Europe without God and Europeans without Identity

25 October 2006

‘Religion and the American Future’ – AEI, Washington, DC

by Marcello Pera

Europe, unlike America, is on a collision course with its own history. Often it voices an almost visceral denial of any possible public dimension for Christian values.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Without Roots

Modern secularism has such affinities to moral nihilism that even those who wish simply to affirm or reaffirm moral values have little choice but to seek a grounding for such values in a religious tradition.

Irving Kristol
Neoconservatism. Autobiography of an Idea

Three theses and one conclusion about Europe

In this presentation I will look at the problem of the absence of God in the modern West from a European point of view not only because I am a European, but mainly because I strongly believe that the spiritual and moral crisis of a Godless or God-undermining society is today deeper in Europe than elsewhere in the West, and is at present damaging Europe more seriously than any other area of the West.


As a premise, let me tell you that I am neither an atheist nor a believer. As this is not just a personal confidence, but a conceptual framework which has consequences for what I am going to say, let me add a few words. From my viewpoint, atheism is both an untenable philosophical theory and a pernicious moral practice. 
To get rid of religion is to deny the impossible. However you may define it―including the famous or infamous ‘opium of the masses’ (Feuerbach) or a ‘narcotic with which man controls his own anxiety but dulls his own mind’ (Freud)―believing, like marvelling, inquiring, feeling, reasoning, judging, is a native, that is to say a basic, irreducible, fundamental, disposition of the human mind. It is a way to give a sense to the world and our place and destiny in it. Therefore religious attitude is a constitutive part of our personal nature, and a particular religious creed or faith is a cultural part of our historical identity. Drop the former and you will loose the latter.
To get rid of religion is also to attempt the unfeasible. The atheist who wants to delete religion from our culture and tries to fill the gap by replacing it with science simply forgets that science itself, in particular the modern theoretical and experimental science that had its baptisimal act in the Scientific Revolution, that is to say the only science we have, is based on the religious faith of a God who has dictated his laws to nature. Galileo, Newton, Einstein and all the other great protagonists of modern and contemporary science prove that scientific inquiry has religious foundations. Forswear the former and you will prevent the latter. (Incidentally, this explains why modern science was born in the Christian and not in the Islamic world, or in the old Chinese or Indian cultures).
The passage from the God of philosophers and geometers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob―to use Pascal’s famous phrase―that is the passage from the mathematical God, who is necessary to practice scientific research, but irrelevant to the sense of our lives, to the personal God who instead is indispensable for the meaning of our existence, but insignificant for scientific inquiry, is a step forward. Believers make it. I don’t or I can’t. To my view, believing in a personal God is having the experience of a vision, a presence, an encounter, an event, which, no matter how he strives for it, depends not on man’s efforts but on God’s initiative. Although I am open to it, I haven’t had, or I have lost, that experience and I do not wish to speculate on it in public.
However, and here comes the conceptual framework I was mentioning, the fact that I am not a believer in the sense just stated does not imply that I am not a believer in another sense. I do strongly believe in the Christian―or, to be more precise, in the Judeo-Christian―main values, starting with the dignity of the human person, any human person. I do firmly believe that these values have fostered the culture and civilization to which we all belong in the West. And I do decidedly believe that this culture and civilization, amid an intentionally or unintentionally long and ongoing process of trials and errors―which includes episodes of dogmatism, fanaticism, violence and massacres as well―has now given rise to the far best position men have occupied in society. That this position is imperfect does not mean that it is no better than others. If the admission of imperfection were to exclude judgments of value no advancement would ever be possible, because any advancement in any field is based precisely on the judgment that the new stage is better than the previous one in some way or another.
This allows me to present you the three theses I intend to defend as regards the religious crisis of Europe and its aftermath. They are: first, the unification of Europe as contemplated in the now dead and buried European Constitution is based on a conceptual and political paradox; second, the European paradox stems from the secularization of European States and societies; third, European secularization is connected to the relativism that dominates European culture. As these theses may be taken as premises of one single argument, my conclusion is that since relativism weakens the State and corrodes society, today not only the European Constitution as a juridical document and the European Union as a political body, but Europe itself as the first pillar of western civilization is at risk. In facing this risk, my view is that a strong recalling of the Judeo-Christian tradition, to be lived by believers as a new evangelization, and by non-believers as a civil mission, could be a good antidote to the crisis in Europe. Provided it is not too late already, of course.

