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Religion And The Concept Of State Neutrality

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Introduction

On a global level, we are witnessing a renewed focus on religion, being an important factor within international politics and conflicts. Once again religion is on the active political agenda, particularly where contemporary Islamic elements are involved.

The secularized western world, with its neutral perspective on religion, is facing new challenges when dealing with religion. This because politics and religion and the balance between them is what characterizes that what we believe to be an intrinsic and fundamental part of the secular state construction.

The idea of freedom of religion is secured in western secular constitutions. Western democratic states are obliged to respect the religious activities of their citizens and to secure their free development. Therefore, the state is principally neither allowed to favor nor to discriminate against certain professions of faith. This concept is also called �equidistance’ . It is a basic principle of state neutrality: it commits the state to generally withdraw from religious issues, especially the political act of defining what can legitimately be classified as religion and religious behavior.

In respect to the new challenges, as mentioned above, however, the principle of state neutrality and the maintenance of this principle find’s itself under pressure. Western states are increasingly confronted with religious elements within society that have an impact on society in general. Especially religious fundamentalism and consequent terrorist threats show this. Society, state and religion are in different ways interlinked and confronted with each other. How can we shed some light on these processes?

An Historical and a Sociological Approach to the Idea of Freedom of Religion

The separation between politics and religion was partly created by the Vatican. The Popal Investiture Conflict, led to the modification of the idea of religion in relation to the collective and the individual and the state and church (Habermas, 2002). In this case specifically Christianity. A major consequence of this modification was that religion gradually became a personal venue, a personal experience in relation to the spiritual power of God. Religion now demands a process of internalization by one’s own conscience.

Where the collective was a subject of a higher �commanding’ spiritual power, the individual became the center of the relation with this power. In this sense, the conscience of the individual got through a liberalization process.

In relation to this liberalization process, the state abstains itself from the interference with the mind of the individual. A personal relation to a spiritual power cannot be limited or enforced because religion is an internalized process.

According to John Locke, (Tully, 1993), the state, while still receiving its direction from God, is limited to those tasks that have a non-spiritual character. The state so conceived has the secular purpose of guaranteeing the lives of its citizens, but вЂ" for spiritual and theological reasons вЂ" it cannot guide the inner beliefs of citizens through force when it comes to matters of religion.

Locke’s argument that states still receive directions from God has to do with the idea that the Christian idea of human beings as created in the image of God has been especially important for Western moral-political theory, which translated the religious idea into the secular view of persons as equal in dignity and deserving unconditional respect (Tully, 1993).

Habermas also acknowledges this argument when arguing that secular state ideologies and Western philosophy owe important elements to it’s Christian heritage, which philosophy and politics assimilated by developing ideas of “responsibility, autonomy and justification; history and remembering; new beginning, innovation, and return; alienation, internalization, and incarnation; individuality and community” (Habermas, 2005). Religious communities still harbor potentials of meaning from which philosophy can learn, Habermas (2005) states. Religious discourse holds potentials that have “been lost elsewhere and that cannot be restored by the professional knowledge of experts alone”

Religious modes of expression can harbor an integral cognitive content that is not exhausted by secular translations. Habermas thus calls for a dialogue in which secular and religious forms of thought mutually inform and learn from each other.

This discursive learning process however, is still based and situated within the neutrality principle that lays at the basis of modern constitutional democracy, with its separation of church and state. According to Habermas the main principle of this construction is the idea that “all enforceable political decisions must be formulated in a language that is equally accessible to all citizens, and it must be possible to justify them in this language as well” (Habermas, 2006).

Further more what does a discursive learning process encompass? The idea of dialogue between believers, other believers and non-believers places burdens on the different parties involved. At the center of contention are the duties of believing citizens to translate their religiously based claims into secular, publicly accessible reasons.

Believers might object that Habermas still places an asymmetric burden on them. This is what Yates (2007) calls the �split-identity objection’.

This means that believers must eventually, at the institutional level, shift over to secular modes of justification, whereas non-believers need not carry out the same kind of move toward religious justification.

As a cooperative learning process, translation makes demands on both sides: the believer must seek publicly accessible arguments, whereas the non-believer must approach religion as a potential source of meaning, as harboring truths about human existence that are relevant for all (Habermas, 2006).

Accordingly, there are voices claiming that within the Islamic world this discursive learning process, based on mutual dialogue is hindered because Islamic society did not transform to a secular state model. There has not been a move from a “collective” to an “individual” subject, which makes tolerance in the modern sense possible. Hence the de-politisation of the Islamic world вЂ" if possible вЂ" is still to come .

What can be interpreted as a historical confinement of freedom of religion in

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