesian nation have occurred. The principle of sole Lordship has, however, contributed towards maintaining a considerable degree of national unity. 

The situation became more complicated, when, after Sukarno’s so-called Guided Democracy period, General Suharto came to power. His management of the country led to some reaction at religious level, especially among sectors of the Islamic population. The current diatribe concerning the contents of Pancasila is often accompanied by the most peculiar theories. The conclusive datum suggests that the weight of Indonesian religion or religions is considerable, as does the increased influence of Islam within the state, in particular among the members of Suharto’s New Order government. However, religious action does seem to contribute towards the promotion of democracy and liberation. One cannot overlook the important role played by intellectuals (Islamic and Christian) in favouring the  acceptance of Pancasila. In actual fact, «as a lifestyle, Pancasila invites Indonesian citizens to found a nation based on human values characterised by inclusion, not by discrimination» (Intan 2006: 222).

It is not the case to insist on Indonesia, which is simply an example of a solution which is achievable and has been achieved though not indefinitely. But it shows that when secularity is assumed as a value to be defended by the religions themselves and when religion and religions are taken seriously by the secular world, one can say that virtuous communication has been achieved and that further objectives may be reached. Perhaps, hypothetically speaking, only human dignity cannot be made the object of compromise being a generally recognised non-negotiable value, free from the obligations of reciprocity; it should be respected at all costs, even if others fail to comply. By way of coherence with what has been held so far, it is evident that this last point does not intend presenting an exception but begs examination and rebalancing on the basis of the outcome of the debate regarding it. Maybe this may become the hypothesis on which to base a kind of secularity and kind of religion which vie with each other in casting off ideology with a view to entering into dialogue, without, however, renouncing their own basic principles. Absolute truth is not to be found on either side, but it may be revealed by the participation of both, who cannot fail to concede to others what they ask for themselves. Respect and understanding stem from committed attempts at reciprocal recognition aimed at consciously deliberating on issues of an ethical nature, leading to new horizons for human action and excluding nothing from the domain of possibility, except for some mutually established values.


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[1] At the same time, however, Böckenförde observes that religion, increasingly free as it is, does not inform public order and is separate from the state, which no longer either represents or protects any religion, though it does not deny it, above all because religion was born before the state.

[2] Broadly speaking, both as veritable historically-rooted corpora which emerged and established themselves in time, like the various states and churches, and as mind sets or ideologies, born and consolidated thanks to varying degrees of consensus obtained in different historical periods and in different geographical areas and remaining tendentially stable for some time, as in the cases of nihilism, materialism, Marxism, positivism, rationalism, liberalism, secularism, modernism, scientism, existentialism.