Wednesday, June 22, 2011


"RELIGARE" is a three-year European research project on religions, belonging, beliefs and secularism in Europe,funded by the European Commission. Its stated purpose is to explore adequate policy responses to religious and cultural diversity as a social reality in Europe. It focusses on the areas public space, the workplace, the family, and state support to faith communities.

An atheist organization submitted a lengthy paper containing many worrying details for those who seek to protect freedom of religion. The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians did not want to leave these arguments unanswered.

Together, with renowned experts, we compiled a submission which has become more than a mere answer: it maps out the way to a Europe that is conscious of its heritage and has respect for fundamental rights, without disregarding today’s plurality of religion and belief. Please find below the summaries of its main parts. Download and read the entire submission here.

Religious Freedom as a Human Right

Freedom of Religion is recognized in all major human rights documents. Its most detailed definition of found in a document of the Roman Catholic Church, Dignitatis Humanae. It is the right to adhere, or not to adhere, to a religious belief, the right to be free from coercion in religious matters, and the right to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

The right to religious freedom is not only an individual right, but also applies, as a collective right, to religious communities. For them, it comprises inter alia the right to govern themselves according to their own norms, the right to public worship, the right to instruct their members in the practice of the religious life, the right to select, educate, appoint, and transfer their own ministers, the right to erect buildings for religious purposes, and to acquire and use suitable funds or properties, the right to public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word, and the right to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense.

Religion and the Common Good

Religion, and most of all the Christian faith, is a valuable asset for society: Religious people have a healthier lifestyle and higher life expectancies; are less likely to suffer from depression, have more stable marriages, are less likely to engage in criminal activity, and are more generous in contributing to the common good. Therefore religion should be fostered and encouraged, not restricted or oppressed. Given that those advantages apply in particular to Christians, it follows that, in the eyes of any reasonable and well-intentioned politician, practising Christians must be the most desirable of citizens.


It is regrettable to observe the term ‘fundamentalism’ being used as an instrument of demagoguery by certain ‘secularist’ movements. The term ‘fundamentalism’ has its origin within the Protestant community of the United States in the early 20th century, describing a specific package of irreducible theological beliefs (the ‘fundamentals’). Today, the term fundamentalism describes a blind and uncritical observance and a disregard of facts in favour of one’s faith or ideology.

The reproach of ‘fundamentalism’ does not hold true with regard to mainstream Christianity.. On the contrary, a characteristic trait of Christianity is the openness to adapt philosophical and theological positions to scientific findings.. Many of the most important scientific discoveries were made by Christians.

Secular ‘Humanism’ – or Militant Atheism?

It should be noted that the EHF submission is full of rather unsubstantiated negative stereotypes, through which religion is identified as the single source of all social evils: religion is portrayed as “totalitarian” (p.3), and Christianity accused of “dividing rather than uniting” society (p.4) and producing “alienation”. Strangely enough, no mention is made of the fact that the great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism, were decidedly anti-Christian.

The secular ‘humanism’ underpinning the EHF submission appears to have the sole purpose of attacking other worldviews and lifestances. Such an ideology, which defines it self ex negativo (i.e. solely through its opposition to other people’s beliefs and values) is not likely to make any significant contribution to the common good. Whereas religious communities entertain a great number of hospitals, dispensaries, residences for elderly people, nursery schools, schools, universities, all of which are open to the general public, one never sees a similar commitment to the public good on the side of atheist groups.

Dialogue with Non-Believers

The EHF paper argues that atheist and humanist organisations should be granted similar consideration or official standing in a regular and transparent dialogue as is foreseen for churches by Article 17 of the TFEU.

Such requests, which aim at giving disproportionate consideration and influence to a marginal social group, are manifestly ill-founded, because:

- Someone who professes to have no religion or belief cannot claim a right to manifest his irreligion or non-belief “in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. What worship, practice or observance would that be?

- It is unclear who the European Humanist Federation actually represents. The actual membership of the federation seems to be negligible. It is wrong to claim that any person who does not frequent a Church every Sunday is not a Christian, or to assert that any person not holding a baptism certificate (or similar) must be considered to share the militantly anti-religious views of EHF.

- One should be mindful of the risks and dangers associated with granting any consideration or official standing to organisations that must be expected to promote an agenda that is not conducive, but radically opposed, to human rights. The historic experience with atheist totalitarian regimes provides ample proof for the radical antagonism between militant atheism and human rights. There is no reason why the ideology of irreligion should be given a second chance.

The Meaning of ‘Secularism’

The EHF calls secularism “the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms.” However, what in this definition is called a ‘neutral’ public space would in reality be a public space from which all religious symbols, views, opinions, or other elements, must be removed. In actual fact, therefore, such a ‘neutral’ public space would not be neutral at all: it would accommodate the ideology of atheism and exclude all others.

The EHF claims that “The European Court of Human Rights… considers the principle of secularism as one of the founding principles of the rule of law and the best guarantee for democracy and the respect of human rights.” This statement is wrong. The ECtHR never made such a statement. What it did say was something different: that a country where the constitution gives particular importance to the principle of ‘secularism’ has the right of defending this constitutional value by prohibiting and dissolving a political party that wants to introduce a legal order based on the principle of theocracy. But this argument could equally operate in the inverse direction: If a country in its constitutional law foresees a state religion or an established church, it may prohibit as ‘unconstitutional’ all political activities that seek to overturn that situation.

