The failure of ‘laicite’ and the misunderstanding of separation of church and state

The inability to define and defend Western cultural values is particularly evident in Europe’s present struggle to accommodate demands for different religious cultural identities within a secular state. Much depends, of course, on the definition of ‘secular’ in this regard.

The problems of religious and cultural plurality are most pronounced in states committed to the ideology of laïcité: the state pretends to value neutrality and presumes the complete separation not only of church and state, but also of religion and public space. Religion is no longer seen as important for social ideals but reduced to mere private interest.

Religion, however, is not easily stopped by bureaucrats and continues to find its way into public policies in many ways. Yet the official stance of laïcité allows politicians to avoid the fundamental question of whether religion is indeed essential to human identity and rationality; especially when it comes to Muslim culture, many European politicians view religion as a problem, and continue to enforce their vision of a society built on secularist reason.

Such secularist reason is not, however, neutral but constitutes its own ‘civil religion’ complete with a certain interpretation of what it means to be human. Other countries, such as Germany, for example, enjoy a constitutional integration of organized religion, academic, and public life. Yet even here, theology as rational expression of divine revelation still suffers from Enlightenment prejudices against belief.

These European debates point to a vital issue for Western culture as a whole: if culture is an expression of our humanity, and if religion generates culture, the central issue at stake is the relation of religion to culture

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