The European paradox

Those whose intent was the unification of Europe were forced to make necessity the mother of their invention. The need derived from the fact that following economic unification (The 1992 Treaty of Maastricht and the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty) and the monetary unification with the introduction of the Euro (1998), a step forward towards political unification had to be taken. This was done through the Charter of Rights (Nice 2000) and through the European Constitution (Thessalonica 2003). Since the Charter of Rights was incorporated as Part two of the Constitution, I will refer to this very same text as the European Charter or simply the Charter.
It is easy to see that those charged to draft the European Charter had a dramatic problem at hand. A European demos does not exist, because in Europe there are as many peoples and nations as there are member states; a European ethnos does not exist either, because Europe is historically a process of ethnic mixing; nor does a European ethos exist, because this is tied to each nation and to its specific history. As far as a European telos, things are even worse, because in the absence of a single people or a single nation, not even that very self-perception that feeds the idea of one’s own identity or mission or goal, can see the light and grow.
Given the situation, how could a European Charter be drafted? Moreover, how could it give rise to a form of European patriotism without which no Charter can live and become the flesh of a single European society?
Since the necessity was pressing and the invention attractive, the drafters of the Charter made two moves. They decided to bypass the real and to look towards an ideal, which they called alternatively ‘the European area of justice’ or ‘the European common space’ or ‘the European common area of rights’. As the Charter states in listing them all, ‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.’
In this way the European Charter appeared to have achieved several objectives at the same time: unify the peoples of Europe; make them all part of a single political community; replace recent forms of nationalism with a new kind of patriotism which, jurists, political scientists and philosophers, notably Jürgen Habermas, had already labelled ‘constitutional patriotism’; realize the Kantian dream of a republic made up of political and moral agents; guarantee the other Kantian ideal of a ‘perpetual peace’. After years of hard work necessity had finally given birth to the invention. 
Unfortunately, the problem was that it had invented too much. Fundamental human rights have a nature: by definition they are rights that belong to each and all without regard to individual histories as well as geographical location. In the same vein, Kantian ideals have a logic: in a Kantian republic there can be no limits to individual citizenship and State membership. If this logic and this nature are to be applied to the European political body then several consequences follow: first, that the European Charter is cosmopolitan; second, that European citizenship is universal; third, that the European identity is juridical. 
This is decidedly too much. While necessity called for a European Charter, namely for Europeans, the invention produced a Universal Charter, namely applicable to all rational and moral beings. And this raises a paradox: Europeans give themselves a Charter but the Charter does not identify Europeans. In other words, the European identity is not specifically European. In yet other terms, Europeans are not Europeans, namely citizens of the historical European world, but rather cosmopolitan, namely citizens of an abstract juridical cosmos. This is my first thesis.

