Religious Diversity: The Urgency for a Post-Secular Shift

Embracing a post-secular paradigm is not just necessary but urgent for managing religious diversity in modern liberal democracies.

A Celebration of Religious Diversity with The Most Rev. Francisco González, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, and Dr. Ingrid Mattson at the Washington National Cathedral. Photo by Donovan Marks.

A New Paradigm for Religious Diversity

Religious diversity in liberal democracies is more than a mere statistical detail; it’s a complex social issue that has far-reaching implications. In many countries, the traditional approach to managing this diversity has been through secularism. Under this system, religion is often marginalized, treated as a private matter that should have minimal impact on public life. While this secular approach has some merits, it increasingly proves inadequate for addressing the complexities of a diverse religious landscape.

The cracks in the secular model are evident. The approach assumes a strict separation between the religious and the secular, but such demarcations are often blurry and context-dependent. Moreover, the secular approach tends to generalize religious communities, overlooking the rich tapestry of beliefs and practices within them. It can inadvertently sideline religious minorities, leading to feelings of exclusion and social discord. This is particularly problematic as the globe witnesses mass migrations, bringing people of varied religious backgrounds into closer contact than ever before.

Recognizing these limitations, scholars and policymakers are advocating for a new paradigm: post-secularism. This article aims to unpack the intricacies of this emerging perspective. Unlike the secular model, which seeks to marginalize religion, the post-secular paradigm recognizes the essential role religion plays in people’s lives. It encourages a more nuanced understanding of religious diversity, promoting inclusion rather than exclusion. The article argues that adopting a post-secular approach can offer a more equitable and effective way of dealing with religious diversity in liberal democracies.

The Secularization Paradigm and its Limitations

The secularization paradigm has been the cornerstone of how many Northern and Western European countries perceive and manage religious diversity. In these nations, modernity and progress are often conflated with secularism, creating an environment where religious adherence is increasingly seen as a relic of a less enlightened past. While this approach may seem neutral, its limitations become glaringly apparent when dealing with minority religious communities.

While Christianity experiences culturalization in secular societies, minority religious communities, particularly Muslims, confront the opposite phenomenon: religionization.

In a secular framework, religious identities are often marginalized to the private sphere, deemed incompatible with public life. The state’s commitment to religious neutrality, although noble in intention, tends to neglect the multidimensional nature of religion. The secular paradigm often renders invisible the doctrinal, ethical, ritualistic, and cultural facets that make up a religion, especially those practiced by minorities. In doing so, it perpetuates an oversimplified narrative that isolates and diminishes religious communities.

Moreover, this simplistic perspective leads to what some scholars call the “culturalization of religion,” particularly of Christianity. In this context, Christianity is valued more as a cultural or civilizational identity than a religious one. Concurrently, the opposite occurs for minority religions, notably Islam, through a process known as “religionization.” Here, the religious aspects of cultural practices are unduly emphasized, thereby making these communities more susceptible to marginalization.

The secularization paradigm also operates within a comparative civilizational framework, often contrasting Christianity with Islam. This not only perpetuates divisive ideologies but also masks the complexities within each religious tradition. While the secular model might have served these countries well in the past, it’s becoming increasingly inadequate for managing the complex tapestry of religious diversity in contemporary society.

The Culturalization of Christianity

In secular societies, particularly those in Northern and Western Europe, Christianity undergoes a profound transformation. The focus shifts from its theological underpinnings to its cultural expressions. This shift allows Christianity to maintain its social standing, even as its role as a religion wanes.

What drives this transformation is not a natural evolution of belief but rather a strategic reframing. This reframing accommodates the secular tenor of the state and society. By emphasizing the cultural aspects—like art, history, and moral values—Christianity secures its place in the social fabric as a civilizational identity rather than a purely religious one. This cultural identity often becomes especially salient in comparative frameworks where Christianity is contrasted with other religions, particularly Islam.

Religionization deprives Muslim communities of the multifaceted nature of their practices and beliefs.

The rebranding of Christianity as culture serves a dual purpose. First, it allows for the inclusion of Christian symbols and values in public life without violating the state’s commitment to religious neutrality. Second, it provides a common identity marker that unites people beyond theological affiliations. However, this transformation is not without its challenges. While the cultural aspects of Christianity are highlighted, its spiritual essence may be compromised, leading to a more superficial engagement with the religion itself.

The culturalization also occurs in a relational context, often implicitly set against the backdrop of Islam. This not only reinforces the status of Christianity as a defining component of ‘Western civilization,’ but also contributes to the othering of Islamic practices and identities, which are often viewed through a religious lens rather than a cultural one.