Christianity recognises the secular character of the State, but interprets it differently. The term “secular” is derived from the Latin word saeculum, which designates not necessarily a determined amount of time (one century), but is also used to designate the life span of a person. ‘Secular’ is thus everything that is of limited duration, such as the earthly life of each human being, or that has to do with (merely) earthly or temporal matters. For Christians, there is thus no difficulty in recognising the ‘secular’ character of the State. The task of politicians and public administrations is to ensure the temporal well-being of citizens, whereas it is the task of the Church to ensure their eternal salvation. Both tasks should be separate from each other. But it does not mean that the State should be irreligious or anti-religious, or that the public sphere should be cleansed from all traces of religiosity, nor can it justify the exclusion of religious views and opinions from public debate.

Concept of “Neutrality” or “Secularism” is not Binding

There is thus one fundamental assumption in this debate, which is found not only in the EHF submission to the RELIGARE project, but already in the project’s own terms of reference, and which needs to be challenged: it is the notion that there is an obligation for States to be “neutral” with regard to religious or secular world-views.

There are many States in Europe, and even within the EU, that have not signed up to “neutrality” or “secularism” which becomes evident by looking at their constitutions. References to God are made and / or a special status is granted to religion in the constitutions of Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Denmark, England, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Andorra, Poland, and Spain.

The UDHR, the ECHR, or the EUFRC do not demand the equal treatment of all religions and worldviews. Freedom of religion and conscience is not equal treatment of all religions. Instead, it demands, as a minimum, tolerance and accommodation for all religious beliefs unless they are found to stand at variance with fundamental requirements of justice.

Public Space

EHF argues that the presence of religious symbols in the public space violates a principle of ‘neutrality’ or ‘secularism’. This point of view is manifestly ill-founded, given that such principles are inexistent in EU and international law. The mere existence or presence of religious symbols or religious language can, moreover, never be considered a violation of a person’s freedom of religion or conscience.

Restrictions with regard to religious clothing severely restrict the personal liberty of citizens, and must thus be duly justified. In a free society, everybody should be free to wear what he or she wants except for reasons of safety, decency, or where the wearing of a uniform is reasonably required.

With regard to education of children, the State’s role is ancillary to that of the parents. The State has therefore no right to indoctrinate children with the ideologies that may, at a given time, prevail among the political elites. It follows that the role of publicly funded schools is to support the parents in giving to their children the education they want to give them. If parents want to educate their children in the Christian faith, the state – even if it defines itself as “secular” or “neutral” - must support them in this effort. This could be done by adequately supporting confessional schools and / or by establishing the possibility for religion lessons in state-owned schools, if there is sufficient demand for it.

The Workplace

Current EU legislation to prohibit discrimination in employment recognises the need for exceptions for organisations with a specific ethos. Similar respect ought to be paid to the ethos based on religion or belief of individual employers. To reduce limitations on contractual freedom, it should be reminded that the principle of ‘neutrality’, and hence the obligation to provide equal treatment irrespective of religion, applies to the State more strictly than it does to private employers.

With regard to conscientious objection, it should be noted that EHF’s call for ‘regulation’ is in fact a call for restriction of this fundamental right.

EHF’s suggests that “human rights, including rights to conscientious objection, apply only to individuals and not to institutions” and that, for this reason, Christian hospitals, or even Christian Churches, are not entitled to them. It is, however, nowhere said in international law that human rights can only be exercised individually. On the contrary, with regard to certain human rights, their collective nature is explicitly recognised or implied in the nature of the right (e.g. the right to free assembly, or the right to maintain a given cultural identity, or religious freedom, which is to be exercised “either alone or in community with others”).

Contrary to EHF’s claim, ‘conscientious objection’ cannot be restricted to ‘religious liberty’ issues: Moral objections are generally based on solid and objective reasons, and the objector may even be an atheist.

It is perfectly legitimate and reasonable to understand “marriage” to be a life-long alliance of one man and one woman with the purpose of rearing children, or to define “family” on the basis of marriage and descent This concept of family has existed long before the advent of Christianity, and it is not the tenet of one particular religion.

EHF, by contrast, seeks to promote a novel concept of “marriage” and “family” that discards the natural complementarity of the two sexes as irrelevant. Rather than on any natural order, this novel concept is based on arbitrary “choices”. If consequently followed, it would turn into a “family” any group of two or more persons that chooses to call itself by that name.

However, words become meaningless if their meaning is expanded beyond reasonable limits. The all-inclusive novel concept of “family” would only result in dissolving the concept. As a consequence, it would become impossible to devise policies that provide targeted support to those families that correspond to the natural order of things.

EHF argues that “there is no evidence that [homosexual] marriages cannot provide a successful environment for bringing up children”. But, considering that the protection of a children does not allow experiments in vivo, and with regard to the fact that under the natural order the begetting of children requires both a male and a female parent, the burden of proof is on those who argue in favour of bringing a child up same-sex marriages, not on those who are sceptical.

State Support
In most European countries religious organisations are for the greatest part financed by the voluntary contributions of their believers. However, through these contributions, religious believers provide not only a direct support to their own religious community, but also an indirect support to the common good.

If and where financial support is given by governments, it is justified by the following reasons:

the public interest to maintain and cultivate the country’s cultural heritage and identity;

the support for specific initiatives that contribute to common good (such as schools, hospitals, etc.). Such support usually only complements the funding provided by the faith-based group itself, and would in the same way be provided to any organisation making a similar contribution.

a third reason is the compensation, usually contractually agreed upon, for property that was – often under rather questionable pretexts – seized from the religious communities in question in the course of history.

It is therefore obvious that calls for the reduction of current state funding of churches and religious bodies have hardly any justification. What certainly has no foundation at all is the suggestion that other religious communities that have only be recently established, or indeed ‘humanist’ groups such as the EHF, should be entitled to the same funding.


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