Held insists throughout his essay that to forget the vital component of religion, which was at the root of science and democracy’s appearance in ancient Greece, is to understand precious little of what makes Western cultural in general the unique culture that it is. This is a theme previously explored by Christopher Dawson (in his The Making of Europe, 1932) as well as by George Santayana, an atheist who nevertheless held that the enigma that is Europe will forever elude us without a clear and unbiased understanding of the phenomenon of Christianity.
Two years later, on June 9, 2004, Held's watershed article was followed by a report by the European Policy Center in Brussels drafted by a senior research fellow, Dr. Jocelyne Cesari. In it Ms. Cesari reports that Europe is the only region of the world which has a general hostility toward religion—that Europeans have a tendency to explain every sign of backwardness in terms of religion.
The European tendency, according to this scholarly report, is to equate Muslim religion, and indeed all religions, with fanaticism. This phenomenon unique to Europe was also documented by the World Values Survey conducted by a group of social scientists who identify its roots in the Enlightenment Period, the period of Voltaire, the very icon of Enlightenment who while asserting that he would defend to death the right of dissent and free speech of any citizen, at the same time, and paradoxically, writes the famed “Mahomet, of Fanaticism” in 1745, without ever retracting his misguided tract. In fact, he dies cursing Dante whom he considered a bigoted Medieval (Gothic was his favored slur) poet and therefore not a great poet. That spirit, according to Cesari and the World Values Survey lives on today. But there are signs that the anti-religion virulence is in abeyance in Europe and one who detects those signs is none other than the present day European philosopher Jurgen Habermas. He seems to detect what he calls a “post-secular” age on the European horizon. This has all the self-proclaimed secular humanists, who generally disdain religion and advocate its liquidation, a bit worried lately. Their strident vitriolic statements against religion have been on the increase lately. For they have always fantasized of being at the very cutting edge of what it means to be modern and “enlightened” and now feel such a position challenged not only by theologians and religious leaders but by a philosopher to boot.
The misnomer “secular humanism” was certainly not invented by the original European humanists in 14th century Italy. Its acknowledged father, Francesco Petrarca was a deacon of the Church and indeed most humanists were and remained pious believers. Secularism by itself is a neutral term distinguishing the sacred from the secular or temporal. Dante certainly made the distinction and places three Popes in hell for failing to make that distinction and confusing the sacred with the temporal. Indeed, Humanism by itself does not indicate an unfriendly stance toward religion.
The modern fallacy consists in placing secular as an adjective before humanist as if to imply that to be a humanist one needs to be a secularist inimical to religion which is definitely not the case. It is also not the case that all secularists (what the French and Italians call “laicitè” or “laicità”) are ipso facto atheists and agnostics unfriendly to religion. One of those secularists was Robert Shumann who is up for canonization by the Catholic Church, another was De Gaperi who was also a practicing Catholic. In other words, secularism and catholicity do not have to be mutually exclusive.
But the vitriolic language persists. Here is a quote from a famous avowed atheistic scientist, Richard Dawkins, from his book The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
One may object that the likes of Dawkins are mere aberrations and therefore arguments against them are merely ad hominem attacks, that one ends up fighting straw men and windmills, but to the contrary they are examples of a type of “enlightened” modern prototypes ready to fantasize a bully God while denying his existence, an apparent contradiction never fully explained, convinced that the sooner religion is liquidated, the better. They are willing and ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater and eliminate the use and the practice of religion because of its abuses.
Jurgen Habermas must have surely read Held’s influential essay. Habermas is very much involved in the debate on the EU identity and has even signed manifestos on the same with Umberto Eco, the late Derrida and other influential philosophers. In 2005 Habermas delivered a lecture on the occasion of the Holberg prize which then became an article in 2006. See “Religion in the public sphere” by J. Habermas, in European Journal of Philosophy 14: 1-25. The core of that essay is that “secular citizens in Europe must learn to live, the sooner the better, in a post-secular society and in so doing they will be following the example of religious citizens, who have already come to terms with the ethical expectations of democratic citizenship. So far secular citizens have not been expected to make a similar effort.”
Habermas addresses the debate in terms of John Rawls’s concept of “public use of reason.” At the beginning of the article Habermas introduces two closely linked ideas: on the one hand the increasing isolation of Europe from the rest of the world in terms of its religious configurations, and on the other hand the notion of “multiple modernities.” He challenges the notion that Europe is the lead society in the modernizing process and invites his fellow secular Europeans to what he calls “a self reflective transcending of the secularist self-understanding of Modernity,” an attitude that goes beyond mere tolerance in as much as it necessarily engenders feelings of respect for the world view of the religious person, so that their pronouncements don’t automatically engender derision and contempt, a la Voltaire.
In other words, Habermas while advocating reciprocity and the “public use of reason” in the agora and not only in the privacy of one’s church, synagogue or mosque, is proposing a new challenging question: Are religious issues simply to be regarded as relics of a pre-modern era, or is it the duty of the more secular citizens to overcome their narrowly secularist consciousness in order to engage with religion in terms of what Habermas calls “reasonably expected disagreement”? That of course assumes a degree of rationality on both sides. It is indeed a challenging argument, one in which the relative secularity of Europe is increasingly seen as an exceptional, rather than prototypical case. I submit that the real debate on this crucial issue of the EU identity, which is the root cause of much political confusion nowadays, has hardly begun. There may not be much time left. Once totalitarianism and tyranny returns to Europe, and raises its ugly head even in America (to wit Donald Trump), the opportunity for dialogue and debate will vanish for good. We’ll be left with the dictates of the dictators.