Religionization: Overcoming Simplification

While Christianity experiences culturalization in secular societies, minority religious communities, particularly Muslims, confront the opposite phenomenon: “religionization.” This term refers to the overwhelming focus on religious elements at the expense of broader cultural nuances. Such a lopsided perspective affects not only public perception but also policy formulation.

Take France’s debate on banning abayas in public schools as an example. The discourse surrounding this issue often reduces the abaya to a mere religious symbol, sidestepping its complex cultural significance. By doing so, policies like these fall into the trap of monolithic characterization, undermining the layered identities that people possess. In essence, religionization deprives Muslim communities of the multifaceted nature of their practices and beliefs.

The post-secular perspective offers a more inclusive and nuanced way to handle the complex interplay between religious and secular communities.

Moreover, the religionization of minority communities contributes to social exclusion. When religious traits become the sole defining characteristic, integration into mainstream society becomes challenging. The approach perpetuates othering, leading to a fragmented society where mutual understanding is compromised.

Thus, religionization not only misrepresents minority communities but also fosters an environment where polarization thrives. It forces complex identities into narrow categories, affecting both social cohesion and individual freedom. This skewed focus calls for a reevaluation of how we approach religious diversity, advocating for a more nuanced understanding that goes beyond reductive religious or cultural labels.

Toward an Inclusive Future: The Post-Secular Perspective

Breaking free from the limitations of the secularization model calls for a new approach to managing religious diversity. Enter post-secularism, a theoretical framework often attributed to the influential philosopher Jürgen Habermas. The post-secular perspective offers a more inclusive and nuanced way to handle the complex interplay between religious and secular communities.

Unlike the conventional secular model, which often pits religion against secularism, the post-secular approach fosters a symbiotic relationship between the two. It recognizes that both religious beliefs and secular reasoning have roles to play in shaping society. By doing so, it enables an environment where various forms of thought can coexist without compromising their integrity.

In the post-secular schema, religious practices aren’t just tolerated but respected for their intrinsic value. At the same time, secular reasoning maintains its critical function without suppressing religious expression. This creates a setting where dialogue, rather than opposition, becomes the norm.

Importantly, adopting a post-secular lens encourages policymakers to revisit old legislative frameworks. These changes could lead to more equitable laws that take into account the complex identities of their citizens, moving away from binary categories.

Addressing Inequalities through the Post-Secular Paradigm

The conventional secular framework has often inadvertently entrenched inequalities by placing religious and secular perspectives in opposition. The post-secular paradigm serves as a corrective lens, providing a more nuanced and equitable approach to managing religious diversity.

The strength of the post-secular approach lies in its commitment to balance. Unlike the secular model, which tends to privilege secularism over religiosity, the post-secular paradigm values both viewpoints equally. It understands that both religious and secular perspectives can coexist and contribute to the public discourse.

By acknowledging the intrinsic worth of each perspective, the post-secular paradigm paves the way for more equitable policies. It moves beyond mere tolerance to active engagement, fostering an environment conducive to meaningful dialogue. This interaction enriches both communities, leading to a more inclusive society.

The shift to a post-secular model forces a reevaluation of existing policies and laws that may have disproportionately marginalized religious minorities. Consequently, it represents a tangible step toward rectifying systemic inequalities.

Conclusion: The Urgency for a Post-Secular Shift

The current juncture in liberal democracies demands an immediate transition to a post-secular framework. As religious diversity becomes an increasingly critical topic, the secular paradigm reveals its limitations in fostering true inclusivity. Hence, the need for a paradigmatic shift is not just timely but urgent.

This article stands as a critical call to action for policymakers, scholars, and citizens alike. It urges a comprehensive reevaluation of how we handle religious diversity in both public discourse and policy. The shortcomings of the secular model — its oversimplifications, its unintentional biases, and its perpetuation of inequalities — necessitate this change.

The post-secular paradigm offers a more holistic and equitable lens through which to view religious diversity. By adopting its principles, we can aim for a society where multiple faiths and belief systems coexist harmoniously with secular ideologies. This doesn’t just benefit religious communities; it enriches society as a whole, making it more pluralistic and more inclusive.

In summary, the stakes are high, and the time for change is now. Adopting a post-secular approach allows us to manage religious diversity effectively and equitably, setting the foundation for a truly pluralistic society.

Adapted from an academic article for a wider audience, under license  CC BY 4.0

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