Laïcité 2.0 — The Separation of State and Religion in the 21st Century
Laïcité (or laicism) is commonly used to describe the separation of state and religion. Whereby “commonly” is probably limited to a rather academic circle of users. In fact in English that term is hardly used but simplified and replaced with secularism. Although very similar these words should not be used synonymously. Laïcité is a very specific yet not precisely defined principle. Consider it a bundle of purpose-oriented measures that vary considerably in the practice of the constitutions and laws of individual states. In addition, since the first use of this fuzzy term at the end of the 19th century, the requirements in the relationship between state and worldview have also changed considerably in a more pluralistic society. The following article will illustrate why an update and a new definition of laïcité are needed for the 21st century.
Enlightenment in a subtle environment
Religious teachings do not provide any guidance in understanding nature. Their assertions of the world often contradict reality or are adapted to it only very late after mounting pressure from science. This directly affects the followers of these religions, whose individual worldviews correlate with these unscientific positions.
“The Demon-Haunted World” is the title of a book written by science communicator Carl Sagan, who wanted to dispel the superstition of a nature controlled by ethereal beings or forces. This scientific exorcism is not to be equated with the exorcistic measures of Catholicism or similar voodoo methods, which hardly passed anybody subjected to it without damage to life and limb, but was based on the scientific method mediated by words. Over many millennia, mankind has freed itself from this spirit infested world by its own power, completely without divine assistance, via trial and error, logic and empiricism. Men and women have changed the course of nature in their favor and cultivated a more comfortable environment for themselves. Religion has contributed nothing to progress in net terms, but has often dogmatically prevented improvements.
The light in the darkness in a world explained by superstition, was turned on by man himself; no supernatural being, no God and also not Prometheus brought it. A special phase in recent history for the breakthrough of rationality and secularization was the Enlightenment, a somewhat pompous term which signifies this illumination of natural mechanisms of action. The Enlightenment not only transferred the primacy of explaining the world from religion to science, it also encompassed politics. The newly founded republics did not want to renounce God so quickly in their constitutions and laws, but they no longer wanted to draw the legitimacy of rule from divine power, but as res publica from the people themselves.
Religious influence on secular laws and the privileging of the Christian churches in laws were henceforth increasingly restricted in Europe. The nature of religious freedom changed from a special right of rule to an individual choice — albeit initially only limited between religions (Catholic or Protestant). Subsequently, this particular form of freedom of conscience also included freedom from religion and the associated possibility of not belonging to any religious community.
France was the first country to establish the concept of laïcité or laicism(In principle, the terms are synonymous, but they are deliberately applied in different ways. See, among others, Alm, 2019, p. 220) in 1905 with the Law of Separation to actively keep religion out of the state and public institutions — but not out of the public sphere per se.
From today’s perspective, this defensive attitude can also be seen as a cautious overreaction on the part of the legislature. Only with an explicit clarification of the undesirability of religion in the powers and institutions of the republic could a status be established that put an end to the perpetuated normalization of legal privileges. The ideal of an atheistic agnosticism of the state took its place in the form of laïcité.
However France did not become a model for the world, with the exception of Turkey and its Kemalist laicism, which was introduced in 1923 with a radical pushback of Islam from the public sphere while simultaneously controlling religion itself. To this day, not much has changed; there are just twelve countries with secular constitutions, although the ideological diversity of populations is on the rise worldwide. Laïcité has not become a popular constitutional tool that makes a fundamental contribution to the state’s ideological neutrality.
Secularization and laïcité
Although the explicit separation of state and religion is not a popular textual component of republican constitutions, the idea percolated through the body politic and found practical expression in many countries as gradual secularization through the removal of religious privileges and the unbundling of institutional ties. Many basic laws also emphasize the ideological neutrality of the state and equal rights for all citizens or, as for example in the Austrian Federal Constitutional Law (Section 7 (1) B-VG), exclude privileges based on confession. But, as the saying goes, exceptions prove the rule. Many laws do not adhere to these constitutional requirements. Thus, in many states, this slow and partial separation leads to a state that approaches, but can never achieve, ideological neutrality.
Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure speak of “regimes of laïcité” (p. 37 ff.) that can be found in many countries, guaranteeing different forms of “separation of political and religious powers” and the free exercise of religion. The country-specific differences are manifold and range from reasonably restrictive to very open positions. But one commonality in the direction of development can be identified without doubt: Modern liberal democracies are increasingly secular, even if they still drag along and nurture religion in their laws and institutions.
