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Is Europe secular or religious? The case of Turkey

von Otto Möller (Autor)

Essay 2014 12 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Europäische Union


Is Europe secular or religious?

An essay

Subject: PO666 Religion and the International Politics

The following essay intends to answer the question whether Europe is secular or religious? In order to answer this question in a meaningful manner, a definition of the two technical terms is needed. Secular signifies: “Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion; civil, lay, temporal. Chiefly used as a negative term, with the meaning non-ecclesiastical, non-religious, or non-sacred.“ (Oxford English Dictionary 2008)

Where as religion according to the Oxford English Dictionary means:

Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement. (Oxford English Dictionary 2008)

It is of crucial importance for contemporary European Union and its future to realise and define for itself whether it is religious or secular, since it prides itself for being secular and therefore modern. The characteristics of secularism, which I will explain in further depth later on are highly held among the member states. “ As a general rule the theory postulates that the more modern a society the less religious will be its population.” (Casanova: p. 87)

It is important to self-define for the Union because any kind of public reflection of the Christian tradition and culture or of the current religious heritage of modern Europeans, it is believed, would result in the impossibility of liberal political coexistence and “pluralistic toleration in a united Europe .” Rather than keeping in memory the actual religious and secular pluralisms and the multiple European modernities, the most important discourses in Europe favour to stick to the idea of a unique secular modernity, emerging out of the Enlightenment.“ (Casanova: p. 66) If Europe cannot be determined in regards to specific factors such as of complex space and complex time that permits and offers options diversity of lifestyles to unfold, “it may be fated to be no more than the common market of an imperial civilization, always anxious about (Muslim) exiles within its gates and (Muslim) barbarians beyond”. (Asad: p.180)

The states of the union have the idea of “constitutional patriotism as a secular model of solidarity based on the allegiance to universally shared principles in common these principles are found in the constitutional patriotism. The universal paradigm of ‘constitutional patriotism’ informs the current official conception of the European Union (Lacroix, 2002: 946). In both the European treaties and the accession criteria to the European Union there are no references to a historical and cultural community to describe the European polity. Article 6 of the Treaty on European: ‘The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States’. No references to the Christian roots of Europe in the draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe (European Constitution) (only a general reference to its religious heritage). The background provided in the introduction states the importance to deal with the subject and finally raises the question. Europe claims to be secular, but its moral values are too closely bind towards its Judeo-Christian heritage to act without showing religious bias. Therefore, my thesis statement will be: Even though the states of the EU have secular constitutions, the shared Christian roots of the member states of the European Union and the notion of believing without belonging which is shared by the majority of the European population leads to religiously motivated policy of the member states. Which can be seen in the accession policy of the Union. The first part of the essay will deal with the question of Europe being secular or religious and whereas the second part of the essay intends to answer this question with regard to the debate about the Turkish accession to the EU.

Christianity in Europe had to some extent make space for constitutional patriotism, based on the idea that modernisation requires secularisation. One step towards this aim was the privatization of religious belief and eventually the decline of religious believe which subsequently will lead to unchurching. Nevertheless this can hardly be seen as an overall development, due to exceptions like Poland, Ireland, Italy(partly). Not even within the union there is unity concerning the extent of secularism. Grace Davie has described this phenomena as ‘Believing without belonging’. Christianity is to a shrinking degree about belonging to a specific Church, more about identifying with a soft Christian identity. “I believe in God, but I am not very specific about the God in whom I believe”. “Religion in Europe is like an iceberg: most of what is interesting is under the water and out of view.” (Davie, 2003) A silent force, which finds its display in the Christian cross which I am going to refer to later on.

In contrast to Grace Davie, Danièle Hervieu-Léger describes the situation in Europe as “Belonging without believing”. He considers religion as “Religion as ‘a distant shared memory, which does not necessitate shared belief, but which – even from a distance – still governs collective reflexes in terms of identity.” However, that means that it is in principle combinable with the European notion of secularism. (Mavelli@all)

A representative example for this thesis are Danish citizens who neither believe in God nor attend the church, but still pay the tax that is supporting the Lutheran Church, due to the mere fact that they wish their religious buildings to be well keep. The same applies to French citizen who are emotionally attached to their elaborate church services which they attended to during their childhood and object about mosques being build in France while never attending service themselves. However, Danièle Hervieu-Léger leaves the question unanswered to what it is the French and Danish citizen belong to. Is it the Church, the Nation or a Civilization? These examples state a major feature of the European identity: Christianity, which is accompanied by Secularism, which is defined as a “Political doctrine that asserts the separation of state and church and the confinement of religion to the private sphere” thereby it is supporting a certain world view and builds a pillar for political authority and power (Mavelli@all) Whereas, the term Secularization denotes a historical process which resulted in a “church-state separation” and eventually in the “privatization of religion”

(Functional differentiation (affirmation of politics, economics and science as autonomous spheres separated from the religious sphere) Max Weber, ‘Science as a Vocation’ (1919) and ‘The Social Psychology of the World Religions’ (1915)