European secularism

In order to set out my second thesis―that the paradox of the European Charter is the result of the secularization of Europe―I have to examine the kind of justification that was and still is generally used to support the Charter. I believe that it is a typical case of constructivism. Consequently, I believe that the unification of Europe that has been pursued is a kind of political cold fusion.
Let me say why. As I have said, the European Charter deliberately chooses not to look at the history of Europe and its present situation, but to a theory of Europe and its future goals. Furthermore, the Charter holds this theory to be self-sufficient, in the sense that its validation is supposed to lie not in recognized and shared pre-political events or pre-juridical values, stemming from specific histories, particular narratives, emblematic episodes, fundamental traditions, but only in the intrinsic goodness of the objective that it pursues. In other words, the reasoning underlying the European Charter is thus: since the theory of Europe is beautiful, then the ensuing Charter of Europe is good, since the former is attractive, then the latter is feasible, since the one is promising then the other is worth following, and so on.
Habermas construes his argument precisely in this way. First he states the problem: ‘under what conditions can a liberal political culture provide a sufficient cushion to prevent a nation of citizens that can no longer rely on ethnic associations, from dissolving into fragments?’ . Then he introduces his captivating notion of constitutional patriotism which, he writes, ‘can take the place originally occupied by nationalism’ . Finally he draws his wishful conclusion: ‘it is to be expected that the political institutions that would be created by a European constitution would have a catalytic effect’ .
But under this construal the wagon is put before the horse, because the sense of belonging to a single political body should come first not last. This is why I speak of a constructivist approach and a political cold fusion experiment. It is no accident that the members of the ‘Convention’―the pompous name given to both the body that drafted the Nice Charter and to the one that drafted the Constitution―were not nominated by Europe’s citizens. And it is no accident either that the European Charter failed as soon as it was put to the test before the French and Dutch European voters. The fact is that the whole process of European unification lacks genuine legitimization and the resulting product falls short of strength, because neither of them has solid foundations. The theory of Europe underlying the Charter as well as the allegiance constitutional patriotism is assumed to produce are too thin and too light to give rise to a real European patriotism and an effective unification of the European peoples. What is needed is not some other nice element to introduce in the Charter, but a far thicker and heavier base to be found outside the Charter.
A spontaneous series of questions sheds light on where we have to look. Who are the bearers of those human rights the European Charter refers to? Individuals. Why do individuals have rights? Because they are citizens of a political and moral community. Why are these rights unalienable? Because they are an integral part of personal dignity. Where does this concept of ‘personal dignity’ come from? Our tradition. What tradition?
Surprisingly, when it comes to this question which is the core of the whole enterprise, the Charter remains silent. Although the preamble states that ‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity,’ it refuses to take the next step and admit that the main tradition that in Europe, like in the West, supports the unalienable rights of the individual is the Judeo-Christian tradition. It just says that Europe is ‘conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage’, or that Europe has a ‘cultural, religious and humanist inheritance’. How did it come to happen that the drafters of the Charter made use of such trivial and misleading formulas? The answer is that their firm will to reject any external pre-political foundation induced them to disregard Christianity. 
Habermas is again a case in point. In a debate with the then Cardinal Ratzinger, he defended what he called a ‘foundation of constitutional principles which is autonomous and aims at being rationally acceptable by all citizens’ . In his typical high jargon, he maintained that ‘the making of the liberal State can support its own need of legitimation in a self-sufficient way, stemming from the cognitive density of argumentative resources, independently of religious and metaphysical traditions’ . Which amounts to saying that the European Charter disregards European history. Or, rather that Europe disregards itself. Why? Because―and this is my second thesis―European secularism has deprived Europe of its roots and has therefore rendered it just a vague, generic community of rights. Let me work out this point.
Secularism comes in two main senses: the separation of religion from politics and therefore the separation of Church and State; the running of public policies in terms of profane criteria alone. Although both senses draw a distinction between the ‘public sphere’ and the ‘private sphere’, they do it in a different spirit and with different consequences. According to the first sense, the public sphere is an open space in which all religions are called on to play a role; according to the second, the public sphere is a closed space to which no religion is allowed entry.
Another distinction arises from the first. Secularism in the first sense makes it possible for religious confessions to orient political decisions, and to give them fodder. Secularism in the second sense explicitly excludes the orientation of politics by religion. Needless to say the first secularism is American and typically liberal, because it derives from the English Enlightenment, while the second is French and typically Jacobin, because it derives from the French Revolution. The differences between the two are enormous: the first gives rise to a social dimension of religion, the second imposes the privatization of religion, or to put it in the terms used by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, the imprisonment of religion in ‘the ghetto of subjectivity’. 
In this respect two documents are worth mentioning and reflecting upon because they clearly reveal these differences.
The first is the report of the Bernard Stasi commission in France on the principle of secularism and the public display of religious symbols. It states: ‘spiritual and religious petitions cannot bear any influence on the State and must renounce the political dimension. Secularism is not compatible with any conception of religion that claims to regulate, in the name of the principles of the religion itself, the social system or political order’. And it continues: ‘secularism makes a distinction between the free spiritual and religious expression in the public sphere, which is legitimate and essential for the democratic debate, and the influence over it, which is illegitimate’ .
The second document is the speech that Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin made before the French National Assembly on 3 February 2004 in defense of the Stasi report. He said: ‘Today all the great religions in France’s history have adapted to this principle. For the most recent arrivals, I mean Islam, secularity is an opportunity to be a French religion’.
It is clear that if secularism is a religion, more so, the only religion that is admitted to play a role in the public sphere, then it places itself against every other religion, in particular Christianity, which is the religion of the European tradition. It is also clear that an anti-religious secularism has devastating consequences for the unification of Europe. I will mention three.
The first consequence. Secularism does not give Europe an identity. This is the main source of the European paradox. Not only does secularism render Europeans cosmopolitan, it renders them stateless as well. Who are we? If we cannot define ourselves, I don’t necessarily mean as members of the old ‘Christian continent’, but not even as the heirs to the Judeo-Christian tradition that more than any other has shaped our history, the best we can offer to answer this question is the ostensive definition of pointing at the map. And even this is difficult because where there is no clear connotation there is also no definite denotation. The uncertainty regarding the borders of Europe and especially the entrance of Turkey to the European Union can be explained by the uncertainty over the definition of Europe. The fact is that concealing our history in the name of secularism means allowing secularism to obscure our identity. 
The second consequence. European secularism is not inclusive. By depriving Europeans of their own identity, secularism also keeps them from understanding and integrating those who have a strong one and intend to rely on it. As Benedict XVI has repeatedly recalled, it is the moral and spiritual crisis of Europe that gives rise to feelings of mistrust, dislike and hostility in many Muslims. Symmetrically, it is the very same crisis that creates uneasiness in Europe. The European who meets a Muslim develops a sort of anxiety syndrome, surprised as he is by the strength of his faith. The Muslim who meets an European gets affected by a sort of cultural shock, offended as he feels by the lack of any sense of the holy or divine. The outcome is that the typically European fear of a clash between civilizations itself risks becoming self-fulfilling. 
Third consequence. European secularism divides Europe from America. Europe is moving away from America especially because it does not understand or does not appreciate America, and specifically does not understand and appreciate the still living or the new resurging of a strong religious sensibility in American society. 
Think of how American expressions are translated in Europe. What in America is called ‘civil religion’ in Europe is called ‘bigotry’. What in America is called ‘the spread of civilization’ in Europe is called ‘the imposition of a life-style’, the American way of life. What in America is called ‘the exportation or promotion of democracy’ in Europe is called ‘colonialism or ‘expansionism’ or ‘imperialism’. And so on for every relevant expression or term. It is no wonder if in the end what in America is called the ‘right to self defense’ in Europe is called ‘appeal to the UN’.
A European philosopher-John Gray-supplied an excellent example of these distorted translations. He wrote: ‘According to the standard, social-scientific theory of advanced, knowledge-based societies, America should be following Europe in becoming steadily more secular; but there is not the slightest evidence for any such trend. Quite to the contrary, American peculiar religiosity is becoming ever more strikingly pronounced. It has by far the most powerful fundamentalist movement in any advanced country. In no otherwise comparable land do politicians regularly invoke the name of Jesus’ . This misunderstanding is so deep that the difference between Europe and America on religiosity is blamed on the Bush administration and is usually considered to mark the moral and political primacy of the former over the latter. Habermas provides evidence also of this view: ‘around here ―he has written―it is difficult to imagine a president who begins his daily work with a public prayer and connects his political decisions to a divine mission’ .
This is where secularism has led Europe: out of Christianity, out of the West, out of its own history. And this explains why the European paradox―the paradox of Europeans who are no longer Europeans―hinges on the secularization of Europe. 

