The Religious Dilemma in the Modern World

It should be obvious by now: earlier speculations—mostly by those on the left—that in due course religions would vanish from the world and secularization become the norm have not been realized. It looks as though religion is here to stay, even though society has become completely secularized.

The Future of Faith in Secular Society is a collection of the proceedings from a 2020 conference of the Vienna-Qom Circle for Catholic-Shi’a Dialogue on Religion, Philosophy, and Political Theory. This intriguing book offers not only different attempts to make sense of secularization but also more topical analyses of how the tendencies toward cultural decline and dissolution in Western societies may be diagnosed and treated.

Even in modern societies, there is the temptation for the religious and sometimes the nonreligious person to believe that the state should care for the human soul. Christian Machek, the editor of the book and also a contributor at the conference, advocated “a civic order based on religion or even a ‘religious state’.” There is, of course, a difference between a religious state and a state that appeals to God in the preamble of its constitution and grants that religion has a legitimate place in public life. For the latter state, there is a caution, for it is precisely the church that would suffer most if it became too much entangled with the state apparatus.

Secularization does not necessarily entail an anti-religious thrust. It just makes the assumption that many areas of social organization do not need religious expertise but highly sophisticated knowledge of a different kind, such as that employed in making economic decisions, energy policies, health policies, migration policies, and so on. Religions do not confer any special knowledge that justifies the presence of clergymen in commissions dealing with the future of coal mining, for example.

Another contributor, Edmund Waldstein, argued for the “integralist response to secularization.” This approach is highly problematic, however, as it claims that “rendering God true worship is essential to [the] common good, and that political authority therefore has a duty of recognizing and promoting the true religion.” Integralists, it appears, want to return to an idealized “baroque confessional state” or even some sort of medieval arrangement in which “it makes no sense to distinguish Church and state as separate spheres at all.”

Such an arrangement could lead to serious problems: for instance, a reductionist understanding of social phenomena that requires unwarranted shortcuts, such as suggesting that the “unjust distribution of wealth” is due to “the influence of the Evil One” or claiming “that the nature of human action demands integralism.” In this view, “every part of the globe has to be converted and exorcised in order to liberate it from demonic power,” and that includes political institutions. Dogmas such as these are structurally equivalent to any other ideologically motivated globalist enterprise and therefore alien to the conservative mindset (and oddly analogous to the Islamic view, presented at the conference by Mohammad Ali Shomali, who argued that there is in fact only one religion, Islam, which consists in submitting to God).

The integralist view on secularization is clearly incompatible with notions of modern liberal democracies; integralism would lead, if put into practice, to serious disturbances of the peace, based on the error that it is within the state’s competence to determine not only what “the true” religion is but also what constitutes “true” worship of God. Why religious believers should be willing to let the state make such a decision, on the off-chance that it will choose one’s own religion, is anyone’s guess.

The relation between religion and rationality is the focus of other contributors, who explore issues of how God should be understood. Anna Varga-Jani discussed phenomenological ways of thinking about religion, moving from Adolf Reinach and Martin Heidegger to one of the most fertile thinkers of the 20th century, Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a Carmelite nun who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It is the latter’s point of view that goes furthest in combining faith and rationality by drawing on both Husserl and Thomas Aquinas. Belief, Stein argued, is not opposed to rationality, nor is it merely some kind of feeling. In fact, in Stein’s thought, phenomenology needs to become a Christian philosophy, that is, more than mere methodology.

The question of the rationality of belief was continued in Aleksandar Novaković’s subtle analysis of what he calls the irrationalism of the modern mind. Is there a way to overcome the relativism of values? Is it possible to rationally agree on certain values? Can a dialogue between radically diverging world views exist at all? This is far from clear. For what would be a common truth on which communists and liberals, atheists and believers, might agree? It seems that striving after objective truth here necessarily leads to the acknowledgment that someone is right and someone else is wrong. Atheists and believers as well as communists and liberals cannot all be right at the same time.

And this is the dilemma for relations between religions and states. If there is no objective truth, then rational inquiry has no object, no endpoint. It is a nonsensical concept. And if a society accepts that there is such a thing as objective truth, then the question arises: who gets to be the arbiter of it? The answer to that question in modern liberal democracies is and has been, everyone.

Drawing on the oft-neglected thinking of the Austrian natural-rights philosopher Johannes Messner, Stefan Lakonig affirmed that rights are the foundations of freedom and that any free society is founded on freedom, honor, and property. The idea of legal justice then consists of three concepts that need to be balanced: formal justice, concrete justice, and the nonarbitrary application of laws.

According to Lakonig, even if everyone is free to worship as he sees fit, justice must be enforced by the state. It should be made clear to migrants (and perhaps also to Europeans as well) that Western culture consists of secularization, individualism, freedom, and trust, which are also the foundation for the West’s scientific and technological civilization, which has had such a pull on the rest of the world.

Other contributions to the conference looked at the connection between religion, secularization, and economic development, and at the complex ways in which Christian identity expresses itself and also contains within itself something provocative. Christian symbols function in a critical way by declaring the triumph of the Crucified over the structures and forms of order in the world. Faith is a twofold reality that has both an existential and a rational (propositional) dimension. Different religious practices and beliefs have by now spread all over the globe, but at the same time, a globalist digital ideology wants to enforce unity, which is the reason why globalism by no means guarantees an “open society.”

A plurality of religious approaches is present in this book. There are chapters by Iranian theologians, by Catholics and Protestants as well as orthodox Christians from Serbia. Sheikh Taher Amini Golestani emphasized the mystic dimensions of Sufism, whereas Corinna Mühlsted pointed out the mystical dimensions of Luther’s theology, which may enable more dialogue between these different beliefs. Michael Wladika suggested that the gap between God and man can only be bridged by completing Platonism through Christianity in the Augustinian sense. Christ thus proves to be an “ontological mediator” without whom Platonism, and its world of perfect forms, would collapse.

Dušan Dostanić presented a strong case for the crucial importance of Serbian Orthodoxy in the national identity of the Serbian people. The political scientist Heinz Theisen presented a succinct and pointed argument that there is too much secularity in the West and not enough secularity in the Orient. He stressed the dangers of revolutionary Islam and the need for the separation of culture and civilization. Going forward, Christianity has to be an integral part of education; and the kind of education that we need should strive not after the deconstruction but the recultivation of Europe.

Still, the prospects for a Christian renewal may not be good; David Engels and Simon Wunder argued for a realistic appraisal of the possibilities of resistance.

This volume, in sum, offers much food for thought as well as controversial discussions on how to counter neo-Marxist and postmodern movements that undermine the forces of social cohesion and the transcendent order on which human beings depend. It is a book for all those who care deeply about the role of religion in modern societies and the implications that follow for politics.

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