Good examples of this are the Scandinavian and Nordic states, which until a few decades ago even maintained Protestant state churches and thus gave these worldviews a special place in society. But this came at a high cost for the churches which were tamed beyond recognition and de facto hollowed out ideologically by a controlling polity. In these countries, the population often no longer even actively rejects religion as a traditional service institution, but only shows disinterest.(Phil Zuckerman, 2008, has described this on the basis of the populations of Denmark and Sweden.)
This strong influence of the state on religion can be compared — and this is less paradoxical than it sounds — with Turkish laicism, which is less depicted by a clean separation of the secular and Islamic sphere, but had allowed clear control of the state over the dominant religion. Strictly speaking, both paths involve secularization via a communization of religion, characterized by very narrow governance.
The political reality of the secular state and laicist constitutions shows that the outcomes of these intentional approaches and practical developments vary widely. This is mainly because there is no universally applicable or even binding recipe for the separation of state and religion — indeed, not even an authoritative definition of laïcité shared by countries with secular practices. Worse, even the states with explicitly laicist constitutions do not fully comply with essential basic principles and are subject to the fallacy of giving special treatment to religion. To conclude from this that laïcité is an unsuitable concept or has even failed would be too hasty, but in its present form it needs renewal or rather a modern and precise definition.
The increasing irreligiousness of today’s populations and the growing disinterest in religion and especially organized religion as a result of individual quests for meaning promotes the secularization of modern democracies. While it leads to “regimes of laïcité”, it does not cause an actual separation of politics and religion and thus can never fully accommodate the plurality of beliefs. At worst, it perpetuates the preference for traditional moral simplicity that has developed over the values of a formerly dominant or de facto unitary religion.
In this respect, enacted laïcité as a conscious separation — top down via the constitutional route — is at any rate preferable to the withering away of religion. First, because it solves in principle the question of how the state should behave toward religions and, in a higher sense, worldviews. And second, because only a consistent republican position can put an end to the social normalization of the exceptional position of religious beliefs and special legal rights.
(A/N Being Austrian and thus especially acquainted with the situation I included this chapter as a model for a messy and inconsistent secularism.)
Austria in particular provides a good example of why a secular society and a slow shift away from religion in politics may be a somewhat tolerable discrimination-free state of affairs, but not a politically desirable one.
Of course, the situation for nonbelievers, atheists, women, homosexuals, etc., who were discriminated against by the ideological privileges of religious organizations or by religiously influenced legal provisions, has improved considerably. But only complete equality can and may be called non-discriminatory. And the republic is still very far from achieving this.
The basis for the relationship between state and religion in Austria is the so-calles cooperative model, which is based on the Concordat with the Holy See. In the form of a treaty under international law, Catholism — as political Catholicism — secured influence, funding and special rights in the republic in 1933. Other religions, which, as is well known, are not states at the same time, such as the Catholic Church, naturally could not conclude a treaty on an equal footing and were recognized through special religious laws. Today, 16 churches and religious communities are in this special status of a corporation under public law. In addition, there are ten confessional religious community, but they are hardly in a better legal position than normal associations. In total, the Republic thus maintains 16 or 26 state religions, depending on how they are counted, which have many rights and hardly have to fulfill any obligations. The fact that this is a religious three-class society is already clear from the legal nature of the special treatment via the Concordat, a simple law or as a confessional religious community.
In this way, the republic obviously wants to correspond to the social reality of a diverse society and, in the process, extends religious privileges to more and more religious communities which are officialized according to arbitrary criteria. In this way, however, the state is far from achieving full ideological coverage; on the contrary, it is promoting ever greater discrimination against those who do not belong to the circle of those legally better off. The group of nonbelievers is fundamentally denied access to the privileges of the religious three-class society. Their numbers are steadily on the rise and, at about two million (in a population close to nine million people), would be by far the second-largest denomination or faith-based community (of course, lacking both faith and community).
This fundamental unequal treatment finds its practical implementation in the afore-mentioned religious privileges. In addition to direct subsidies, these include the opening of religious instruction in schools and universities, including its financing, the inclusion of religious communities in public broadcasting free of charge, tax concessions (including the deductibility of church contributions) and much more. Carsten Frerk and Christoph Baumgarten (2012) have examined the financing of the religious communities and come to an order of magnitude of the contributions of almost four billion euros per year in Austria.
Austria also violates the institutional separation of church and state as well as the ban on identification (i.e. the prohibition of the state to identify with a certain religion) in many areas: military chaplaincy, religious instruction, crosses in courtrooms, classrooms of public schools or kindergartens, etc.