European relativism

I have now to face my third thesis, that European secularization is connected to the relativism dominant in Europe. ‘Connected’ is a vague term, but I will try to clarify and make it more precise.
Relativism is the child of the crisis of liberalism. As regards this cultural event, two phenomena are relevant. On the one hand, the discovery of pluralism and the incommensurability of values―that is the idea that there is no higher value that encompasses all the others and there is no minimum value unit that measures all the others―has cast intellectual panic amongst liberals and has led them to conclude that liberalism, although it has been the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the fuel of modernity, is no longer suitable to our ‘post modern’ era. On the other hand, the secularist erosion of the Judeo-Christian tradition from which liberalism depends―because, as a matter of historical fact, liberalism is Judeo-Christian doctrine―has pushed many liberals to take a further step forward and accept the theory that liberalism is merely one among many life-styles. Which is to say, to embrace relativism. 
John Gray’s opinions are emblematic also in this respect. Regarding the four ‘key ideas’ that according to him are typical of liberalism―individualism, universalism, meliorism, egalitarianism―he has concluded that ‘none of them can withstand the force of strong indeterminacy and radical incommensurability among values. Considered as a position in political philosophy, accordingly, liberalism is a failed project … as a philosophical perspective, it is dead’. The only thing that according to Gray can be said is that liberalism is ‘the only sort of regime in which we―in our historical circumstances as late moderns―can live well’. Or, as Gray also writes, what can be said is that liberal regimes ‘are only one type of legitimate polity and liberal practice has no special or universal authority’ .
To defend its view, relativism had erected a protective belt around itself formulated in politically correct and ostensibly noble terminology, which includes terms like ‘tolerance’, ‘openness’, ‘respect’, ‘State neutrality’, etcetera. However, this terminology is insincere because it veils the terms’ very meanings. These terms are so abused, so stretched, so consumed, that they no longer correspond to their original, proper use. In reality, ‘tolerance’ turns out to be equivalent to ‘compliance’, ‘openness’ to ‘license’, ‘neutrality’ to ‘appeasement’, ‘dialogue’ to ‘surrender’, and so on. 
Relativism claims to have the best recipes for the inclusion of ‘others’ and to be the best basis for the liberal State. But, as far as the recipe is concerned, it is fairly poisonous because by producing a crisis of identity, what relativism generates is precisely the exclusion of the ‘others’. And as regards the liberal State, relativism corrodes it by undermining the moral or religious values and principles that are its very base. If there are no basic values, if all values are negotiable, if primary intuitions about good and bad cannot exist, if no way of life can be said to be better than others because they are incommensurable, then everything is permissible. Abortion as well as embryo experimentation, clonation as well as eugenics or euthanasia, gay marriage as well as polygamy. Not to mention appeasement with and surrender to fanaticism and fundamentalism.
This is where we see the worst consequences of what John Paul II called the ‘alliance between democracy and ethical relativism’. As he stated in the Centesimus annus: ‘a democracy without values can be easily converted into either open or insidious totalitarianism’ (n.46). In fact, that alliance gives rise to the loss of a sense of limit, of the forbidden, of sin, of moral prohibition. This is the sort of connection I was referring to, an ominous mutual reinforcement: secularism produces relativism and relativism nurtures secularism. Exactly my third thesis.