The banishment of religion from the public sphere which is one of the main features of the secular modern European identity as claimed, the universal and only suitable mode of religious activity is “private, disembodied and cognitive.” The fact that this is the only way and Islam is not capable of being a privatised religion as Grace Davie offers conflict potential. (Interview) Following Kant religion is beneficial for a society when it can support “the moral law through the threat of eternal sanction” in addition to that Habermas states that “religion can be a provider of the moral resources to address the crisis of modernity”. (Habermas, Casanova).“For Kant, religion is not ‘knowledge’, but merely ‘belief’; its truths ‘stand independently of public argument’. Hence, for Kant, ‘public expressions of personal belief … must always defer to that public authority which is known as the state’” (Asad). Basically, religion as an inferior level to the power of the state, which can be used in a beneficial manner for the state. Of the same opinion is the political philosopher Hobbes, “the ‘private man’ should practise faith ‘in his heart’, and that to comply with the law of God means ‘to obey our civil sovereigns’”. Having referenced to these great figures who build the foundation for the Enlightenment movement and European secularism this intellectual heritage is attacked by current and former powerful figures of member states of the European Union, such as the “former French President and president of the commission that drafted the European constitution, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who said in 2002: Turkey ‘not a European country’ and admitting Turkey to the EU would mean ‘the end of Europe’” or “Former West German chancellor and Social Democratic party (SPD) leader Helmut Schmidt: Turkey should be excluded from the EU due to its unsuitable civilisation; with Turkey ‘the political union degenerating into nothing more than a free trade community.” He is referring to a geographical definition of Europe rather to a common cultural background and disclaims that Kemalism is comparable to European secularism. These opinions find further backing up by the EU internal market chief Frits Bolkestein: “The American Islam expert Bernard Lewis has said that Europe will be Islamic at the end of this century. I do not know if this is right, or whether it will be at that speed, but if he is right, the liberation of Vienna in 1683 would have been in vain”. He is predicting that the banning of the religions from the public space is meant to fail.

These statements show to what extent the Christian heritage is still part of contemporary Europe and give an insight to what level anti-islam comments are socially accepted. The second part of the essay will discuss this issue in further detail.

Historically, speaking it is noticeable that starting of with the passing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 that established the ECC (European Economic Community) and was the foundation of the unfolding development of European integration, Western European societes have experienced a prompt, and apparently irrevocable process of secularization. Taking this into consideration, one can talk of the evolution of a post-Christian Europe” (Casanova: p. 66). The mere fact that this debate is being reflects European religiousness.

Nevertheless, especially the integration of a chiefly Catholic Poland, and the discussion over some kind of acknowledged of the Christian heritage in the preamble of the new European constitution, have contributed an accidental “religious” inconvenience to the discussion over Europeanization. Moreover, almost every European country has a more or less influential Christian party. It is the coming together between these events – the “role of Catholic Poland, the incorporation of Turkey, the integration of Muslim immigrats, and the reference to the Christian heritage in the European constitution- and the European secular mindset.” (Casanova: p. 65)

The special relationship towards religion in Poland came about during the Nazi invasion and the unaccomplished attempts of the communist regime to obtrude the Soviet model of constrained secularization from the government which constructed the circumstances for the reanimation “of Polish Catholocism and the persistance of Polish “exeptionalism.” During the communist regime the Polish Catholicism experienced a remarkable reanimation at the very same time when Western European societies were experiencing a drastic process of secularization.” (Casanova: p. 65) For Poland being religious is associated with individuality and self determination and became a crucial part of there culture. Therefore, it is hard to argue that western and central Europe have the same religious identity. This stand is supported by the following survey depicting Polish attitudes in regard to European integration one can differentiate four contrary kinds of “europhobes,” i.e those who are opposed unifying because of what Europe represents. (…) Eventually there are the Catholic “europhobes”, people who are opposed European integration since they believe that the Christian identity is no longer present in modern Europe and who claim as a result of that the states of the union are “secular, materialist” and its hedonist values, manifest a danger to Poland´s Catholic identity and values.” (Casanova: p. 69)

The doubts and scepticism of the europhobes appear to be completely understandable taking in to consideration that the basic premise of the secularization paradigm, is “that the more modern society the more secular it becomes, seems to be a widespread and taken-for-granted assumption in Poland also.” Modernisation in the eyes of many Poles means to achieve or reach the same standard of “political, economic, social, and cultural development”, as other European countries. This shows one of the aim of the European integration, most spectators tend to prognosticate that such a modernization will eventually result in a secularization also in Poland, this would mean that the Polish religious “exceptionalism” would come to an end. This assumption however, seems not to be a valid one for the accession of Turkey and illustrates one more time the difference in the process of integration of the two countries in the union. In the case of Poland it was acceptable for the member states that the Polish “exceptionalism” was and is a clear indicator of an unfinished process of secularisation. Poland got accepted nevertheless, whereas Turkey has to still await the accession. Almost the areas of “medieval Christiandom, that is, of Catholic and Protestant Europe, are now reunited in the new Europe.” (Casanova: 72) Merely Catholic Croatia and “neutral” Switzerland and Norway are not part of it, since they did not wish to become a part. Whereas “Orthodox Greece as well as Greek Cyprus are the only religious other.” Orthodox Romania and Bulgaria followed them and became member as well. Unclear “is if and when the negotiations for Turkey´s admission will begin in earnest.” (Casanova: p.71)



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Institution / Hochschule
University of Kent – Department of International Relations
Secular EU Expansion Religion Erdogan


  • Otto Möller (Autor)



Titel: Is Europe secular or religious? The case of Turkey