Secularism isn't the same everywhere

Secularism isn't the same everywhere

Commentary | Corrado Cozzi

Three models in Europe highlight various church-state relations

Understanding three models of church-state relations in Europe is a key first step in addressing issues of religious freedom here.

As recently as a decade ago, religion in the West was considered to be facing extinction. Now more than ever, matters of religious freedom and human rights in secular states are at odds with a refocus on religion -- this resurgence being fueled by the fact that extensive technical reasoning has been unable to explain the meaning of life.

Earlier this month, the Adventist Church sponsored a symposium in the city of Bellinzona, Ticino, bringing together elected officials, experts on church law and church-state relations, theologians and students of different Christian denominations to better understand religious liberty concerns and discuss possible solutions.

At the heart of the matter is understanding religious liberty in relation to the different models of secularism existing in Europe and Switzerland.

While Switzerland has 26 different models of church-state relations (as many as there are Cantons in Switzerland), in Europe, three models exist:

First: Countries with a large Catholic or Orthodox majority, where traditional religions are considered by the State to be capable of providing the necessary social cohesion for the country and thus recognized and favored.

This trend in Europe is that of an alliance between strongly Catholic and strongly Orthodox countries which then manifests itself in particular situations, such as Italy's recent defense of the crucifix, with the cooperation of these countries.

Second: Countries where the majority religion is weak. In such countries, secularism, with its values of equality, liberty and fraternity, becomes the organizing principle and the State takes on the task of promoting this secularism. This usually manifests itself as imposing negatives -- "no" to religious symbols in schools, for example. This is the case in France.

Three: A multicultural policy. This has developed in England. There, human rights are at the forefront in relation to religions, which must recognize and submit to human rights. Unfortunately, in some cases human rights have risked overriding the rights of the single religions.

Understand, these are not fixed models. Indeed, today's situation in Europe -- especially here in Switzerland -- is one of constant oscillation between the three models, determined by the sense of decline that is being perceived in Western culture.

The search therefore progresses in the direction of merging the various models, and to search for common ground where the rights of the religions, religious liberty, human rights and rights of the majority and minorities are kept in balance.

Participants at the February 4 symposium said possible solutions should be seen in terms of:

  • A greater disposition to accept individuals and groups who desire to manifest their religion or belief publicly.

  • Helping to increase the acceptance of plurality concerning personal beliefs.

  • Safeguard the internal autonomy of religion and belief communities, while respecting human rights to their full extent.

Knowing these issues is a starting point. Now is up to us to continue pursuing this goal of balancing religious liberty in multicultural societies.

--Corrado Cozzi is the Communication director for the Adventist Church's Euro-Africa Division, based in Berne, Switzerland