The European crisis 

I now come to the conclusion of my argument: the spiritual and moral crisis, more so than political, that is now spreading across Europe. How can we resolve it?
I do not have a recipe. I hope that liberalism can be restored and brought back to those universalistic, Christian-based tenets that gave birth to it and fostered it before it crossed the Channel and then the Ocean. But I am not sure that this is possible. Actually, I seriously doubt it is. What I can say is that if it is, then liberalism would find it difficult not to transform itself into a liberal conservatism of some sort.
Here too, another difference between Europe and America manifests itself. American liberal conservatism above all aims to conserve the traditions of civil virtues and fundamental values, that form the bedrock of the religion of the Founding Fathers. But this is exactly what European liberal conservatives either are doubtful or do not intend to conserve. The theory of constitutional patriotism was set out exactly for this reason: to replace, in a constructivist Jacobin-like style, a still living tradition with a dead piece of paper.
I believe, or I want to believe, that in America the situation is different. Such old differences between Irving Kristol and Michael Oakeshott, as well as those between Kristol and Hayek, are emblematic examples. But it is not my intent to idealize America. I am convinced that it would be difficult for Tocqueville to write the same masterpiece about America today. And only with difficulty a would-be American professor Tocquetown could perceive any great differences between Europe and his native country. It seems to me that the two shores of the Atlantic are, more or less, like the two sides of the same coin, because the moral and spiritual crisis is in large part similar on both parts. However, I think that what is lacking to overcome the crisis in Europe makes the situation much more troublesome than it is in America. Consider some historical epoch-making European events.
In Europe there was a union between the throne and the altar. In Europe the French Enlightenment aimed to make a clean sweep not only of the catholic Church (ècrasez l’infame!), but of the very Christian religion. In Europe the critique of Christianity produced the Nietzschean idea that the Christian ethic is the ‘morality of slaves’. In Europe Marxism spread the view that mankind can live and be truly free only in the absence of God. In Europe romanticism produced patriotisms that degenerated into totalitarianisms, and when these totalitarianisms provoked disasters and massacres, from a wizard like Heidegger arose the desperate and misleading cry that ‘only a God can save us’. In Europe some of the principal nation-States, such as France and Italy, constituted themselves against the Church. And it is yet again in Europe, that the Catholic Church invested centuries to come to terms with liberalism first and then later with democracy. In the light of this history, it is not surprising that someone happened to devise and work out a Constitution in a closed room, believed that a new patriotism could be created in a laboratory, and was convinced that European religious tradition is an obstacle to European unification.
I will conclude by repeating that I do not have a recipe. But I would like to be confident that, in a time in which an increasing number of Europeans are disoriented, confused and even frightened, a feeling of hope to pull us out of the crisis can come from that new need for moral, spiritual and religious guides that seems today spreading across several parts of Europe. But this is just a feeling, not a prediction.


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