Symposium 2014: European Perspectives on Secularism

Reported by Gaylee Coverston

In this session regarding European Perspectives on Secularism, Robert Smith moderated the panelists Tore Lindholm of Norway, Ricardo García García of Spain, Denis J. Edwards of the United Kingdom, and Vanja-Ivan Savić of Croatia.

Tore Lindholm is a Professor Emeritus of the Norwegian Center for Human Rights, University of Oslo. He is a Board Member for the Oslo Coalition of Freedom of Religion or Belief and also for the Human Rights Committee of the Church of Norway. Professor Lindholm began by discussing a unique financial grant that Norway offers all religions. They must adhere to specific requirements to gain access to the grants but all religions are welcome to apply. Some of the requirements were that the religion have at least 100 members, the body that decides the use of the money from the grant must be democratically elected by the religious congregation, and that no gender prohibition exist. He remarked that some religions recognize the beauty of the grants yet are within their rights not to apply or receive said grant. He continued to discuss the Nor”way” of pursuing religious freedom. He briefly discussed the 2010 official public report on Norway in the field of the politics of religion and life stance, life stance being equivalent to world view. Norwegians believe there is a lack of understanding and diversity in life stances and religion and that something needs to change in order to bring about a more tolerant and peaceful coexistence. Secularism is widely assumed as aligning itself with the religious freedom concept delineated by the UN. The general understanding of secularism in Norway is that the secular state is one that does not identify nor favor any religion or life stance. Professor Lindholm summarized Norwegian History regarding religious freedom and stated that although in 1845 it was no longer illegal to belong to a church other than the Lutheran Church, real religious freedom took a very long time to incorporate into the daily life of Norway. In actuality, true religious freedom has been achieved only in the last two years or so. 

Then, Ricardo García García, the Deputy Director General for Religious Affairs of the Spanish Ministry of Justice, queried, “What should we understand as secularization?” He warned that secularism can be used as a road to take away from public society anything religious. He gave a review of European religious statistics and revealed that surveying Europeans regarding religion is difficult as they often dislike revealing their beliefs. Notwithstanding this issue, according to the study, they found that 51% of the population believe in God, 26% believe in something, and 20 % believe in nothing. Director Garcia declared that we must value all traditions of belief and we must build reform including all religious and belief traditions. He had a meeting with religious leaders regarding reform and they concluded that a juridical system that respects religion and belief systems is necessary because If members of a society do not demand those rights the state will eventually take them away. The European Society needs the right to expect cooperation and equality in changes made to treaties and laws regarding religious freedom. In the last modification of treaties, it was recognized that respect for a secular state in Europe does not mean a lack of belief but a realization of its importance in achieving religious freedom.

Denis J. Edwards, director of the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University College, spoke on the concept of an official church not necessarily causing real problems in regards to religious freedom, proclaiming the political impact to be minimal. He cited England and Scotland as examples of countries that have made an official church work in a feasible way. Although there are still archbishops from the Church of England involved in Government occasions, it currently adds solemnity to National Celebrations, allowing all to come together under the aegis of belief, even though that belief is not necessarily the same. He also stated that established churches have to accept that they must share the space with other religions. He mentioned that Prince Charles wants to be the defender of faiths and supports those who want to be subject to Shiria Law and Jewish Law. The media has taken his sentiments and reported them with their own twist, which in turn portrayed a very out of proportion message. Mainstream media generally depicts modern religion in a very terrible way. Professor Edwards maintained that although the UK is not legally free in religious matters, in action it is. He continued by saying that many forms of secularism exists in the UK and the issues are far more different than expected. He has found that the rule of law is just as much of a difficulty as not. Since the European Convention in 2000 established the guidelines for religious freedom, its precepts have been accepted by the UK and article nine is clearly observed. Of course the UK does not support direct or indirect discrimination. He gave an example of a gay couple. He continued to say that there is no question in placing legal oppression from one person to another. The great issue at hand is how to balance article nine’s constitutional rights and decisions regarding the urgent issues about minority communities. Sometimes the British tradition of “Live and Let Live” has, at times, caused problems. The courts do need to set up a jurisprudence of religious liberty.

Vanja-Ivan Savić, from Croatia, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Zagreb, Faculty of Law. He opened his remarks with the concept of treating those attending as law students and related a case currently in court. In the sheik faith, there is a religious/cultural tradition where a boy becomes a man through a religious rite or celebration in which he receives a specific knife as a representation and sign of maturity. That knife is to be worn always in recognition of that transition. In keeping with that tradition, he wore the knife at all times, including at school. This drew attention and was deemed a problem and the issue went to the courts. In the end, the young man was allowed to keep his knife and maintain his religious traditions. He posed the question, “What makes religion any different from other social phenomena?” He continued to observe that religion takes questions of ultimate reality and presents right and wrong, good and evil. In Croatia, a change in the constitution is only allowed by popular vote. In regards to a modification in the wording of what a marriage is, the Croatian people voted 66 to 5 in favor of maintaining that a marriage be between a man and a woman. Croatian law allows gay couples to unite but does not call it a marriage. However, even though the majority of the people voted to keep marriage as between a man and a woman, the government was against it. In many ways, Europe is fighting against God. There seems to be a constant battle against the spiritual in the sphere of government. It should be available that the majority of the people should be allowed to live in the country in which they are comfortable, where the culture and laws are connected and values reflect the majority. He joked that if this cannot be addressed soon Los Angeles will no longer be allowed to be called Los Angeles as it would be seen as too sacred. He concluded with the advice that steps must be taken to achieve tolerance and neutrality for all. Some steps he suggested were to recognize that religion is an important part of cultural awareness and that a cohabitation between the human rights principle and the democratic principle.