In addition, there are always shameless conflations of religion and official politics. As a right to privacy, the private lives of politicians naturally also enjoy the generally applicable degree of freedom of worldview. If a politician attends Sunday mass, a soccer match or a film screening at the cinema, these are private activities that are of no particular interest to the political public. It becomes critical when there is no discernible distinction with the office, for example in the case of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who allowed himself to be worshipped on stage at an evangelical mass in a large event hall (Vienna Stadthalle) in 2019. With some goodwill, even this can still be seen as a private activity, although it was staged in a somewhat insensitive manner, ultimately did Kurz more harm than good, and was also difficult to digest for Christian voters. In any case, the invitation of Vorarlberg’s (a province in Austria) Governor Markus Wallner in 2021 to an “interreligious memorial service” with a “candle ritual” or the holding of an “Advent celebration” in Parliament at the end of 2020 on the initiative of National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka, who before as Minister of the Interior also had police stations blessed by Church, goes too far.
Such instrumentalization of politics by religion is impossible even without laïcité in a secular state that maintains ideological equidistance. It is sufficient for elected representatives in a democracy to strive to assert their values in the legislature. This possibility is open to everyone, and here, too, the constitution sometimes applies different standards than the freedom of conscience of parliamentary majorities, as the Constitutional Court’s ruling in 2017 on the opening of marriage to same-sex couples proved.
Need for redefinition of laïcité
Even if, in terms of realpolitik, the scope for organized religion in the secular state is becoming narrower, ideological neutrality can be achieved exclusively through an updated regime of a new laïcité. The fact that previous implementations of laicist constitutions and quasi-laicist legal systems and jurisprudence have fallen more or less short of this goal is a conceptual problem in addition to political will.
At the same time, it is also an opportunity to conceptually renew laïcité, to adapt it to the 21st century, and to make it the basis of a more open, liberal, and ultimately more just society through republican constitutions. This sharpening of the term to the point of reformulation follows a purpose orientation that has also changed over the past 125 years.
In the late 19th century, French laïcité was a reaction to Catholicism, a red line to fundamentally shut down the church’s covetousness and disempower it. Similarly, Kemalism in Turkey proceeded in implementing laicism as a republican principle. In both cases, a socially and also politically dominant religion was separated from power by this very radical measure and denied access to politics.
Laïcité, although functionally established only as a reaction to one religion at a time, thus became a catch-all term for a separation of republic and religion. Its goal was to actively keep religion out of politics and public institutions. This defensive attitude thus in no way reflects a sovereign approach to religious worldview. It led to an arbitrary separation of spheres, which was intended to put a stop to the mixing of secular laws and traditional values that still held great importance in society. The republics were confronted with a powerful moral monoculture of traditional religious values and primarily had no need to establish ideological neutrality, but rather to ensure the primacy of the state in the rules of coexistence, which were written down in laws.
In the course of the last century, these moral monocultures split into pluralistic societies of liberal democracies. Multicultural, polyethnic demographics developed — also, but not only, as a result of migration — which today are characterized by a variety of moral viewpoints. They by no means result only from the mix of different religions, but sometimes developed via equally little evidence-based ideas (esotericism). One could say polemically: Superstition has not disappeared from the world, but it has at least become more diverse.
In addition, there is naturally a multitude of humanistic philosophies that have built their worldviews entirely void of supernatural explanation, but can by no means be summarized as a homogeneous residual category of unbelievers.
The task of secularism in the 21st century is thus no longer to remove the privileges of a dominant worldview in the state and, with this process, to privatize small religious groups on the way, but to guarantee the freedom of all worldviews equally. Laïcité does not include a state task of actively balancing the interests of divergent moral concepts of organized religions.
This also means that collective, identitarian catalogs of convictions and associated interests are not given preference over individual freedom of conscience and moral concepts. Under no circumstances, therefore, can the path lead via the inclusion of further members in the club of officialized worldviews. Even if it were practically universally possible, the promotion of individual convictions is not one of the tasks of the state. It only has to protect the freedom of conscience and practice within the framework of generally applicable laws.
Privatization of religion
The requirements of the state with regard to a non-privileging and non-discriminatory attitude towards religion and belief have changed in the encounter with growing moral pluralism. Thus, the nature of laïcité, which reflects this attitude, should also change. Establishing ideological neutrality today can only be done by categorically avoiding religion — in the literal sense as an ideological “category”. For the state, it is irrelevant which worldview its citizens adhere to, whether these are rational or other-worldly, as long as the actions arising from these ideologies are within the boundaries of generally valid laws.
