Do you realise Europe is in the throes of civil war?

By Larry Siedentop, an emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford (THE TIMES, 27/02/07):

Europe is in the midst of an undeclared “civil war” — a struggle that has been boiling away since the 18th century. It is a war between religious believers and secularists.

The French Revolution was the decisive moment in this clash between Church and anticlericalists. It created two hostile camps across the whole of Europe — pitting the followers of Voltaire, who sought to écraser l’infâme, as they described the Church, against those who saw the separating of Church and State as an insurrection against God.

Over the past hundred years the religious camp has come, by and large, to accept civil liberty and religious pluralism. The anticlericals have — with the exception of hardline Marxists and writers such as Richard Dawkins — given up on the attempt to extirpate religious belief.

But the old antagonism still lurks under the surface. It resurfaced over the debate whether the proposed constitutional treaty for the EU should recognise the Christian roots of Europe. The visceral reaction of the French Left has its counterpart in Church rhetoric deploring the growth of “godless” secularism. Even Pope Benedict XVI, the most learned pope for many years, recently called for an understanding between religions in order to combat secularism.

This split is as tragic as it is unnecessary. It is tragic because, by identifying European secularism with nonbelief and materialism, it deprives Europe of moral authority — playing into the hands of those who are only too anxious to portray Europe as decadent and without belief. It is unnecessary because it because it rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of secularism.

Properly understood, secularism can be seen as one of Europe’s noblest achievements. What is the crux of secularism? It is that belief in an underlying moral equality of humans implies that there is a sphere in which individuals should be free to make their own decisions.

Secularism, however, is not mere indifference or nonbelief or a “value-free” framework. On the contrary, it rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions. It puts a premium on conscience rather than the blind following of rules. It joins rights with duties to others.

This is also the central, egalitarian moral insight of Christianity. It can be seen in St Paul’s contrast between “Christian liberty” and observance of the Jewish law. Enforced belief was, for Paul, a contradiction in terms. Strikingly, in its first centuries Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms — a contrast to the early spread of Islam.

Secularism identifies the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended, making it possible to distinguish inner conviction from external conformity. This is the way secularism has always been understood in the United States. There, secularism has been identified with moral intuitions generated by Christianity.

This has not been the view in Europe because for centuries Christianity was associated with the hierarchy and coercion of a privileged and monolithic Church. A kind of moral incoherence, especially marked in Catholic Europe, was the consequence. Religious believers struggled against the claims of civil liberty as a threat to the Church, while those who defended liberty looked upon the Christianity as their enemy. Both sides failed to appreciate the extent to which promoting secularism amounted to turning the foundation beliefs of Christianity — moral equality — against any privileged, coercive role for the Church.

By contrast, the absence of both an established Church and aristocracy in America meant that Americans almost instinctively grasped the moral symmetry between secularism, with its civil liberty, and Christianity. Today Muslim commentators also sometimes perceive that symmetry when they speak of “Christian secularism”.

What will happen to this “civil war” now that Europe is faced with the challenge of Islam? Will Europeans come to understand better the moral logic that joins Christianity and civil liberty? It is important that they do so, if they are to counter the argument that secularism is a form of nonbelief or indifference. Their own self-understanding is at stake.

If Europeans understand secularism merely in the terms favoured by its critics — as consumerism, materialism and amorality — they lose touch with the moral intuitions generated by their tradition. They forget why they value freedom — and therefore risk losing it.

And what of the US? There is no room for complacency. The rapid growth of Christian fundamentalism jeopardises the traditional American understanding of secularism as an embodiment of Christian moral intuitions. “Born again” Christians are coming to identify secularism as their enemy rather than a companion. In struggling against abortion and homosexuality, they risk losing touch with the most profound moral insight of their faith. If good and evil are contrasted too simply, in a Manichean way, charity is the loser. The principle of equal liberty is put at risk.

It is a strange and disturbing moment in Western history. Europeans — out of touch with the Christian roots of their liberalism — often seem to lack conviction, while Americans may be succumbing to a simplistic version of faith. But only when this civil war of ideas is called off — when both camps see what they owe to the other — will Europe and America be able to mount a forceful defence of freedom.