The state can thus maintain relaxed dealings with religious communities; it can also continue to enter into contracts with them,(Alm, 2019, p. 226) for example, for services that religious charities (e. g. Caritas and Diakonie) provide for the general public. It just no longer gives religion special treatment — neither preferentially nor disadvantageously.
Laïcité thus imposes on the bearers (institutions as well as individuals) of non-religious and religious worldviews the acceptance of a “pre-political precondition” (2020, p. 11), as Cinzia Sciuto calls it: that no exceptions are made from universally valid laws for any god or other belief. Laïcité thus does not strive for equal validity of religions and worldviews, but for indifference in the sense of disinterestedness in personal moral concepts and their distinctiveness, as long as fundamental rights are respected.
For centuries, the traditional preference for religion has made this pre-political necessity impossible. Not least because of this, religions, in contrast to tradition, language and other cultural characteristics, “promise the greatest potential for conflict because of the privileged status they enjoy today” (Sciuto, 2020, p. 8 ff.). They prevent the establishment of a set of values that can be shared by all. “As complexity increases, citizenship and ethno-religious affiliation must be distinguished more sharply. A core set of values must be identified that constitute the core of citizenship and are independent of and superior to national, ethnic, cultural, and religious affiliations.”(Sciuto, 2020, p. 141.) According to Sciuto’s findings, only fundamentalists place their own morality at the foundation of social and political coexistence above this lowest common denominator.
Laïcité completely dissolves the cooperative model between the republic and religions. This even entails the danger that control over organized religion will be partially lost because, among other things, religious quid pro quos will be eliminated and religious indoctrination can no longer take place at universities and public schools, where it can be controlled, even if only partially, by the state. Other details of the law, such as the ban on foreign funding in the Islam Act — a new law to re-officialize Islam introduced in Austria in 2015 — would also no longer apply.
Buying these special and ultimately tame tools of control over privilege at a high price is an unworthy bargain that not only conflicts with basic democratic principles but, in sum, works to the disadvantage of the state and society. A robust democracy, with or without special religious treatment, must have laws and executive mechanisms that guard against any negative consequence of religious practice on individuals and society regardless of its religious origin.
A removal of religion from the sphere of the state, i.e., a privatization of religion, is a basic prerequisite for the depoliticization of religion. With the political non-treatment of religion, legal exceptions or betterments for purely religious reasons are avoided, that is, religion cannot be accepted as a justification for such a privilege. This ends the privileged position of religion and the instrumentalization of religious freedom as the continued enforcement of a collective list of demands based on moral one-dimensionality, which per se contributes nothing to the political reconciliation of interests, but rather to a social imbalance.
Nevertheless, the state does not go blind to religious (and also political and ideological) fundamentalism, which cannot accept the common core of values and laïcité as a pre-political prerequisite of a modern democracy because of its own moral convictions. Religious organizations must continue to be observed with special vigilance, not because they are religion per se, but because it has been proven that fundamentalist value concepts of religion often contradict the value framework of constitutional conditions of commonwealths and are incompatible with laïcité as a guarantor of moral diversity.
If one now thinks that this conception no longer reflects the laïcité of the early 20th century, but only something similar, which consequently should also be called something else, then this is an understandable point of view. This discussion can, may and should be held. I believe that the term should be retained and recast for practical reasons. At its core, laïcité continues to serve the practical purpose of regulating the relationship between the state and religion and merely needs to be adapted to the requirements of societies with diverse beliefs without being discriminatory. One could also simply speak of laïcité 2.0.
A redefinition of laïcité, of course, solves nothing in practical politics as long as the political will and, even before that, the political understanding are not capable of winning a majority. Austria and the rest of the world are far from achieving this.
Alm, N. (2019). Ohne Bekenntnis — Wie mit Religion Politik gemacht wird. Residenz.
Dreier, H. (2018). Staat ohne Gott — Die Religion in der säkularen Moderne. C.H.Beck.
Frerk, C., & Baumgarten, C. (2012). Gottes Werk und unser Beitrag — Kirchenfinanzierung in Österreich. Czernin.
Leiter, B. (2014). Why Tolerate Religion? Princeton Univ. Press.
Sagan, C. (1995). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as A Candle in the Dark. Random House.
Sciuto, C. (2020). Die Fallen des Multikulturalismus — Laizität und Menschenrechte in einer vielfältigen Gesellschaft. Rotpunktverlag.
Taylor, C., & Maclure, J. (2011). Laizität und Gewissensfreiheit. Suhrkamp.
Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God. New York University Press.